The letter was written on pale blue notepaper. The envelope was torn at the back where it had been opened carelessly, and daddy O’Hanlon, written in a child’s handwriting, adorned the front. I vaguely remember writing it 33 years ago when I was six and my dad was in Belmont Detox Centre undergoing treatment for alcoholism. But I recall even better visiting him there during his six-week stay.
Standing there looking upwards, holding my mother’s and little sister’s hands, that old grey building seemed huge and soulless. I eyed the place suspiciously. Suddenly the knowledge that I was going to visit Dad in the hospital after a shoulder operation didn’t quite sit as comfortably with me as it had on the journey there.
We had left home a couple of hours earlier on that Easter Sunday, and travelled to the next county in our navy blue Mini Cooper. I had sat happily in the back seat with the little sister I adored. It was exceptionally warm for April. Air conditioning was non-existent in any homes in Ireland in 1981, never mind in cars. There was a crippling recession in the country at the time so we were damn lucky to even have a car at all. We just had a small corner of the rear windows that opened inwards on hinges to give us some relief from the heat. Our bare legs, exposed underneath our best Sunday dresses, stuck to the leatherette seats. Driving for almost two hours to another county was a huge adventure, but also tested our patience. Cries of “Are we nearly there yet?” emanated towards our mother in unison from the back seat.
The thing that struck me the most as we entered that building was that it didn’t smell like a hospital. I was used to hospitals. Just a short time earlier, I had been very ill with a blood disorder called purpura, so I knew what I was talking about. We walked along the linoleum covered corridor until we reached my Dad’s room. It seemed very empty—no hospital equipment and where was my Dad’s bandage for his shoulder? The bed kind of looked like a hospital bed, but still not the same as the hospital where I’d been treated. Something wasn’t right. Someone was telling lies but I wasn’t sure about what or why. I wasn’t happy. And right at that moment I didn’t trust any adults that were around me.
The only other thing I remember about that day was the party they had in this big room. There were lots of other kids there too and they gave us all Easter eggs and organized games. I remember sitting on a chair by a wall, looking at all these other children running around and laughing. I so wanted to run around too, but I was rooted to the spot. All I felt was sadness, so much sadness that it was weighing me down. None of the other dads looked very sick either, I thought. So what was going on? What was this place? Why was Dad here? I remember the sadness becoming overwhelming and I sat on that chair trying to concentrate on swinging my legs back and forth in an effort to make it look like I was okay. Tears were welling up, but I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to make anyone sad. Dad came over, caught me by the hand and asked, “Aren’t you going to play, Nicky?” And that was it. The tears came but I couldn’t explain why I was crying.
As a little girl, my intuition was keen. Nothing got past me. I was hyper sensitive and felt everything far too deeply for my diminutive size. What makes it harder for children of active alcoholics is that very often we don’t have the words to describe what it is we are experiencing. I knew that my house was regularly in turmoil but I couldn’t name what that turmoil was. I began to hate myself for feeling sad so often. I started to wonder if perhaps I was imagining these feelings. I began to wonder if the sadness in the house was due to the fact that I had been so sick and nearly died. I tried to logically explain in my little head what was happening. Nobody was talking about it and I didn’t know how to ask the right questions. Was it a secret that only adults could know?
It took some time before I could correlate the sadness I felt with what was going on. It took, in fact, many years. I knew my Dad drank a lot and it made my mother unhappy. It also seemed to make my Dad very unhappy at times. When they were unhappy, I was unhappy, too. I desperately tried to protect my little sister from feeling what I felt. I remember sometimes men would come to the house and take Dad to “meetings.” But what for? I just didn’t understand.
Slowly I came to understand that these horrible feelings I was picking up had something to do with the fact that my Dad drank too much. I think I was about 11 when I first heard the word alcoholic. It was one of those light bulb moments when everything made sense. I was sitting in my classroom, listening to my religious freak teacher preach about saints and people who were saint like. Somewhere in that “sermon,” he mentioned that people who had to put up with alcoholics were saints. I had mixed emotions about that. Okay so now I had a name for what was making everyone upset, but the way he talked about alcoholics clearly meant that the world thought they were bad, which meant that my dad was bad.
And so, because of my negative feelings and attitudes, combined with my confusion and hypersensitivity to life, I struggled. During my teenage years and early adulthood, the sadness turned to resentment until I had no choice but to think differently and learn the truth. Now I realize that the secrecy around my father’s alcoholism was to protect me. I also realize that my dad was not bad or evil, just sick and desperate and unable to recover from one of the most destructive diseases on earth. I would, in time, struggle just as he did. And indeed my own children have struggled just as I did.
Facing that realization has been difficult to deal with. My kids say they don’t remember much about when I drank. They were quite young when I got sober. But they too will have a memory of visiting their mother in a mental health facility and that uneasy, vulnerable feeling that is ever present in the homes of active alcoholics. I chose to be very open with my children about my alcoholism and my subsequent recovery. Living in an alcohol and drug free home is normal for them. Unlike the 1980’s in Ireland, the stigma that surrounded the disease of addiction, in my country and many others, is slowly becoming less of a taboo subject. What will never change, though, is the devastating effect it has on the children of alcoholics. I’m only hoping that my disclosure of my own difficulties will make it easier for future generations.