Lauren Sherry shares a poignant family story of abuse, addiction and violence, and argues that such suffering needn’t necessarily lead to the misery of victimhood.
From an early age I knew my dad was an alcoholic.
He’d had an odd relationship with his parents. While I was raised smothered with affection, by contrast my dad rarely even spoke to his father. His mum was more loving, but even so the bond between the trio was far from the loving connection I had with my parents, and that I assumed to be normal within every family.
According to the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, there is little research into the number of children living with an alcoholic parent in the UK. However, in 2004 the Government’s Alcohol Harm Reduction Strategy estimated there were between 780,000 – 1.3 million children affected by parental alcohol problems in the UK.
This was true of my family too. My dad would drink to mask his despair about his own unhappy childhood, and by doing so, sabotage both his future and his relationship with me. He’d suffered physical violence from his dad and was brainwashed to believe that he couldn’t achieve anything – especially compared to his brother, who was the favoured of the two.
As a result, he got into fights with schoolmates, did poorly at school and lost all hope for the future. Only booze could numb his pain – but the result was pain for others around him.
Chaos would always seem to strike my family during summer. One afternoon, my mum picked up our house phone. It was my dad. He’d been assaulted in the street on his way home. Standing by the open window, my mum’s hair was still in the sticky air. She ended the call abruptly, prodding the red button and chucking the phone down on the sofa. She could see my anxiety, as I sat on the edge of the sofa, my heels raised and my fingers crossed. My guts felt like they were travelling up to my mouth.
‘He’ll be all right, he’s just an attention-seeker,’ my Mum sighed. She poked her head out of the window.
Soon we heard the blare of ambulance sirens in the near distance. We raced down stairs and out the front door to the source of the noise in the next street. My dad was on the floor, covered in blood, four paramedics attending to him. He could barely move but that didn’t stop him hurling abuse at the person who had ‘done him in’. In a drunken brawl he’d been wounded in the arm with a smashed bottle.
The next day, I passed the bloodstained pavement on my way to school. It was something I wanted to bury deep within the soil of my mind, where no one would ever find it or bring it up again. In retrospect, I view that horrific summer’s day as a seed planted in my memory to strengthen me for any difficult obstacles I might face in the future.
In the weeks following the accident, my friends would come for dinner, and I would be forced to explain in embarrassment that the four inch scar on my dad’s forearm was the result of him falling off a ladder.
As the years passed, my dad suffered more and more from ‘the double demons of depression and addiction’, as Dennis C. Daley characterises it. He contracted diabetes and chronic pancreatitis. Doctors told him that if he didn’t cut his boozing down, he would likely be dead at fifty.
This was only six years away.
In the summer of 2014, after causing a decade’s worth of anguish for himself and our family, he finally admitted himself into a rehabilitation centre. He learned to manage his addiction and address the root of his decline – his neglectful childhood. The distressing details of the abuse he experienced growing up made me realise that not all children were loved and treasured as much as I was.
I was living with Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; sometimes my dad would be my idol and, at other times, an inebriated mess. Every day after school, I would wave my friends goodbye at the iron gates and call home to let my mum know I was on my way. As I strode across Clapham Common, my black patent school shoes brushing against the warm grass, I made the daily phone call that would make or break my mood.
‘Hi Mum, I’m on my way home now, just walking across the-’
‘Hi love, um, I thought you had rehearsals after school today?’
‘Not today, they were postponed until next week because nobody remembered their scripts.’
‘Oh. Well erm, I’ll see you in a bit darling, okay? Do you fancy doing something later, getting out the house? Perhaps we could go and see that film at the–’
She didn’t even have to say anything else. I knew instantly that today was a bad day. Out of the 365 days in the year, today was one of many I wish would end as quickly as possible. And then the cycle would begin all over again.
The tenor of my mum’s voice said it all; she felt sorry for me having to come home to a drunken dad, who’d demand money to squander at the local pub and explode with rage if he didn’t get his way. She felt sorry for me as I walked through the front door that day and went straight up to my bedroom, blocking out the shouting with the television. She felt sorry for me when I would wake up the next morning and have to listen to him vomit in the bathroom, followed by endless apologies for his behaviour. My stomach would turn every time I heard him open another can of beer, which he would then hide at the bottom of the bin or at the back of his wardrobe once it was empty. Every day there’d be a promise in his monologue of remorse that the problems wouldn’t happen again.
But they always did.
My dad’s excuse that his childhood produced his bad adult behaviour would seem to fit wider social trends. According to the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, in 2009 a staggering 80% of crimes in the United Kingdom alone were linked to some form of behavioural trouble in the offender’s childhood or adolescence. But is the statistic a bit deterministic? Don’t we all – criminals and alcoholics included – have free will?
America’s TV sovereign Oprah Winfrey has a net worth of $3 billion and has won numerous accolades including a Tony Award, Peabody Award and People’s Choice Award. Winfrey had an appalling childhood, during which she was sexually molested. She made a conscious decision to abandon her troubled home life and moved in with her dad in Tennessee. She then enrolled at Tennessee State University and got a job in local radio. She’s now a household name. Winfrey is an example of our endless capabilities – she proves that it’s possible to surpass the limitations we set ourselves in our youth.
Of course, I cannot disregard the countless times I felt sorry for myself as child, as I watched my friends’ dads sip wine at dinner, while mine chose to glug cans of lager uncontrollably. But I decided to use my experiences to make me a stronger and wiser person; I worked hard to prevent a cloud of bitter memories from obscuring my future.
At the same time, I’m fully aware that my family environment was not as dark and dysfunctional as others. I was fortunate to be raised in a family with both parents who loved me unconditionally, regardless of any problems that arose.
In a study by the Ministry of Justice Analytical Services, results highlighted that ‘familial circumstances and relationships in childhood may have a strong influence on an individual’s future and their behaviour.’ It would be wrong to assume that all individuals can transcend their environmental conditions at all times providing they stay disciplined. Some environments are more severe than others, of course. Aileen Wuornos, for instance, was a Michigander who murdered seven men and claimed that she would ‘kill another person because [she has] hated humans for a long time’. As a child, Wuornos fell victim to some atrocious incidents. She was sexually abused by her granddad and raped by his friend, leaving her pregnant at the age of fourteen. There’s no denying such events will scar you heavily.
Children raised in problem homes are ‘five times more likely to suffer damaging mental troubles’. Contributing factors include coming from a low income family and having troubled relationships with parents. But at any time in our youth some difficulty or other is bound to occur within the home. Whether your parents did drugs, were unemployed or you had trouble finding friends in school, you don’t have to be a victim.
Although I sympathised with my dad throughout his battle with addiction, his weakness and selfishness frustrated me; why should his painful childhood cast a shadow on my life? Why should I have to experience the whiplash of his misfortune? I could never understand why I possessed so much hope and ambition, but my dad couldn’t manage the same.
I began to question the passivity of human nature, and how easily we point the finger at the struggles of our youth. As a child and teenager witnessing such hardship, I could have chosen a path filled with aggression, truancy and violence. But instead I’m a university undergraduate determined to excel in life rather than replicate the adult behaviour I’ve suffered at the hands of. I’m not saying I’m unscathed – I squirm with repulsion every time I hear a beer can being opened. Even so, I refuse to be labelled as ‘damaged’ because I come from a ‘broken’ home, as the Daily Mail might have it.
Two years on, my dad now has his addiction under control, and is finally someone both he and I can be deeply proud of. Channelling his angst and resentment about his past into an active, constructive future, every day looks a bit brighter. For a long period of time, my dad just wasn’t ready – but simultaneously, he didn’t want to change then. Those first brave steps in seeking help were enough to show the world that he was strong enough to overcome his demons.
In an article exploring the effects that childhood can have on adulthood, M. Farouk Radwan claims that ‘your adulthood is just an extension of your childhood experiences’, and that adults develop habits and attributes as a result of their upbringings. Radwan is right, but we as individuals have the power to decide whether these past traumas push us in a negative or positive direction. If you can’t change the past, seize the future.
Photography by Moshe Tasky.