The Guilt Of Growing Up With An Alcoholic

When I saw a counsellor after dad died he explained to me that children of alcoholics suffer as much as the alcoholic themselves
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On a training run recently I was on my way home from work through Trafford and I saw a man on the other side of the road lying half on and half off the pavement. Cars drove past, possibly very sensibly, but my guilt got the better of me. I stopped and asked if he was okay, which of course he wasn’t. He was very drunk. Aged mid-sixties, maybe younger, he had a red bulbous nose, dry skin all over his face and he smelt incredibly bad. Another couple of runners stopped to help. As we got him up and started to cross the road to the drop-in centre his trousers fell down and I had to help him pull them up. The other running couple were shocked and disgusted, I was not.

It was – ironically – the first time I had run in my Mind vest, the charity I am running the London Marathon for in memory of my father who was an alcoholic. I looked down at the blue shiny fabric as I ran out of there, away from that bad situation and that unfortunate character – and I felt guilty as hell. Could I - should I - have done more? Questions that I will take with me through the rest of my life. Guilt is a burden I will always carry. It’s like an old friendship that has turned sour, it’s hard to disentangle yourself from.

Lornie, my little sister, and I are running the London Marathon in less than a month in memory of our father, Colin, who died from an alcohol related incident last April. Colin had been an alcoholic as long as I had existed, and over the years his illness had had many faces. There was the successful face of an eighties businessman – superkings and cases of wine delivered to your door, parties and women and clouds of smoke and mirrors everywhere. There was the failing face of alcohol’s effect on your body and mind as you get older: blotchy redness, the not quite getting away with it, the resentment, the anger. The many nights away from the family home; the feeling of trepidation we all felt – but didn’t acknowledge - when your car was there in the drive when we got home. And then – much later – when you had given up, there was the total fallout. The blood smeared walls, the gagging, the hospital gown so big it reduced you to the size of a thin boy. The regret followed, as ever, by the guilt, the guilt, the guilt…

When I saw a counsellor after dad died he explained to me that children of alcoholics suffer as much as the alcoholic themselves. Common themes in family life are secrecy, shame, confusion and guilt – all of which I felt as a child and have permeated into adult life. As a child and young teenager, dad would get so drunk that I found myself comforting him as he cried about lost friendships, or – at it’s worst – other women he loved that weren’t my mum (whom he still shared a house with.) Then there were times when he was so angry with the world and it transferred very easily onto my mum, or even to us. There were the times I remember trying to protect my mum; I remember so vividly the fantasies of the worst case scenario happening – and of having to intervene – aged 9 or 10 and save my mum and sisters from my dad. I would do that for them, I would save them, I can remember thinking – adrenaline coursing through my body like a steam train. And still I have this hero complex, of wanting to rescue, of wanting to help the drunk man in the street, and at its core I still fail – I can’t help, I can’t change a goddamn thing.

The Priory Clinic did a study in 2006 about the effects an alcoholic parent can have on children in the same home. The report explained the children reacted in one of three ways – either they became withdrawn, went into denial or used the experience to benefit themselves by becoming stronger. In the third instance, problems often surfaced when the children – or adults they had become – had to confront difficulties in their own lives. The report say: ‘Their feelings about themselves are the opposite of the serene image they present – they generally feel insecure, inadequate, dull, unsuccessful, vulnerable and anxious.’

Aged 33 I feel like I am on a journey to rid myself of many of these feelings, to lead a freer life as an adult than I did as a child. But much more importantly, to break the cycle. One day soon I hope I will be able to look in the mirror and see traces of that man and cherish them, and not feel frightened that we share the same auburn hair, the same blue eyes. To look at my son for similarities, to say brazenly: ‘He has the same sense of humour as my dad!’ and not think twice about what that could possibly mean.

Our dad, Colin, died from an alcohol related incident on 1 April 2017. We are running the London Marathon 2018 for Mind in his memory, and to help raise awareness of the link between mental health and alcoholism. To read more about us and our journey visit our blog at or to sponsor us and donate to Mind, please visit