My father is a very complicated man. He once told me that he was “only 10% bad, if that” and he is certainly not all good (but who is?). In many ways he is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He is intelligent, funny, caring, insightful and modest yet he is also arrogant, frustrating, malicious, cruel and a hopeless and seemingly helpless alcoholic.
On paper his achievements are incredible: coming to London from Tanzania as a ten year old in 1965 with virtually no grasp of the English language, to eventually becoming one of the first people from his school to go to university to study dentistry. A multicultural, capitalist dream, if he shaved his beard and got rid of his turban he could have made it into the Tory cabinet.Yet my life with him wasn’t as smooth as it might have seemed though.
Looking back, I do not remember a time when I lived with my father, although I’m told we lived together until we were about two years old. My most prominent early memories are from when I was five or six and I can recall him visiting some weekends, always arriving at around four pm on a Saturday and leaving around the same time the next day, having to go back to West London for his work.
Me and my sister always eagerly anticipated these visits. With childlike naivety we perceived our mum to be strict and Dad to be nice. These visits (as sporadic as they were, with it a rarity for it to happen two consecutive weekends) felt like the highlights of our childhood as we rolled out the proverbial red carpet to welcome him into our home, after a week where my mother would do the parenting for the both of them.
We’d see him as the cool, nice parent who’d bring us the sweets and fizzy drinks that Mum didn’t let us have. He’d play with us temporarily before socializing with his friends (and in the process giving us little attention after the initial arrival).
His appearances were no more than smoke and mirrors, as we fed on scraps hoping to have this idealized version of fatherhood so often reinforced within our patriarchal society.
Reality didn’t match up to our expectations as he was at best a part time father. He didn’t discipline us not because he was cool, but because he couldn’t be bothered. He didn’t care enough and instead left the dirty work to my Mum, as many absent fathers do, revelling in the celebrity status we gave him because he bought our affections with cans of lilt and the odd packet of Haribo.
As we got older it became clear that the Saturday night socializing was excessive binge drinking. Me and my sister always grimaced at the overpowering stench of red wine in the kitchen the next day. Empty bottles of which were piled up alongside the yellow and green cans of Holstein Pills. Dad wouldn’t wake up on Sunday because he was spending it hungover, not because he was so tired from a hard week of work.
The drinking crept over into Sunday’s and it became clear that he had a serious drinking problem with us later finding out that he was consuming “seven or eight” bottles of wine a day alongside those yellow and green tins.
My Dad was an alcoholic, as was his Dad and Grandfather, were I to succumb to the same illness it’d be something of a fourth generation legacy. What was once jovial Saturday visits became more sinister as he’d turn from a loving, fun person into someone me and my sister did not recognize. Someone who couldn’t be trusted alone with us. Someone who at times (but not all the time) we were terrified of.
He grew cruel and malicious, speaking more in slurred words than coherent sentences. This version of him we did not roll out the red carpet for. He couldn’t have been further from the idealized version of him we once had, or wanted.
By the time I was 11 things were even worse and only worsened still as I got older. He drunkenly turned up at our house one night and demanded that we leave. I remember taking my Key Stage 2 exams the next day having slept on the floor of a family friend’s flat (which to this day I use as an excuse for my poor science mark). His behaviour was increasingly erratic and increasingly emotionally abusive and such incidents quickly became the norm.
My Dad undeniably suffered from mental health problems that fuelled his alcoholism and were likewise exacerbated by his drinking. But this wasn’t clear to us as kids, we just wanted a normal father who could look after us without passing out drunk or verbally abusing us.
When I read a letter dated 2001 from one of his doctors this became overt when it was noted that my Dad’s alcoholism had accelerated and that he didn’t “care whether he lived or died”. Me and my sister were 11 and 12 at this stage. I struggled to reconcile his apathy for life, with the fact he had two children. Surely we should have been enough for him to have found a reason to carry on.
Of course we know as rational adults that it isn’t as simple as that and we have compassion for his mental health problems. But that doesn’t make it any easier to handle, nor does it compensate for the strain he put on us emotionally (and in many ways continues to put on us).
Fathers are of course supposed to be there for their children, yet he was both emotionally and physically distant from us. And when he was absent, he was disruptive and abusive.
Society always talks up the need for male role models, which only made me feel worse for not having one. I’d enviously looked on as my friend’s Dads turned up to watch our B team football games. You had to really love your kids to watch such low quality football for sixty minutes on a wet Essex Saturday morning!
He was incapable of being there because of his addiction and own deep sense of upset that fuelled it. He wanted to dominate the family which is why incidents like him removing us from our home were common place, but in reality I saw him as weak and broken. He was not the strong father figure that I thought I needed, he was vulnerable, in pain and addicted.
He would ring me when I was a teenager for hours at a time to drunkenly cry down the phone. In a society which believes “real men don’t cry” I always felt uncomfortable with this. I saw it as a sign of great weakness from him. I did not understand that for a father to cry to his son, demonstrated how deep his despair went. With so much macho bravado in our patriarchal society him crying to me – even if he was seven bottles of red wine in- was in some ways a very intimate and honest moment.
Whilst he lent on me I tried my best to help him – perhaps even to save him – but when he relapsed (often almost instantly) I’d feel like it was my fault. I was a teenager, not his parent nor was I a mental health practitioner. I wasn’t equipped to help him nor should I have been but I always felt perhaps if I’d advised him better he wouldn’t have drunk again. If only I were a better son. I felt that if he loved me he would stop and because he did not stop, he could not possibly love me.
It’s difficult for the children of addicts to feel loved because so often it feels like they chose their drug of choice over their love of their children. Reality is less simple than that, but it’s hard to shake that feeling or let down and of inadequacy. This was worsened by the fact that when he’d have a drunken outburst he’d often blame us for his problems, in what was a level of cruel emotional abuse given all we tried to do to help him.
This was a powerful feeling that persisted and at times still does. I spent much of my university life going back and forth to visit him in rehab, still holding on to the belief that I had to be strong for him, even if he wasn’t for me, even hoping that I could help him. I’d sit there trying to make conversation with him as he was dosed up on industrial strength sleeping tablets, hoping that it would be the last time. Hoping he’d get better, whilst resenting him for leaning on me for emotional support yet never being there for me in the same way.
My response was always to show strength and to pretend that I was unfazed by it all. I refused to admit that his drinking and his emotional absence had an impact on me. Whilst he was weak, I had to be strong. This is how I viewed masculinity. As in many ways my Dad would hide behind a sense of control whilst sober, only to let it all go when he was drunk, releasing a mix of anger and sadness all at once. It is only now that I’ve begun to accept what a profound impact this has had on me, my mental health and my feelings of self-worth.
Having an alcoholic parent is very difficult. As I tried to rationalize it it always seemed simple for him to pick me and my sister over his love for bad red wine. Now I’ve learnt that he might not ever change and that I need to take steps back from him.
That doesn’t mean I don’t feel let down and hurt when he does inevitably slip back into a drunken malaise. If I answer the phone to him drunk, even at 27 years old, I still feel the same things I did as a 14-year-old at some level, still feeling disappointed, unloved by him and still wishing he’d stop, even if on the surface I claim I don’t care.
I do love my father, even if I don’t see him out of self-preservation. I’ve accepted that I cannot fix him. That is a fool’s errand. I also know that I cannot ever feel loved by someone who I deem to be incapable of loving. What I do hope though, is that one day he learns to love himself. He may be more than 10% bad, but he definitely deserves to be mentally happy.