Sharing stories for COA Week - Children of Alcoholics Week 11-17 February 2018

Added on February 10th, 2017 4:17 am

Event Info

Liam Byrne MP


Just before the election, I was in hospital in Harlow with my brother and my amazing step-mum holding my dad’s hand through the night as he finally slipped away after a battle with drink stretching back decades.

I made it through the election, just about – but when it was over, and I finally got the chance to mourn, I all but fell to pieces.

They were the hardest months of my life.

I got on a train to Bristol and walked into the offices of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics to ask their help.

It’s an amazing charity that’s helped me and over 200,000 helpline callers see for the first time that they’re not alone, that the way our parents are wasn’t their fault, and there was little they could do to stop their parents drinking.

Today, backed by Nacoa and a host of campaign groups, I’m launching a major campaign to break the silence around alcoholic parents – so we can break the cycle of alcohol addiction cascading down the generations.

My dad Dermot was an extraordinary guy.

The son of Irish immigrants, he battled his way into grammar school and into university – the first in his family ever to go.

Passionate about social justice, he gave his life to public service.

At his best he was warm, charismatic, generous and idealistic.

At work he served the Essex town of Harlow, where I grew up, for years; in retirement he supported African villages I never knew.

He was the man who inspired me to join the Labour party and try to make the world a better place.

But for years he was gripped by an addiction to alcohol that scarred me – and when he lost the woman he passionately loved, my mother, to pancreatic cancer at the age of 52, it knocked him over the edge.

As a child and as an adult I’ve had to handle all the things every child of an
alcoholic gets to feel – but never really to understand.

Trying to make yourself invisible, to hide from the shame.

The chronic insecurity. The co-dependency of supporting others – in my case counselling my mum, from the age of eight. The hospital visits.

The 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? The guilt: why aren’t I there to look after him?

Not long after I got into the Cabinet, I invited my dad to my new office; it was a magnificent space, next to No10.

I was the youngest person in the Cabinet – and I’d got there in four years from entering Parliament.

But he was so worse for wear he found it hard to stand; we had to bundle him out and home as fast as we could.

I just felt so ashamed. The final straw for me was poor Charles Kennedy’s death.

It was when I heard people say he fought “demons” that I just snapped. He wasn’t fighting demons, he was fighting an addiction to alcohol.

But in so many ways I had it easy. Alcohol is a factor in three quarters of child mistreatment cases.

Children of alcoholics are five times more likely than others to develop eating disorders – and three times more likely to consider suicide.

Crucially, they are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves.

That means hundreds of thousands of today’s children of alcoholics, becoming alcoholics themselves tomorrow.

Yet alcohol harm already costs Britain £21billion a year.

The way I dealt with my pain was with a mad drive for perfectionism. But despite doing well, all too often I just felt ashamed.

I felt that just as I couldn’t save my mum’s life no matter how much I loved her, I couldn’t make my dad proud however hard I worked.

Calum Best, the son of footballer George Best, described it well in his book; when you’re the child of an alcoholic, you just feel profoundly second best.

I’ve struggled with the decision to speak up. I’m so worried I’m dishonouring my dad, who meant the world to me.

But I have to honour the boy who became the man who became my dad.

Because, like me, he was the child of an alcoholic too. He didn’t have help on hand when he was growing up. That’s got to change.

Many have talked about their experience of alcoholic parents.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, actor Nick Frost, comedian Billy Connolly, dancer Kristina Rihanoff, X Factor winner Sam Bailey – all have spoken out.

What we need now is change.

I want every single child of an alcoholic to know they’re not alone, to know their parents’ drinking is not their fault; to know there’s help at hand.

I want a public information campaign aimed at parents so they know the damage their hazardous drinking does to their kids.

And I want the right investment in treatment, so that when parents reach for help, we know it’s there.

What every child of an alcoholic learns is we can’t change things for our parents.

But we sure as hell can change things for our children and every other child of an alcoholic in this country.

We now just need the Government to join our side.

Originally published in the Daily Mirror: