My parents split up suddenly and messily when I was 21.
I was at university the day it happened, my sister delivering the news over the phone and summoning me back home. She was panicked; my father was erratic and crazed, fuelled by booze, shock, anger and grief. My mother was similar, but minus the drinking.
I will spare you the details of why they split, but suffice to say my mother hadn’t been faithful and my father had found out. It was all true, but in her defence, she had been living with a violent alcoholic for decades. I should know, I was there.
The catalyst for their explosive separation and subsequent divorce was a phone call from a jealous wife one ordinary weekday afternoon. My father’s nuclear response followed afterwards.
This story is about living in the fallout of that response. This is about how a family of four is ripped asunder, my sister and I left to awkwardly mediate between parents, our own trauma pushed aside to caretake for two 50 year olds, both having their own individual breakdowns.
This is about how my dysfunctional family had always been falling apart.
This a story about life.
. . .
I arrived home on the fraught instruction of my sister. I had put aside a week to be back in Barnet, Greater London, though I didn’t know what use I would be.
On my return, I discovered my father’s drinking had escalated to super-human levels. Due to my mother’s indiscretions, she was painted as the villain and was therefore somewhat removed from the picture, even though I knew what my father was like.
I’d witnessed the violence, the hospitalisations, the home destructions, the police interventions. He was a domestic tyrant. I’d fought with him myself, physically and verbally. I think we all had. Our family life was a straight-up mess, I’m not going to lie.
At 20, higher education had provided me with an escape route and I was able to extract myself from that quagmire of volatility, only to be dragged back in again, exactly one year later.
Being home meant watching my father drink, sob and rage. Drink in the morning, drink in the day, drink at night. He was descending into madness. By day three he was walking around the house, steaming with booze, smashing up the pictures on the wall as the midday sun shone outside.
Often, there was a woman at the house. Years later, on his literal deathbed, he ended up marrying this woman, who he’d lived with for years after my mother. It seemed to finally validate a relationship that had been treading water for the longest time. But skip back 14 years and I was perplexed as to who this woman was and why she was in the midst of a private family crisis.
In the evenings, we’d got to the pubs. I’d accompany my dad, like an emotional support worker, and we’d be joined by this new woman, her adult son, and a revolving group of barflies that knew each other only because they were all alcohol dependent.
On one of those evenings, we were in a rough pub on Barnet High Street, and I found myself on stage, performing karaoke. The pub in question no longer exists, it was one of those aggressively moody boozers that didn’t belong in the 21st century and was due for extinction. I was on stage with this lady’s son singing an awful Oasis song, whilst men with saved heads and scar tissue on their faces perpetually frowned from the bar, furious about everything.
I was drunk and in that bizarre moment, an existential panic crystallised. “Why I am here, who are these people and what the fuck is going on?” I had no answers.
At night, I would sleep with my father in his double bed because he said he couldn’t sleep alone. He was a chronic snorer, loud and consistent, and it was worse when he drank, which was always. It was impossible for me to sleep. I once nudged him awake in a bid for respite and he proclaimed “I can’t get back to sleep now, I can’t stop thinking about it all!”
I had a panic attack one morning, the enormity of it all squeezing me like an emotional clamp.
When it happened, another random female friend of my father was visiting, sitting in the lounge, consoling him like he was a wounded puppy. There he sat, the consummate victim, chatting to someone I’d never met about my mother.
I was eating cereal at the kitchen table. I felt panic creep up my neck and grip me. After a few minutes of growing anxiety, I went into the lounge and hopped from one foot to the other, attempting to get normality to kick back in. It was futile. I’d had panic attacks before, but this one was huge.
I interrupted them.
“I’m having a panic attack,” I said flatly, incapable of sugar-coating what was happening. The woman – who the fuck was this woman – rubbed my back and consoled me, but it only made things worse.
We ended up going to the hospital and they gave me drugs, a downer of some sort. It helped. Back at home, I heard my father phone my mother and say “You’ve fucking put my kids in the hospital.”
She hadn’t. All of it had; the random people, the heavy drinking, the karaoke, the home visits by strangers, having my family affairs put on show, dismantled and poked around by nosy drunks and passing ships in the night.
Everything felt like a chaotic and restless dream where reality was bent and nothing was right. Where had my family home gone? It was there last week.
A few days later, my mother called me on the phone, hysterical. She yelled, “Get out the house, he’s about to kill you!”
She’d just ended a call with my father who’d told her everything was about to “end in serious tragedy,” and she needed to “see what she’d caused.”
I told her to calm down, though I’m not going to lie, I did somewhat worry, my father was currently not of sound mind and physically he cast a wide and tall shadow over me.
She arrived at the house in her blue Vauxhall Nova, pulling up, getting out and telling me to come with her, in one fluid movement of panic.
My father came out of the house and started shouting at her. I stood in the lounge, not moving. I didn’t know what to do.
Then he did something truly terrible. My mother turned to get back in the car and as she did, he picked up a boulder we had in the front garden. Plant pots sat on it in quieter times. He wielded it above his head and then threw it. The solid block of stone flew at her head. She had clambered into the driver’s seat and closed the door as the corner of the boulder bounced off the edge of the window frame, denting the car and falling to the floor. It was inches from killing her. She had been saved by simple inaccuracy.
She sped off, knowing she was in real danger. As she did, my father picked up her phone that she’d dropped in the proceeding panic and he smashed it against the garden wall. I saw it happen in slow motion, his arms flailing, his face full of uncontrollable rage.
I wouldn’t let him back in the house.
The neighbours had come out and he wanted to get away from their prying eyes. I shouted at him through the door about nearly killing her. I had watched an attempted murder, no question that he’d tried his best for the boulder to make contact with her head.
But these were weird times, times that twist your mind, give you panic attacks and make everything that would once be alarming and unusual, usual. So I let him back in and we carried on with our day. It was fucked up. It was all fucked up.
Then, a couple of days later, my mother tried to kill herself.
. . .
I don’t recall my sister being around that much during the week, she certainly wasn’t there for the boulder incident. I think she was still going to her full-time job in central London. But she was there when we got a call about my mother going AWOL. Perhaps the call wasn’t even in that first week, but sometime later, as I shuttled to and from university. I don’t remember, everything is a cacophony of trauma and even today I cannot unpick the timelines in my mind.
I recall she had disappeared. My sister phoned the local hospitals. I didn’t know whether to take any of this seriously, but my sister certainly was.
My father was with us in the lounge, but I can’t remember his reaction. He was probably muted, in case something bad had really happened.
Sooner or later (it was later), my mother turned back up. She had returned to my grandma’s flat where she was staying. She had been out most of the day and night after consumed unmeasured quantities of booze and pills, sheltering herself in a makeshift hideaway in a local park, waiting for whatever might happen, to happen.
This all sounds bizarre and it was, but it was also typical of those first few chaotic weeks. We took this incident in our stride, along with everything else.
By Christmas, things settled down as much as they could, it had only been a few months of fallout and things were still raw. We limped through the festive period. My sister managed to stay in her own place that year, but I didn’t have my own place, so I had to face home.
I went to a restaurant with my mother, but as it was Christmas Day the price was astronomical. We were a poor family at the best of times, I was a student, she was unemployed and we both struggled with the bill.
When she dropped me home, to my surprise, my father let her in. He was drunk, I’m sure. He found out about the price and in his unhappy state proceeded to phone the restaurant and scream abuse at them. It was a real lowlight.
In the new year, my mother got a job in a pet shop. She had begun to rebuild. Equally, my father’s relationship with his lady friend endured and when I’d visit, we’d go to the pub and drink together, because what else would we do?
To be clear, everyone drank heavily, all the time, mostly under a fog of post-traumatic stress and the need to keep up appearances.
Going out was never celebratory, rather, it was a miserable affair driven by alcoholism. I remember visiting to the quaint local, a short walk from our house, and my father causing a scene, hushing the pub as he ranted drunk, firing complaints to the bar staff. It was that pattern of behaviour, fractal and repeating, one week after another. No-one was happy.
My mother started dating. My father found out, stalked her and at the end of one of her dates, he got out of his car and attacked the man she was with. When my sister told me, I almost found it funny. Not because I was callous or pro-violence, but because the continuous soap opera of my parents’ relationship had reached farcical levels. It wasn’t even unusual, it was just another episode.
It’s no surprise my OCD ramped up to new heights during this time. My mother had her own battles on that front too. Immediately after the split, she couldn’t lie down or allow herself to sleep, else, she believed, her life would never get back on track. My grandma had to beg her to just sit in a chair. She grew sleep-deprived and even more emotionally wrought.
Here’s a memory. Not long before the split, when I was at home, my father went to the pub and my mother surreptitiously drove after him, with me in the passenger seat. We sat outside the pub, patrons illuminated inside. She said, “There’s that woman.” She was convinced he was having an affair. “That woman,” turned out to be my dad’s lady friend, the one who was unexplainably there, in the thick of the split.
Perhaps he did have an affair. Perhaps he didn’t. He would come home at 1am when the pub closed at 11pm. They fought about it but still, my parents’ relationship had been falling apart for years before then. That fateful, jealous-wife-phone-call might have toppled it, but like a Jenga tower, that sucker was coming down sooner or later anyway.
. . .
As the final year of university played out, both my parents’ behaviour calmed, no longer hitting the trauma highs of the previous year.
I was pulled home again, once more for Christmas Day, and spent most of it in the local Wetherspoons pub with my father, his lady friend, and her son. We drank with people who had nowhere else to go. It felt bleak.
The ruse about my father’s relationship was over by this point, his lady friend was living full-time in the house. I don’t think they knew where their relationship was going anyone than anyone else, but she had become an anchor on which he could steady himself, and any stability was welcomed at that time.
What became certain is that my parents weren’t getting back together. They couldn’t even talk, let alone reconcile their differences. I didn’t know if this was a good or bad thing, my emotions wouldn’t tell me.
Just after the split, my mother visited my father at home, and my sister later told me she heard them having sex. News no child wants to hear really, but it gave some hope to reconciliation. But that moment was now long forgotten, obscured by time and shifting sands of emotion; it no longer meant anything.
That Christmas night we went back to the house, had dinner, and I slept on the sofa in my clothes. The son did the same on the other sofa. It was depressing, squatting in my former family home. How did it come to this? Where did my family go? Who were these people and was this even my house anymore?
A year on and still no certainty. No answers. My family life had simply disintegrated and I couldn’t identify if anything had even taken its place.
Months rolled on and I graduated. University was over and with no other options, I returned home to live in that house.
Historically, my father and I had a terrible relationship. I despised him, even when I was young, and as I got older we fought often. I saw him as a drunk aggressor and he consistently scapegoated me for any and all family troubles.
“All the problems started when you turned three,” was his regular mantra, even though troubles existed well before I was born.
Yet perversely, our relationship had taken some odd steps to improve when the split had occurred. It had brought us together as something to overcome as one.
It didn’t last. His drinking was still at mind-bending levels, his trauma omnipresent, and it made for terrible living conditions.
I paid him £30 rent a week but spent almost every evening at a friend’s to simply stay away.
In the 18 months I lived there, he kicked me out three times. He threw food I’d cooked in the bin. He’d hung up the phone when I was in mid-conversation, he once came into my room as I lay in bed and smashed up the desk chair because he thought I’d seen my mother. I was always a fulcrum point for his rage.
I did in fact see my mother on occasion, but there was a period of not seeing her, almost demonising her. It would take me years of therapy to realise that my father drove everyone to extremes, and life wasn’t as black and white as the person who cheats is the person who shoulders the blame.
In 2003, I left home and moved in with friends. My father kept calling me as if we had something to talk about. I couldn’t work out how he didn’t realise that I loathed him so.
My mother got together with a man. A stout, snooty chap and everyone felt cold towards him. He wasn’t a pleasant person.
As humans, we grab onto the adoration of others, sometimes we fall in love with their love and mistake that special feeling as our own special feeling. It is the only way I can justify why my warm and expressive mother would be with such a man.
The truth is I wouldn’t like anyone. I didn’t warm to my father’s lady friend for years either. Both these strangers represented the demise of my family and – almost worse – the sexual reawakening of my parents.
I was civil to everyone however, because that’s how I am. I can’t work out if this is a weakness or a strength. Living in the shadow of an alpha aggressor made me half-mediator, half a bubbling cauldron of bitter rage.
I still talked with my sister about our parents reuniting in some miracle event. We were two deluded, adult children that never got to say goodbye to a family we once knew, so held onto an impossible turn of events.
Around this time the family dog died. It was old and ill, and living with my mother. She took it upon herself to put it down, out of misplaced sense of compassion. Inevitably my dad went ballistic, leaving several raging messages on my answerphone because I refused to join in with his “Look what the bitch has done now” rhetoric.
I deleted each of those messages after 2–3 seconds, just long enough to hear the “You fucking listen to me…” opening remarks.
It had got to that point. I could just delete him with a button push. All those years of dominance and intimidation boiling down to a quiet beep from a keypad.
Around 2005, I got sick. It was the start of years of chronic bad health. I put it down to a suppressed immune system from being consistently over-adrenalised as a kid, not that I made this connection until much later.
I was in the hospital after a second throat operation and I was heavily sedated on opiates. I couldn’t lift my head off the pillow, and this was the moment my parents chose to be in the same room together for the first time in years.
Even in my stupefied state, I remember the anxiety, struggling to interject conversion into the silences, but failing, dribbling and babbling incoherently.
Afterwards, my mother, forgiving and forever resilient, told me she felt fine seeing him. My father, on the other hand, said he couldn’t even look her in the eye “because of the anger,” his victim status remaining untarnished.
Over the next 15 years, things mellowed. Time is the greatest healer. My parents had some surprisingly amicable chance meetings and I had a wedding where everyone was in the same room, and though opposing factions didn’t talk, that was progress enough.
My father fell into ill health not long after my own hospitalisation and he never really recovered. A lifestyle of hard drinking had caught up with him. In his last 10 years, he was teetotal and with it came a degree of clarity previously absent from his life.
One day, deep into sobriety, he said to me “Everything bad in my life came from drink.” It was a quantum leap in his thought process, though he still refused to acknowledge he was ever an alcoholic. The ‘A word’ was never to be uttered.
After the hospital told him he might die if he had one more drink, he gave up, cold turkey. It was the second or third warning from a doctor, but this time we all knew it was true, including him. He was in a bad way, but this sudden lifestyle change only served to prove that alcohol had never had a grip on him.
We all want inner peace, love and connection. My parents just as much as anyone else. They were childhood sweethearts, together at 14 and had to navigate a world without each other at aged 50. But their relationship had grown corrupt and toxic and we – including my sister and I – had become a family of enablers. We enabled the drinking, the fighting, the arguments; we enabled all of the dysfunctional behaviour together, by accident and without intention, and allowed it to live unchallenged, to thrive behind our closed front door.
. . .
In 2014, my sister turned 40. In a remarkable turn of events, both my parents agreed to come to Belfast to celebrate. It was the first time the four of us had sat around a table in over a decade. I had forgotten what it was like. The moment was intoxicating, the wave of emotion unexpectedly hitting me as we took our places. My sister’s kids were there too. Everyone I loved, sitting around one table. The profundity of it washed over me. What is normal for some was an ecstatic exception for me.
Despite all of the drink and the violence, we had endured. We had got through. Scared, wounded and traumatised, perhaps, but we survived. Do you hear that? We fucking survived.
For the last time ever, in that fleeting evening, the four of us, a family – a history – sat together around a dinner table and were normal. Maybe for the first time, ever. Normal. It was remarkable. It nearly brings me to tears. I know it sounds funny, but that was one of the greatest nights of my life.
This post was previously published on Hello, Love and is republished here with permission from the author.
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Photo credit: Jamie Jackson