Me, My Dad and Al(cohol)
I’ve always had a difficult relationship with my father. It’s still difficult more than six years after his death. At the time he died, following an accident on holiday; we weren’t even on speaking terms. Returned to the UK via air ambulance I’d not expected that the man I’d known would seemingly no longer exist — his mind erased by a head injury from a catastrophic fall. I’ll always regret not being able to have one final conversation, despite the deep feelings of anger he invoked in me.
I’ll also never forget the waves of anxiety and terror that I used to feel when I was around him as a child. When sober, my father had a short fuse. When drunk, as he was most evenings, he was on a hair trigger. The slightest provocation — a slight scrape of a bowl, a small amount of water dripped on the floor, a book out of place could enrage him. Yet, there are plenty of aspects of my own character that I owe him — my love of books and film as well as my passion, verging on obsession, for politics! But I also owe him my own ambiguous relationship with alcohol.
Liam Byrne MP and Jon Ashworth MP have both very movingly spoken of their own fathers’ battles with alcohol. In writing this, I wanted to add my own voice to the debate on how we tackle the problem of alcoholism and particularly how we protect the children of alcoholics. In my case, the story is different because as a British Asian family, despite my parents own very liberal approach, there was still an overwhelming desire to hide what was going on — as if our friends and neighbours didn’t already know given the number of times the police turned up on our doorstep because my father had become physically violent towards my mother. Or later in life, once he had become diabetic, we would have to call ambulances when he slipped into diabetic comas. On one such occasion, staying at my parents’ house while my mother was away, I could hear my father crying out in his sleep. For a moment, I contemplated just letting him slip away thinking it would be best for everyone.
I called an ambulance.
This wasn’t all. As a child, I didn’t want to have friends round to the house as I was afraid of what they would think. I concealed a two and a half year relationship from my father, even when my girlfriend and I had moved in together. This led to me excluding him more and more from my life even as I spent many of my weekends drunk.
Reflecting now, I realise that my father was a deeply troubled man — a product of both nature and nurture. This hasn’t made things any easier for me but it has helped me to understand him and by extension, myself a little better. Knowing what I do now, has helped me to avoid sliding down the same path my father did. I helped myself.
As a child though, I constantly hoped for something to change the way things were. The year that my father spent living in London for most of the week because he’d been caught drink driving and banned, was blissful. I felt free.
The experiences I had are being repeated though, up and down the country. In all communities other alcoholics, just like my father are destroying families and setting the next generation on paths to their own addiction, prison and in too many cases, suicide. Except for the lucky few, who like me, find a way to manage.
This is why it is essential that we start to get to grips with the harm that alcoholics do to their families, friends and themselves. It isn’t just about more money — it’s about making it OK for children to talk about what they’re experiencing at home. This is going to take a huge cultural shift. Liam and Jon have both called for more funding, more training and for more support for fantastic charities like NACOA but this isn’t all. Both of them have done something even more important by bringing this issue out into the open. Yet, the risk is that this issue slips back into obscurity again, allowing those alcoholics who are wrecking families to continue their damage. It also doesn’t do anything to try and rescue those trapped in the cycle of alcoholism, from their addiction and themselves.
If if we ignore the human element (which we shouldn’t), this is an issue which costs us billions a year in healthcare costs. It’s costs us millions in law enforcement and judicial costs. Yet, this all pales into significance when we consider the human cost of this all. In the case of my father, during his many brushes with the law, there was never an offer of support. In the USA, on coming into contact with the judicial system for an alcohol related office, it is often standard to require attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous or other support services. Yet in the UK we seem to either want to hide the problem or tackle it through use of our judiciary, whilst the system almost seems to ignore the families and friends of alcoholics.
Shortly before his death, not long after his 65th birthday; my father made an attempt to stop drinking. I don’t know how successful he was because at that point we weren’t on speaking terms. Although he eventually made the right choice, perhaps he would have made that choice sooner had there been earlier intervention.
We have made huge strides as a society in becoming open about mental illness. That has filled me with hope. It has filled me with hope because I believe this will make it easier to talk about alcoholism. But I also want it to be easier for people in the South Asian community to talk about alcoholism too. I’m grateful to Liam and Jon for leading the way. In the same way they have helped me share my experiences, I hope my writing makes it easier for others to be more open too.
I was lucky enough to get help from family, friends and through private health insurance through my employer. Help is also available from the following: