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Growing up with an alcoholic father is a world filled with despair, damage, and hope. Here’s part one of two articles – on the pitfalls and precautions of growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father.
I stood peering under the bonnet while my perennially drunk dad sat in the driver’s seat, trying in vain to get the ignition going. The car had just broken down post midnight in the middle of a deserted dirt road in the city’s outskirts. After several desperate attempts with the wires, something finally worked and the car roared back into life. I’d tried some stop-gap fix on the wires that my cousin had taught me, which luckily saved the night.
Hugely relieved, I took a moment to look around before getting back in the car. Though this had been a first, something felt hugely familiar and ‘repeat-telecast’ about the situation, and I wondered what. And then it hit me like a brick – this was no one-off situation. The details may have been different but essentially I’d been ‘stop-gap fixing’ so many situations in so many ways, on so many days. And everything was wrong with that particular situation, not just the stupid wires.
It needed more than another temporary fix. My life needed some real fixing – more than the stop-gap kind. It was no longer about just getting through another day. I suspected that life had set up this scene for me to finally read the writing on the wall – or in this case, the headlamp-lit dirt road ahead – that I could either continue practicing the art of temporary fixes day after day until I acquired a black belt in it, or I could go build myself a life that didn’t need those fixes.
A little common sense and a lot of self-worth made the choice obvious, but to build myself a life unaffected by him and his toxic impact was going to be a long arduous journey, and I’d only just started college and was still living with him.
I’m fully aware I had it way better than many and I was lucky the abuse was not physical but only verbal, but it did give me hell. And when I look back on it, the ‘only’ before ‘verbal’ seems misplaced. Like the song goes, words can be like knives, and I may still have a few scars to show for it, and loads of scar tissue masking them.
To be fair, he wasn’t all bad all the time, and he did have his moments as a father. The way he packed my lunches back when I’d just started school, cutting sandwiches into suns, hills, and moons for my amusement. His totally out-of-whack (and often wildly inappropriate) sense of humour. Or the mean egg curry he made most Sundays. But sadly his moments of niceness, being few and far between, only served to underscore his predominant negativity. I learnt quickly, the way kids do, that any calm in the home only meant the storm was coming.
If I could rewind and meet my younger self today, I would sit her down, give her a warm hug, and tell her this…
Barrelling my way through those dark days would have been a lot easier for me if I had had someone to talk to, an empathetic voice of reason who would have perhaps told me all these things back then. If I could rewind and meet my younger self today, I would sit her down, give her a warm hug, and tell her this –
Yes, I’ve been there. I know how it feels. Of course it’s terrible, and you did nothing to deserve it. But you are awesome and one day, life will be too. Here’s what I wish I’d known when I was in your place:
At adolescence, you should be excitedly gearing up for the spring of your life, and having him wobbling around raining his negativity on you is not even the last thing you need.
Ideally, the adults in the family ought to arrange an intervention or somehow get him into rehab, but if that’s not happening for whatever reason, you shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of it. It’s NOT your homework and never was, so you shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of it not being done. Distance is key.
One can’t be a father (in the real/full sense of the word) and an addict simultaneously. ‘Alcoholic father’ is an oxymoron so blatant that we miss it. Being a father is challenging enough without throwing alcoholism into the mix. For as long as he is addicted, he has no business even pretending to be a father. If there were parenting licenses that needed to be obtained before one could go about ‘parenting’, his would’ve been revoked long ago – for ‘parenting under influence’, among other things.
A hard truth you’re going to have to face is that there is no father there, just a shadow of a father – and a wobbly one at that. Yes that is sad, not having a dad, but some of the biggest liberations come from the hardest truths, so it will be immensely freeing for you someday when you look that fact in its face and accept it.
I cannot emphasize this enough. He may never quit the bottle and that has nothing to do with you. No part of that is under your control. Don’t take on that uphill battle. There are way more productive uses for your valuable time and energy. I was told by a lot of misguided adults in the family (and some even outside it!), in no uncertain terms, that it was me and only me who could make him quit.
Like I had some kind of anti-addiction superpower before I even had a college degree. Their “reasoning”, if you can call it that, was that he had some kind of special soft corner for his one little daughter. Definitely news to me – where was it all this while then? How come that ‘soft corner’ didn’t keep him from becoming an alcoholic in the first place? Without realizing it, they were over-burdening my young shoulders by placing that kind of onus on me.
They even naively gave me the example of a movie (Daddy) where the daughter makes her dad mend his alcoholic ways. But life doesn’t follow a script, and certainly not a bollywood one.
Quite the golden rule. Gandhi said it. Presumably way back. And I heard of it only last year – through an American writer on Facebook, of all things. I wish I’d heard it way back and tattooed it on my forearm. It would’ve pretty much been my slogan through all those years, perhaps slightly rephrased as ‘you will not wobble through my mind with your dirty drunk feet’.
Despite the good fight that I obstinately put up, I did end up internalizing at least some of his abusive words and negativity. He became one of those niggling negative voices in my head, that basically downplayed every victory to its lowest interpretation and highlighted every tiny mistake like it were a crime against humanity. Until one day I just got beyond-bored of it and threw it out. And now when it tries to sneak in again, it’s the no-dirty-feet rule to the rescue.
While hope is a great thing in many areas of life, it may not be so here. I was often conflicted – should I have held on to hopes on the father-daughter front, or am I better off and wiser in giving up on that hope altogether? (That I will ever have a real father-daughter relationship)
This one’s trickier than the others, and will probably haunt you for a while longer than all the other shadows cast by the situation. It may seem optimistic to ‘hope’ that he will mend his ways someday but it’s a hope that brings a lot of disappointment with it. A hope you’re better off without. Like ripping off a bandaid in one go versus slowly.
Even the faintest ‘ray’ of hope can dictate your actions and cloud your judgment.
And it’s called hoping against hope – when you’re hoping for something very unlikely. Sometimes, it’s denial dressed as hope. Denial-fuelled hopes shackle you, while letting go of such hope pragmatically will set you free. Even the faintest ‘ray’ of hope can dictate your actions and cloud your judgment.
Instead, invest that energy into areas of your life that you have control over. Your talents, your mind, your friendships, your future career, your life. That way, his continued addiction every week/month/year won’t come as crushing disappointments to you, and on the slim chance that he does de-addict, then well …surprise!
For all the halo around hope, life isn’t an optimism contest. It’s more a betting game – you take chances, you win some, you lose some. When you win, you relish it for all it’s worth and when you lose, cut your losses and move on. So when you’ve been dealt a poor hand, come to terms with it, own it, and go on to play that poor hand as well as you can.
Know this: Your life will be great, and that will have nothing to do with him and everything to do with you. All his negativity will have no say in how awesome you and your life can and will be. Remember that your equation with him is a factor in your happiness only if you let it be.
In the tiresome role of ‘daughter to an abusive alcoholic father’, there will no doubt be a good deal of ‘Why me?’ moments in your lowest lows, when self-pity will close in on you. But the more you hang on to your belief in yourself, the more unconvincing the self-pitying voices in your head will sound.
And one day you will catch yourself pitying those who had it easier than you did on the dad front, because they missed out on an entire badass education in being your own badass hero against an in-house villain. And when life’s inevitable stumbles and uncertainties – big and small – instil a lot more fear in them than in you, you’ll have yourself to thank for it.
Friends are indeed the family you choose, and given the chaos and hostility at home, friendship will mean a lot more to you than to people who have non-hostile home environments. That said, it’s way better to be your own best friend than have a bunch of friends who don’t understand you and possibly never will. Sure you may share laughs with them, but when you need a listener, you will find them too mild-at-heart, given their relatively peachy situations, and will not want to open up to them.
And if you do, you’ll perhaps get more uninformed judgement/sympathy than empathy from them, and some ill-founded advice. One can’t blame them though, it’s only natural. They grew up very differently – under relatively sheltered circumstances – without constant hostility, and with a sense of stability amidst 0% alcoholic families where a typical dinner meant laughter, sharing your thoughts/feelings, fighting over the remote control, talking about school, and what you want to be when you grow up.
While your typical dinner means hostility filling the air while you walk on eggshells, being extremely careful not to inadvertently set off another tirade of verbal abuse for no fault of yours. And then getting screamed at for some unforeseeable ‘reason’ anyway. And the things you’ve witnessed way back are things they wouldn’t even be allowed to see on TV. Things that could mess up an adult brain. A bad day to them is when their bike gets stolen or some such thing, while for you it’s when your dad threatens to kill himself after you told him you don’t want to continue living with him.
So opening up to them would mean shocking the daylights out of them, and looking like a wounded freak. And when you expect them to stand by you in matters big and small, they’ll wonder why it’s that big a deal to you. So rather than looking to others for understanding and trust, your best bet is to be your own best friend, and great friendships with the right people will happen eventually.
Picking yourself up too soon, before you’re done feeling low about a setback may feel great in the moment, but like lost sleep, it will catch you unawares later. And having honed your resilience skills from before you even knew there was a word for it, you will be tempted to fast forward through the lows and get on to the next challenge already. Bouncing back onto the field like you were just shot out of a canon. Except you weren’t.
You’re a human who, like all humans, needs time and space to heal and to see the lesson. So don’t take on big challenges while your wounds from the previous ones are still fresh. Let there be a healing gap between, like that crucial day in the week where you don’t work out, so that your muscles can rebuild and recover from all the exercise. That rest day is as important as all the other workout days combined, for good reason. So take your time to heal.
Picture credit: Melvin E (Used under a CC license)
Yoga teacher, writer, travel blogger. Loves going where she’s never been, having (mis)adventures,
beautifully written post!
Thank you Aloka !
Wow, I have never seen my thoughts so beautifully expressed in someones else’s writing. This is truth. Keep it up! There are people who need to express this but don’t have the ability.
Thank you Jane Smith! For more do visit http://www.radicallyeverafter.com 🙂
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