Ah, trusty alcoholism

So…my dad’s an alcoholic. We’re not supposed to discuss it. Secrets are big in my family. He hides alcohol, and goes for ‘walks’ on weekends (Super Stealthy Secret Code for getting on the sauce) from which he returns slurring and smelling like cough syrup. We don’t ask too many questions. I think because we don’t want to know the answers.

He disappears a little further from our lives every year. He loves kids, but when they can talk (and think for themselves) the novelty wears off, and he disappears back up his own rear end. He’s had a tough-ish life. Haven’t we all. He prefers to drink away his problems and suppress his rage; have it leak out sideways in resentment of the women in his life. Because the women in his life have little to no respect for him. Chicken and egg dad, chicken and egg.

So today I get a phone call that informs me of a new and delightful twist on his alcoholism (and I fear impending alcoholic dementia). Dad’s had himself arrested. Yep. For malicious damage. To four cars. Not even this is done in an upfront manner. I pictured him finally letting loose, smashing a car with a crowbar. Not that it made any sense, but that’s what malicious damage conjured.

No. Even this piece of juvenile ‘rebellion’ had to be passive aggressive. Dad’s done the keys along the side of the cars trick. Why? God only knows. Suppressed rage that ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’?

I don’t know. I don’t actually care.

Why am I sharing this? Because I believe in discussing things, I don’t believe in secrets. Because secrets are what has messed our family up for generations.

I went to al-anon meetings for a long while there. Because (surprise, surprise) living in a family with an alcoholic parent (and the dynamic that sets up) I grew up and married an alcoholic myself…then the family said “WHERE did you learn to let someone treat you like that??”. I wonder.

So I trundled along care-taking my alcoholic husband…not realising I think. Until one day I recognised the dynamic. One day I could see our future. One day I said no. I packed my bags, I left the house and I never looked back. How lucky I am that I had that support.

I wonder if my mother will leave. There doesn’t appear to be anything for her in this relationship apart from financial security. And that’s enough to trap people isn’t it? She looked after the kids, and she hasn’t had paid work in around 20 years. I think she’s staring at the void of “What if…”.

Ah, Christmas will indeed be fun. I don’t know how to look at my father. I haven’t known how to do it for a very long time. Yes, he’s my father. And he leaves me cold, blank, empty…except when he’s being a pain in the arse and I want him to just. shut. up.

I’ve known for a while he’s drinking himself to death. But secrets rule the family.

I’ve known for a while that when he dies I will feel blank…blank with the merest hint of…relief?

Bring on the Christian judgment…I’ve lived with alcoholism my entire life. It’s familiar to me. I get the jokes before the punchline is delivered.

It’s what? Eleven years since I left? Ten since my last meeting. Mum told me and I immediately pictured myself back in that space, the closeness with people you don’t know…because you all get the jokes before the punchline, because you knew in your marrow before it happened, you knew things impossible to conceive, let alone believe because you always knew it would come to this; because no one else in the world can disappoint you the way an alcoholic can.

Categories: health, relationships, Sociology


39 replies

  1. For clarification, I’m uncomfortable with the last line there. The implication is not meant to be that the disappointment experienced by others where the person disappointing was *not* an alcoholic is somehow *less*, what I mean is that there is a specificity to the continual disappointments of addiction and addicts.

  2. Thanks for sharing, fuckpoliteness.
    I’m sorry about your Dad.
    I feel even more inarticulate than usual when faced with alcoholism. The people I know who are alcoholic make me feel dreadful for those family members who are close to them, whose lives are more closely bound to the alcoholics’.
    Sometimes it seems like the disease may inhabit the body of this or that man (in my life), but really it’s infecting and feeding off the bodies and lives of his mother, father, siblings, children and partner. Is that kind of like what you were getting at in the last paragraph?

  3. Thank you for sharing fp.
    I agree wholeheartedly with you on the matter of secrets, they can be so very destructive.
    My mother-in-law is an alcoholic. But it has only been in the last few years, since first her husband and then the dog died (the dog seemed, in some ways, to be the bigger blow) that the problem has emerged. My husband is mourning the loss of his mother while at the same time he is obliged to continually step in and pick up the pieces of the mess her life has become. She’s definitely suffering from alcoholic dementia, she can’t remember things she’s been told or things she’s done from one day to the next. So sad and so frustrating.
    mimbles’s last blog post..If you tag me, I will write

  4. Ow, fuckpoliteness. I’m so sorry you have to live with this.
    There’s alcoholism all over my family, and two years ago – uh, today, actually, I just realized as I was typing that – my Dad died from complications of it (cirrhosis, transplant, gradual heart failure from the whole process).
    So I hear you. And share your railing at the vast gaps between what is and what is said, the sense of impending relief (which is, of course, very complicated when it happens, but also very real), the anger, the exhaustion, all of it.
    I don’t know what to say, really – I just wish you & your mother comfort and support (especially during the holidays which can be such a pressure-cooker in dysfunctional families).
    Alcoholism sucks.

  5. I think the inability to talk about the problem and the desperate need to pretend everything is okay is the most destructive dynamic in alcoholic families. I am facing a very similar situation – my dad is an alcoholic who just broke up with his fiancee and now has a restraining order placed against him since he went over to her house one night and threatened her. Now I’m expected to go home for the holidays and make nice, even though I am furious at him, because of course we can’t acknowledge the problem.
    Anyway, I’m sorry for your situation, but at the same time it’s kind of comforting to know I am not alone. Remember you are strong – you left your husband and his disease behind.

  6. The sad thing is that I get your feelings about your fathers inevitable death. I don’t know if she’s alcoholic but my mum IS batshit crazy. And after all the crap I and my family have had to go through living with her I know I’ll be feeling that blankness you mentioned. probably with that relief and maybe even some anger.
    I’m sorry you have to go through that. I know what its like to be disappointed in a parent and I wouldn’t have wished it on anyone.

  7. Thank you for sharing that – I hope it was cathartic for you, too. I’ve been surrounded by alcoholics throughout much of my life (not right now, though, thankfully. They’ve either died, or I refuse to see them). The thing that gets me is the need for secrecy. Like anyone who knows my father-in-law doesn’t realize he is STINKING DRUNK every single day? Then again, maybe people don’t notice. Or manage to be in denial. It’s not something that is talked about. Heh. My father got drunk nearly every day during my childhood, and after he died, I was talking to my mom about it, and mentioned his alcoholism, and she said, “Oh, I don’t think he was an alcoholic. Was he?” WTF? She was married to him – is there some way should could honestly not have known?
    Maybe if more people were willing to talk about it, to confront it like you’ve done here, it would be easier for alcoholics to get help. Or for their family members to get help, anyway.
    I wish you all the best during the holidays.

  8. You nailed it: no one else in the world can disappoint you the way an alcoholic can. Particularly during the holidays. This was an essay with which I identified all too well.
    My father was an alcoholic. What I hated even more than the verbal abuse he hurled when he was sauced was the total unpredictability of family life — would he remember to pick me up after the game at school and would he be drunk if he remembered or would he be too drunk to remember and, if so, how drunk would he be when he finally showed up later? And *then* what would happen?
    Dad was sober for the last 10 years of his life — he ended it by suicide. Quitting drinking, but not facing the demons, doesn’t really make things much better. I’m sorry for the torture he went through, but it was no excuse for the torture he put us through.
    I got a lot of grief from my family when I moved out as soon as I was of age 20 years ago and wouldn’t come home for the holidays — far, far more grief than my Dad ever got for drinking. But it helped me helped me realize that holidays with friends, or even alone, could be joyous and wonderfully predictable. I’ve ended up leading a quiet, happy life where I TALK about things with my close friends and my husband. My family avoids me. They don’t like the talk. That’s fine.

  9. The weird thing is that you don’t need to be an alcoholic to have these problems. My sister-in-law has all the symptoms of alcoholism (except the violence), but has never touched alcohol (I’m certain of that, she lived with us for many months). She’s just crazy. And she relies on other people to bail her out all the time. Which raises a question for me – the financial system: is it not treating us the same way?

  10. Wendy, I once told someone that her husband was an alcoholic, which she hotly denied. Alcoholics are those shambling drunks who live in alleyways as far as she is concerned. Someone who still has a roof over their heads and family around them can’t possibly be an alcoholic. He’s been unwell in recent years and has stopped drinking for long periods, because he can control it if he wants to you know. He is a completely different person when off the drink. When he’s been drinking he is a cranky, nasty shit. He’s not violent, thank goodness because he’s a big man, but he is very cutting and liable to fly off the handle at the slightest thing, usually at her. He is so rude it is breathtaking. But she’s put up with it for years and will no doubt continue to do so until he drinks himself into the grave, or gets a really big health scare that convinces him not to drink. Or not physically being able to handle alcohol anymore.
    FP you have my sympathy. I’ve been there in a different way. I lost my Dad to alcohol and cigarettes when the effects of years of smoking and drinking manifested themselves in a very nasty cancer. If only people had to see what effect their drinking has on their family before each and every drink things might be different. But then maybe not. Sometimes it makes you wonder why alcohol is still legal when you see the devestating effects it can have on people and families.

  11. Fuckpoliteness, thank you. Of all the horrible things about growing up with an alcoholic parent, the secrecy is the worst. Mum’s drinking and drunken behaviour was so normalised for me I had no idea that drunk parents weren’t the norm until I had my own children and got some decent counseling. When my mother was in the late stages of alcoholism I had so much trouble finding things I could relate to I blogged about it myself just so something would be out there:
    The posts are definitely more personal than political.
    I never went to al-anon, though I read every piece of literature they had online and got a lot out of books about Adult Children of Alcoholics.
    You have my sympathy, alcoholic parents suck beyond the telling of it.

  12. fp – I’m lost for what to say. I admire your wisdom in recognising what was happening in your marriage, and packing your bags and going. Often we just don’t have the moral courage to look our lives full in the face, and admit the truth to ourselves. That’s a huge thing that you have been able to do.
    Oi vey – families!

  13. FP: What can I say except thank you for sharing your story. I am at a loss for words because I have never dealt with anything remotely like this. I find your courage to share something so intensely personal inspiring.

  14. Man. Thanks for sharing. Alcoholics in my family too – again not much spoken of except behind backs or after their deaths. We tend towards the silent kind, rather than the violent or loudly embarrassing kind.
    It’s a problem amongst younger people too though… I had a boyfriend a few years ago who was drinking so much that he started throwing up regularly even when not drinking, and the doctor told him his liver couldn’t take it so he had to stop drinking for a while (I believe this lasted about two weeks). We broke up for other reasons, and the last time I saw him and his now-partner she was telling me how she needed to detox from their boozy weekend down the coast with friends. I said – half-joking – ‘Well you know, at least that’s something you and he have in common – alcoholism’ and surprisingly, she just nodded her head ruefully. They were 24 at the time, for God’s sake.

  15. Thanks fp. My father was an alcoholic and a gambler. He died in 1990 at the age of 76, after several rounds of hospital admissions, convalescent facilities, discharge, plateau, hospital admissions… repeat as before. Mum had died suddenly in 1981 and he basically went to pieces without her, after decades of sobriety. But it was a slow, painful decline.
    I vividly remember things about my childhood in the 50s and my teenage years: my mother’s set jaw and tight mouth when he delivered the opened and depleted pay packet; the men who turned up one day with some papers and the frantic phone calls being made by my mother that we pretended not to listen to (I found out 20 years later that he’d mortgaged the house and lost the money); the shame of having a mother who had a job and the injunction not to tell anyone; the desire to bring people home being matched by the anticipation of an ugly scene; the fear when he picked us up after dances etc that he would be ‘stupid’… and finally my anger at the tiny, shrivelled wreck of a man in the hospital bed, plucking the sheet and mumbling.
    I still have problems dealing with people who are ‘worse for wear’.
    M-H’s last blog post..This may be a record…

  16. fp, commenter friends (esp. M-H–most of your story could be repeated as mine, save in the early 90s, and my mother left him)…
    I’ve got your back, if you’ve got mine.
    It does things to us that we can’t ever really explain. I think the worst thing is the one time I dared to explode and tell him off, and it got me absolutely nowhere. He didn’t even hear me, I had might as well have been just nodding as usual. But breaking the cycle of secrecy is, unfortunately, rarely accomplished by one person alone, when the whole family’s involved.
    I don’t have anything productive to say except yes and thank you for saying at least something to remind us all that this is not something that only happens to each of us.

  17. It was so great to post this. I don’t find it hard to talk about, I find it hard that it happens, and that I’m expected to keep quiet/play the games.
    I’m so glad I posted this, just because every time I share a thought/story that is traditionally ‘taboo’ to speak about, there is this palpable rush of relief and others start to talk in response.
    When I told people about my girlfriend at the time I started seeing her, almost every person I spoke to told me of an affair/a crush/a hidden memory. When you talk about having feelings that you’re crazy, the same thing.
    So I figured with discussions of alcoholism/family secrets (especially at this time of year when many of us are having to go home and ‘play nice’) that it would precipitate other stories, sharing, community and catharsis. [Just to be clear, I’m not equating same sex love with alcoholism, I just mean that we all kind of absorb that ‘polite’ society requires that we censor ourselves, make ourselves ‘acceptable’, don’t discuss sex/desire, and definately don’t admit to love of someone of the same gender]
    I find comfort and strength in speaking up in regards to my father, in refusing the stricture to stay silent and keep family secrets.
    Thanks for sharing your stories, I felt that each comment deserved a response, and yet any response I could make would not be adequate.

  18. “[Just to be clear, I’m not equating same sex love with alcoholism, I just mean that we all kind of absorb that ‘polite’ society requires that we censor ourselves, make ourselves ‘acceptable’, don’t discuss sex/desire, and definately don’t admit to love of someone of the same gender]”
    Hey, fp, being queer is becoming practically obligatory now, it seems. Every second young woman I meet claims she is bisexual. 🙂 I hardly ever encounter any young dykes, though. Self-proclaimed dykes seem to be all middle-aged.
    M-H’s last blog post..This may be a record…

  19. “Hey, fp, being queer is becoming practically obligatory now, it seems. ”
    Do you have a problem with queer?

  20. PP, it really doesn’t take much time in looking over M-H’s blog to realise that she definitely has no problem with queer. It’s really not good netiquette to aggressively ask a suspicious question without bothering to follow a commentor’s link back to their own blog to check them out a bit first.

  21. My only problem with queer is probably that there isn’t enough of it. 🙂

  22. I just had a thought. PP may have been asking if, being a self-identified dyke, I have a problem with young women calling themselves queer or bisexual rather than dyke. The answer is no. I’m an equal-opportunity queer myself.

  23. @ M-H:
    I see the possibility, and if I misread you PP then I apologise.
    I tink I need sleep.

  24. Hey M-H, I’m a self proclaimed dyke and I only just turned 23. Does that help you?

  25. Thankyou for clarifying M-H, I was quite taken aback by what I read, which is why I asked for clarification before I responded further, because it’s such a complex issue isn’t it?
    I hope you weren’t offended that I didn’t go and read your blog first, that would probably make participating here way too time-consuming if we had to do that all the time.
    Sorry if it sounded “aggressive”.

  26. It’s the social pressure to ‘play nice’ that I really hate. It’s so dishonest.
    My father got drunk nearly every day during my childhood, and after he died, I was talking to my mom about it, and mentioned his alcoholism, and she said, “Oh, I don’t think he was an alcoholic. Was he?” WTF? She was married to him – is there some way should could honestly not have known?
    Wendy, *snap*. My step-father came home with a new bottle of scotch hidden in his briefcase every day so he could surreptitiously replace the one in the sideboard and used to ‘blend’ his own port in a little barrel – not because he was a connoisseur but so it wasn’t obvious how much he was drinking. That was of course on top of the ‘reasonable’ slab of beer in the fridge and the missing couple of hours between the time he got off work and came home (of course he might have been working a 12 hour day, but somehow I doubt it).
    I can’t talk to my mother about it because she refuses to acknowledge there was any problem and am torn between resentment for her dishonesty and giving her benefit of the doubt that she somehow missed it. The closest we came to speaking of it, I’m afraid I mortally offended her. After he died (I’m sure from alcoholic organ damage) she came to visit and said that he’d regretted being such a bully and treating me badly as a kid and would have like to apologise to me and make amends. Unfortunately I just couldn’t pretend – my response was that he’d apologised to me on several occasions (usually late at night when drunk while bonding over an action movie) but that it didn’t prevent him reverting to exactly the same behaviour later. The only difference was this time he’d died first (I’d left home and the country by then), so the apology wasn’t worth much to me. She didn’t take it well.

  27. Hi Tamala. I think you’re in a small grouping. Many younger women think that ‘dykes’ are a bit birkenstock, old school, anti-men. Some are, of course. Some of them even resist the internet. But of course things change – hell, the world has changed completely (a lot of which is thanks to feminism but we won’t mention that), and as long as women are resisting the dominant paradigms of culturally-defined femininity in their own ways I’m happy. On ya. 🙂
    And pp, I myself do try and get a sense of someone before I respond to their post, if possible, especially if there’s a link that makes that easy.

  28. I’m really glad you wrote this FP. I only found out last year that my father, who died 11 years ago, had been interned in Kamp Amersfoort as a teenager. Along with a very oppressive upbringing I think this could partly explain (not excuse, not ever) his alcoholism and violence. Silence, which he adhered to even until his death, clearly did neither him nor us any favours.
    I go slightly bonkers when people praise the stoic approach of his generation because for many (and I count other relatives who went through the war among their number) their version of stoicism seemed to consist of extreme emotional repression and a fundamental dishonesty about their own actions. I understand that that was the past and people thought and acted differently then, but it was cowardice, not stoicism. I once asked him why he did what he did and he just said that he didn’t know. I don’t believe he ever asked himself the question. Mum made him leave when I was 8 and for that I thank her. I adored my father and hated him at the same time. Here is part of a letter from him that I found the other day, written 3 years before his death:

    Your letter, as always, is very enjoyable, especially your stricture on the lay-outs of motherrooms. The user doesn’t have a say at all. Partly patriarchy, partly the sheer enjoyment of inflicting one’s views on others. Sexism, I submit hasn’t that much to do with it, authoritarianism a lot.

    That was my father; highly educated, feminist-aware, an anti- nucleur, left leaning activist and unreliable, untrustworthy alcoholic.
    I’m so sorry that that you have to wrestle with the horrible conflicts that having an alcoholic parent brings, FP.

  29. @M-H
    Do you have a problem with birkenstocks? : )
    and thank you, fp, and *waves hand* me too with the alcholic dad.
    One of the bits that sucked most for me was the feeling that my mother didn’t intervene to stop him bullying me. But I went on ahead and brought it up with her and I felt heaps better. She felt pretty shitty about it for a while, but that was OK with me too. We’re off there soon for Christmas. *deep breath*

  30. Only on my own feet. I have problems with my achilles tendons now (one ruptured about two years ago) and the heels are too low and stretch my legs too much for comfort. I used to love them. ::sigh::

  31. I’m so sorry to hear these stories. My partner and a couple of friends and rellies like to get together and drink way too much. A few years ago SO looked like he was getting into it too heavily and had a DUI and had to undergo an alcoholism course as part of the court order. Now however he seems to be much better. The friends/rels, though, seem to get through a couple of bottles of wine each and then hit the vodka. If there’s alcohol in the house they don’t stop until it’s all gone, so they couldn’t, for instance, have a wine rack sitting in the kitchen as many people have.
    They don’t appear to do it during the day, but the bingeing worries me. The woman is pregnant now, so she’s had to give up pretty much cold turkey. Seems to be doing OK. I’m wondering whether the male partner will change his drinking habits from now on.

  32. I can’t read these comments, it’s too hard, but the post is wonderful in it’s honesty. Sharing stories like this makes other people feel less alone. Thank you.

  33. There’s a difference here in terminology which may or may not apply. There are lots of alcoholics and addicts out there who have gone through actual recovery as opposed to just becoming a “dry drunk.” Or staying in active alcoholism/addiction. They still consider themselves alcoholics/addicts.
    I’m not saying people in recovery are morally superior, just that they seem to have a better chance of getting to a livable state.
    But they have to convert to a “no excuses” lifestyle, which is very difficult. Alcoholism and addiction are basically a structure of emotional excuses and denial. Even when you quit using, you can always find someone or something to blame for your problems outside of yourself.

  34. When my Nana died a few months back, at her funeral her daughter spoke of how she supported my Pop battle with alcoholism when the ywere first married back in the late 50s. They became pretty hardcore Salvation Army later on too and took the whole ‘no booze’ rule pretty seriously.
    The the news Pop had been an alcoholic was a first for me, as it was never brought up while he was alive and it still wasn’t mentioned in the 17 years after his death either. My family is full of secrets that are only starting to come out with the older members passing on or realising things need to be said before it’s too late…

  35. Yes, I’m glad you raised that, as I have met many people who have battled alcoholism valiantly – I guess this post is about the anger at those who have an addiction, know they do, talk the talk and never do anything to change…
    I should run, as I’m packing for holidays – but I woke up sobbing from a dream in which my mother was coldly furious with me as a friend had let slip that she knew about what happened with Dad – my ‘It’s only a dream’ only made me sob more as I knew that it wasn’t, it was deadly truth, that if Mum found out I ‘talked’ I would be in more trouble for discussing what Dad did than Dad is for *what* he did…and the whole sorry complicated mess just overwhelmed me.
    I’ll be away for a week so if I appear to be ‘ignoring’ responses, I’m just ‘ignoring’ life and going off and lounging about on a beach with my beloved(s).
    fuckpoliteness’s last blog post..I’m way too tired to think of a witty post title

  36. Oh Purrdence!! Our comments crossed over there…
    Yes, my aunt told me the other day that my grandfather was also an alcoholic, which pretty much means that every adult male when I was growing up, on BOTH sides of the family was a self indulgent drunkard. Sheesh. But my point here is not one-upmanship (geez, what prizes would we get for that sort of competition anyway??) but to commiserate on ‘well kept’ family secrets, and the shock when you are told much much later.
    And AShinyNewCoin…sorry it’s hard for you.
    I wish families were more transparent…

  37. fp,
    True to form, I am weeks late. Just wanted to offer a few words of support and sympathy.
    Distance is the only thing that allowed me to stop hating my mother. Had I not had that space, I would have no contact with her at this point. I would not have been able to sustain a relationship with her.
    I don’t hate her anymore. But I had to be able to hate her, to heal.
    A lot of people don’t get that. They’re family, you know, family is everything. You just don’t cross family. You owe everything you are to your family.
    Bullshit. I think you know that. The people worth your time and your respect are the people who care enough to earn it.
    It’s hard and it’s complicated, relationships with these sorts of loved-ones. Everyone has different needs. Everyone has a different process. All I can say is, stay true to yourself. Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t suppress your true feelings, even if they disturb you on some level. You’ll never make it to a genuinely Good place if you can’t let yourself dirty your feet in some of the less acceptable ones.
    Like saying “to hell with secrets.”
    Good on you.

  38. Alcohol abuse and dependence is a neglected cause of morbidity and mortality. For example in the United Kingdom some twenty eight per cent of adult males and eleven percent of adult females drink more than the recommended safe limits. In addition some 5-10 percent of males and 3-5 percent of females are estimated to become alcohol dependent during their lifetime. Furthermore alcohol is thought to contribute to approximately 50,000 deaths per year, for example through driving while intoxicated. These rates are reflected throughout most of Europe where there has been an increase in the medical and surgical complications associated with alcohol.
    Alcoholism Information


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