I Couldn’t Save My Father From Alcoholism

In the UK, we celebrate National Children of Alcoholics Week in November. Agreed, this is not an occasion that has penetrated the world’s consciousness in any big way, There is no bunting in the street, no fireworks displays and no public holiday.  But it is an important recognition of a large group of the  population that is sadly neglected in the UK and all other countries.  This moving piece was written by Cassia, Lou’s daughter and my stepdaughter, about her relationship with her dad.  In it she eloquently provides us with a glimpse into her burden as rescuer of the dad she loved so much and who loved her in return.   This is her story in her words and I am so proud of her for exposing her vulnerability in such an generous way in an attempt to alert us to the hurt that children of alcoholics can feel that often goes unnoticed.  

I Couldn’t Save My Father From Alcoholism

And trust me, I tried.

Don’t worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday.   —  Mary Schmich

There are countless times in my life where I refer back to this quote by Mary Schmich. Some of you will probably recognize it better as a song by Baz Luhrmann and without this song, I would have never known about this essay either.

Today, I quote it from a very serious place. I suffer from anxiety and I worry about a lot of things, often silly things. This includes convincing myself that if I don’t have my feet under the quilt, I will be attacked by the monster that lives under my bed. I don’t believe in monsters; it’s just something my irrational brain tries to convince me of.

My brain also, on occasion, has tried to convince me that if I had tried a little harder, or fought a little longer, my dad might have stopped drinking. He might have looked into my tear-filled, sore eyes and have actually meant it, when he told me he was going to stop.

I would even believe him, not once or twice, but over and over again…until the next bottle showed up in the outside bin or tucked at the back of a bedside table. Then the slurred speech, the arguments, the slamming doors would all re-emerge and the cycle would begin all over again.

I’m 30 now, and of course, life has moments that get me down or leave me feeling teary-eyed, but nothing leaves me in a crumpled mess of tears like remembering my dad, drunk and changed. This man was my everything. I trusted him with all my fears. He was the first I went to when I was upset, and his knee the one I sat on when I felt alone.

I felt like a princess, his princess, yet somehow, I never made the connection that his destructive behavior hugely contributed to my childhood anger, which I projected onto my dear, darling mom instead. 

As someone he treasured so greatly, I felt like I was failing him. If I could not stop him drinking himself into oblivion, who could? I felt my one job was to save my dad and I couldn’t do it.

I know now I’m not to blame. Everyone copes with things in their own way. I eat. He drank. It was his choice, albeit a bad one. I genuinely believe he wished he could stop, but it was his choice of coping mechanism and it took a hold of him.

I could no more have saved my father from alcoholism at 8, 12 or 15 than I could solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. It’s ok to ask for help. In fact, if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, I implore you to seek help. I am only just seeking help for my past — 18 years of repressed feelings. 

My story with my alcoholic dad doesn’t have a happy ending, but stories don’t share the same endings. There are people who can and will help and people who want to help

4 Replies to “I Couldn’t Save My Father From Alcoholism”

  1. This resonates so much with me. I have been with my alcoholic partner for 24 years but now I have given up. I have seen his daughters in tears begging pleading shouting all to no avail they might as well be trying to communicate with a brick wall. It is pitiful.

  2. It’s an inescapable truth that we can’t save another person from him or herself. Even as an adult I continued to believe that I could save my partner from his drinking, until I finally woke up and realised that it was not my business to save him. He died six weeks ago from cirrhosis of the liver but thankfully I had stopped trying to change him a good few years before he got ill – thanks to what I learned on Bottled Up. This post raises a really important subject, of how we explain to our children that their parent’s drinking is not the child’s responsibility. That adults sometimes do things that a child will find impossible to understand – like breaking their promises repeatedly – and that parents are also still children inside. How do you explain that a child’s dad suffers with depression? How do you explain that their dad has demons he is trying to keep under control and that drinking helps him believe he’s doing that? None of us wants to bring that kind of reality into our children’s minds, but if we don’t, we may leave them confused and desperate. But until we adults get it clear that we can’t save anyone else, and forgive ourselves for the choices WE have made, we’re going to struggle to help our children.

  3. Everything you write rings so true. For me, in relation to both my parents – one who succumbed to alcoholism and one who nearly did but went on to live a full, happy and love filled life. Also for me in relation to my ex-husband who I loved, supported, excused, believed and forgave time and again before the penny finally dropped and I realised the effect it was having on the whole family’s mental health. It rings true also for my son and daughter who I kidded myself I was protecting with my excuses and (unsuccessful) covering up. Both children struggle to form trusting relationships with adults. One at 12 describes the obsessions and compulsions that perhaps come from trying to control what she can having been swept up in a the life of an alcoholic father – unpredictable and out of control – from an early age. One at 14 is so overwhelmed by anxiety that he feels altogether out of control and unable to function In school or daily life. He has already sought escape from these feelings in unhealthy ways. Both, thankfully now have much needed professional help to begin to process the trauma they have experienced and undo some of the psychological damage. I too am making inroads (at the age of 47) to understanding where my tendency to want to ‘fix’ things for people ‘in need’ come from and to stay In harms way, patching the tatters of a life back together over and over again when so many others would have sensibly and helpfully have removed themselves to safety and allowed things to take a more natural course. I have watched my Mum and Dad find their way out of a life of alcoholism – Mum by recovery after developing alcohol related liver failure and a complete change in her approach to life, Dad by suicide. I watched my husbands relationship with me and his children deteriorate and left lung after I now think I should have. Today I phone my brother several times daily as he Struggles through day three of a home detox. I am proud of him, my children and of myself. What is different for me today? I know that I am not alone, I know that I can and should seek and accept support myself. I understand better what can happen around an alcoholic. I know that I can love and, under the right conditions reasonably safely support an alcoholic person. Most importantly I have learnt that I am worthy of love and respect and that I am not responsible for anybody else’s actions, choices or for making things better for them if their actions or choices cause them harm.

  4. Thank you for sharing your daughter’s letter. I am not an alcoholic, but my daughter is. I believed I could stop her from drinking when she was a teenager, then her daughter, my precious granddaughter believed she could stop her. I read book after book, paid counselor and psychologist one after another in search of the perfect answer. But there was never an answer. I know well that crumpled mess of tears you talk about. I believed for many years I failed her and my granddaughter. Your letter means so much to me, again thank you, from the depths of my soul. I’m sorry for your pain, I hope you can find happiness.

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