The curse of alcoholism

We need more help for alcoholics – and their children

—There is no way I would be in politics if it were not for the inspiration of my dad, Dermot, who I lost just before last year’s election. He even paid my subscription to join the Labour party when I was 15.

He was an extraordinary bloke. The son of Irish immigrants, he was warm, charismatic, devoted to public service, and, for much his life, an alcoholic. It is in his memory that last month I helped a group of parliamentarians step up our campaign for Britain’s 2.6 million innocent victims of drink: the one in five children in our country who live with a parent who drinks too much.

My dad battered his way from Shepherd’s Bush into grammar school and then into Durham University, the first person in his family to go. There he met my mum, and, like two star-crossed lovers, they campaigned against apartheid, and, inspired by John Kennedy’s line that you should ask ‘what you can do for your country’, both graduated to give their lives to public service.

My dad was fascinated by Clement Attlee’s new towns. He became a planner (which is why I grew up in Harlow) where my dad rose to become the council manager. But for much of his life he was trapped in a deepening addiction to alcohol. And when he lost my mum at the age of 52 to pancreatic cancer, it knocked him over the edge.

From my early teenage years, ours was a love-hate relationship. When he was in a suit in the morning, off to save the world, I adored him. But once he had had a drink, I could not bear to be near him. Like most children of alcoholics, I learned to make myself invisible – I wanted to disappear from the slurring embarrassment. I learned all about chronic insecurity. The cold nausea when you find empty bottles of booze hidden round the house. I spent a lot of time in hospitals.

A couple of years ago I was in the middle of Labour’s battle on welfare reform – but had to duck out to spend a week holding my dad’s hand in an intensive care unit where we were told he had a one in 10 chance of survival. It was agony. He pulled through. But it did not stop him drinking.

Like all children of alcoholics, I learned the sheer, choking agony of worry: is he OK? Is he safe? Is he on a floor? Is he eating? Am I doing enough? Am I a good son? Am I obeying the commandment to honour your mother and father? The guilt: why aren’t I there to look after him?

Yet I had it easy. Really easy. Children of alcoholics are three times more likely than others to consider suicide – and three times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Alcohol harm already costs our country £21bn a year, yet we are doing almost nothing to stop this curse of alcoholism cascading down the generations.

I first spoke out in parliament last year – inspired by Caroline Flint’s great strength – and since then we have created a national campaign for change. In September our all-party parliamentary group on children of alcoholics brought to the House of Commons celebrities, charities and medical experts to begin work on the first ever manifesto for children of heavy‑drinking parents.

We have been truly humbled by what we heard. Calum Best, son of legendary football star George Best, has told us how he grew up feeling second best – second best to drink. The archbishop of Canterbury has told us how his own childhood involved ‘periods when there seemed to be no problem, and periods when the problem seemed to have no end. It led to wild mood swings from my father, to behaviour that was in retrospect deeply abusive, and to other times where affection was expressed’. Television star Kim Woodburn told us how she is still scarred by her childhood experience – even now she is in her seventies.

But our nationwide freedom of information requests have uncovered some shocking truths. Referrals for alcohol treatment vary widely, from 0.4 per cent of a local authority’s estimated number of hazardous drinkers to 11 per cent. Forty-four per cent of councils have cut budgets for drug and alcohol treatment in recent years. And 84 per cent said they had no plans to put in place a strategy to support the children of alcoholics.

Our priorities are simple. We need everyone who works with children to know how to spot that they may be the child of an alcoholic, and know how to connect them to help – like the NACOA helpline. I have spent more days than I care to remember in ICUs and GP surgeries. But what was amazing was that no one ever asked, ‘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 damage they are doing to their kids. A lot of the anti-smoking ads have moved in this direction. No one wants their kid to become an alcoholic, or to consider suicide. Yet that is the risk you are running if you drink too much. Finally, we want the right investment in treatment in every part of Britain because, today, just one in 20 dependent drinkers are getting treatment.

Justin Welby left us with a powerful thought: ‘We are never ourselves when we are solitary’, he wrote. That is how we feel. 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 our children. We want them to know they are not alone – help is out there. For me, that is one simple way I want to honour the father I loved so much.

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Liam Byrne MP is chair of the all-party parliamentary group on children of alcoholics

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The NACOA helpline is 0800 358 3456

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Comments: 3...

  1. On October 14, 2016 at 6:05 pm Enid Irving responded with... #

    Your comments hit home – my daughter is at this moment at a Rehab Centre in the Wirral – I certainly did not set a good example – It never even entered my head as I was gallivanting (well soused) down Fleet St 50 years ago – that I was harming my daughter – and I have – and it has harmed her children – and so it goes on… thank you!

  2. On October 14, 2016 at 6:14 pm Linda Sayle responded with... #

    Thank you for that – moving and timely. There is hardly a family in the land that has not been touched by alcoholism/addiction and yet there is so little help out there particularly as you say for the children. There is also so much ignorance about the topic. People like you speaking out is a start to throwing some light on this problem.

  3. On October 24, 2016 at 6:26 pm James Morris responded with... #

    A really powerful piece and an unquestionably important issue. I applaud Liam Byrne for his honesty and commitment to this.

    However, I feel I must highlight a few issues about the language and solutions suggested. Firstly, ‘alcoholic’ is such as stigmatising term that it we should seek to move away from it on this basis and that it is also not medically defined.

    Liam states no Dr ever asked ‘Is your dad an alcoholic?’. As someone who works on alcohol interventions, teaching health professionals how to raise the subject in non-threatening ways is critical. ‘Have you ever been concerned about your parent’s drinking’ or ‘..felt unsafe’ I would suggest instead.

    We also need to be very cautious about the evidence over what is effective in reducing alcohol problems. Public information campaigns are consistently found to be the least effective way to change drinking behaviour and as such advocated by sections of the alcohol industry to support ‘responsible drinking’. I would strongly encourage Liam to consider the evidence and the value of policy levers around pricing, availability and marketing if he really wishes to reduce the very grave impact of alcohol misuse on children.

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