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It was a sunny, quiet day in November when the phone rang with the news of my Father’s passing. It’s funny how things that are expected can still hit you like a tonne of bricks. Somehow your body knows that in one small moment, with one last breath a chapter of your life is now closed. There is no time machine to send you back to say words left unsaid, and no longer an opportunity for shared memories. His death had felt both loud and quiet, simultaneously. His loss was huge in the spectrum of my life, but he’d slipped away from me slowly, long before his death. Despite my grief there was no cataclysmic shift in who I was as a person or who I would be moving forward. That had happened much earlier.
Two years have passed and I still miss my dad, however, I have missed him for a long time. Since I was around the age of 15 (but perhaps long before) he’d ever so slowly and somewhat acrimoniously slipped away from me and loved ones. The rum and cokes, schooners, caffeine and nicotine had pickled him and preserved him much longer than I think even he had anticipated. The years of excessive alcohol use faded him, corroded him, and irrevocably changed him as a person. The damage of excessive and long-term alcohol use on the brain can be irreversible, leading to impairments in cognitive functioning, reasoning, and may cause long and short-term memory loss. Not to mention the extensive list of physical health issues that may arise. As with most addictions, a myriad of mental health issues can also come along with it; bringing me to the adage of ‘what comes first, the chicken or the egg?’ Like two co-conspirators whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears, egging each other on, pushing each other further and further to the point of no return.
As the years passed by and the disease clutched him tighter in its grasp, he moved from the epicentre of my life towards the sidelines. It became increasingly difficult for me and loved ones to reach him both figuratively and literally; as if we were submerged underwater trying and failing to reach our catch. The waters can be murky and the path ahead unclear. We watched as the changes to his brain gradually skewed his logic, judgement, and overall view of the world and everyone in it. Pieces of him fell away over time, and the fragments that remained glimmered and offered hope that he’d go back to being the person we once knew and loved. The fragments became shards and the shards became particles until he was a silhouette of his former self. You grieve the loss of each piece as it falls.
Alcohol dependency is a cruel disease, and a lonely one. Relationships become strained, family dynamics change and people drift away; either pushed away or of their own volition. In the wider community, addiction is highly misunderstood and judged. In many cases, like you, people don’t know what to say or do with someone who by all external appearances doesn’t appear willing to help themselves. It’s a difficult disorder for people to understand and “why don’t you just stop drinking?” is a phrase too often heard by sufferers. The thing is, it’s not that simple, it can be a physical and mental dependence, and one that’s often difficult to stop. Once you are heavily dependent on alcohol you are often always susceptible to it’s grip, regardless of whether you give up your vice or not.
Losing a parent to alcohol dependence and mental illness is a unique experience. You are often exposed to life’s complexities, intricacies and difficulties perhaps earlier than many of your peers. At times the roles can become reversed and the caregiver can become the cared-for. You feel the loss of not only what once was, but what could have been. You grieve now unattainable memories and also grieve relationships with a wider community that could have remained and flourished. And, last but not least, you grieve the relationship with your parent as it used to be. It’s hard not to feel anger and resentment at times as they drift further away from themselves. On the whole it’s just sad, and nobody wins. Your exterior may not show it, but you feel it. You feel the weight of the loss, and something intrinsic has shifted within you because of it.
In the end, an extensive list of health issues took my father. However, it was the alcohol and subsequent health issues which took him from me slowly, with each frothy sip and each passing year.
I’m now 35 and have already lost two loved ones (both from high socio-economic backgrounds) to alcohol related illness. A heavy dependence on an addiction disease which does not discriminate. Dad was warm, kind, exceptionally funny and fiercely intelligent. He had a fervent interest and empathy for people from all walks of life, and a heightened sense of social justice and morality which ultimately led him to his profession as a Barrister. He had a great sense of adventure and could catch a fish and ride a horse like a duck to water. He wasn’t perfect, but he was my dad. I now grieve for my daughter, he would have made her laugh and he now misses out on hearing it.
Australia’s drinking culture is one of the worst in the world. According to a recent report¹, Australia tops the world in both the number of times people report getting drunk and in seeking emergency medical treatment for alcohol, yet we still hold up this thing as if it’s liquid gold. We cheer each other on for drinking, persuade each other and treat it as the highest of social lubricants. Heavy drinkers are often the popular ‘larrikin’ type we see so often. That is not to say you necessarily have to become a teetotaller and never have a glass of wine, however I think the pendulum has swung too far in the wrong direction, and some sort of equilibrium needs to be found, if not now…then when?