My dad was an alcoholic.
Not the suave chain-smoker who drinks whiskey from die-cut glasses, nor the sardonic barfly in khaki trousers whom everybody keeps around because they’re just so loveable.
My dad was the kind of alcoholic who fell over in the street, kicked down the front door, and woke the neighbours. He was the kind of alcoholic who hid his cheap beer in the bedside cabinet. If you passed him in the street, you’d have seen a drunk. He had a job, a wife, and five children. I’m one of them.
The image of Ireland being a nation of pissheads is largely a stereotype. But it’s true that we do like a drink. Everyone we grew up with drank, and we mostly saw them in situations where drink was plentiful – weddings, funerals, Christmas. Everyone was pissed – including my dad.
He also held down a job. Every morning his alarm would wake us up, followed by the “pssst” of a can being opened (a sound that still freezes my heart, years later). He’d drink in bed, then brush his teeth, get on his bike, and cycle to work. When we bumped into his colleagues, they talked about how funny and friendly he was.
So nobody believed that my dad would be pissed before we turned up at whatever social occasion. And his minty-fresh breath hid the sour, apple-y edge of alcohol. Everyone has one too many and kicks a door in occasionally. Don’t they?
I don’t blame anybody for not believing us. They didn’t see the worst times. But even seeing isn’t believing. Even when you’re there, cowed under drunken rages, binning cans, helping getting the younger ones ready for school while your dad drinks a beer, part of you doubts it’s really happening. We’d beg our dad to stop drinking and he’d respond by telling us he barely drank – while slurring, with a can in his hand. He’d occasionally say he was an alcoholic and I’d internally hope it was a confession, a turning point. But living with an alcoholic is life within a hall of mirrors, of warped reflections and dead ends. It was no confession – just an excuse for why he could continue drinking. He was an alcoholic, so he drank.
It becomes tediously, painfully normal. You go to school, you see your friends, your dad is drunk, you come home, you have your dinner, your dad is drunk, there’s a massive fight, you go to bed, you lie awake, the staircase creaks, your dad is drunk. Life goes on, and nothing changes. I started to second-guess every emotion I had – every time I cried or felt sad, I told myself I had no reason to cry or be sad. That maybe if I didn’t cry and if I wasn’t sad, he wouldn’t drink. It wasn’t that bad.
There were nights my dad would wheel his bike into the house (when he could still cycle) and hanging off the handlebars with a four-pack of beers would be a takeaway for everyone. We’d scatter across the living-room floor watching TV, eating chips, and chatting, just like a normal family. Sometimes he’d cook a steak, avalanche it in pepper, then cut bits off it and give us a piece each with a slice of bread. I cherish the memories of those nights.
Throughout Christmas 2005, he stayed sober and it was wonderful. He was the man we knew was buried beneath the booze – the sarcastic man who had a riposte for everything, the sweet man who leaned against the fireplace with a half smile as you opened your presents (in the years before, he’d have hidden them, with gymnastic squirrelling, in eaves and cupboards you didn’t even notice, let alone could reach), the silly man who always wore the paper hat from the cracker, and the shy man who didn’t want you to take a picture of him wearing it. He’d had days off the drink before, but we hoped this would be the last time, the time it was forever. We had hoped before, but we still hoped.
When it was time for me to leave for my flight, my dad said he’d come and get the taxi with me. I hadn’t had any time alone with him over Christmas so I was happy to have him to myself. We had five minutes before he kissed my cheek hastily, then abruptly got out of the taxi. He crossed the road to the off-licence without turning back. I waved goodbye from the window.
That was the last time I saw my dad outside of hospital. He died five months later, on 17 May 2006, at the age of 47. Even now, nearly a decade later, I still think he’s just “somewhere else”. In my dreams he appears in the strangest of places – a caravan on a petrol station forecourt, at the window of a childhood home. Because despite everything, I never believed he would die. In everything I’d ever read or watched (and I hungrily consumed anything I could find about addiction), they were always OK. You’d turn the book over and there they were on the back cover, golden, smiling, and healthy. And I believed, until the end, that’s what would happen to him, too.
But it didn’t.
Losing any parent is devastating. But I feel a stab of envy for people whose parents die of an illness or of natural causes. Because they have years of memories where the person they loved wasn’t ill, and because they died of something other people can empathise with.
One of the first times I broke down after my dad’s death was while watching an advert about cancer. A bride turns to the camera and says, “I wish my mum was here.” I sobbed and took my tears on to a bus and sobbed there, and then carried them into the work toilets, where I shut the door and sobbed there, too. Because my dad wasn’t going to be at my wedding, or meet my children, or ever again pick up the phone and then pass it to my mum. He wasn’t going to be there, and nobody cared that he wasn’t. There were no adverts about us, no Races for Life, no rattling collection tins. No one fought for him – he was refused a liver transplant, so nobody even tried to save him. There was nothing but condemnation, disdain, and ridicule for people like him, and few shoulders and little sympathy for people like us. People like my dad were heckled on Jeremy Kyle, not held in hushed memorial.
You probably hate me for saying that, and I hate myself for it. No death is easy, no illness is kind. And cancer is brutal, horrific, ugly, and soul-destroying. I hated him, too, for dying in a way that locked us in our grief, that meant we couldn’t even reach out to an awkward shoulder for fear of being blamed, for collapsing under the weight of shame that we couldn’t save the one we loved, with our love.
It’s hard to know what to say when someone dies. It’s hard to write the obituary, to comfort the loved ones, to retell the stories faithfully. In our case, there weren’t any phrases like “he lost his battle” or “he fought hard” – but he did.
You’d think that after seeing alcohol destroy my dad’s life, I’d be a preachy teetotaller. Sometimes I am. When I’m not drinking, I hate being around people who are. I feel panicky when I hear a can open, I feel disgust when someone slurs a gust of booze into my face. I try to avoid hanging out with people I know are heavy drinkers (and I’m pretty good at “spot the alcoholic”).
But sometimes I see people with a beer and they’re laughing and relaxed and happy. And I so violently want to be normal, to be someone other than the girl whose dad died of alcoholism. I’m searching for that ease – of the steak nights, of the takeaways – so I have a beer, hoping to find it. I want to prove that I’m just like everyone else.
But I’m not – I’m my father’s daughter. I find it hard to stop once I’ve started. The ease doesn’t come, because it didn’t come from the beer in the first place. So in the past, I have swung from puritan to pisshead – sometimes within the space of an evening.
I have a baby. He’s tiny, beautiful, and hilarious. When I look at him, I can see the ears I inherited from my dad, and our untameable Northern Irish hair. There have been times I’ve held him and wondered how our dad could leave us.
But most of the time, I understand that he didn’t leave us willingly. From the depths of grief it can be hard to see the way out. As the years have passed, I have been able to remember more of the joyful times too. They are the same ones I share with my son – reading a book, chasing each other around around the floor laughing, singing Bowie songs.
I see my son and realise that, just like when I have feelings of sadness that are nothing to do with him, so my dad’s feelings were independent of us all. It was out of our control, and it always was. We didn’t cause it, we couldn’t change it. In his case, it had tragic consequences, but it doesn’t doom us to following the same path.
My siblings are some of the most compassionate people I know. After everything we’ve been through, what we’ve learned is that everyone can struggle – you can have a family, a job, all the trappings of a normal life, and still struggle. That you should try to be kind to everyone, to see them in their entirety and not just as whatever they’re struggling with. To not give into judgements. That happy moments exist, even within the sad times, and that you can be OK, and when you’re not, you are still worth being loved. These are the lessons I want to pass on to my son – that the ease is from inside, and that you are perfect and loveable as you are.
Strangers may have passed my dad and seen a drunk. But he was also the Python devotee and Bowie fanatic who taught us all how to read, bought us our first microscopes, was proud of everything we did, and who photographed the oddest minutes of our lives so now we have a path back to those joyful minutes, to remember and to honour them, and to repeat them.