Recently highlighted by BBC news is a campaign by Liam Byrne MP who is trying to get a national strategic plan and more helplines for children of alcoholics to get support from. My daughter brought this to my attention as she had heard an article about it on the radio yesterday. The figures quoted are that currently in the UK there are 2.6million children living with a parent who has a problem with alcohol.
In discussing this with my daughter she stated that she frankly didn’t even consider me as being part of her life until she was about 10 – 11. I got sober when she was 8. How did I feel about that? Firstly it didn’t surprise me. I have very few memories of my daughter as a small child. I was into my last few years of heavy drinking, I was avoiding responsibility and was frankly simply zonked out most of the time. There is the point that she was clearly rejecting me as a father as I was doing such a poor job of it and was also no doubt scared of me as I was a volatile fire cracker waiting to explode at times. How could a child bond with that? I feel sad that I lost that time with my daughter, angry that I didn’t realise what I was doing to her but also glad and happy that we were able to reconnect in my sobriety.
It is interesting also that there isn’t an instant re-association of me as a parent in her life from the moment I got sober. This is a young child already conditioned to reject the alcoholic’s “I’m so sorry. It won’t happen again.” mantra. This is my interpretation of her statements by the way but I consider it a fair one. As an example – early in sobriety I’d got into a fixed habit of texting or calling my wife telling her I was leaving work. I still do it to this day actually. She’d then have a reasonable idea when to expect me home, my commute was then a 40mile drive but was pretty predictable on journey time. This was my big danger time the point I used to drink the most, leave work, drink… drink some more… go home. I had to drink as I could cope with my responsibilities at home and also I had all these different personas I was using that I had to transition from… man in office, man in pub to husband/father. Anyway one day about a year into my recovery there was some traffic hold up, a crash and a tailback. I didn’t call from the car saying “Hi, sorry the traffic is rubbish I’m going to be late”. So I pulled onto the drive sunny and happy with no thought of a drink but some 45mins or more later than my wife had expected me. She was out of the house in my face in seconds she was convinced all the months of sobriety, rehab and recovery had been thrown away. I had to defend myself and she couldn’t smell booze and I looked sober so she calmed down. It hit me how much lack of trust there was there. Imagine being a young girl seeing that in her mother – the one she clung to as the only safe parent for her whole life up to that point?
Therefore my daughter saying it took her 2 – 3 years to accept me as her father as I got into recovery doesn’t surprise me. Oh yes for the first year I was rarely home any evening going to meetings avidly to make sure I didn’t lose this recovery thing I had in my hands but felt like sand that could so easily run out of my fingers if I didn’t work to catch it and keep it there so that possibly didn’t help either but then without my recovery we wouldn’t have any form of relationship at all now.
In one BBC article on this there is mention from a child of an alcoholic about putting on masks for school, home etc. That was exactly what I did as an alcoholic and it is striking to me that the girl should say that was her defence mechanism – I just wonder if the actively alcoholic behaving like that causes that defence behaviour? Who knows – there is a great need for more research on how alcoholic parents affect the mental health of their children but there is empirical evidence to show that they are more likely to have drink and drug problems themselves in later life that they are more susceptible to other mental health issues too.
The scandalous part of Mr Byrne’s campaign is that he asked all English councils what plans and strategies they had for helping children of alcoholic parents. Of the 137 that replied not a single one had a policy in place. We need to support Mr Bryne’s campaign so that these children have access to much better resources than currently.
Liam Byrne: My dad spent 18 years trying to drink himself to death includes video with Mr Byrne and others talking of their experiences.