When I wake at night, which I inevitably do at least once every night – I go to the window and lift back the curtain to do a welfare check on the outside world.
I recently stopped to think about how long I’ve done that and why I ever started. I realised that I began doing so as a child to check on whether or not my father’s car was sitting in the driveway. If it wasn’t there, it meant he hadn’t come home yet – never a surprising thing. Sometimes it never arrived home which usually meant he had been driven home by a “buddy”. Those were the rare times. In hindsight, he was a man that played pretty fast and loose with his life and responsibilities. Setting aside the danger he posed both to himself and others when driving under the influence, he took extraordinary risks with his career – which was driving dependent – and the earnings upon which (after alcohol costs and exclusive golf club fees) his family were entirely dependent.
Growing up, my siblings and I were taught that what happens at home stays at home. The inner workings of your family and its dysfunction are not for public consumption. And it was dysfunctional: the arguments, whether hushed or violently delivered – the perennial sense of unease – the pervasive tension – the pained silences – the persistent selfishness of the patriarch. When I was younger, I imagined that “problem drinking” was something that happened in every Irish household. Surely every house has a parent that can’t spend a rare evening at home without getting cranky and restless to the point that they initiate an argument just to have a reason to leave. A parent that falls up the stairs when they do eventually make it home after closing hours. A parent around whom the acrid smell of alcohol lingers and who slurs when they speak to you. A parent who urinates in their bedroom because they’re too blindly drunk to know where they are. Surely that’s not uncommon in Ireland. Nobody needs to acknowledge a norm. You just continue on about your business, minding it preciously, while all the while the anxious knot in your stomach solidifies into an immovable walnut of quenched emotion – impenetrable – lodged right in the middle of your rib cage.
“Your dad’s a great man for the drink” or “tell your dad he owes me a tenner – he borrowed it from me the other night cos he was out of money” – uninvited comments from bartender friends of a boyfriend in my adolescence, looking for a means to “slag” me or put me in my place, would leave me hot with shame and mute with embarrassment – how had the private been made so unabashedly public? Realization began to dawn that I could no longer dismiss my father, in that very Irish way, as having a “problem” with drink. He was what is considered to be a “functioning alcoholic”. I’m not entirely sure how functioning you are as an alcoholic if all that you reap around you is dysfunction. It seems oxymoronic to suggest that the consequence of alcoholism is anything other than dysfunction and devastation.
My parent’s marriage unhappily trudged its way through raising three children (all aforementioned child raising done solely by my mother, my father was virtually absentee), the youngest of whom had turned eighteen when the inevitable acrimonious separation took place. I had to ask my father to leave the house so that my mother could return to it. He left shortly afterwards. I’m not sure whether he left for himself or out of a sense of condolence for all the damage he had wrought. My mother returned to the home and for the first time in my life, peace reigned in the house. The security of knowing that when you went to bed, no door remained unlocked for the late night or early morning arrival of an unhappy drunk. The argument ended. The heavy atmosphere that had overshadowed our home had suddenly evaporated.
I haven’t seen or spoken to my father for over twenty years. The last time I saw him, I passed him on a busy city street while I was walking with my mother following a court appointment regarding their separation. We walked past each other as though strangers, which I suppose we always were. I worried for my mother and the effect that it would have on her. They’ve never spoken since she left the house.
While the atmosphere had lifted, the air had never been cleared.
My mother still occasionally meets with my father’s sister. The tea and cake is simply a means of maintaining a tenuous link to my father, who my mother worries about to this day, despite the havoc he so carelessly wreaked in her life during their time together. It is hard to understand someone’s marriage, even if you have lived in it too. I requested a long time ago not to be told the details of these meetings – I’m good with having let go of someone who never had a hold of me – and the details are inevitably depressing. But my siblings chose to tell me the details of the most recent meeting as my father is now dying of liver cancer. It has spread to other organs. The damage inflicted upon his body by decades of alcohol abuse is cashing in its chips and claiming its reward.
My father’s most dysfunctional relationship is with himself. His longest relationship has been with alcohol. He made his choice long before any of us were in his life. Alcohol above all else – family, friends, fulfillment – for better or for worse. For worse.
I didn’t drink until I was in my mid-twenties. In university, when people realised I didn’t drink, I was looked upon with a strange mix of confusion, mistrust, and sometimes admiration. I didn’t judge anyone else for drinking but at the same time, my tolerance for drunkenness – slurred speech and senseless conversations – was definitely limited. It triggered a sense of loathing and reduced respect in me that I have yet to shake off. I didn’t like the taste of alcohol. I was repeatedly told that it was best “acquired”, but could never understand why one would acquire a taste for something that wasn’t to their taste to begin with. And I didn’t understand that you could have a healthy relationship with alcohol. I know now that alcohol can be enjoyed – like all things in life – in moderation. I recognise that my issues with drunkenness are rooted in a childhood and adolescence that bore witness to all the ugliness that alcohol abuse can bring. I was not responsible for my father’s relationship with alcohol, but I am responsible for my own. I am careful and considered in my approach to alcohol and am gladdened to see that in Ireland the abuse of alcohol is no longer shrugged off as the norm, or even celebrated as “the craic”. I congratulate you on this initiative and hope that more and more voices answer to your call. We all deserve to step out of the secretive shadows of our past and into the light and clarity of our present. Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to do just that.