Joe Carr and his father

I kissed him as his body lay in the mortuary, tall and laid out like I wanted to remember him (Picture: Joe Carr)

Until my teenage years, my family lived a fairly ‘normal’ life. My mother and father, both in good jobs, had four children – I was the oldest.

As my parents marriage began to fall apart, my dad went from being a daily, functioning drinker to a daily, non functioning alcoholic practically overnight.

I remember the change so vividly. When I was 13, I noticed he never seemed to be sober, and he went from openly drinking super strength lager – then vodka, then whiskey – to being very secretive about it and hiding it. After that it went downhill incredibly fast.

My siblings and I had to grow up immediately. Being the child of an alcoholic flips that father-son relationship on its head, and as a teenage boy, you suddenly become the voice of reason that your dad’s supposed to be.

Anyone who has lived through alcoholism will know that reasoning with a constantly drunk individual is not an easy task. My overriding memories from my teenage years are of incidents so bizarre and difficult to process, they are scarcely believable.

On one occasion, we were held hostage in my dad’s house, whilst he drunkenly retrieved a shotgun and decided we weren’t to leave. My sister and I managed to escape to a kind neighbour’s house, but our two youngest siblings remained inside until the police arrived and diffused the situation.

Another time, I remember coming back from school to find my dad and brother throwing steak knives at the front door. My brother was about 10 at the time. When I tried to reason with my dad, he blew up and told me to get out.

He missed everything – his sister’s wedding, his own father’s funeral, every school event, every grandchild’s birth. All due to his ever increasing dependence on alcohol.

People often have an image of the jolly harmless alcoholic in the local pub, but this is so rarely the case.

Most severe alcoholics live lonely lives, at home, existing from drink to drink. The effect on relatives is often overlooked, as it’s such an individual and often selfish illness.

Children, spouses, and family members of alcoholics live through trauma – often for years, until the alcoholic either dies or recovers. You blame yourself, you blame the alcoholic, you search for answers that aren’t there and can only come from within the alcoholic.

Sadly, my dad did not recover and died in 2016, aged 53, taking his last breath on the floor of a homeless hostel leaving behind a family of people who truly loved him despite his ongoing troubles.

As if by fate, the Friday before he died I actually ran into him in the street having not been in contact with my father for two years. All at once, my anger towards him disappeared and was replaced by pity and sorrow for the shadow of the man he once was.

One of the many tragedies of having an alcoholic parent is that the child often follows the same path, and I did just that.

I showed him photos of his new granddaughter (he has seven grandchildren but only ever met two of them), told him about his family and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

I kissed him again the next Monday night, as his body lay on the table in the hospital mortuary, tall and laid out like I wanted to remember him – he was a six foot three athletic man in his prime.

My siblings and I had spent 15 years waiting for his death and convinced ourselves we had already grieved for the sober father we once had. How wrong I was – his death hit me like a sledgehammer and brought up all the pain that had been lurking underneath.

One of the many tragedies of having an alcoholic parent is that the child often follows the same path, and I did just that.

As I entered my 20s, my drinking rapidly spiralled out of control. Just like Dad, I was always ‘the life and soul of the party’, but I was dying inside and so miserable. Going into my 30s, I was drinking a bottle of wine a night, and I had no off switch, with three-day binges and the feeling that I never wanted the drinking to end.

Fortunately my wife didn’t see most of my alcohol issues as we met eight months before I quit. I knew I had to change otherwise I was going to put her, and any future children we had, through the same pain I had myself experienced.

I am now approaching five years of sobriety, a promise I made in a letter to my father and placed in his pocket before we closed his coffin. I had nine months of sobriety when Dad died but it was the confirmation I needed that I would never drink again.

I’m a huge believer in the resilience that can come from living through and surviving difficult experiences. Despite the hardship, being the child of an alcoholic has given me life skills I would never have learnt elsewhere.

I am an incredibly positive, resilient man and I will never allow my three children to get caught up in the wreckage of alcoholism. I am very aware of my desire for alcohol and talk openly with my wife and my friends about it – I have a wonderful support network.

I know I can never share a nice glass of wine with my wife, or have a pint when I’ve finished playing rugby, but neither is worth the damage I would cause to those that love me, or myself.

Sometimes, when I look at them and think about how loved they are, and how much I want to protect them, it makes me question why my dad couldn’t have felt like that, too. But alcoholism is complex, and there isn’t a straightforward answer to that question – if there’s ever an answer at all.



Find support

The National Association for Children of Alcoholics (NACOA) provide information and support on their website at nacoa.org.uk/ or via their free helpline on 0800 358 3456.

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