I Quit Alcohol: What being the child of an alcoholic teaches you

This time of year is bittersweet for me. On the one hand, it’s the 8 year anniversary of my Dad’s death – probably the single saddest moment of my life to date.  But on the other hand, it symbolizes a new beginning because his death essentially rewrote the rest of my life.  Without alcohol.  And this was probably the best, albeit most challenging decision, I have ever made.

By the time I was 16 my Dad was a fully functioning alcoholic. And while I loved him, I hated him for it.  I hated my Mum for it.  I hated myself for it.  In my head, something we did had pushed him over the edge into no-man’s land.  It took me a long time to reconcile that the choices that one person makes lies solely on their shoulders. 

I have plenty of amazing memories with my Dad. Memories of pancakes with lemon and sugar. Memories of being “loudly encouraged” on the soccer pitch.  Even a memory of him saving my life as he stopped an out of control horse float careening down the road with me trapped inside. He was my rock.  My savior. And me, being his only child and daughter – I was the apple of his eye.

I also have less than amazing memories.  Ones where he couldn’t make Christmas breakfast because he had such bad withdrawal symptoms. Ones where he brought a hip flask of whiskey to soccer games, and tried to hide it from the other parents.  And ones where he chased a friend around the house with a chair until he fell over the couch and went to sleep.

My university years were full of Dad.  Dad who stopped going to work because he was “sick”.  Dad who couldn’t hold a conversation about anything worth talking about.  Dad who I was too scared to introduce to any boyfriends or friends, or take to dinners and functions.  Dad who would call me everyday to take him to the liquor store, and when I refused, would drive himself drunk there anyway.  Dad who - no matter how much I loved him, or enabled him, or refused him or pleaded with him – would not stop drinking.  And it took me until I played my last guilt card – that he would never get to walk me down the aisle, make a speech at my wedding, or cuddle his grandchildren – that I finally realized that in the battle of me versus alcohol, I was never going to win.  It took me a long time to realize that this was never a reflection of how much he loved me, but of how much he hated himself and what he had become.

By the time I was 23, I used alcohol as a crutch. I was never taught to enjoy a glass of wine with dinner. What was the point of that? I loved the feeling of being drunk.  I used alcohol to mask insecurity.  I used it to bury emotions.  I used it to bolster self confidence.  And if there was one thing my Dad passed down to me, it was the lack of an off switch.  I drank until I fell over, blacked out or threw up. 

My Dad drank himself to death and finally succumbed to liver cirrhosis 8 years ago.  I went to his funeral, drank his last bottle of whiskey, danced on the bar, fell into a ditch, and missed my flight home.  I’m sure even he would have been proud of that final performance. And on my arrival home, I vowed that it was the last time I would touch alcohol.  And it was.

It was also social and relationship suicide.  You don’t realize how many people are living lives that they’re not proud of until you indirectly challenge their lifestyle choices. 

There’s no easy way to cut an addiction.  And there’s no right way to support someone in the throes of one.  You can't love someone out of it.  You can't guilt them out of it.  You can't hate them out of it.  As the saying goes "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make them drink". Every situation is unique.  For me, it took the death of a loved one to shake things up enough that I saw quitting as my only option. And it took replacing one addiction with another - alcohol for half ironman - to show me an alternative way of life. Unfortunately a lot of people aren't that "lucky" - there is no epiphany, no pivotal moment.  And there is never a "right time".  The right time is when you're ready and when you understand that it's something you're doing for yourself first and foremost. And in that moment, where you make that decision, I hope that you have the courage to be vulnerable, to reach out and to ask for help.  I hope that you have "your people" around you that will allow you to do that.

I can’t go back and rewrite my adolescence, or what there was of it – and even if I could, I don’t know that I would.  I could choose to look at him - my “role model” - as a teacher of how things shouldn’t go. I could decide to be envious of people who had “easy” family lives.  I could even choose to be resentful of opportunities missed or relationships sacrificed. But that’s not my journey.  I choose to think that I have grown up stronger and wiser than I would have otherwise.  I choose to believe I’m one of the lucky ones - that I’ve been offered the chance to see the world differently. I’ve been given the tools to choose a different path for myself.  And I have.