What life was like growing up with 2 alcohol abusing parents
A lot of the memories that come up for me from my childhood are from the age of 10 onwards, and I’ve been struggling to remember specifically before this so i can’t quite get an idea as to when the drinking started, or whether it was just always this way.
I’ve looked through old family photos (mostly of birthdays and Christmas) and they’re mostly pre 10, they look fairly happy and surrounded by family and friends. I had lovely little birthday parties and nice presents; I look like a happy ‘normal’ kid.
But I know at the age of 7 a few things went wrong for me, which suggests it probably was already happening by then. One of the key things I remember happening was me getting so angry/upset I would scratch my forehead until it bled. I did this a few times and it scarred. And once I got so angry with my hair, specifically my fringe, that I just cut it off (yes it looked silly, and yes everyone just laughed). When I reflect on this as an adult learning about trauma, it very much seems like poor emotional regulation. I didn’t feel seen or heard and i didn’t know how to communicate how I felt so I didn’t, and it came out in other ways. In the photos, my mum is mostly behind the camera but even in a photo I can tell if she’s been drinking and a lot of the younger years, she is sober and happy even with a smile in her eyes. It’s more often I see my dad with a drink in his hand in those photos. But photos are just snapshots in time and not the everyday.
So, for as long as I can remember my parents would binge drink until they passed out every weekend. There was only one spirit of choice, and who knows how many bottles would be devoured each weekend.
Over the years these binging sessions would be in different company, some bad, some awful and sometimes just the two of them. It would range from shouting at each other, with each other, at me, me at them to singing, partying, loud music all the time and into the night (this is still a trigger for me today).
There were different phases of good/bad over the years, but for the most part I thought it was always led by my mum and she rarely would take a weekend off. (I can only remember once when she broke her ribs and guess how that happened). My dad on the other hand was a store manager for a supermarket for a couple of years so worked a lot of weekends and this often became my safe space to escape my mum for a bit. Unfortunately, though the minute he got home he would join her. And this felt like a betrayal. This betrayal also continued when i was a young teenager where my dad and I would visit family on a Saturday morning (never with my mum because she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed) which was lovely family time but when we got home, we wouldn’t have a clue what we’d be walking into – god I hated that feeling. And despite my dad dreading it a bit too, within a couple hours he would have joined the dark side anyway.
So, what could I be walking into? what state of drunk would she be? Would she be angry and start yelling the minute we got in, would she be party mum with music so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think (the poor neighbours), she could already passed out again, or she’d sometimes just be gone and nowhere to be seen. My sister had to remind me of this, as I’d completely forgotten, but there was a phase where after so many hours on a Saturday my mum would up and leave. There are many mixed emotions that came with this scenario – relief being the biggest, it would finally be peaceful and quiet in the house, the tornado had left. (I was going to say – I would put the house back together, but I’ve no idea if I ever did that or left it for them to deal with). After relief came shame, she could barely walk, how on earth was she going to get anywhere and what was the town going to think when they saw her. Then worry followed, where is she going to go, what is she going to do, is she safe? And then dread… who is she going to bring home? Is she going to come home? What state will she be in when she gets home? Am I going to get any sleep tonight? Sometimes when I was quite a bit younger, she would take me with her – force me in a taxi (which I still hate using today) so she could carry on the party at her friend’s house. I hated this so much, I felt so unsafe.
There were lots of times where she didn’t come home until Sunday night, and one or 2 times where she ended up at the police station. The types of people she brought home were often other drunk people, some were regulars, some complete strangers in my house. And a couple individuals who would take to rocking up every Friday evening with bottles in hand and not leaving until Sunday. I hated them. They caused more chaos, more shouting, more drinking, more music.
In terms of context, it wasn’t hard to find people like this in the town that I lived in. I had friends with harder lives than me, and some with just as unstable homes. So, it didn’t feel all that out of the ordinary, but as I grew older it became more apparent it wasn’t normal, when I went to secondary school and met new friends from other towns and heard about their lives – shame started to settle in and it became more of a secret to keep to myself.
The ups and downs:
I mentioned my sister before and I think it’s worth sharing how different our experiences were, yet we still both struggle today and lean on each other emotionally a lot. She is technically my half-sister, but all that means is that she had a different dad to go and visit at the weekends so a lot of these things she didn’t experience as much. Until at 17 she got pregnant, and it became harder for the first year of my wonderful baby nephew’s life to swap houses every weekend. So she stayed, and she hated it. These weekends were bad enough but imagine having to navigate it whilst learning to be a young mum, having a drunk mum posing safety threats every weekend. When my baby nephew was 9 months old, she got her own place. This was equally devastating and wonderful. I was 12 at this point and had to go back to dealing with them on my own but it also meant I now had a new safe place to escape to, and a growing 2nd family with the addition of my niece 9 months later.
Fast forward to me being 18 and about to leave for university and my parents finally decided to split up (they’d been talking about it for years) because my mum had fallen for one of the weekend guests. He was an old friend of my dad and we saw him every now and then but suddenly a lot more often (one big difference – he didn’t get drunk like they did). The split was not an issue for me, what came next caused more harm. For a while, we all lived together…. Yep you read that right. My dad in the spare room, the new happy couple in my mum and dad’s old room. It won’t be a shock to hear the impact this had on my dad’s mental health, he eventually told her to move out and then he went downhill fast. Confusingly, my mum went uphill, this new partner was having a really good influence, we had some really good times for a few years, my mum and I even took a trip abroad together, and we all went to Greece for their wedding.
My dad on the other hand hit rock bottom one day, when I got a phone call at work from his friend to say he’d had a worrying phone call and to get home now, the police were called, and my sister got there before me to deal with a lot of it. My dad was physically ok but mentally very unwell. He stopped drinking at this point for a couple of years and got himself back on track. So, I did have a couple of years where they were both in a better place with alcohol.
If there is a way to summarise this kind of life it is that its conflicting. It was 90% of the time only on weekends that I had to deal with drunk parents. Life in the week was ‘normal’. We ate dinner as a family (I can’t remember how or what I ate on the weekends), my parents worked low skilled jobs although there were times of unemployment for both of them, our house was spotlessly clean, I had clean clothes. We didn’t have any money and we lived in a council house, another stigma and source of shame that I was oblivious to until secondary school.
I went to school like a normal child, I was shy/quiet and pretty average until secondary school when I started to get high marks in tests and realised how good it felt to get some recognition for something, otherwise I felt fairly invisible in the world (I still struggle with this today). This was the beginning of the life of high expectations and perfectionism that led to my burnout – something more than one teacher warned me of, but I never believed them. A day in A&E when I over worked myself at uni still wasn’t enough to teach me either. But ultimately, I truly believed that if I could be successful at school, and my weekdays were normal – then there wasn’t really anything to complain about and as I got older and more and more self-sufficient it never occurred to me this was bad enough to have had an impact on me.
Where are we today?
I’ve learned through various disappointments and more traumatic moments over the last 10 years that nothing is permanent, and anything can change. My mum is probably now in the worst place she’s ever been, I very rarely speak to her sober these days (I live 3 hours away which is my form of physical boundaries, so it’s mostly phone calls on my terms at present) I’ve emotionally pulled away and I feel like I am waiting for the phone call one day to say her liver has given up or worse. This is a horrible place to be, a limbo I’ve put myself in. She is still here but I’m not engaging. The odd sober moments really throw me. Therapy taught me that I am living in a drawn-out period of grief which hit me like a tonne of bricks. I didn’t believe you could grieve for someone who is still alive.
My dad is up and down. We speak every week religiously (otherwise he really worries), I stay with him when I go home, and we have a better relationship than I do with my mum. His life for the most part is sober – but he still drinks alcohol, he puts too much emphasis on it and always talks about it like it’s an event and is completely unaware of the impact it has on me. His emotional maturity is that of a teenager, and I struggle with this more sometimes. I think if we didn’t have a history with alcohol and he didn’t talk about it so much, he probably just drinks like a normal person in society but unfortunately for me it stings much more and feels worse than that.
What comes next?
I don’t know what to expect next, other than the worst a lot of the time. My healing from childhood is difficult when I’m still faced with hard situations as an adult, but I recognise that and give myself compassion where I can. I still feel the need to be very self-sufficient and every decision I make is to build a secure life for myself. I very much still struggle with emotional regulation, and I’ve carried a phobia of sickness with me since the age of 11 that I’d like to move further forward with (easy to guess where that came from). I’m so grateful to the wonderful communities that exist to support COAs on social media, they’ve been a huge part of my healing.
I’m due to get married next year and I want to be able to show up in our marriage, communicate effectively and live fully together. I’m also so grateful to have met someone who is able to give me the safe space to do this work and support my healing, so we can live happily ever after (that’s pretty cheesy, but you know what I mean).
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