I loved my dad despite his alcoholism – but he died alone
When I was nine, I remember being driven to my dad’s for the weekend.
I felt nervous, excited, scared – I was looking forward to hanging out with my best friend.
I hoped he had stayed sober, that he would open the door smiling, give me a hug and tell me how happy he was to see me. I had a nagging feeling that I was going to be disappointed.
Dad opened the door and was completely drunk – he smelt like alcohol, couldn’t stand straight and his speech was slurred. I walked back in the rain to my mum’s car, which was still there – waiting for this eventuality.
As I write this, nearly 25 years later, the memory still brings tears to my eyes.
I was an only child, and my mother was a stable figure in my life, which was in many ways a saving grace, but Mum had also grown up with addiction in her family.
She had had to be strong and resolute, meaning she was often unable to talk about her feelings and mine. I can see the generational effect of addiction on us all.
I became aware that my dad had a problem when I was around seven years old. I lived with him and my mum until I was about nine. His drinking was the reason for them separating.
I had a very close relationship with him when I was a child – he gave me a lot of attention and was sensitive and affectionate. At the same time there were incidences that included waking up to my dad being brought home by the police after being caught drinking and driving. I remember my mum yelling at my dad while I sat on the stairs silently.
There was another time when Mum and I came back from holiday and Dad hadn’t turned up to pick us up. Later that night he arrived home drunk and announced that he had tried to kill himself.
When he became depressed, his drinking got worse. He would cycle through periods of depression – it would involve two to four weeks of drinking everyday, every one to three months.
He did often attempt to get sober. Sometimes it would last for a week, other times a month and in the periods of time that he stopped drinking, he would be kind.
But it felt like he was always compensating for ‘messing up’ by spoiling me and cooking my favourite food, buying lots of junk food, letting me stay up for as long as I liked.
I felt some guilt about letting him do all these things, but as a child, I found it hard to resist taking advantage.
Most of the time I felt like I was waiting for when he would drink again, which meant I couldn’t really enjoy or appreciate any good times, because I knew it wouldn’t last.
I lost hope.
As time went on his personality changed. He became isolated and forgot how to have conversations. He would speak for what felt like hours about himself, and rarely ask anything about me.
I didn’t feel like he was my dad anymore.
Over the years, I felt myself change. I hardened and came to expect the worst. It was better that way, I told myself.
On reflection, this was the most negative impact his drinking had on me. I lost my ability to hope, to get excited. I couldn’t get close to anyone and felt I was doomed to be alone forever.
I wish that more counselling was readily available for addicts and their families back then, that someone could have listened to me, understood, guided, encouraged me.
As the years went on, I was aware rationally that my father did not have control over his drinking, but emotionally I felt like he was choosing alcohol over me.
When I was 18, I did a degree in drug and alcohol studies. I wanted to be a counsellor, but because of my age, the only course that was available was an addiction counselling course.
Of course, I think subconsciously I was wanting to fix my dad, but this was not my conscious motivation. The more I tried to fix him, the more he felt I was judging him.
He told me later, he felt like he was my patient and not my dad anymore. I think he felt like my love was conditional on him getting sober and that I was pushing him to do things he didn’t want to do, such as going to AA or attending counselling.
When I was able to reach the point of loving him unconditionally, it changed our relationship for the better.
Whenever we spoke – once a month or once a year – there was always love. I stopped making addiction the primary topic of our conversation. Sometimes he would bring up his drinking, but I wouldn’t then try to shame him or try to push him to stop.
The fact is he never admitted that he was an alcoholic, that he needed help. When you have had the conversation literally 100 times, there is not much to discuss unless he indicates that he has changed his perspective (which he never did).
He was still drinking continuously but I stated my boundary clearly – that if he was drunk then I would not talk to him. Having effective boundaries allowed me to maintain a relationship with him and it meant I was able to focus on my goals and live a fulfilling life.
I last saw him a few months before he died.
He was 62 years old when he passed away, and I was 27. I was living in another city, and we hadn’t had contact for a couple of months, which was not unusual for our relationship.
Dad died alone, disconnected from everything and everyone.
He wasn’t found until weeks after he died, and his body was badly decomposed, so they were not able to determine the cause of death. But, the fact that he was not found for weeks illustrates the level of isolation and disconnection he was experiencing.
A part of me feels guilty for not being there, but this was the normal pattern and a result of his addiction, which is why his life ended that way.
I was grateful I’d come to a place of reconciliation and acceptance of him years before he passed.
After my degree, I became an addiction counsellor, working in a variety of settings; residential, aftercare, community, and prisons both in the UK and overseas.
For the last five years I’ve worked in a private setting for The Cabin, a residential addiction treatment centre headquartered in Thailand and offering outpatient addiction treatment. I am the Director of Outpatient Services and provide individual and group therapy online.
Families need to connect with others around shared experiences and learn tools to effectively manage their relationships, regardless of whether their loved one is in active addiction.
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Initiatives like The Cabin teach families how to work through their resentment with less judgement and positive regard, while still having boundaries, which the addict is more likely to respond to.
What we offer is affordable and accessible for people across the world. There are also support groups out there such as AL-ANON and NAR-ANON, which are both free.
Now, I am 35, engaged and have been an addiction therapist for 15 years.
It is a highly demanding job. Clients are often dysregulated, have distorted thinking, difficulties trusting others and relapses are common.
I believe that I would have burned out years ago, if I had not engaged in my own recovery journey, being supported to love my father unconditionally, but with firm boundaries.
I saw a therapist for two years of intensive therapy when I was 19 years old and have received ongoing counselling and supervision from a number of other professionals since.
Those experiences could have sent me into bitterness and despair, but they allow me to help people in an effective and loving way.
Counsellor Jordan Paterson runs The Cabin’s family programme, a bespoke 8-week programme. Groups are limited to 10 participants and are open to anyone who is dealing with a loved one with addiction. For more information contact https://thecabin.com/contact/
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