My father is an alcoholic. And for almost 20 years, as far as I was concerned, it wasn’t a problem. It was just another thing about him: he loved the Beatles and racing cars and drinking constantly. He drank Pastis on vacation in France, vodka whenever he had money, and golden cans of lager at all other times.
After my brother was born, it was decided that my mother would go back to work while my dad stayed home with us, mainly because he had forgone any kind of a career over the previous decade in order to play guitar in bands with his brother. He would spend his days cooking tomato sauce, cleaning the house, and downing cheap wine from cartons that he had stored on high shelves, out of our reach. I always understood that Stoffer—which is what everyone calls him, and which he likes to be called, so I will do so here—was an alcoholic, but the word meant very little to me. His drinking was completely open; he was honest about it to the extent that he’d sip from what he called “a traveler” (basically a mini bottle) every morning on the walk to school. “Ahhh,” he’d say to us as though it were a joke, “breakfast of champions!” It didn’t bother me, because it didn’t seem to infringe on our relationship. He was always there to pick us up from school and correct our homework and play catch in the park with a cigarette behind his ear and an open container by his side.
Later, I realized that his drinking was obviously a huge factor in my parents’ divorce, which happened when I was six, but even that barely changed anything: my parents moved to apartments on the same street in West London, so the four of us were often together. Stoffer still came over to walk us to school every day, far beyond the point of necessity. Once I was older, he’d hold my uniform blazer under his arm while I had a quick cigarette before class. Then he’d kiss me on both cheeks and say, “Do the right thing today, OK?” He never appeared drunk—to this day, I’ve only seen him tipsy maybe three or four times.
Then, a few years ago, everything changed. When I was 19, I returned from a summer abroad to find him standing at the gate looking pin-thin and noticeably shrunken. He told me that he had a doctor’s appointment booked for that very afternoon, and that appointment turned into a referral to a specialist, who promptly sent us straight to the hospital. We found out that Stoffer had cirrhosis, a liver disease that causes scarring of the organ tissue and can be fatal if not treated. He was only 57, but he looked more like 75. His rickety limbs were covered in lesions where his skin had become dry and irritated. The doctor said that if Stoffer quit drinking immediately, he had a chance of recovering, but if not, he would either suffer complete liver failure or any number of equally serious complications within two or three years. I immediately burst into tears; Stoffer, on the other hand, was entirely unperturbed. “Thank you, doctor,” he said, standing up, “but I’m a rock & roll musician, I’ve been drinking and smoking since I was 10, and I’m just about having a ball.”
It was the answer I would’ve expected from him, but I freaked out. I felt like my eyes had snapped open to an evil I couldn’t believe I’d never noticed before. When I was 15, my mother coaxed my brother and me into spending an afternoon at Alateen, an offshoot of Al-Anon, which is a support network for people whose lives have been affected by someone with a drinking problem. She wanted to make sure we hadn’t developed any deep-seated issues as a result of Stoffer’s alcoholism. The meeting was interesting, and the people were nice, but I was sure it wasn’t for us—until I noticed my brother sobbing as we left. I asked him what was wrong, and if he’d wanted to talk more about Stoffer. “No,” he told me, wiping his eyes. “It just upsets me, listening to those stories. I feel bad for those kids—it must be awful. Dad isn’t like that at all.”
At the time, I felt almost proud that this was true, but now the diagnosis started to change the way I thought about him. I reconsidered things from my childhood that I had previously glossed over. Stoffer made it clear from an early age that childcare “bored him to tears,” and while he was essentially a loving and devoted father, he was also irritable and moody. Despite his laxity on things like watching TV and brushing our teeth, he would spank us when we misbehaved, and he would occasionally lose his temper over what seemed like trivial matters. I started modeling when I was 12, and I remember once talking about a photo shoot that my friend had just done. Stoffer didn’t approve of my modeling—he thought it was “banal”—but he suddenly got nasty and laid into me for not booking as many jobs as my friend did: “You’d better raise your game, Esmerelda, or you’re going to go nowhere.” (He doesn’t remember this.) I chalked that up to Stoffer being a jerk rather than a drunk, but now I wondered if his drinking had altered his perception of reality, as well as my own.
More frustrating was his attitude: he’d been given another chance and the time for action was now, but he seemed to have no interest in taking any. I boiled with anger. I was angry at my father’s parents for having allowed Stoffer to get away with a lifetime of drinking; I was angry at my mother for having married him in the first place; I was angry at myself for not having noticed his illness soon enough. But mostly I was angry at him. He and I were close. When I hit my teens, I suddenly shied away from my mother, especially when it came to discussing personal stuff—I felt like we no longer understood each other. She always seemed disappointed in my grades or my hair or the short skirts I wore to school. In the meantime, Stoffer and I developed a genuine rapport that I didn’t have with anybody else. My brother, my father, and I became a sort of gang, and Stoffer transitioned from parental figure to something of an older brother. We’d sit around his house, listening to Jimi Hendrix records, and I talked to him about things I never discussed with my mother: boys, sex, periods, drugs, dreams, nightmares. My friends adored him, and whenever they came over he would hang out with us, smoking pot and giving my girlfriends advice on how to handle their latest crushes. “The lying little bastard!” he’d interject during the telling of a boyfriend scandal. Or: “He should BE so lucky!”
I couldn’t imagine a future where I’d break up with a guy, or go on a job interview, or get married without being able to consult Stoffer first. But his response to his illness made it plain: he was choosing alcohol over us. He goofed around with the nurses at doctor’s appointments. He seemed unable or uninterested in doing the most basic things for himself, like eating proper meals or bathing twice a day to heal his raw skin. We were supposed to stick together and look out for each other—I would never let him down like this.
I decided it was my responsibility to bring Stoffer to his senses and save his life. I started to harangue him about his drinking. I cried to him on the phone. I tried to appeal to his softer side, weeping about all the grandchildren he’d never get to meet. I tried to scare him with the unpleasant physical ramifications of his illness, like renal failure and stomach infections. I even tried to bribe him with numbers for weed dealers, thinking pot could be a replacement for the booze—nothing worked. He’d either act irritated by my concern and hang up on me or storm out of the room, or he’d try to reassure me by flippantly saying, “I’m not going anywhere, I have the constitution of an ox,” which only told me that he was so blinded by his need for alcohol that he had ceased to accept reality. It was completely exhausting. I also felt very alone. I tried to recruit my mother and brother on my crusade to Save Stoffer, but they both told me quite plainly that they were OK letting him make his own decisions about how to live his life, or what little he had left of it. They were willing to help take him to doctor’s appointments and fill prescriptions, but I was the one nagging him to eat and rubbing lotion on back sores that he couldn’t reach.
I worried about him endlessly—every time he didn’t pick up the phone or was late to meet me, I freaked out thinking that he’d suddenly keeled over in the middle of the street, Breakfast of Champions still in hand. Anxiety permeated my entire life: I skipped classes to take him to hospital appointments. I’d spontaneously start crying during conversations with friends. I called my dad obsessively several times a night just to check that he was OK. I agonized about leaving for trips and vacations in case I never saw him again. It was as if I’d been saddled with a huge baby, one who was dependent on me, but too heavy to lift and impossible to care for.
After months of beating my head against a brick wall, I realized something would have to change. My mum repeatedly reminded me that alcoholism is a disease (I’ve since learned that Stoffer’s great-grandfather was a bad drunk), and he was so blinkered by it that the idea of an alternative lifestyle was completely unfathomable to him. Worse, it was completely unappealing. “Never you mind all of that,” he’d tell me as I sobbed. “I’m having the time of my life.” I had no choice but to accept the reality: he had decided to keep drinking until it killed him, and I was acting as though he had already died. I knew that if I didn’t come to terms with what he was doing to himself, I would waste whatever time he did have left, and I didn’t want to live with that regret. My change of heart was neither sudden nor gradual nor even really conscious: I just understood one day that Stoffer’s alcoholism transcended his role as a father or a friend, and if I wanted to keep him on as either of those things, I would have to move forward.
I started to treat the alcoholism as a curse that had taken hold of my dad decades before I was even a twinkle in his eye, and this made me understand two crucial points: first, it was beyond anyone else’s control, and more important, it had absolutely nothing to do with me. In a way, it helped me see Stoffer as his own person. We often think of our parents as existing for us, to please and help and take care of us. But Stoffer had his own needs, his own agenda, and it was his right to do what he wanted. Growing up, I almost deified my dad, and when he got sick I spent a lot of time hating him for being a selfish bastard. Now I’ve come to see him as just a human.
People still don’t really get it. Family members continue to deride him for his selfishness, or laud me for my “strength” in dealing with “a shit-kicking drunk,” as Stoffer cheerfully calls himself. I don’t think of it as strength. Any strength I might have had was used up trying to solve a problem that wasn’t mine to solve. I just did what I had to. I’m not making excuses for him when I try to explain that he can’t help being the way he is. In a perfect world, my dad wouldn’t do anything I’d have to defend. But addiction is its own animal, and imagining Stoffer as helpless against it was the first step in forgiving him.
It’s been almost two years since Stoffer got sick, and he still drinks as much as he ever did. I try to ignore it and pretend that it isn’t an issue. I’ve grown accustomed to the frailty of his appearance, though I catch myself checking for further signs of deterioration. He’s mostly given up on going to the doctor—there isn’t anything they can tell him that he hasn’t already heard and ignored—but if he ever does need to be accompanied to an appointment, he goes with my brother or my mum. When he talks about his illness, I urge him to “do the right thing,” just like he used to when we said goodbye at my school gates. Sometimes when we’re sitting around, laughing and joking and trading stories, it makes me sad to think about how badly I’m going to miss him, whether that’s in three months or three years. But most of all, I feel lucky to have been able to sit around and laugh and tell stories with him at all. ♦