Alcohol abuse – what’s normal?
Alcohol abuse – what’s normal?
As far back as I can remember, beers with your mates, heavy drinking and alcohol abuse was a normal and acceptable part of my life.
Here’s the thing: my earliest memories aren’t full of neglect, violence, liquor and bottles – on the contrary I grew up with honest, humble, down-to-earth and kind parents who were committed to raising their children the best way they knew how. At odds with this was a culture where there was no space for a man to be sensitive; where the reward after a hard day’s work was a couple of beers and where the volume of booze a man could consume and hold was a measure of his masculinity.
My worldview started out with the idea that dads were for the most part absent caregivers – providers who worked hard (and I mean hard) during the day, deservedly stopping by the pub for a few shouts with their mates on the way home. I have few memories of my father being home at night even when I was very young. Over the phone the other night I asked my mum if this was the case and she confirmed it was; she would tuck us kids into bed and then go sit on the front step of the house waiting for him to come home. On my younger sister’s second birthday we waited and waited for him to come home so we could light the candles on her birthday cake… we were long in bed by the time he finally did arrive.
As I grew older the waiting game continued, but there were dry spells and periods of reprieve and fun family holidays where we would cling onto the hope that maybe things would be better here on in.
The reality was though that as time went on, the amount of alcohol and frequency of binges only increased. Beer-by-beer, drink-by-drink, day-by-day my father became more and more consumed by what he consumed. A couple of beers at the pub after work, with benders on Friday and Saturday nights, turned into benders any night of the week and eventually every weekend spent at the pub.
Our family life revolved around dad’s every move, specifically his moods, binge drinking and the subsequent behaviours. It was one giant, life-long roller coaster, which became all I knew family life to be… all I knew a dad to be. It felt very much ‘normal’ as this is all I had experienced. The phrase “get to bed, your father’s home” chimed regularly from my mother – we could never tell if dad would come home from the pub a happy drunk or a cranky drunk. We walked on eggshells, careful not to trigger an emotional reaction that may lead to more drama and another alcoholic binge; we were well coached by my mother in this regard who would be upset if any one of her children rocked the boat.
Despite being quite young at the time, I still remember the day that it became legal for pubs to open and serve alcohol on Sundays; that was the day we lost our one guaranteed family day of the week. As the years went on, abusive behaviours and dramas became more frequent or more extreme. I witnessed bruises on my mother’s body that my father didn’t remember inflicting. Hurt, lonely and exhausted, my mother often walked around the house talking to herself, mostly playing out conversations with dad that never happened.
My plan was to leave home at my first chance, which was when I was 17, shortly after I graduated high school. I travelled overseas for a while, but no matter how far I travelled I couldn’t escape the tension or shed the hurt I felt over the absence and loss of my father – and the fact that my younger siblings and mother continued to live with the abuse left me unsettled. I was easily emotionally drawn into any family dramas that unfolded. I was addicted to my father’s addiction. There were countless DUI’s (charges of Driving Under the Influence), one charge of domestic violence which was dropped but resulted in my sister being temporarily shunned by the family for raising the issue that resulted in the charge. I could write a book full of misadventure around my dad’s drinking.
Eventually the erosion of dad’s state-of-being culminated in alcohol-induced psychosis, which they say physically is a consequence of bleeding in the brain. This was traumatic for all of us and it put the brakes on for a while but it didn’t really stop anything, it only stopped dad from drinking in public. He was a proud man and after the psychosis he never sat at the pub for a ‘shout’ again. It took just over six months of recovery from the psychosis, physical exhaustion and migraines before secret stashes of whisky turned up around the farm and the drinking continued; this time limited only by what a bottle could hold.
A couple of years later, in deep turmoil and despair dad confessed to mum that he was having suicidal thoughts and that he had devised exactly how to end his misery in the guise of a farm accident.
Knowing dad and how down-to-earth he was, the idea of contemplating suicide must have been deeply disturbing to him. My mum and a dedicated local doctor were there to support and he was prescribed anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication, which he remained on for life. Unfortunately there is no pharmaceutical for curing alcohol addiction and the drinking continued.
Toward the end of his life, with his bones crumbled from osteoporosis as well as injuries incurred on the farm, and his joints inflamed with osteoarthritis, the best that dad could do was to shuffle out of bed in the morning and go sit in a chair in the living room, where mum would serve up his prescribed medications and breakfast. Shortly thereafter he would request a glass of ‘orange juice’, which was topped up throughout the day. The orange juice was really there to mask the whisky, of which dad was consuming about a bottle a day; it would have been more if he could have helped himself, but mum kept it measured to no more than a bottle a day. Mum would say she was terrified of dad going into the DT’s (delirium tremens, or the psychosis of alcohol withdrawal) and/or slipping into psychosis and not coming out of it.
Though I didn’t see it that often as I lived overseas, I felt deeply disturbed to see dad like this; a life of drinking had eroded every part of his physicality… he was far from the strong man I knew and remembered him to be.
The above routine went on for another one-and-a-half years before dad’s organs really started to give out; we all thought it would be his liver to go, and it was on its way out, but in the end it was his kidneys. In his final days I logged onto Skype, my devoted sister had her iPad ready on the other end. Answering the call, I waited for the screen to light up and when it did my sister’s caring concerned face appeared, and with her in the room was my mother sitting by my father’s side. The connection was clear and we could see each other with ease. The room was calm and we talked. I can’t remember what we talked about now but I can say that I have never felt so humbled as I did in that moment.
I watched as my dad lay in a hospital bed and simply breathed, and despite the fact that he was in some kind of sleep state as I watched him, I could see that this was the dad I knew and loved – the man I knew him to be, a man whom I felt I hadn’t glimpsed for many years. It was the honesty of the situation that was so humbling: what I saw before me was a body so deeply tired it was far beyond exhausted, his breath steady but laboured. All he could manage to do was to breathe and years of farming had prepared him well for this moment – he was surrendered to what was to come. This was last time I saw him.
Based on what I have shared thus far, you may want to assume my father was a hopeless drunk, a fool, an abuser, an alcoholic, a terrible father … you may feel sorry for him or be empathic and think ‘oh poor bugger’. The truth is, he was in fact a wonderful and super-sensitive human being. Deeply caring, very funny at times, practical, down-to-earth, astute, clever and physically strong; he was a devoted farmer and barely missed a day of work until his final decade of physical and mental decline.
I recall glimpses in my childhood of him as a light-hearted, playful and loving man. I loved dad dearly – we all did. He was tall and lean with striking pale blue eyes and a perfectly straight triangle nose and just like his nose, he could be spot on with his observations and very straight up, very real; there was no pretending and this is probably one of the qualities I appreciated most about him. For all the misery his alcohol consumption resulted in, it was very honest; it was there, in your face, there was no denying the truth of the situation. It was an honesty that makes you ask; what the heck is going on? How did we end up like this? What is this misery? How is it that beautiful, caring, tender people can behave in ways that are so abhorrent and destructive? Why does alcohol seem to bring out the worst in people? There became no denying that we were living with some level of tension, whether we were willing to admit it or not.
When it comes to my relationship with my father and how I grew up, I have done a lot of soul searching. There has been much to heal and I have had a lot of judgement to let go of.
One thing I have come to learn is that in truth, nobody is an alcoholic. Whilst people may have alcoholic behaviours and become layered with or buried in those behaviours, the essence of who they are remains unchanged. We are easily fooled by what we see with our eyes and the moment we label anyone as being an alcoholic, a drug addict or any other label based on their behaviours, we box them in and in some way condemn them to stay that way.
My father wasn’t an alcoholic; he was a beautiful and deeply sensitive man whom I know struggled with communicating what he felt.
Alcohol eased the tension and in a way it became his best medicine. It was a slippery slope and I am absolutely certain that deep down there is no way he wanted his life to end up the way it did. Does that excuse his behaviour? Absolutely not – it was devastating for all who had to live with it. Abuse is abuse and there should be no space for it in our relationships, in our homes or in our society. The responsibility to not accept abuse lies squarely on the shoulders of each and every human being.
I’ll admit I am yet to fully live with integrity and responsibility in all aspects of life but it is something I am committed to in the best way I can. And this is why when offered a drink I respectfully decline. This is why I don’t drink, period. I can no longer pretend that when I buy a bottle of booze I am not investing my money into a system that perpetuates abuse in all of its guises: child neglect, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, physical abuse, psychological abuse and sexual abuse. If I drink alcohol I am implicated and contributing to the same misery and despair that I lived in and with as I grew up. From my experience, no true good has ever come from drinking alcohol – even only one drink.
The idea that there are people who can go out and be with friends and not drink was a foreign concept for me until my late 20s, when a close friend gave up drinking for a while. It wasn’t until I witnessed her go out to bars or dinner and not drink alcohol that I could see it was even possible. It took one person in a decade to show me this was possible –– crazy! Now I understand the constant reflection my father was surrounded by in his early days – just have another drink, everyone else is and if you don’t drink, we’ll rubbish you until you do.
If my dad lived in a world surrounded by people who didn’t drink alcohol, would he have been offered the possibility that there was another way – a different kind of ‘normal’?
For me, even the finest of champagne, a Hermitage cellared for decades or a deftly labelled craft beer, still comes laced with ‘more’. A ‘more’ that represents the consequences lived by us all every day in our bodies, in our homes, in our relationships, on our roads – pretty much everywhere.
I cannot pretend anymore that my choices and my actions are benign. The way I live either says yes or no to abuse. It really feels that simple.