A wonderful man whom, to my eternal shame, I underestimated much of my life. He was a ‘good man’ at heart, with a spirit of generosity and kindness that is seldom found…although it took me many years to realise it. Looking back to when I was a child I have only a few memories of him. He would carry me and my two brothers up to bed on his back like “sacks of coal”. We’d shout, “Do the sacks of coal daddy, do the sacks of coal!!” He would then ‘load us up’; one hanging round his neck; one over his shoulder and the other one in his arms. He’d run up the stairs and throw us onto our beds, one at a time, just like a coal man throws coal into a bunker! We loved that game and we would laugh and laugh as he would repeat it over and over again. I also remember going out for drives on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps visiting relatives or going to the seaside. I always loved ‘going for a run’ and getting chips, ice cream or other treats on the journey.
Other memories I have of him are more negative. He was intolerant of children making noise while he was watching the news or other programmes on television. Sometimes he scared me when I was little and I remember having feelings of intense dislike for him. I think I felt that way about him because he was like a stranger to me most of the time. There were two main reasons for this. Daddy worked long hours as a self-employed butcher in Belfast. We lived in Carrickfergus, some distance away, so he would have left early in the morning and arrived home late at night – when we were in bed. I didn’t know then of his other pass-time, but it was to cause major problems for our family over the next 25-30 years.
It was not until my teens and twenties that I became more aware of daddy’s other problem. It started before my parents met, as a way to give my dad confidence to ask a girl to dance. Later it continued out of spiteful stubbornness when mum complained about it. Further down the line it became a way of coping with the stresses of life – a form of escape – but, as daddy discovered, it was no escape in the end. For nothing good can come from alcoholism. During these very formative years in my development, our father/daughter relationship was greatly marred by the effects of his alcoholism…although, at that time, we never spoke of such things! It was like a ‘dirty secret’, a shameful thing that we were not to discuss with anyone, especially people outside our immediate family. I don’t ever recall being told not to speak of it – it was an unspoken rule. I now know this is quite common in dysfunctional homes.
I believe there are many facets to how we interact with the various people who come into our lives. Our up-bringing is one of the most important and, for girls in particular, the father/daughter relationship is known to be very significant. Psychology informs us that the father/daughter bond is one of the most important factors that influence girls in forming healthy relationships with men later in life. The quality of the father/daughter relationship is one of the main foundation blocks upon which girls build their sense of security, their confidence, and their ability to make healthy or unhealthy connections with men. Naturally there are many fathers who develop very strong bonds with their daughters, while others do not. This is not to say that fathers are ultimately responsible for the choices their daughters make, for everyone is responsible for their own decisions in life. That said, there is something about the father/daughter interaction that forms patterns of thought and behaviour which impact on those choices. How a girl interprets and reacts to the relationship she has with her father is also an influential factor.
As we are all individuals it is difficult to generalise, therefore this story is very much focused on my own experiences, although I’m hoping these will resonate with others reading it.
It’s a sad reality that I didn’t get to know the real person my father was until well into my adult years. I often say I didn’t really have a dad until I was 30…but this is not literally true. It is true in the sense that daddy and I never developed a close bond until many years later. But that was the legacy of alcoholism, and the resulting dysfunctional life we led.
Alcoholism wrecks lives! No doubt about it. But it does so in the most insidious of ways. I think this happens because it is socially acceptable to drink, and for lots of people a drink is just a drink. Many people who consume alcohol do so in moderation and I have no issue with that. It becomes a problem when, as my father said, “one drink is too many and a hundred’s not enough.” When it gets to that stage the results are devastating and the collateral damage inestimable!
My earliest memory of witnessing daddy in a drunken state was when I was approximately five or six years old. He was walking down the pathway behind the row of terrace houses where we lived. It was dark outside and I could hear a great commotion of bins crashing to the ground and raised, anxious voices – then daddy appeared, arms draped over the shoulders of mum on one side and Nana (his mother) on the other. He was limping and obviously in pain. They helped him to the settee and then he rolled up his left trouser leg to expose a large gash on his shin, blood pouring from it. He had stumbled into a pile of bricks in the dark and cut his leg. It was a confusing and frightening scene for me, as I had no understanding of what was going on. I knew something was wrong and I can still recall the fear I felt. That same fear was to become a familiar companion as I grew up.
Living in a home with an alcoholic, nothing is ever explained; discussed; or confronted, either at the time; the next day; or anytime thereafter. I was therefore left to interpret what I sensed in my child-like way and draw my own conclusions. From my perspective I was aware of the tension in the home, even though I couldn’t have named the feeling as ‘tension’. It was just the way things were in our house. To me tension became the ‘norm’. Despite this, as my two younger brothers and I grew up, we had a good relationship with mum, but not with daddy.
Daddy’s alcoholism continued all through my teenage years. I became much more aware of what was going on and more deeply affected by it. As a result I took on a “mothering role” during those years and desperately tried to “fix” daddy. I thought he would listen to me – a sentiment mum encouraged me to believe. She would say to me, “you talk to him, for he listens to you”. This is an example of how, in a dysfunctional home, the child often assumes a “parenting” or “care-giving role”. This trait also planted the seeds of co-dependent thinking patterns, which lead to repercussions later in my adult life.
However, while I appeared nonchalant and forthright by challenging daddy’s behaviour, this was masking my deep unhappiness, nervousness and distress. I didn’t have the skills to effectively confront him, but I certainly assumed responsibility for trying to “cure” him. In my innocence I thought I had the ability to make my father change! I now know that no one has the power to change another person, apart from God, but it was a lesson I learned the hard way.
A word here to fathers who ‘drink too much’. Many people won’t admit they have a ‘drink problem’, or they live in denial that they are actually alcoholics. However, if you ‘fit’ any of these categories, then please listen. If you have daughters, especially teenage daughters, be aware that your drinking is affecting them. It will affect your sons as well, but my brothers would be better qualified to talk about that. I speak as a daughter who knows the damaging effects my father’s drinking had on me. And, if your ‘drinking problem’ also causes tension between you and your spouse/partner, then your children will be suffering.
Many nights I hid below my bedclothes, crying in distress, as the fighting downstairs escalated. Then the dreaded footsteps coming up the stairs – “Oh no!! Please Lord make daddy walk on! I don’t want to hear all about how mum drives him to drink, or how my brother is on the road to no town”. There is nothing worse than having to listen to a drunken rant in the middle of the night. Daddy would come into my room, sit on the edge of the bed and start pouring out his troubles to me. The things I had to listen to, the derogatory remarks about mum (who did not deserve any of the criticism he gave her) that went on and on. He had no consideration for the time of night, or if I had school in the morning. I felt powerless because he would rant all night and nothing I’d say would even register, never mind bring the rant to a timely conclusion. I remember thinking one night, “We would be better of if he was dead!” and then actually praying that if daddy was a Christian (as he always said he was) that God would take him to heaven, so we could live in peace. But quickly added “please Lord, don’t do it if he’s not a Christian for I don’t want him to go to hell”. I write this to illustrate just how desperate a 14/15-year-old can feel when faced with a lifestyle they cannot cope with. I didn’t wish my father was dead, I wished the problem would go away! It is no reflection on how I felt about daddy… for I loved him so much more than I ever knew how to show him!
Some of the practical ramifications of daddy’s alcoholism were: I couldn’t invite my friends home in case daddy would be drunk and embarrass me. I couldn’t rely on him to pick me up from youth groups or other events, and mum didn’t drive. Even in the mid seventies, at the height of the troubles in Belfast, daddy would go to the pub rather than pick me up from my music lessons. I had to walk a about a mile, through the dark streets, to catch the last bus home. I actually preferred to walk alone, in the dark, and to risk being blown up by a bomb, rather than have daddy pick me up in a drunken state…which was the alternative! This shocks me now but it is the truth about how I felt at that time.
When I married at 19 years of age, I insisted we have our reception in an unlicensed hotel. I didn’t want daddy to spoil my big day. During the first ten years of my marriage daddy seldom came to see us, but would often phone me, in an inebriated state, during the early hours of the morning just to complain about his life going wrong. He once told me that I was the only thing in his life that turned out right. That wasn’t actually true but that is how he saw it in his drunken state – for he never talked to me about the deeper things in life when he was sober. I listened to him and, as I got older, I tended not to argue with him. Many times during these conversations I would tell daddy that he needed to give his life to Jesus and become a Christian. I told him this would give him a better quality of life. But daddy would say “God will let me into heaven; he is a God of love and I haven’t done anybody any harm”. His rant would then continue; he’d tell me he was “one in a million”; how well “respected” he was among his friends; how everyone else was responsible for his drinking … and I learned one thing… it is impossible to reason with a drunk man!
However, as time passed things eventually came to a head at the family home. Mum reluctantly told me that daddy’s behaviour had changed. He had started to threaten her. This was completely out of character for daddy ‘prided’ himself in having never ‘lifted his hand to a woman’. He didn’t remember threatening my mum with a knife, twisting her wrists or anything else that was said or done ‘under the influence.’ At one point during this time mum took refuge in my house and literally went into hiding from daddy. Home had become too dangerous. But after a few days she returned to daddy, who was now in ‘repentant mode’ – apologetic and promising to change. But of course this was part of the pattern and it didn’t last very long!
It was against this background that, in April 1985, I wrote the first of two letters to daddy. I believed then, and I know now, that God was prompting me to write these letters…but I’ll publish the letter and explain more in ‘Part 2’, for the story doesn’t end here.