As a six-year-old, I didn’t see the problems that my family faced. The world was big and full of wonder in the eyes of a curious little boy, but having alcoholic parents made my world a lot smaller. I couldn’t put into words how scared I was.
I learned quickly to figure out what my parents were thinking and feeling. I needed to know if I was coming home to the warm, loving place that a home should be, or to a war zone where people were afraid to speak their feelings.
At some point, my parents thought it would be a good idea for my mother to leave. During this time, my mom and my dad jumped in and out of sobriety.
One time my dad left on a Friday night, leaving me and my friend at home. When he didn’t come home, we went to my friend’s house. My dad picked me up hung over. He said he wanted to change.
I saw my mother after that, and she was sober. She brought up Alateen. I told her I would give it a try. I told my dad that I wanted to go, and he decided to go to A.A. We began the journey to recovery together.
I remember my first meeting pretty well, though it feels like it happened ages ago. There were a lot of older kids, and all were complete strangers. I was trying to find a dark corner to hide in when an 18-year-old girl came up to me and kneeled down so we were eye level. With a soothing voice and a loving smile, she asked me, “Are you nervous?” I hesitantly nodded yes. She grabbed my trembling shoulders, shook them with great excitement, and screamed, “Don’t be nervous!” I jumped. Everyone laughed and gave me a hug.
At that moment, all the fear and tension I had in my heart was lifted. For some reason, that was the most loved I had felt in years. I couldn’t stop myself from smiling and laughing along with the rest of the group. I was truly happy for the first time in years.
During that first meeting I shared and I cried. It felt so good—like walking on air. I went for years without missing a meeting.
I think about what my life would be like if I had never gone to that first Alateen meeting. I could have hurt myself or someone else. I could have ended up in jail or maybe become an alcoholic. When I picture the alternate world I could have possibly made for myself, I feel blessed that my Higher Power cared about me enough to lead me into the program.
Alateen didn’t “fix” me or make me perfect. It showed me where to put things in my life so I could love the finished product. I learned that life is worth living. Being happy is when I look at the cards that God has dealt to me, relax, and smile. I may not have been dealt the best hand, but I don’t have the worst.
There's a lot to be said for Sunday. It is a day of rest, a day for family and friends, bracing walks and lazy lunches. For welly boots and log fires and Antiques Roadshow. But in many households, it's a day when each family member will rise with a heavy heart, ever hopeful of harmony, of normality. The children will assume their preordained role in the charade, tense, poised for the flashpoint that might rip through their home like a tornado, usually just before dessert is served. These are the children of alcoholics. For them, Sunday will be a battlefield by bedtime.
I've always been gripped by a slightly unsettling sense of being different. I judge myself without mercy, while seeking affirmation from others. I'm self-deprecating, though I take myself too seriously. I loathe organised fun, yet love to laugh. I value my friends deeply, but they interfere with my solitary inclinations. I crave the thrill of the new, yet unexpected change will send me into fits of apoplexy. I tick most of the boxes set out in Janet Woititz's book Adult Children of Alcoholics. I'm a psychoanalyst's dream.
I was born in 1970, and brought up in a seaside village on the south-east coast of England, and my childhood was, on the whole, a happy one. My mother, a teacher and artist, was pretty and talented; my father, a senior lecturer in English, was handsome and charismatic. I had an older brother who was musical and funny, and a younger sister who was gifted and adorable. To the outside world we were a picture-perfect family: attractive, intelligent and gently bohemian. But even before I was born, my father had engaged in a torrid affair with alcohol that would dominate and shape all of our lives.
In many ways, my life was unremarkable. I was a middle child growing up in 1980s Britain, against a backdrop of Kajagoogoo, mullets, monkey boots and Thatcher. I shared the anxieties of every other teenage girl in the country: would my school skirt still be trendy after the summer holidays? How could I get my flick to look more like Kim Wilde's? When would my breasts start looking like, well, breasts? But unlike many of my peers, I grew up watching one parent progressively succumb to the siren call of alcoholism and the secret weighed me down like a sandbag. My father died in 1990 at the age of 50.
My memories of him are complex, multi-stranded, and perhaps unreliable with the passing of time. I see him at parties (lots of parties), smiling, roaring, kissing the cheeks of women, slapping the backs of men; I see him gently snoring on the vinyl sun lounger in our back garden, roasting to a deep chestnut brown, a single white crease running across his midriff like a scar. And then he's there, shuffling and prematurely aged, a plastic bag of bottles clinking against his shabby legs. I stifle a small cry when he passes me on the street, his glassy eyes meeting mine without recognition. I scream raucously as he "mullycrushes" the eight-year-old me, tickling my ribs until I can laugh no more; and I curse as he banishes me from his study so he can pour another furtive Scotch. I seethe when he tells me I'm beautiful; I rage when he says I'm possessed. I'm a smart cookie, I'm a disgrace. He loves me, he hates me.
I proudly watch him deliver a lecture to a room full of students, and I almost die when my friend and I bump into him in the hallway at midnight, a cold-sweat space in time when we are 14 and he is full-frontal-nude and unapologetic. Oh, how we laughed, our backs pressed against my closed bedroom door, the friend clutching her belly in spasms of hysteria. I joined in too, ha-ha-ha, tears of mirth spilling down my face. But inside, I wanted to end it all there and then. Naked.
Oh. My. God.
I remember a lot of laughter when I was growing up. As a family we loved the absurd. My father took as much pleasure in watching Not the Nine O'Clock News as he did in reading Midnight's Children. His sharp wit was infectious and at his best he was irreverent and playful. But his temper could be brutal, unexpected and crushing. It was a world of not knowing what would come next, not knowing what is normal and what is not.
It's estimated that today in the UK, nearly a million children are growing up with one or more alcoholic parent. Most of them will rise up quietly, fudging attempts at being ordinary, avoiding situations that might expose the thing no one ever talks about. It's convenient to think of these families as hailing from the "Asbo classes", but that's just a convenient myth. So often, these families look just like us.
For our family, an alcohol-fuelled weekend might conclude with Dad taking himself off for a few hours, plunging the household into uncommunicative inertia. We would all disappear to our own corners of the house, avoiding eye contact with one another, petulant. But for each of us the same questions spiralled around. Where's Dad? Out. Where's out? Don't know. Who's he with? Was that his key in the front door? How will he be? Remorseful and affectionate? Brittle and antagonistic? Was that his key in the front door?"
His accelerated journey towards the precipice was preceded by these ever-increasing absences. I came to anticipate these episodes, but never grew used to them. Did it damage me? I like to think not. Did it shape me? Immeasurably. I'm sure my lack of spontaneity, my aversion to noise and my impatience all stem from those formative years, when the unexpected was the norm, when the noise levels in our home rose from silence to fever pitch in seconds and the wait for something to happen was painful. The quiet tension of a Sunday afternoon was tacit and vast, and the ghost of it troubles me even today.
When my father died, 20 years ago, I was 19. The family, as we knew it, had disintegrated two years earlier, not long after his early retirement from teaching. His drinking bouts were no longer punctuated by periods of moderation, but had joined together into one unbearable binge of round-the-clock consumption.
His body stopped recognising when it was day and night, and he would roam from room to room at all hours, looking for the answers. If you happened to be in that room, he would wake you to discuss whatever was on his mind. My brother had already left home, travelling to work on a kibbutz at the edge of the war-torn Gaza Strip. Having survived for several months on tiny sleep rations, my mother, sister and I eventually, abruptly left. It was a Sunday. Just after dessert was served. Mum put down her rubber gloves, looked at me and asked me to step into the garden. "We're leaving," she said, calmly. And we went.
For the next two years, Sundays were fractured by a new disquiet: the anticipation of Dad's phone calls. His heartbroken fury was something that none of us could cope with and for six months or so I tried to sever all contact. Then, suddenly, my role changed. His erratic behaviour had alienated all family and friends and his sudden isolation presented new concerns. From being his fiercest sparring partner, I became his reluctant 18-year-old care visitor. Each fortnight, on a Sunday, I'd set off in my rusty blue Beetle, my heart hammering along with the engine. As crazy as it sounds, we would usually meet in a pub. Once, he pulled out a packet of cigarettes and offered me one; I had never seen him smoke before. "I'm your daughter," I said, and he looked at me with profound confusion. Driving back along the dark country roads, I would weep silently, exhausted and low, before pulling myself together and returning home. "How was he?" Mum would ask. "Same," I'd reply. In May 1990, he called me one evening to say that he was dying and he couldn't move. I believed him and phoned the emergency services to break into his flat and take him to hospital. He died within hours, irreparably damaged by alcohol-related disease.
Mercifully, my siblings and I all have a pretty healthy relationship with alcohol. I think we owe a great deal to my mother for our temperance. Throughout our father's years of excess, she carried on, doing everything she could to keep things straight. As children, we always knew where we were with Mum, and that was comforting. Today, the whole family loves a celebration, and we all love a drink. But we all know where to draw the line. Don't misunderstand me – I'm no teetotaller. I spent a good 10 years drinking hard but by my mid-20s I had tired of it.
Now I'm a mother and my Sundays are good. They are all about bracing walks and log fires; frolicking children and sea-soaked dogs; fights over homework and hair washes before bedtime. They're about a glass of wine with lunch, as opposed to a bottle. And they're about us, as a family group, not as individuals. As I write, I realise I've been longer on the Earth without my father than with him. Yet he's ever present, still leaving great holes of absence all over the place. Even now, I'm not sure how to describe him. He was selfish, he was loving. He had a cruel tongue, he had a poet's heart. He was warm, he was cold. I hate him, I love him. It'll never get much clearer than that. He's been around so long now, I doubt he will ever leave. And actually, after all this time, I'm not so sure I really want him to.
Isabel Ashdown's first novel, Glasshopper, is published by Myriad Editions, £7.99. To order a copy for £7.99 with free UK p&p, go to theguardian.com/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846.