‘In darkness there is always light’: What it’s like growing up with an alcoholic parent

Having a parent who suffers from mental health problems is weird.

Some days it rules everything you do and everything you think about.

But other days you worry that the guy you fancy doesn’t fancy you back or you spend hours contemplating what you’re going to wear on Saturday night just to decide on something you’ve owned for years.

And then the guilt hits you like a train.

Because your parent’s life is controlled by mental health yours should be too, right?


It took me 22 years to come to this conclusion.

I spent my childhood years in pleasant anticipation of becoming an adult, the time when I’d know exactly how to deal with the cards I’d been dealt.

But the anxiety, frustration, anger, self-pity and upset that exist as a child remains unchanged.

What does change is your perspective.

The challenges you find yourself facing change because you change.

As a child you feel confused existing in a world where you’re more responsible for your parent than they are for you.

The bad news is that tackling mental health is no easier as an adult than it is as a child.

The good news is that I have discovered a soothing remedy – acceptance.

The phrase that best sums this up is the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

This also happens to be the ethos of Alcoholics Anonymous, the irony of which isn’t lost on me.

Acceptance of the situation you find yourself in is not giving up.

Without acceptance you set yourself up for a lifelong battle against something you can’t fully understand, never mind control.

Some people successfully overcome mental health, but believing that a family member’s mental health is something you need to get used to doesn’t mean you’re giving up on them or yourself.

Mental health issues are damaging enough to the person who suffers with them – you shouldn’t let them define you too.

This week I attended the National Recovery Conference which heard from mental health experts, health professionals and recovered addicts.

Sitting there I thought about what I’d say if I met my 10-year-old self, and I decided upon the following.

First, and perhaps most importantly, appreciate the good days and embrace them because where addiction and mental health are involved every good day should be treated as a victory.

Equally, don’t dwell on the bad days but do cry about them – I’d recommend Titanic or E.T. for encouragement in that department.

Don’t punish people who don’t understand. It’s natural for people to try to provide a solution to your problems so appreciate their efforts and accept the endless stream of reassuring cups of tea.

Don’t punish yourself for wishing life was different from time to time. Because you’ll come to realise that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is not just a cheesy cliché and that having perspective on life is priceless.

Remember to appreciate the people who don’t know anything about what you’re going through as much as those who know everything. On a bad day there can be nothing more refreshing than someone who doesn’t ask how things are.

Ignore the ignorant who tell you that alcoholics drink because they want to. Ignore the ignorant who tell you there’s nothing you can do to help a person suffering with mental health.

And remember that you’ve made it this far and to have experienced the things you have might turn out to be the greatest challenge of your life.

In darkness there is always light and you are one more person who can challenge perceptions and help to transform the image of mental health and addiction.

So this week don’t let Alcohol Awareness week pass you by.

Mental health and addiction are very real problems and almost certainly affect someone you know.

Remember that whilst the illnesses are invisible, the people suffering from them aren’t.

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