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Monday, 20 June 2011

Living with an Alcoholic Dad

Written by  Sally Byrne

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During a commercial break, a public service announcement flashed across the TV screen: "Twenty questions to determine if you are an alcoholic."

A minute later I rushed out to the porch where my dad was sitting with a can of beer. "Daddy! You're an alcoholic! You do seven out of the twenty things, and you only need three to pass!"

I was twelve years old. My father looked at me and said, "Do we live in a nice house?" We did. "Do I go to work every day?" He did. "Am I a lawyer?" He was.

That was that. Alcoholics live in cardboard boxes and beg for a living. The TV must be wrong.

Every night at 5pm, Dad would come home, tense from his day at work. At 5:05 he'd pour the first martini, and even before the glass reached his lips, I could see him relax. I knew not talk to him before that drink.

Dad was a daily drinker. All parties and holidays revolved around drinking. My parents didn't have any friends who didn't drink.

When I talked to my father it was as if a misty fog stood between us. If he wasn't drinking, he was tense. If he was drinking, he was spaced out.

One night he told me he was going to buy a new television, and offered me his old set. I carried it up to my room.

The next day he said, "My TV's missing. Do you have any idea what might have happened to it?"

My Dad had had a "black out." He didn't remember what happened the night before because of the drinking.

I lied. I said I had borrowed the TV. The professionals call this "enabling," or protecting the alcoholic from the consequences of his actions. I didn't want to embarrass him. I didn't want him to feel hurt.

These incidents happened frequently. Dad would have no recollection of what he had said or done, and I hated it.

Our roles became reversed. I worried about him. He'd tell me his problems and I felt I couldn't burden him with mine. I had no one to confide in and felt isolated.

I was desperate for love and attention, anxious for approval. I tried to earn approval and friendship by doing favors for others, and allowed myself to be used.

Inside me was a core of fear and emptiness. I was terrified of turning into an alcoholic - I knew it ran in families - so I tried drugs. All my boyfriends drank. It was what I knew.

My Dad wasn't a mean drunk, but he was boisterous. He'd embarrass us kids by talking loudly with the people at the next table in the restaurant.

I was terrified we'd get in a car accident when he was drinking or that he'd be arrested for driving drunk. I was scared he'd die.

My parents fought about drinking. When I was fourteen my mother left my father because she wanted to stop drinking and believed she couldn't if they stayed together.

At 20, I found Al-Anon, a 12-step support group for relatives and friends of alcoholics. I heard stories just like mine, and I cried with relief. I wasn't crazy! I wasn't alone anymore. I had found help.

In Al-Anon I learned not to enable my dad. I stopped lying to cover up for him. When he forgot a promise made in a blackout I'd remind him what he had said.

I learned to set limits. I stopped riding in a car with him if he'd been drinking.

I was told that his drinking was not my business, but that I could pray for him.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease. It gets worse and worse. Twenty-five years after I'd seen the public service announcement my dad could have answered "yes" to most of the questions. He could no longer work. He couldn't leave the house to shop or visit friends. All he could do was sit and drink from morning till night.

Luckily, Dad got medical help and stopped drinking. Today that misty fog between us has lifted and I've gotten to know the real person he is.

Dad no longer forgets what he's said. I don't worry about his driving anymore. And what's really nice is that today I can share my problems with him and he is available to listen and help.

I still go to Al-Anon meetings because I continue to enjoy the love and support I find there. Though my father is sober, the effects of growing up in an alcoholic home - the fears, the self-doubt and insecurity - leave a lasting scar.

When I tell my story, it gives hope to those still living with an active drunk. And it reminds me of how much I have for which to be grateful.

 

Alateen is a 12-step support group for teenagers with alcoholic parents.

Last modified on Monday, 20 June 2011 09:51
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Sally Byrne

Sally Byrne is a former Tae Kwon Do state champion, writer, and mother of three.

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