Live Through This

Last Call

My father is going to drink himself to death, and I just have to live with it.

Illustration by Esme

Illustration by Esme

My father is an alcoholic. And for almost 20 years, as far as I was concerned, that was no problem. It was just another thing about him: he loved the Beatles and racing cars and drinking constantly. He drank Pastis on vacation in France, vodka whenever he had money, and golden cans of lager at all other times.

After my brother was born, it was decided that my mother would go back to work while my dad stayed home with us, mainly because he had forgone any kind of a career over the previous decade in order to play guitar in bands with his brother. He would spend his days cooking tomato sauce, cleaning the house, and downing cheap wine from cartons that he had stored on high shelves, out of our reach. I always understood that Stoffer—which is what everyone calls him, and which he likes to be called, so I will do so here—was an alcoholic, but the word meant very little to me. His drinking was completely out in the open; he was honest about it to the extent that he’d sip from what he called “a traveler” (basically a mini bottle) every morning on the walk to school. “Ahhh,” he’d say to us, jokingly, “breakfast of champions!” It didn’t bother me, because it didn’t seem to infringe on our relationship. He was always there to pick us up from school and correct our homework and play catch in the park with a cigarette behind his ear and an open container by his side.

It dawned on me years later that his drinking had been a huge factor in my parents’ divorce, which happened when I was six, but even that had barely changed anything: my parents moved to apartments on the same street in West London, so the four of us were often together. Stoffer still came over to walk us to school every day, far beyond the point of necessity. Once I was older, he’d hold my uniform blazer under his arm while I had a quick cigarette before class. Then he’d kiss me on both cheeks and say, “Do the right thing today, OK?” He never appeared drunk—to this day, I’ve seen him tipsy maybe three or four times.

Then, a few years ago, everything changed. I was 19, returning home from a summer abroad to find him standing at the gate looking pin-thin and noticeably shrunken. He told me he had a doctor’s appointment booked for that very afternoon. That appointment turned into a referral to a specialist, who promptly sent us straight to the hospital. We found out that Stoffer had cirrhosis, a liver disease that causes scarring of the organ tissue and can be fatal if not treated. He was only 57, but he looked more like 75. His rickety limbs were covered in lesions where his skin had become dry and irritated. The doctor said that if Stoffer quit drinking immediately, he had a chance of recovering; if not, he would suffer complete liver failure or any of a number of equally serious complications within two or three years. I immediately burst into tears. Stoffer, on the other hand, was entirely unperturbed. “Thank you, doctor,” he said, standing up. “But I’m a rock & roll musician, I’ve been drinking and smoking since I was 10, and I’m just about having a ball.” It was the answer I would’ve expected from him, but I freaked out. I felt like my eyes had snapped open to an evil I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed before.

When I was 15, my mother coaxed my brother and me into spending an afternoon at Alateen, an offshoot of Al-Anon, which is a support network for people whose lives have been affected by someone with a drinking problem. My mum wanted to make sure we hadn’t developed any deep-seated issues as a result of Stoffer’s alcoholism. The meeting was interesting, and the people were nice, but I was sure it wasn’t for us—then I noticed my brother sobbing as we left. I asked him what was wrong, whether he’d wanted to talk more about Stoffer. “No,” he said, wiping his eyes. “It just upsets me, listening to those stories. I feel bad for those kids—it must be awful. Dad isn’t like that at all.”

At the time, I felt almost proud that this was true. But after I found out what he’d done to his liver, and after I’d heard him proclaim that he had no intention of changing his behavior, things started to look different. I reconsidered things from my childhood that I had previously glossed over. Stoffer made it clear to us when we were little that childcare bored him “to tears,” and while he was essentially a loving and devoted father, he was also irritable and moody. Despite his laxity on things like watching TV and brushing our teeth, he would spank us when we misbehaved, and he would occasionally lose his temper over what seemed like trivial matters. I started modeling when I was 12, and I remember once talking about a photo shoot that my friend had just done. Stoffer didn’t approve of my modeling—he thought it was “banal”—but he suddenly got nasty and laid into me for not booking as many jobs as my friend had: “You’d better raise your game, Esmerelda, or you’re going to go nowhere.” (He doesn’t remember this.) I chalked that up to Stoffer being a jerk rather than a drunk, but now I wondered if his drinking had altered his perception of reality, as well as my own.

More frustrating was his attitude: he’d been given another chance and the time for action was now, but he seemed to have no interest in taking any. I boiled with anger. I was angry at my father’s parents for having allowed him to get away with a lifetime of drinking; I was angry at my mother for having married him in the first place; I was angry at myself for not having noticed his illness sooner. But mostly I was angry at him. He and I were close. When I hit my teens, I suddenly shied away from my mother, especially when it came to discussing personal stuff—I felt like we no longer understood each other. She always seemed disappointed in my grades or my hair or the short skirts I wore to school. In the meantime, Stoffer and I developed a genuine rapport that I didn’t have with anybody else. My brother, my father, and I became a sort of gang, and Stoffer transitioned from parental figure to something like an older brother. We’d sit around his house, listening to Jimi Hendrix records, and I talked to him about things I never discussed with my mother: boys, sex, periods, drugs, dreams, nightmares. My friends adored him, and whenever they came over he would hang out with us, smoking pot and giving my girlfriends advice on how to handle their latest crushes. “The lying little bastard!” he’d interject during the telling of a boyfriend scandal. Or: “He should be so lucky!”

Page

1 2

34 Comments

  • Elizabeth Lim March 14th, 2013 7:31 PM

    This is great.

  • fromanotherearth March 14th, 2013 7:35 PM

    Wow this was really touching, thank you so much for this article.

  • Tuesday Sweeney March 14th, 2013 7:40 PM

    I figured out my dad was using heroin when I was 16. It was the most devastating moment of my life, especially because my mother passed away from her drug use. I did attend a few al-anon meetings then, but it didn’t do much for me. It still hurts so much, but I have realized that his addiction has nothing to do with me and he is going to live his life the way he wants to no matter what I do for him.

    Thank you for writing this.

  • Kimono Cat March 14th, 2013 7:41 PM

    Okay. My father was, for many years, a “high functioning” alcoholic. His drinking only became really bad when his younger brother died completely out of the blue. Luckily, he sobered up a few years ago, before any liver damage could set in. He’s better now, but I think I will always bear emotional scars. Looking back on my childhood (I’m fifteen now) he would always come home from work completely drunk, and he and my mother would often have screaming arguments in front of me. Once, he locked himself in our spare bedroom, and I though he was going to kill himself. When he passed out his snoring would be so loud that it would be impossible to fall asleep. So yes. I will never be whole, and even when I’m old enough I will never, ever, drink alcohol or take drugs. I worry that I am merely a dormant alcoholic, and that by drinking I would fall down into a pit of addiction.
    Footnote one: I never know what tense to call my dad’s illness. Is he no longer an alcoholic, or is he just on the wagon, and still is, and always will be, an alcoholic?
    Footnote two: I am now in therapy because I sometimes have suicidal thoughts.

    • Kardvark March 14th, 2013 8:02 PM

      To your question about how to refer to your dad’s illness: It’s my understanding that alcoholics are always alcoholics, even if they’ve been sober for 20 years. It’s a disease that can be controlled but not cured. So he’d be considered a recovering alcoholic. But I could be wrong and this may be a question to ask a doctor or Al-Anon.

  • hiraari March 14th, 2013 7:44 PM

    Ahhh, I feel you so bad. My mother has some drinking issues and it makes so nervous to think what would happen if she got a disease because of her drinking.

    I’m so glad you’re still with Stoffer, love him every day!!!!!

  • Amy Rose March 14th, 2013 8:26 PM

    Oh, Esme, this was very affecting and I want to extend mad love and pride to you.

  • carolineyall March 14th, 2013 8:27 PM

    Oh man, this made me breakdown, especially this part: “We often think of our parents as existing for us, to please and help and take care of us. But Stoffer had his own needs, his own agenda, and it was his right to do what he wanted. Growing up, I almost deified my dad, and when he got sick I spent a lot of time hating him for being a selfish bastard. Now I’ve come to see him as just a human.” I lost my own father to his alcoholism/drug addictions when I was only seven, and it took me many, many years to forgive him. I always thought of him as a terrible, selfish father and husband, but I now realize he was just a deeply troubled person with a bad family history of violence and alcoholism. I’m really sorry that you have to go through this.

  • jessmargo March 14th, 2013 8:41 PM

    this was so touching and beautifully written.

  • kati March 14th, 2013 9:03 PM

    oh my god this is so touching.
    My mom and my sister jump from depression to depression, and have suicidal tendencies. They are never really ok. It scares me so much to leave for vacation or to live on my own, i’m always so scared that anything bad or hard that happens in life will snowball in their heads until they cannot recover. I still can’t really accept that i can’t shield them from tha bad side of life and that i can’t heal them.

    • ThatVictoriaGirl March 14th, 2013 11:54 PM

      Oh Kati, this must be so heavy on you :( Now I wish I could shield you from that weight.

    • bibliovore March 15th, 2013 12:47 PM

      Yeah, I read this piece and immediately related to it. My partner has BPD and depression, resulting in suicidal tendencies and withdrawnness. It can be a difficult load to bear, difficult to know how to care for her, and difficult to know I can’t help those parts of her.

  • myriam March 14th, 2013 9:03 PM

    ahh, this was so great to read. thank you for writing this. it has been a really great insight into how other people deal with alcoholic dads and makes me feel like i can understand where my own is coming from. such a similar situation. warmth x

  • junebug March 14th, 2013 10:42 PM

    I love this. I particularly like the part at the end about how parents are their own people and don’t exist for their kids and stuff. That can be so hard to remember sometimes. And god, your story just breaks my heart because it was so close to mine. My dad’s been sober for 5 years though. He wasn’t exactly high-functioning and present before that though, and I envy you there. And you are strong (even if you don’t want to hear that sort of thing) but your strength is not because you’re dealing with having a shitty dad. It’s because you have a great dad with shitty genes.

  • llamalina March 14th, 2013 11:27 PM

    i’m really jealous of how you described your relationship with your father pre-cirrhosis, i wish that i was that close to my father, or any adult, really. neither of my parents are alcoholics, but the few times that i’ve seen my dad drunk were really unpleasant.

    “Growing up, I almost deified my dad, and when he got sick I spent a lot of time hating him for being a selfish bastard. Now I’ve come to see him as just a human.”

    so, so true. it’s hard to realize your parents aren’t heroes or villains, they’re people.

    http://llamalina.blogspot.com

  • ThatVictoriaGirl March 15th, 2013 12:01 AM

    You have divined many beautiful truths. I feel for you. And for what it’s worth, you sound like a really good human.

  • amkclaes March 15th, 2013 12:03 AM

    wow, i had nearly the exact same thing happen to me.. only difference was that my father was forced to stop drinking by the severity of his condition. he couldn’t keep any food or water down, let alone alcohol. when he was admitted to the hospital he was literally just a couple of days from dying. its been rocky and for a while we thought he was going to die within the year. miraculously, his liver it seems has begun to regain function. we had prepared wills, discussed what to do with his body… he really was about to die. but getting so close ended up being what saved him.
    my best wishes to you both, and i hope the disease doesn’t drag your father as far as it did mine.

  • Clairebearscare March 15th, 2013 1:07 AM

    This really hit home. My dad is an alcoholic and it has damaged our relationship in the past. Things are better now, but his drinking still bothers me. His father was an alcoholic (he died of liver and lung cancer, I think), but, he ended going into AA and eventually became an AA leader. I never knew my grandpa because he died when I was less than a year old.
    Anyway, I’m really sorry about your situation, but you seem like a very strong individual. This was a great article. Thank you. <3

  • IrinaB March 15th, 2013 1:12 AM

    Thank you so much for this article Esme.
    It is unbelievable how often I find myself hating my father for not being the kind of person I need him to be. And most of my friends, even though they try, can’t really understand that feeling. It is really encouragind to know that many of you also cope with that situation…

  • spatergator March 15th, 2013 2:24 AM

    This is alarming. My grandfather was a beautiful person and Vietnam vet, and his drinking killed him. I miss him so much.
    Alcohol is a sneaky thing.

  • sugarmilz March 15th, 2013 3:06 AM

    Amazing article, fortunately I don’t have this problem, but to anyone who has, well done for getting through it.

    sugarmilz.blogspot.co.uk

  • bird March 15th, 2013 10:46 AM

    How do you decide whether it’s okay to forgive? During my dad’s alcoholism, when I was little, I have vivid memories of domestic abuse. I mean is that the kind of thing I should forgive? Does the alcohol excuse it?
    Thank you for this article. It’s sort of made me feel a bit sick, though. I always thought that all the evil of my father was the poison he was pumping into himself… but now I feel like it’s maybe possible to be an alcoholic and not a total dick.

    • starsinyourheart March 15th, 2013 4:49 PM

      It is completely possible to be an alcoholic and not a dick. My friends dad is. He simply self destructs, but he never harms anyone else (physically).

      However my dad harmed me and my mother and thats what made him a dick. Alcohol absolutely never excuses domestic abuse. My stance on life is that when you hurt other people, no matter what your condition, you are responsible for their harm. You absolutely don’t have to ‘forgive’ that honey. I will never forgive my dad, however I have moved on to a brighter, loving future without him :)

    • starsinyourheart March 15th, 2013 4:52 PM

      That was kind of a long winded reply; basically, addiction and harming others can be separate. I never hated my father for his addiction, I hated him for hurting me… if that makes sense?

  • jazz March 15th, 2013 11:04 AM

    Thank you for writing this – my mother died recently. She was a high functioning alcoholic and one of the things I am most grateful for after her death is that I have been in ACA (anonymous children of alcoholics or other dysfunctional families) a 12 step program like AA. One of the things I’ve found through the program, besides knowing I am not alone is that I do not need to save my family or anyone else. That I can see through the hurt, pain and anger and forgive and understand my mother. That I do not need to be strong. That I can live instead of just survive. As children of a alcoholics we have a higher chance of getting addicted to anything – alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, love and so on. Only by looking the past in the eyes is it possible to free yourself. You reminded me of my own journey and I hope you have people around you that loves you and will carry you when you get tired.

  • Mary the freak March 15th, 2013 4:54 PM

    This was amazing and very touching.

    My grandfather is alcoholic. My mum and my aunt (his children) both don’t speak with him anymore at all. My aunt even called the police when he visited her. He was quite successful and intelligent when he was younger, but now he is almost homeless and totally broke. I hate phoning with him, it always makes me so sad.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Reoka March 16th, 2013 7:58 AM

    very touching. the story largely reminds me of my own dad, who’s a recovering alchoholic (hasn’t had a sip since 2004). my entire childhood was largely affected by my dads’ alcoholism and he lost both his job and his marriage because of it. he was never drunk (I’ve never even seen him tipsy, he had a pretty high level of capacity), but the alcohol turned him into an egocentric hot-tempered jerk. his drinking got worse around the time I was 11, when he lost his job and my mother filed for divorce. because he was now unemployed and living in a tiny single room apartment, he did nothing but drink hard liquor all day (back at home, he only drank red wine). by that time he also had cirrhosis and when he finally visited the doctor,he told him that he would die within a year if he didn’t stop. at first it didn’t matter to him, he told me (after his recovering process) that he was ready to die at this point. it was only when his doctor reminded him of his duties as a father that he realised where he was going. i believe the doctor told him something along the lines of “your daughter has never seen you sober, don’t you want to show her that you are able to change your ways and accomplish something?”. he went to a rehab for 6 months and has been sober ever since. at the clinic he also met his now-wife and got married half a year after that. he now has new job aswell.
    you see, when i was a child, i didn’t like my father very much. he was always in a horrible mood, impatient and often aggressive. he is a completely different person now, way more of father and kind.

  • xopaulxoxx March 17th, 2013 1:17 AM

    Very touching..

  • crapbag March 17th, 2013 5:16 AM

    My father’s an abusive alcoholic and between the fact that he hasn’t really made an effort and I’m not sure if i care or not, we haven’t been able to have a proper relationship in ten years. I’ve never really believed that we would again but this article, for a second made me reconsider if perhaps that’s something I might want or not. I find myself feeling extremely sorry for him and if he were to die sometime soon, which is a possibility, I’m not sure if I could live without us knowing one another but I’m also unsure if I can really be bothered finding that out.

  • Kathrin Franz March 17th, 2013 5:33 PM

    My mom died at 25.10.2010 because of her alcoholism.
    she was ever functional and could hide that very well-i was very angry and sad that she never had the strength to tell me, her daughter of her illness-just because i for my self am addicted to drugs (i am opiat user, started with oxycontin and am in treatment) and well, i think i can understand.

    often its hard to admit that you are ill, that this is partly your control and partly not (if you use drugs a certain time, a part of your, i think it was pre-frontal cortex starts to get thinner-and this is a part of the brain were your self control takes place-eg if you ate 5 big pieces of chocolate cake and just want more thgis part might say: please stop you will puke if you dont^^ or “nonono no i won´t buy this magnificent thingy, i dont have the money”
    so if you are addicted-this doenst has to be a drug, can be a certain habit like overeating or playing, well, almost everything can become a habit, an addiction.

    so partly its our fault and then mostly not-because the brain doesnt work 100% right and well, its easier to lie to oneself and to ignore the problems(this is something everybody knows but we addicted are somewhat champions in this ) and often there are reasons why people have this problems. part of addction is really a genetical condition, pll like me which have one or 2 parents which are addicted have a 6time-higher rate to get addicted too. and if you-like me get a depression[x] or have other medical conditions (ADHD[x]Aspergers[X]or get bullied[x] then you could get problems with that..

  • Kathrin Franz March 17th, 2013 5:55 PM

    this doesn´t mean you have to but people in that situation might want to look for a coach or a therapist..
    if you have one addicted person in familiy or your friend”zone”/clique, this can be a problem for all.
    there is co-addiction. my dad got help with this he talked with a physicist. other people find self-help-groups/encounter-groups(how called in english?) for relatives/partner more useful.
    get help, get support. never be ashamed because of that. nobody has to. shame kills! if my mom werent so ashamed she woul´ve gone to the doctor and get help. she might live now. but she never got the courage to tell me or to tell her doctor.she never wanted to seem weak/crazy.
    i knwo its hard and such but try to take your time for yourself. if his situation gets too worse, keep distance. its so damn hard to see how someone is killing themself and you cant do a thing-so so distance yourself, it seems hard but its not your job to care for them. know your limits and state these limits.
    my boyfriends dad was longtime-alcoholic and very aggressive to his mom. he stopped because his physicist said he´d die.
    so he went sober (&changed in behaviour)
    well, my mom had not the energy to stop.she was severely ill, had heavy depressions and, i think ptsd/traumata which never were solved so she drank to forget this. (her dad died in a gruesome way on christmas eve in her arm while vomiting blood, he mother abused her verbally&was overprotective&she was raped by her boyfriend-and after she told this her mom(my grandma), grandma beat her up and called her a whore. she got better but never good

  • Corcey March 18th, 2013 3:14 AM

    Thank you for writing this. Just… thank you.

  • Gracie March 20th, 2013 6:21 PM

    Ahh children of alcoholics in West London unite… My fathers alcoholism has destroyed our relationship, I remember seeing things as a child I never should had, horrible violent things, finding bottles of vodka stashed away in various drawers and of course the constant never ending screaming matches that shook my house. When he walked out when I was 11 I can honestly say the only thing I felt was relief. Now, I feel guilty for not feeling enough, or just a horrible ache in my stomach every time I think about him- sort of missing him, sort of missing what I could have had, what I deserved and wanted more than anyone else (a normal, nice dad who didn’t fall into drunken stupors or forget to come and pick you up). Sometimes I get angry and sometimes I get sad, but most of the time I just don’t know what i’m feeling about him.

  • blueolivia April 10th, 2013 9:52 AM

    thank you, thank you, thank you. this article is brilliant.