‘I was like a carer’: The agonising reality of growing up with an alcoholic parent
An estimated three million people in the UK have a parent with alcohol problems
*Mentions of alcoholism, self-harm and suicide*
Dan’s phone buzzed as he was on the dance floor. When he saw the caller ID, his heart dropped. It was a text from his dad. He asked Dan where he was and told him he was going to end it all. Whilst everyone else was counting down to the New Year, Dan, a student at the University of Hull, was outside in the smoking area reading a string of worrying text messages filled with typos. But this was nothing new to Dan, he’d been aware of his dad’s drinking since he was seven years old.
Dan’s dad is an alcoholic. He had been for years after social drinking turned into an addiction; and then a number of financial worries, a divorce, and job loss caused him to spiral. In the days leading up to NYE, Dan’s dad was constantly drinking. Dan describes that time as one of the “worst Christmases ever.”
Our first encounters with booze often come from our parents: Buck’s Fizz on Christmas morning, a glass of wine with dinner, those first few WKDs you were allowed to take to a tragic teen house party. But for the children of alcoholics (an estimated three million people in the UK have a parent with alcohol problems), alcohol isn’t the fun taboo it was for most of us. It tears through families, destroys relationships and devastatingly, many cases end in death. I spoke with two students and a recent graduate who have experienced the pain of losing a parent to drinking. They share the trauma and exhaustion their parents’ alcoholism put them through from an early age and how only now – since their death – they’ve been able to start healing.
Ellie called her mum a secret alcoholic. “She was really friendly, she was great, with a big, bubbly personality, all my friends loved her. But when everyone left the house, it was a different kind of thing.” Ellie is 24 years old and grew up with her mum and stepdad in Wales. She doesn’t remember a time when her mum wasn’t drinking, although she rarely saw her with an actual drink in her hand. Her mum struggled with her mental health and would often drink in secret, slipping away pretending to do some cleaning before returning 20 minutes later as a different person.
Her mum liked her privacy and quiet time. After 6pm the phone wasn’t to be answered and if visitors popped by unannounced her mum was uncomfortable. Ellie didn’t realise this wasn’t normal until she started going to friends’ houses for sleepovers and their parents would act completely different to her mum. And yet, on the surface, no one would suspect Ellie’s mum wasn’t like the other parents. She worked, took Ellie to school everyday, made great lunches, spoke three languages and played the piano, Ellie describes her as a “great mum”.
None of Ellie’s friends or family knew what was going on at home. She describes “living a double life.” Ellie felt like she wanted to escape and channelled all her energy into getting a place at university. She decided on the University of Exeter before she’d even done her GCSEs. School and eventually university were her safe spaces. When she was 17 years old her mum’s drinking became public knowledge after her mum was drunk at a family event. And so, when she arrived in Exeter in 2016 to study sociology, it felt like a fresh start.
“It was actually an opportunity for me to make my own stamp in the world and be on my own, and not have the worry of going home. I could set up my own home, I could set up my own rituals, I could sit and have dinner and it would be relaxing. I did not have to worry that downstairs, something bad is going on.”
Navigating the world of drinking at university was never going to be easy, and despite Ellie enjoying drinking in moderation herself and going on nights out with her new friends, it brought up issues in her relationship. Her partner was on a sports team and they would occasionally argue over his excessive alcohol consumption on sports nights out. Seeing members of the team get so drunk to the point of swaying and not being able to stand up made Ellie uncomfortable, as did the general sports team attitude of drinking to oblivion.
What Ellie really struggled with was seeing her friends’ talk so warmly about their relationships with their parents. They would be on the phone to their mum every day, whereas Ellie avoided calling home. When term ended and everyone rushed home, Ellie stayed on in halls or her student house until the lease ended. She dreaded the idea of going back to Wales as these trips home often coincided with big celebrations – Easter and Christmas – where alcohol is abundant. After years of experience, Ellie knew going home for these occasions wouldn’t end well.
After graduation Ellie began her career in the prison service. She was at work when her manager called her into the office and said they’d had a phone call from her step dad. Before her manager even finished the sentence, Ellie knew her mum had passed away. It was the call she’d always expected and yet she was in complete shock, “It was just a normal day, I went to work, and then the next minute she was gone.” Ellie and her step dad had tried everything they could to help her mum, and though there were times she tried, it didn’t last long enough for her mum to become sober. Ellie still thought she had time. She thought her mum would live for at least another decade, long enough to see Ellie buy a house of her own, get married, and start a family.
When I spoke to Ellie on the phone she tells me the one thing she wishes more people knew about alcoholism is how much it impacts those around the individual. She lived in the shadow of her mum’s life: “Whenever there’s an alcoholic or someone with addiction, there’s a circle of family and friends around them who are also really needing support. In my life story, it’s like my mum’s the author, because she’s the one with the problem. And even now if I talk about being the child of an alcoholic, it’s still her story.”
Jasmin was 17 when her dad passed away from cirrhosis of the liver (scarring of the liver caused by long-time liver damage, which prevents the liver from working and eventually liver failure). She grew up feeling like a carer for her dad. He would drink from first thing in the morning and continue throughout the day, leaving big bottles of Smirnoff vodka around the house. When she was 13 Jasmin remembers having to carry her dad home from the pub. There were times when she tried to have a conversation with him and he would be foaming at the mouth, or so intoxicated he was struggling to stand up. Near the end of his life he would regularly call Jasmin saying he was going to end it all and throw himself in front of a bus.
This is all Jasmin knew throughout her childhood. She grew up in a small town in Shropshire with her mum and step dad, seeing her dad regularly as her mum was often working. As she grew up and became a teenager she became more aware of the impact her dad’s drinking had on him – a result of the abuse in his own childhood.
She describes their relationship as “complex” as we speak over Zoom a few weeks ago. Jasmin struggled with self-harm partly as a result of her dad’s drinking. When she was 16 years old she began to pull back from her dad in order to concentrate on her GCSEs and her future.
“As I started to get older, I distanced myself further because I just found it too much to deal with. Especially as a 16 year old with exams and life happening, it became really hard because I was almost like a carer for him. He depended on me quite a lot to do things. Not that he ever blamed me for his drinking, but I was definitely a big part, obviously, of his happiness, his life. And for me to start becoming distant I think was also hard for him.”
Jasmin says how much she misses and loves him during our call, but says if he had still been alive and addicted to alcohol she isn’t sure she would have been able to leave him and go to university. It would have been difficult for Jasmine to be a five hour journey away from him.
She’s now 21 and studying music, theatre and entertainment management in Cornwall. Barely a year after her dad died, Jasmin was back to constantly being surrounded by alcohol during her first year. Because of her dad, when she would go on nights out she was filled with anxiety and dread, aware of the impact alcohol can have on someone when drunken to excess. She found herself on edge and hyper-emotional during those first nights out.
Now, near the end of her degree, she’s been able to process her dad’s death. Jasmin still drinks, but knows her own limit and has come to accept that she cannot control anyone else’s drinking.
Unlike Jasmin and Ellie, Lily, a language and speech therapy student in Sheffield, will not go near alcohol again after the death of her mother.
Lily grew up in a house filled with domestic violence, which Lily’s mum found difficult. Her mother’s father had been abusive – and after multiple miscarriages, she turned to alcohol. Her mum drank throughout both her pregnancies with Lily and her younger sister. Lily was born with a cleft palate and her younger sister has learning difficulties, both believed to be a result of her mum’s drinking.
Her parents got divorced and soon her mum began to struggle financially, and the drinking got worse. She started off with cider, before moving onto boxed wine and in the last few years of her life she was drinking straight vodka, spending nearly £400 a week on alcohol.
The realisation of just how serious Lily’s mum’s drinking was clicked when Lily was 14. Her mum went to a routine smear test and was asked by the nurse how many months pregnant she was. Except she wasn’t pregnant; her stomach was severely swollen from alcohol and she was rushed to hospital. She was given 24 hours to live.
“I remember sitting in a room and there being this massive needle. It must have been about the width of her whole abdomen – it was like out of a horror film. So huge. And they stuck it in the side of her and extracted all this fluid that had built up. I just sat there. I remember I was crying and there was like a little window and I was just thinking ‘what is this? What is going on? I don’t understand’”.
Lily’s mum vowed to quit drinking and survived the next 24 hours. She was kept in hospital for a few weeks. Her mum told hospital staff there was someone at home looking after her girls, but in reality, this was Lily. When her mum got back from the hospital she carried on drinking.
She describes looking after her mum as “worse than a full time job. It was every minute of every day, all the time.” Lily would skip school out of fear that her mum and younger sister weren’t ok. She never told anyone at school and her mum kept her isolated, possibly out of fear Lily would reveal the truth. Her mum once logged into Lily’s Facebook account and messaged her friends pretending to be Lily to end her friendships with them.
This had a massive impact on Lily, and she left the house at 17 soon becoming addicted to alcohol herself. She wanted to prove to herself she could handle it unlike her mum, however it didn’t work and she found herself using alcohol to block out what was happening back at home. Lily eventually got treatment for her alcoholism and now works at a drug and alcohol rehab facility alongside studying for her degree. Now, at university, Lily avoids alcohol completely. Moving into her halls was tough, the smell of alcohol from other students would hit her and remind her of her mum. If she goes to the pub with friends, she’ll have a Diet Coke.
Lily’s mum died last year whilst she was still studying. In the time since, Lily has reflected on what her mum would have been like without the alcohol.
“I’ve had to really search myself and ask ‘What would my mum have actually been like, had she not always been pissed? What would that woman have been like?’ And I’ve tried to piece together bits that I remember from my early childhood and friends that knew my mum even before I was born and try to get more of a picture of what she was like. Because it does really steal the actual person away from you before they die.”
Research conducted by The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) found over a third of children who experience problems with alcohol dependent parents carry these problems into their adult life. They are also five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, three times as likely to consider suicide and twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, be in trouble with the police and to develop alcoholism themselves.
And yet, against those odds, these three young women have got their lives together. They have achieved a higher level of education, got full time jobs and developed healthy relationships. In fact, they’re thriving.
So, what exactly do those who’ve experienced the devastation of alcoholism first hand think we should do about alcohol addiction? Well, all three women tell me about their wishes for tougher alcohol restrictions and a shift in the stigma of alcoholism. Ellie says we need to move away from the idea that an alcoholic is an old man sat in a pub, grumpy and tired of life. Jasmin thinks it would be great to see a limit on how much alcohol people can purchase. And for Lily, alcohol should be recognised the same way as smoking now is. She also suggests lessons on emotional intelligence in school, so people can understand themselves before they start drinking. But even with potential changes like these, they’re quick to recognise quitting alcohol can only be done if the person themselves want to do it.
Thankfully, for Dan, the night after he received those worrying texts from his dad, things have improved. Dan’s dad has now been sober for a number of years. He’s moved to Lanzarote with his new wife. Dan goes out to visit him regularly and his dad often comes back for visits. There are still moments when Dan worries about his dad. If he sends a text with a typo Dan gives him a call to check he’s sober, but they have a good relationship, “we’re still as close as a dad and son would be at university.”
If you’ve been affected by this story or you’re worried about a parent’s drinking, then contact the NACOA free helpline on 0800 358 3456, which is open Monday to Saturday 2pm to 7pm or visit their website for more support.