Alcohol Awareness with Julia MelvinPosted: 7 Jul 2023
This week is Alcohol Awareness Week, a campaign from Alcohol Change UK to raise awareness of the impact alcohol can have on society and end alcohol harm.
Alcohol Change UK is not an anti-alcohol charity, but they are advocating for a future in which people drink as a conscious choice, not as a default; where the issues which lead to alcohol problems – like poverty, mental health issues and homelessness – are addressed; and where those of us who drink too much, and our loved ones, have access to high-quality support whenever we need it, without shame or stigma.
In honour of raising awareness of alcohol harm, I’d like to share a story about my dad.
My dad was a Vietnam Conflict veteran (I grew up in the USA), and as a result of his time in the war and the unimaginable trauma he experienced during that time, he had serious mental health problems. Eventually, he would be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the late 1990’s after this became a classified diagnosis, before that time it was considered “shell shock” but his symptoms didn’t go away with time, instead they became worse. He had regular flashbacks including frightening hallucinations, and frequent vivid nightmares meant that he was unable to find peace even while asleep. He was unable to work due to his mental health issues, and as a man, the societal expectation that he should be able to support his family was very much on his mind and added to his feelings of shame.
They tried prescribing some medications over the years to help ease his symptoms, however the antipsychotic medications he was given were under-researched at the time and were not very effective, often causing severe side effects. Therapy was not regularly available, but he did make an effort to try this option and he spent much of my childhood in and out of inpatient and outpatient mental health facilities. PTSD was not something that was as well-recognised or well-treated then as it is today – now there are several forms of therapy that have been specifically developed to treat PTSD.
Due to the lack of support for his condition during that time, he turned to alcohol to manage how he was feeling, and it became his primary coping strategy. He didn’t drink all day every day, he could sometimes go days or weeks without alcohol, but once he had a drink it would start a binge that could sometimes last for days. This only added to the problems our family faced while living in poverty as what little money we had was often spent on alcohol instead of food and bills, so there were times we would go without running water or electricity as a result and would have to use food banks. There were heated arguments between my parents that would turn violent at times, ultimately leading to their divorce, and often he’d come home with black eyes and other injuries due to bar fights along with dents in the car or worse.
As a child, watching his personality change while he was under the influence of alcohol was something that terrified me. Due to his mental health situation, things always felt unpredictable anyway as I was never sure when he may have another flashback, but with the addition of alcohol, the unpredictability of his moods was much worse. His emotional outbursts intensified and although he wouldn’t remember what happened afterwards, he would often obsess even more about the traumas he had experienced while drunk. Sometimes he would sob for hours and ask me to write down accounts of his traumatic experiences or talk about them over and over.
Sometimes he would get angry and shout and destroy things in the house. There were also times when he would be having fun and would try to do random things while drunk and cause accidents, like setting off fireworks while drunk and causing a fire. So many times, he tried to quit drinking, and often he would manage it for several months at a time, but there would be another binge somewhere along the way and then it would lead to several more; eventually some drastic incident would happen, and he would feel ashamed and eventually try to quit again. His relationship with alcohol became an additional serious problem, and his symptoms of depression became worse over time, he often expressed thoughts of suicide. Eventually, my father developed hepatitis and jaundice from excessive drinking, and then several years later, at the age of 49 years old, he died of liver cancer. I was 23 years old.
The theme of Alcohol Awareness Week this year is The Cost of Alcohol.
While the average UK drinker spends an estimated £62,899 on alcohol over the course of their lifetime, there are many other costs of alcohol. My father was a complicated person who faced many challenges, but he was more than his struggles with alcohol and mental health problems. He was a talented artist and an amazing cook. He loved animals, watching cartoons and playing games.
He had a wonderful sense of humour and the best taste in music… and he was my dad. Heavy alcohol use cost him his marriage, and many other relationships, and eventually it claimed his life. Alcohol is linked to more than 60 medical conditions including liver disease, at least six forms of cancer, and depression. Alcohol harm can have hugely negative consequences on individuals and their families; 1 in 5 people in the UK have been affected by their parent’s drinking.
My dad always felt that he would eventually get things under control, so that he could still enjoy social drinking from time to time without binging. But while that may be possible for many people, that was not possible for him. We are all different, and we need to consider our own relationship with alcohol and be honest with ourselves if it is causing harm in our lives. For many people, alcohol can become a coping strategy for grief, trauma, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues but it only intensifies those problems over time. For some people, alcohol harm starts off as social drinking but becomes more difficult to manage over time and we feel we are losing control of our drinking. Whatever the situation, if you feel your relationship with alcohol is creating a negative impact on your life, you are not alone. Recovery is possible for everyone, and support is available to either reduce your drinking or stop completely. You can find more information about alcohol treatment on Alcohol Change UK support pages.
If you are worried about family and friends and would like to find out more on how to support yourself and those you care about, please visit Alcohol Change UK. Adults and children can also contact the National Association of Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa) by calling or emailing their free helpline. There is no age requirement to use this helpline and it’s completely confidential.
Here is a leaflet from Alcohol Change UK on the guidelines for alcohol safety if you’d like to review those.
Remember to use alcohol safely, and if you feel you can’t do that, please reach out for support. Take care.
Written by Julia Melvin