Added to the heritage of domestic violence was the fact that, most of my life, Dad was a dry drunk who never dealt with his anger and resentment. There was a photo of my dad when I was a kid and he was stuffing around on the beach laughing. I often wondered what turned this laughing young man into the taciturn, grumpy, miserable man he became as he got older.
I never realised when I was young that Dad had an alcohol problem because we only had alcohol in the house at Christmas and everyone drank in moderation. Mum told me, when she was out on holiday in early 1975, that after getting sacked from his own company, Dad started drinking a bottle of whiskey a day, to the point where she was close to leaving him. I suppose things cleared up as they were still together when they came on holiday and remained together until Mum died in 1987.
But when we were living in Queensland Dad told me once that, when he was in the Navy, he heard some Wrens talking about a Petty Office who was a real drunk and realised they were talking about him. He told me it shook him so much he he’d never been drunk since, which was quite ironic as he’d already knocked back a few glasses of whiskey/brandy/rum or whatever he was drinking at the time, and his voice was already slurred in the late morning.
Once my mum died, Dad’s slide into rampant alcoholism accelerated. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I never went to see him in the afternoon as he’d be drunk as a skunk. If I phoned, his voice would be slurred and I couldn’t make sense of what he was saying. In Queensland, his life became chaotic. His house was filthy, he’d sit in his chair and smoke, but flicked the ash to the ground so a thick layer of ash lay around on the carpet. How he never set fire to his place is beyond me. His kitchen floor was covered in ingrained grease and dirt. And he became more and more erratic.
Finally he blacked out early one morning, phoned us to tell us he’d called an ambulance and my husband, Bryan, drove to his house to give a helping hand.It turned out Dad had broken a couple of ribs and fractured a couple of vertebrae in his fall. When Dad entered the local hospital I told them Dad was an alcoholic, so they gave him small doses of alcohol each day to minimise withdrawal effects. Unfortunately, he got a chest infection, had to take antibiotics and so couldn’t have alcohol. He got the D.T.’s, kept falling out of bed, told me seriously about the possums that were climbing over a fellow patient’s bed, got violent and eventually was heavily medicated.
I won’t go into any more gory details, but one thing I do want to say. Alcoholics are charmers, don’t believe a word they say, concentrate on your own survival, don’t get dragged down into their dysfunctional lives. My father charmed everyone he met. He was full of promises about what he was going to do when he got out of hospital – fishing, gardening, etc., – and suckered everyone, including his social worker. If Bryan hadn’t been with me, knew the truth of how my father treated me and how he behaved, and supported me through all the chaos, I would have thought I was either going mad or already insane.
No-one believed me when I told him what life was like with my father and at one stage, when I was trying to sort out power of attorney, I was virtually accused of being after his money. He would sober up in hospital, a psychiatrist would see him and pronounce him fit, and out he’d come into mainstream life again to continue his boozing and aggro. Eventually he had several strokes which left him with virtually unintelligible speech and confined to a wheelchair. Luckily for him he was offered a place in a first-class nursing home with his own en-suite. He was able to have a small amount of alcohol each day but eventually got to weak to handle the grog.
We moved to the UK in 2002 for my sanity and my health and because Bryan wanted to be closer to his kids, stayed on the west coast when we returned to Australia in 2004 in order not to become embroiled in Dad’s affairs again, and finally moved to northern New South Wales when he entered a nursing home. When we got to the nursing home for the first time, the nurses told me he was eager to see me. And true to form, Dad was only eager because he wanted me to take him out of the nursing home and take care of him. By that stage, I had got the determination to say no, and to care for myself, something that had, in earlier years, been sadly lacking in me.
I got a phone call at 5am one morning to say that my father was likely dying as he’d had a turn for the worse. We lived about three hours from his nursing home and got there in time to say good-bye. I sat and gave Reiki to dad, finally kissing him on the cheek as I left. In my grief, I left my walking stick behind and Bryan went to get it. He said Dad opened his eyes as he walked in, Bryan said: “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her”. And with that Dad closed his eyes and passed away a couple of hours later.
On the way north to Brisbane, we drove through great clouds of butterflies which an Aboriginal friend told me later was a sign of an easy passing. Dad had been terrified of dying but his eventual death was calm, peaceful and full of ease. I was glad for him that he was finally at peace and out of this mortal coil where he’d been so unhappy.
I remember the daughter of a friend shaking off her father when he went to hug her, and it was so hard to stand back and not say to her: “You are so lucky. Your dad loves you, he’s affectionate, he hugs you. Don’t whistle it down the wind”. I have met many, many people with wise, wonderful, kind, loving fathers and I simply want to let them know too how lucky they are. Treasure your father. Sort out any differences, if that’s possible, and remember that life is a lottery – you don’t know when someone is going to die, so make the best of ever loving moment you have with them. Count your blessings.
To those who are in dysfunctional family relationships, I simply say that you are worth more. Love and care for yourself because you have something unique to offer the world. Don’t let the miserable, the selfish, the violent, the jealous, the drug- or alcohol-addicted drag you down. Let them go. These days there is more openness and awareness of family problems. As I mentioned earlier, the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) study has raised awareness of how challenges in childhood can have long-term effects. Surround yourself with loving, supportive people, whether friends or advisors or health/mental professionals, and build yourself a new family if you need to with friends of your own choosing.
Remember – shine your light. You are not the Pied Piper of the Universe. Let others work out how to shine their light and don’t let them dim yours.