Whenever someone brings up the concept of alcoholic parental figures, I tend to hear the most extreme cases. These are stories about sexual abuse within the family, suicide, and physical abuse. While those are dreadful stories to hear, my experience with an alcoholic while growing up was quite different.
My father was an alcoholic, yes, but it never got quite out of hand in my family the way you see in pop culture such as movies and TV shows. I’m not trying to make a case for myself and have everyone feel pity for me. My goal is to shed light on the presence of alcoholism within families. This, and regardless of how passive it might be, how it can still affect your child deeply.
Alcoholics develop a state of mind where they don’t realize exactly how their image rubs off on others. For me, the first time I realized what alcohol does to people, I was about 8 years old. We lived in a nice house in Toronto and my parents had a large social circle. They often invited friends over to have drinks, as is popular in Romanian culture. By midnight the house would be full of people laughing and dancing and having a good time.
At that time of the night, I would usually be in the basement playing video games by myself. Or, with the sons and daughters of other guests upstairs. On this particular night, I remember being alone. I stumbled upon an old family photo album and started flipping through it with the curiosity of my age.
When I heard footsteps coming, I turned and saw my father wobbling down. I knew something was off, but I hadn’t put my finger on it yet. He saw me looking at the pictures and set down his dark ale and bag of pretzels to look through the them with me. We turned the pages, and I noticed that he was becoming sloppy. He was chomping down and dropping crumbs all over the album.
As he sat there, I came to the realization that he was drunk. It was the first time I had seen the effects of alcohol on a person, and it happens to be one of my oldest memories. When he left to rejoin the party, he forgot his beer on the table. I took it into the bathroom and poured it into the toilet, and I remember saying to myself, look at what you did to my dad.
From his perspective, he couldn’t have understood how such a small memory could stick with someone forever. For him, he simply took a break from the busy crowd and spent some time with his son. From that point forward I became aware of how often he would get drunk and how it would change him. Then, as the years progressed, so did the frequency of his drinking.
Years later, the social circle of my parents had diminished to just a few close acquaintances. My father eventually started pouring his first glass at 5pm, then 3pm, then 11am. He sat around watching football all day. He stopped looking for work while my mother broke her back and endured his verbal abuse. When I was old enough, I had to step in and tell him to back down on several occasions.
We tried having multiple interventions to no success, and then the whole family split up. My mother and sister moved into their own apartments, I impulsively moved to South America, and my father back to Romania. He stopped drinking, not because of the pleas of his family, but because he developed cirrhosis of the liver. The doctor told him if he didn’t stop, he would die in less than three months. It still resonates with me that in the end he quit for his own life and not for the lives of those who loved him.
The problem with what happened is that I never grew up with a father figure in my life. Only now in my mid twenties am I starting to take into account how that shaped me. Here are some of ways that my father’s alcoholism has affected my life growing up:
- I Had To Learn What ‘Normal’ Is
Because I had no frame of reference, I was forced to grow up thinking that what was happening in my family was normal. His behavior was erratic at times, which made me guess that having mood swings was common.
High school was a difficult time for me. That was when I was thrown into a melting pot of different kids from different families and cultures. I was understanding how everything fit together while becoming an adult. I was socially awkward, usually unsure of how to react when I was uncomfortable.
No one was there to tell me that my actions needed to be well thought out, and that it wasn’t always a good idea to speak my mind.
- I Judge Myself All The Time
I often doubt myself and my actions, unknowing if I am doing the right thing or not. My resolve can be illogical and I sometimes reflect on my own decisions, questioning why I chose to do certain things in situations.
More so, I sometimes notice that I might be going down the same path as my father did. When I go out to have drinks with friends, I don’t know when to stop. The next day I wake up having spent too much money and cringing at the thought of the night before. I’m left with anxious feelings of dread and fear that I’m becoming the same person I watched slip into the bottle.
- I’m Always Looking For Approval
The result of always doubting myself also brings forth my inability to be satisfied with my actions. Whenever I am in workplace situations, I need to be constantly reminded that I am doing a good job. Otherwise, I start to think everything I’m doing is wrong.
It can be tough for me to make independent choices without having someone there to tell me it’s a good or bad idea. Since I grew up not knowing what it meant to be confident, I struggle with issues of low self-esteem.
- I Have Trust Issues
I have a problem with trust. Not that I don’t trust anyone, but that I trust some people too easily. I’ve been taken advantage of and had money and possessions stolen from me because I wasn’t able to recognize the difference between good and bad role models.
The idea of accepting that people may be doing something for me isn’t easy to swallow. I always think there might be some other motive, and I can’t accept acts out of the kindness of others.
There’s this persistent feeling of paranoia that follows me everywhere, as if everyone is against me somehow. It makes me anxious and lonely. I’m fond of bottling up my emotions because I’m afraid of opening up to people. The same way I trust some people too much, I trust others too little.
- I Can’t Maintain Romantic Relationships
What I saw during my early years between my mother and father solidified a firm decision inside me from a very young age. I didn’t want anything like that in my life. Now, as a whole, it’s difficult for me to be vulnerable around my partners.
Whenever my relationships start getting deeper and I have disagreements with my partner, I prefer to walk out on the relationship instead of sitting down and sorting things out. People talk to me about love all the time and how I should give people more chances. The idea terrifies me. In part, because I’m afraid of having the other person mistreat me or leave me when I’m at my worst. But more so because I don’t want to disappoint anyone.
My ability to recognize how my experiences shaped me has allowed me to identify them and work towards fixing them. It takes a lot of courage to confront your demons, and I have to remind myself to get out of my comfort zone to overcome my faults. My father and I haven’t spoken in years, and my entire family was torn apart by alcohol addiction. Either way, I’m learning new things about myself every day. I’m adopting a positive outlook on my life, and pushing for a brighter future with the help of my friends and my mother and sister.
What’s your story? How has alcoholism affected your life? Please let me know in the comments.
Luca Tofan is a freelance writer living in Medellin, Colombia. He teaches English as a second language and is passionate about traveling.