In some strange way, it felt as if all these things were still there, as if they'd been preserved and were still occurring somewhere below everything, hidden.
[To Mervas, Elisabeth Rynell]
I often return to my first memory. There is only a small dog, which I have bent down to pat by the side of the road. Though certain details are clear – the angle of my knees, the texture of the gravel, a small puddle – the memory seems to have endured because I wanted it to. As I leant down, I was struck by the absolute conviction that I would remember this moment. I see no particular reason for wanting this incident to register (and for this first attempt to still time) but perhaps within the abyss on either side lies some clue.
My father started drinking heavily at nineteen, a decade before I was born, and continues to this day; losing his latest cleaning job earlier this year after passing out mid-shift, in the staff canteen. I was visiting my parents in Essex when it happened; a short stopover before returning home to Prague and my wife and young daughter. My father had returned from work early, and I recall watching him from the lounge as he staggered across the lawn then struggled for almost a minute to open the front door. When asked why he was back early, he simply ignored me, heading for the sofa then sitting there in silence – arms and legs crossed, his eyes closed and face crumpled. When my mother returned from work, the truth finally emerged. He'd fallen asleep after emptying the bins on the fourth floor, and when one of his managers nudged him awake, they'd noticed alcohol on his breath and a large stain on his trousers. He was escorted from the premises and then sacked a week later. Wary of any claim for wrongful dismissal, his employer marshalled witnesses from each of the five floors he cleaned, staff on reception also making sworn depositions that he'd appeared drunk or smelled of alcohol for most of the ten years he'd worked there.
In discussing his alcoholism with others, I have tended to default to a few emblematic moments. The time, driving back from a cleaning job in London, he began veering between lanes on the motorway, forcing me – then aged twelve – to keep a hand on the wheel, sporadically pinching him or slapping his pink, wrinkled cheek so as to keep him awake. The time he arrived drunk at my primary school, unable to remember where he had parked the car, my younger brother still locked inside. The time he confused a chair in the kitchen for a toilet. The time – unlicensed and uninsured – he drove his car into the steps of the local psychiatric hospital; the time he took advantage of wearing a suit to his father-in-law's funeral to walk to his usual off-licence and impress them with his smartness. The time we discovered one-hundred-and-sixteen empty cans of Tenant's Super in the fake extractor hood of our kitchen. The time he walked into a low-hanging branch on the way to work. The time he attacked my brother with a putter. His drink-driving arrest on the day my school football team won a local championship. And, of course, his insistence on drawing a distinction between having a "physical dependency" and being an alcoholic (which, of course, he "could never be") – it being painfully clear that the world of feelings and emotions should not intrude on his sense of self.
Anecdotes stud my childhood, each arriving fully-formed and resonant – polished further in the act of countless retellings to partners, friends and psychiatrists. Rarely longer than a sentence or two, they are proffered as sufficient explanation – the humour and pathos suggesting acceptance, processing – though in focusing only on the extreme, never really address the daily uncertainty and shame, or the deeper, underlying trauma.
Such evasions are also, I suppose, an acknowledgement of the protean nature of memory – the past constantly being remade and overlaid – and so I cling to what feels irrefutable; a small kernel of truth, after all points of contention (and emotion) have been stripped away. We were in that car, he was drunk, I had to take the wheel – this has always felt like enough information; retrieving any dialogue, my father's tone of voice, the rest of that day, all seem problematic, too great an effort. (And yet in the absence of any confirmatory detail, these moments amount to little more than an index to a childhood, the rest of the volume blank).
This desire to limit dissent is, of course, impossible to fulfil. While there is usually agreement with others on the essential details of an event, it's impossible to exert the same control over the broader narratives. Even within my immediate family there is a failure of triangulation. At a family lunch last month, when I jokingly disinterred some pictures of a typical childhood picnic (my father ending the day passed out and wrapped in a leopard print blanket), I was accused by my brother of shaming him, and that my father "did a pretty good job bringing us up". Likewise, my mother still resists any formal diagnosis of his alcoholism, while all those adults who orbited our family have remained quiet – never intervening, never questioning, never considering the situation dire enough to pass comment.
It seems impossible now to remember the feelings that first accompanied these experiences. In my adolescence, as fears of physical repercussions eased, humour and withdrawal became the default response, and this has tended to inform what I remember, and how even my earliest memories are framed and relayed. It is only through some kind of conscious empathy with my childhood self, a sort of dissociation in which all ties to the present are severed and I am two separate beings, that I can start to appreciate how difficult it might have been. Or I picture my daughter in a similar scene, any of the children from the primary school classes I've taught – and find that I can rarely tolerate such visions for more than a few seconds.
To this day, I resist detail, not only when discussing my father, but in almost everything – the description of a forest, an oligarch's secret compound, the birth of our daughter. It is not a stylistic choice or a device, but rather an instinctive response. Concision, resolution and a full stop – a parrying of further enquiry lest something too compromising or contestable be revealed.
And anyway, what place do these memories have when – with major and minor variations of pitch and context – essentially the same thing happened each day – great banks of detail accumulating like silt at the mouth of a dying river.
The National Association for Children of Alcoholics estimates that as many as 2.6 million children in the UK have at least one alcoholic parent – with the number of adults whose childhoods were affected in some way by alcohol several times that number, the impact rippling ever outwards and across generations. And all the while, the medical literature expands; the impact upon a child's mind and body becoming ever more stark: irregularities in stress hormone response, compromised immune systems, abnormal activations deep within the brain's indula; the emerging science of epigenetics even identifying damage to gene expression through the process of methylation. And then there are the massive data sets showing staggering differences in life expectancy, educational achievement, levels of addiction and happiness; the evidence snowballing since the first studies into the families of alcoholics in the 1980s.
The notion of an "adult child of an alcoholic" is a phrase with which I still struggle, resisting any kind of designation, and bristling slightly at its inelegance each time I hear it used in a support group. For most of my adult life, my father's alcoholism was regarded as a distant concern, of limited relevance to any problems I encountered, be it depression, anxiety or almost total isolation. In my entire time at the Maudsley in my early twenties, it was never mentioned. I had emerged, survived and little more needed to be said. And, of course, I avoided alcohol entirely, so felt immune to the most common pitfall of filial addiction.
I resisted also the term's apparent simplicity and exculpation. From my own life, I could identify myriad factors that may have contributed in some way to my poor mental health as an adult – be it extreme withdrawal, a misfiring nervous system, ferocious blush, poor choices, dilettantism, years of bad skin, no sense of personal agency, poverty and class shame, a bad genetic hand, a concussion aged nine, chemical imbalances, problematic physiognomy, acute personal failings, unlikeability, random concatenations of events and encounters, luck and its absence at key junctures – seemingly anything except my father's alcoholism.
It was only with the promise of our first child – and the sudden, rabid emergence of obsessive thoughts and compulsions – that I found myself reconsidering my own childhood. During that first scan, I remember vividly the sense of something beyond my understanding, of some new tranche of emotions being revealed and explored for the first time (a sense of the love that's coming; the first sky-locked swells of a tsunami). And yet alongside this love, I started to experience an almost overwhelming fear. Even the most cursory reading on early child development induces a sort of vertigo: so much that happens within those first three years has lifelong repercussions; connections and patterns deep within the brain's architecture that are irreversible, and that will have a profound impact on a child's ability to form relationships, to manage uncertainty and pain, to learn or to be happy. In thinking about the start I wanted for our daughter, I slowly realised that almost every hope or aspiration seemed like the opposite of my own childhood.
According to Gravitz and Bowden, it is often at such key junctures that the children of alcoholics particularly struggle. The thoughts or behaviours that once ensured their survival – hypervigilance, rigidity of outlook, emotional disconnection – are often carried forward, unthought, into adulthood, leaving them ill-equipped to accommodate change. Many aspects of my own dysfunction are probably direct outgrowths of my father's drinking and the strange, insular world it fostered. A tentative line, for instance, can probably be drawn from the daily monitoring of his drinking to the anxiety and intense watchfulness I experienced as an adult. Likewise, the deep shame and embarrassment of an alcoholic father – the daily repression, secrecy and burying of self – is a probable factor in the uncontrollable blushing that culminated in a misguided operation at nineteen, hacking away at my nervous system in a desperate attempt to block the signal (such madness itself a likely product of the all-or-nothing functioning common amongst children of alcoholics).
And yet, while increasingly accepting of the impact of my father's drinking, excavation of the past, beyond the familiar well-worn stories, has proved difficult. In common with many children of alcoholics, my memory of childhood is extremely poor – disconnection and repression being typical strategies when faced with chaos or fear, particularly when one or both parents are physically or emotionally unavailable. (When asked what I was like as a baby and toddler, they proudly declare that I was "perfect: so quiet, no trouble at all").
Even when aided by photographs, I struggle to remember specific scenes, any kind of sequence or flow – though I at least retain vague memories of place. It starts always with place; the one aspect of my past that I can salvage with some certainty. I can still remember carpets, furnishings (so many floral sofas), the view from each window – and then short scenes flicker and fade – though never anything else of any substance.
Sometimes, I try reinserting myself into certain rooms, peopling them with family and then, like marionettes, setting them in motion, certain of how each person would have moved about the scene; where they would sit, what they would say (deferring to those parts of memory that do not require conscious retrieval, just instinct, intuition). I can recall the hallway of that small terrace, the long brown draught excluder with a dog's head, the leaded window, the toy basketball hoop above the kitchen door, and the small vase of dried flowers on the windowsill. And then suddenly we are about to leave – my father insisting that my brother and I go out to the car first; that he'll be there in a moment – failing to emerge from the house for ten minutes, his breath reeking of cider, his eyes bloodshot and his movements clenched. I feel with certainty this is what he would have done, that something like this happened often, even though specific instances seem beyond retrieval. Or I find myself ascending that dark staircase, looking along the landing towards my parents' room, and there he is, turned away.
There is also the impact of denial, with children's experiences constantly negated by those around them. With alcoholic parents, everything that seems self-evident, even to a five-year-old, is refuted, minimised or, even worse, ignored completely. Each day becomes a battle for truth – but with such a vast power imbalance, the parents' interpretation always prevails. ("I'm just tired"; "I only had one", "I don't have a problem", "Just finish your dinner").
In our house, this denial had many levels, leaving me to navigate both my father's lies and my mother's codependency. For most of my childhood, my father was the primary caregiver – my mother leaving for London as soon as he returned from his early morning shift cleaning a solicitors. She would rarely be home before seven in the evening, at which point he would always profess his sobriety. I would then brief her secretly on his drinking - lager, cider or spirits; each having a different effect upon his mood – and the approximate volumes consumed (a sort of pie-eyed Beaufort Scale, with paralysis at its peak). Soon afterwards, incredulous at his denial, my mother and I would search for cans and bottles; ostensibly to tip away any remaining drink, though the principal aim was always to prove that he was lying, even though each discovery was met with the claim that "it had been there for ages". (At the age of eleven, I briefly tried a more scientific approach, purchasing a cheap breathalyser, which he somehow found impossible to master – sucking on the nozzle instead of blowing, then haranguing me for not explaining things clearly enough).
These searches were generally the limit to my mother's engagement. The daily disruption and deceit was freely acknowledged – but nothing on a timescale or of a significance beyond this. Any implication that there may be larger forces at work was dismissed – and in late adolescence, silence eventually descended. Every so often, I would attempt to broach the subject – usually after some proxy argument – though was always met with either disdain or outrage. There was always food in our lunchboxes, and nothing further need be said. I do not recall my mother's focus ever shifting from the immediate crisis. It returned always to my father and her ill-fated plans to manage his access to money; his drinking a black hole from whose strange gravity we were unable to escape.
When the same things happen each day, memories become aggregated, details planed away; and a sense remains only of habits. I remember none of my childhood toothbrushing episodes, though know it happened most days; and so it is with my father's drinking. It feels, in retrospect, like pure backdrop; a kind of punishing tinnitus that compromised every other sense in turn, only the extreme or apposite leaving any kind of enduring mark.
Each day, at some point, the derision or scowl, the complaints about mess and refusal to partake in any joint activity, the settling down upon the sofa to watch television, the slow curling inwards of his body like an arthritic fist. The attempts at mitigation – limiting access to money or pouring away anything found, – prevented his full submission, yet also forestalled the kind of collapse that may have initiated change – be it recovery, illness, or death. And so most days followed essentially the same pattern.
What little I know of my father's own childhood suggests considerable upheaval; and this retreat into routines, however destructive, seems understandable given the various traumas he experienced. His mother died of throat cancer when he was seven; he developed epilepsy; his childhood and adolescence in Belfast and Derry was scarred by sectarian violence, beatings, the blinding in one eye of his brother. He had an authoritarian father (who himself drank to excess after his wife died) and left the country at first opportunity, joining his older brother in London at the age of sixteen. In the decades since, his drinking has ensured he's lived in a perpetual state of exhaustion and distraction, unable to see the damage he was causing because he himself was in such distress. (I often forget that the most damaged person in this whole drama is my father.)
In attempting to write about that time, I still struggle with the notion that I may have a story to tell. The narratives of children of alcoholics are always de-centred – told from the edges by people conditioned not to take up too much space or story (and who actively keep story and chronology at bay). It is a childhood that hopes no one will have a perspective upon it – a long apprenticeship in concealment, diminution, but also social acceptance and invisibility. It is a childhood in which you must face the annihilating realisation that you are never really a factor in any action or decision.
And so when I reach for any evidence, it's rarely there – just diffuse impressions, sensations, amongst which are stranded a handful of moments and fragments, like rocks on the shore as the tide recedes.
Given the dearth of individual memories, the only way to begin (or rather, the only way that I can begin) is to record everything: any moments I can remember from childhood that involved my father, no matter how slight or fragmentary. Above all, I am interested in what happens if I submit fully to a single idea, a single frame of reference – despite all the methodological problems of partiality and repression. Pavese wrote that "the only way to escape from the abyss is to look at it, measure it, sound its depths and go down into it"; and to me this is the only approach that makes sense and coheres, that holds any hope of my childhood revealing something of its hidden architecture. At the very least I will have confronted a part of my life I have, until now, only ever dismissed or looked at askance, despite its continued reverberations.
Al-Anon : "Al-Anon Family Groups meet in over 130 countries to help families and friends of problem drinkers recover from the impacts of a loved one’s drinking."
A.C.A. : "Adult Children of Alcoholics and Family Dysfunction: an organisation intended to provide a forum for individuals who desire to recover from the effects of growing up in an alcoholic or otherwise dysfunctional family."