This week is International Children of Alcoholics week and I feel I must speak out given my experiences. I have written about many political issues on this blog and not too many that are that personal. There are people in my life who I know well yet I haven’t spoken to about this issue. This is incredibly hard for me but it’s also really important more and more people speak out about this and MPs like Liam Byrne, Jonathan Ashworth and Caroline Flint speaking out about this have given me the courage to do so as well.
Some friends and colleagues of mine will know that my father passed away in February 2016 and that he died because he had cancer. But what many don’t know is that a big cause of the cancer he had was his drinking.
My dad wasn’t a violent drunk or abusive in the obvious ways. Weirdly enough, he was a happy drunk. The life and soul of the party, cracking jokes all the time. The problem is, it took over his life and he was quite neglectful of his family due to him being out all the time, his work also suffered and it caused my parents to divorce.
After my parents split, I did have a decent relationship with my dad. I saw him every other weekend and we’d have a lot of fun. Although I saw that every time me and my brothers spent time with him, he’d have a few cans of beer; I didn’t see it as a problem because I thought that most adults drunk alcohol and it didn’t seem that much. Little did I know that after we went to bed, he’d start drinking tiny bottles of whiskey that he’d hid very well, which my brothers discovered before me. When I was about 16, my brothers and my mum told me that they believed my dad was an alcoholic. I didn’t believe them, I denied it, saying there was nothing wrong with him.
I kept this denial up for a couple of years, until one weekday lunchtime I went in to the local pub with my friends, and there I saw my dad propped up at the bar with a whiskey, drunk. This was about midday. As soon as he saw me, he called me and my friends over and offered to buy us drinks. I went over myself and asked what he was doing there. He said he was having a quick drink but it was clear he had more than one. I told him he was embarrassing me and that I wanted him to leave. He refused and just said he wouldn’t bother us. So we all sat there for about an hour just talking and occasionally he’d call over drunkenly to us. My friends of course quizzed me on this and asked why he wasn’t at work. I said he did have a job but he wasn’t working today, which was true. But then I admitted he had a drinking problem. To be fair, they were all sympathetic and felt sorry for me but that it is when it hit me and I realised the truth.
Over the next few years, me and my brothers kept confronting him about it and he would give up for a few months at a time sometimes but he always fell back on it as soon as something stressed him out. We came to an agreement with him that we would only spend time with him sober. And in the last year of his life, we had a lot of really good times with him.
Unfortunately the drinking had caught up with him and in June 2015, he was diagnosed with cancer. In those months between June 2015 and February 2016, it was the closest we’d all ever been with him but it was too little too late to properly repair any lasting damage that had been done to all of our relationship’s with him. The saddest thing was for Christmas 2015, he’d bought us all tickets to see his favourite singer, Billy Joel, live at Wembley for the following year. He’d brought us up on that music and that was one of the things we all really connected with him on and he was determined to recover in time for the concert which was in September 2016.
He didn’t make it and when the time came, we all went and left his seat empty as a tribute. Had he not been an alcoholic or had he properly given up a while back, we could have all been dancing together to his favourite song “River of Dreams”, which is actually what we played at his funeral.
His death came at a really stressful time for me. I was in the middle of an intense campaign as a candidate for the London Assembly elections. Luckily, with the support I had from my Green Party colleagues, I was able to take a month off from campaigning. It’s weird though that when I came back to campaigning and people that didn’t know what had happened asked how I was, I mentioned that my father had died of cancer but I never mentioned what actually caused it. Even though I thought about telling them and I felt they wouldn’t judge, I still felt too ashamed to say anything so didn’t really talk about what had caused his cancer, just that he got it and he regressed quite quickly.
There will be people close to me reading this wondering why I didn’t confide in them. I apologise for not doing so but I am sure you will understand why. This is the hardest blog I’ve ever had to write and over the last couple of years, I’ve been unsure about whether to do so but I feel now the time is right. I hope that this will give others in my position the courage to speak out about it. The more people that do, hopefully the more action the government will take to tackle this often unspoken about issue and do more to help alcoholics, their children and families and seriously invest in measures to prevent more families suffering from this awful disease.
NB: If you are affected by this issue and need support please visit www.nacoa.org.uk/