There are estimated to be 589,101 dependent drinkers in England. Here, author Jessica Andrews shares her story of growing up with an alcoholic father, and explains why it’s so important that we open up the conversation around alcoholism.
My dad is an electrician in a sweet factory. He gets up every day at 5am and drives along the motorway to work, where he spends long days fixing switchboards and replacing wires. When I was a child, he used to come home with misshapen bags of Midget Gems and sugar dust caught in his hair.
My dad has a drinking problem. Every few months he turns off his phone, stops going to work and drinks lager, day and night, for weeks. Sometimes he goes missing, sleeping in parks and fields with a plastic bag full of cans. He went missing in London and I combed parks and benches looking for him. I had to report him to the police as a missing person, and eventually a caretaker found him beneath a tree behind a council estate in King’s Cross.
He went missing in Tenerife and my uncle hacked his emails and traced his bank cards to find out where he was. My uncle got on the next flight and turned up outside of my dad’s hotel room. Both of them got a shock. Once, my dad wrote misspelled poems all over the walls of his house, hallucinating from alcohol withdrawal. He had a panic attack in the back of an ambulance and texted me to tell me that he loved me, because he thought he was dying and those would be his last words to me.
Sometimes, my dad can pull himself out of a drinking binge, but usually, someone has to intervene. He lives with his parents and they are too old to deal with him. It often falls to my uncle, or my mam, or me, to find him and try to help him sober up. We take him to hospital where he has to be rehydrated and monitored. He leaves the ward apologising, talking about rehab or counselling, but forgets his promises as soon as he feels stronger, and we try to get on with our lives until the cycle begins again.
I don’t know why my dad drinks. He finds it very hard to talk about his feelings. It seems as though sometimes life gets too much and he has to step out of it. He has a support network around him that means he can do this without many repercussions. The factory goes on producing, his children go on living, the world moves around him as he struggles to exist within it. He is held by so many people who cannot be held by him in return.
When he is drinking, I feel sick and listless. I can’t focus. The weight of it lingers around my vision like a bruise, seeping into the life I have built for myself. My mother cries from worry and exhaustion. My parents separated due to my dad’s drinking, but all of the love and hurt is still caught up inside of her, wrapped around her insides, refusing to let her go.
Alcoholism is difficult to deal with because the distinction between mental illness and choice is blurry and impossible to measure. I have been blindly, wildly angry at my dad and I have also been tender and sympathetic. Both of these perspectives are valid; alcoholism is a mental health problem, or a symptom of one, yet it is also important for me to be angry at the ways in which my dad’s alcoholism has shaped my life, because otherwise the loss and bitterness will turn inwards and I will begin to erode.
The traditional family structure perpetuates the role of the absent father. It is more or less accepted that people don’t always have fathers, that they go off to walk the world alone and the wives and children around them are left to pick up the pieces. Me and my friends who have absent dads say things like, ‘we are glad, we are so independent, we have never had to answer to men’, but that independence comes with its own consequences. A child who protects the person who is supposed to be looking after them learns to subjugate their own needs for others. They never ask for help or show their vulnerabilities. They forget how to be soft.
My dad is gentle and funny and when he turns up in his leather jacket with rumpled hair, smoking a cigarette and looking lost, all I want is to love him. I want to protect him from the things he cannot handle, even though I know the impulse to protect and nurture has been conditioned in me. When I was younger, I romanticised him as a jaded rock star figure, too fragile for this world.
Now, I recognise that that was a mode of survival. I don’t romanticise any of the male rock stars that burned through my teenage heart, because now I wonder, in the dirt and glamour of all that addiction, who were the people holding it all together? When I was at gigs and parties chasing younger, rougher versions of my dad, why was he not protecting me?
No one ever calls my dad an alcoholic. “He has a problem,” they say. “He likes a drink,” they say.
“I have a cold,” he says, when he has been drunk in bed for 10 days straight. I tried calling him an alcoholic one day, wrapped my tongue around the hard, crisp consonants and pushed them out. It was dangerous and powerful and it made me feel free. It showed me I could name the things I was scared of, illuminate them and give them form. It is important to speak about alcoholism because it stops it from being a dark and shameful secret. The bulk of it is too heavy for me to carry alone. I want to protect my dad, but I need to look after myself, too.
To speak about how it feels when love and neglect become tangled and your ideological beliefs do not correlate with the enormity of your emotions allows you to keep on living. It stops you from shutting down, from sealing up and cutting yourself off from your needs in fear that they will never be fulfilled.
My dad’s decisions are his own decisions. His alcoholism is something he is not willing to try and fix. Our relationship will always be changing, and to recognise it as something fluid and shifting holds a kind of freedom. It is a way to live with the dissonance, the anger, the sadness and the fear. It is a way to bear all of the love.
Jessica Andrews’s debut novel Saltwater is out now, published in hardback, eBook and audiobook by Sceptre
To help lower your risk of “alcohol-related harm”, the NHS has published a number of recommended guidelines online.
• not regularly drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week
• if you drink as much as 14 units a week, it’s best to spread this evenly over three or more days
• if you’re trying to reduce the amount of alcohol you drink, it’s a good idea to have several alcohol-free days each week
The guidelines add, “Regular or frequent drinking means drinking alcohol most weeks. The risk to your health is increased by drinking any amount of alcohol on a regular basis”.
You can calculate how many units of alcohol are in a variety of different drinks using the Drink Aware unit calculator here.
If you think you or someone you know might be suffering from alcohol addiction, you can find support here.