This is the picture I have of my father: glass in hand, unsteady on his feet. Our nightly ritual was about to begin. He’d start by criticising one of us. As his voice grew louder, we’d move quietly through the house, retire to our rooms, make ourselves invisible. Later, we’d reappear to help get Dad to bed. I assumed that’s what happened in all families. No-one ever said a word – no questions, no comments. Just a job to be done.
In matric I was invited to a friend’s home for the holidays. Mother, at last, said I could go but reminded me that we didn’t air our dirty linen in public. My friend’s house felt like a foreign country: the family seemed to enjoy each other’s company, they laughed, teased, showed affection. I remember wondering if this was real. After a few days, it felt good to be there. I started dreading my return to the ‘secret’ life, the isolation.
My mom never complained, never raised her voice but, more importantly, never laughed. She did what she had to do. She chatted at family events but lied about why my father was not there. My dad kept his job and provided well – I don’t know how – so people seemed to accept the ‘away on business’ story. I now realise that we probably never fooled anyone.
About six months after that holiday, my dad died in a car accident. Mother looked tense for a long time but i never saw her cry. We took our lead from her, so my brother and I never cried. But I have shed many tears writing this – the price of change, I guess.
Shortly after my father died, I met a man. There were many alarm bells and I still don’t know if i didn’t hear them or chose not to hear them. Steve always had a drink in his hand but he seemed to hold his liquor – no passing out and being put in bed. Steve was popular and I thought I was lucky to have him. Our first daughter was born a year after our wedding. Steve seemed proud, said he loved her, but never rushed home in the evening to see her. I thought something was wrong with me. The fear would gather in the pit of my stomach.
It never occurred to me to confront him. I would not have known how. My examples had been to keep the peace at any price, to pretend it’s not happening. Knowing what I know today, I was your textbook case: the adult children of addicts often marry an addict or become one themselves. I battled with my anger, hurt and loneliness, yet kept telling myself to stop feeling sorry for myself. I rationalised everything. It stayed in my head because my heart had shut down.
One day, by chance, I read a magazine article about the adult children of alcoholics. I read it twice to be sure – doubting myself was second nature. I couldn’t believe it: there were groups of people like me. I joined one on the spot. I was excited and horrified. I was betraying my family by being there. How could they laugh about what happened to them? After the meeting, a woman suggested I try therapy; it had helped her and she knew how I felt. How could she possibly know? I hadn’t said a word! I left in a state of confusion. I felt like I did so many years ago, on that holiday with my friend. These people knew how to share, laugh and care and I wanted more of their happiness.
At Houghton House in therapy, I seemed to grieve forever.
I grieved for our lack of family, my lost childhood, the silence, my mother and brother, even for my father. Most of all, I grieved for myself. For the joy I had never known, the lost opportunities, the loneliness, the wasted time. Little by little I grew to accept what had been and decided that my future didn’t have to mimic my past. I can trust, I can dream, I am deserving, I have a voice. Most of all, I am a worthwhile person. I will continue to make mistakes, I will take on responsibilities that are not mine but none of these things will stop me from celebrating my new freedom, my new life.
With gratitude and love to all at Houghton House – Sherry