Last week I made the hardest speech I have given in the House of Commons. I got up and talked about my life as the child of an alcoholic. My father, Dermot, was an extraordinary guy. The son of Irish immigrants, he was bright, charismatic and chippy. He battered his way into grammar school and university and when he left, he fell in love with the idealism of the postwar new towns and moved us to Harlow in Essex, where in the 1980s he worked his way up to become the council manager.
But as he rose up the ranks, his addiction to alcohol deepened. And when my mother died of cancer one Christmas, aged just 52, it knocked him over the edge. I knew right then, I had lost not just my mum. I had lost my dad as well.
In families of alcoholics, you get a weird co-dependency. As the eldest son, I supported my mother, often at her wit’s end, who’d tell me: “Your father is drinking too much again.” I was eight when those conversations began, and so I grew up paranoid they were going to split up at a moment’s notice — but powerless to know what to do.
There is a lot I still cannot bring myself to talk about. But I learnt the feelings all children of alcoholics learn: the chronic insecurity; the cold nausea when you find empty bottles of booze hidden round the house, or you hear your dad being sick in the morning. The public shame of “incidents”, such as when Dad was arrested driving home well over the limit.
Because he ran the council, it was front-page news in the town — on newspapers my little brother delivered on his paper round. I spent a lot of time in intensive care units, not knowing whether Dad would live or die. He would always pull through. But it did not stop him drinking.
On the Today programme last week, Jim Naughtie asked how it had changed me. After all, he said: “You’ve done all right, haven’t you?” It was a book by Calum Best — George Best’s son — that offers the answer. Calum called his book Second Best. That’s how children of alcoholics feel. You drive yourself so hard, it makes you a perfectionist, tough on yourself and on others because you are straining with every nerve to displace booze in your parent’s affection. But it is a losing battle. In the world of an alcoholic, the drink is king.
In March, just before the election, on St Joseph’s Day — the patron saint of fathers — Dad died. That cold, grey dawn, the nurses at Harlow’s Princess Alexandra Hospital were incredible. They folded down my father’s blankets so we could hold his hand as he breathed his last. The weeks that followed were the worst of my life. And when the election was done, I got on a train to Bristol and walked through the doors of the amazing National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa). Founded 25 years ago, it has helped 200,000 children. The people there helped me see I was not on my own; that my father’s drinking was not my fault. And that there was nothing I could have done to stop him.
Many have talked about their experience of alcoholic parents. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the actor Nick Frost, the comedian Billy Connolly, the dancer Kristina Rihanoff, the X Factor winner Sam Bailey — all have spoken out. But I have been stunned by the sheer number of people who have been in touch with their stories.
I found it hard to speak up. I feared I was dishonouring my father by talking about it. But I realised I was colluding in keeping a family secret. We have got to end the shame and stigma of alcoholism. It is a disease. We have to talk about it like we talk about cancer or obesity.
I see now this problem is everywhere. And the patterns are all the same. One woman told me: “I still live with the shame, [I remember] friends at school seeing [my dad] and mentioning it to me. It was horrible.” Another man, aged 70, told me how he was still scarred by his alcoholic parents. Sometimes children have to deal with things they simply should not have to. Another woman said: “I too have sat in the emergency bay while [my dad] throws up blood caused by his alcoholism. Like your father, my father is also an incredible man, and I am guilt-ridden with the feeling I should be able to do more.” Another told me how she went on to run a support group for teenagers with alcoholic parents. Four out of 10 of those children are now dead.
Today, one in five children is a child of a hazardous drinker. That is 2.6m people. Children of alcoholics are three times more likely to consider suicide.
There are three simple things the government can do to make a difference. I am optimistic about the chance for change. The minister in charge, Edward Timpson, is effective, and he cares.
First, we need everyone who works with children to know how to spot the child of an alcoholic, and to know how to connect them to help — such as the Nacoa helpline. In all my time in intensive care units and GPs’ surgeries, no one asked me, “Is your dad an alcoholic?” or indeed, “Are you the child of an alcoholic?”
Second, we need public information campaigns aimed at parents who are hazardous drinkers, designed to explain the dangers to their children. No one wants their child to become an alcoholic, or to consider suicide. Yet that is the risk you are running if you drink too much.
Finally, I want the right investment in treatment in every part of Britain. Today, just one in 20 dependent drinkers is getting treatment. It should be 20 out of 20.
And here is why the government has to act: children of alcoholics are three times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Alcohol harm costs our country £21bn a year. It is the third biggest public health risk after obesity and smoking.
What every child of an alcoholic learns, the hard way, is that we cannot change things for our parents. But we can change things for children like the little boy my father once was. For he too was the child of an alcoholic. He suffered in silence. I want to break that silence so we can start breaking the cycle, the cycle of this terrible disease.
National Association for Children of Alcoholics
Originally published for the Sunday Times here