Tuesday 15 October 2019

Legacy of pain, love and loss for the children scarred by drink

A brilliant new stage show tells the everyday tragedy of alcohol and anguish that spans generations, writes Larissa Nolan

Larissa Nolan in 1988 with her father Christopher, who died in 2001
Larissa Nolan in 1988 with her father Christopher, who died in 2001

Trigger warning: great art can leave you crying in the theatre.

I went to a show recently as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival that reduced me to a heaving, sobbing mess; unstoppable tears making my face wet and my eyes puffy and my nose run.

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Tadhg Hickey
Tadhg Hickey

It was only afterwards I fully realised why I became theatre roadkill. This was a play unique in excavating the realities of a rarely acknowledged but serious social issue - parental alcoholism, and its lifelong legacy.

Tadhg Hickey's In One Eye Out The Other is a one-man show in which he plays Feargal, an adult child of alcoholics who has followed the only path he was shown. He lives in the surreal, nostalgic, alternative universe of the alcoholic; a place of arrested development.

He jacknifes from jollity to anguish: laughing off those who ask about the effects of a childhood where his mother was so drunk she didn't know who he was on his Communion day. "'Did it affect ya? Did it affect ya?'" he mimics them. "I'm actually grand. A kind of 'Oh My God I can't take this anymore' Auschwitzian hopelessness would kind of pitter-patter creep across my soul all right, the odd time. Other than that, I'm grand."

It's darkly comic, and so it disarms. You're laughing away, until the emotional punch hits you: this isn't a joke. This is all true. It's about the search for redemption. It's about re-writing the script, restoring the life that should have been. It's about love and loss.

Mariella Frostrup. Photo: GERRY MOONEY
Mariella Frostrup. Photo: GERRY MOONEY

There's an unravelling moment where you realise: this is the story of all adult children of alcoholics.

Hickey's show captures the chaos that is the "normal" childhood of those who grew up with an alcoholic parent. Feargal learns from a young age to cope with the confusion of two personalities: the kind and loving parent and the unpredictable drunk. The clashing feelings of pride and shame, the shouldering of blame, the parking of emotions and the reversal of parent/child roles.

There are many of us children of alcoholics in Ireland, close to half a million, it is estimated. We can't really know because so many people will never talk about it, and understandably so. There is a social stigma to being the son or daughter of a drunk.

There is also a misguided sense of disloyalty at "telling" on the parent - which I still feel myself, even though I know alcoholism is a chronic disease, and not the sufferer's fault, and papering over the truth of a life is not the solution.

Jo Spain. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Jo Spain. Photo: Steve Humphreys

My own father Christopher Nolan died of alcoholism on March 26, 2001, at the age of 55. He suffered liver failure after decades of heavy drinking. My mother described his final descent into end-stage alcoholism as "a slow suicide". In other words, he drank himself to death.

He had been a life-force. He was wild, funny, intelligent, creative and enterprising; opinionated and political. He had talent and charm and looked like a revolutionary. He was passionate about music and history and social justice.

He had brains, a self-made business, a beautiful wife and a family - and he lost everything through alcohol addiction. The most destructive thing about it is how badly it affects those around the alcoholic.

Alcoholism within the family is a drama of domestic rows, shocks, car accidents, gardai at the door, bank trouble, hospital emergencies and treatment centres. I was often awake at night in turmoil worrying about where he could be or what could have happened to him - imagining all kinds of distressing possibilities - and at the same time apprehensive of the commotion of his return home. Drinking made him turn snide and callous; then remorseful and self-pitying the next day.

The hardest part for me is the knowledge that he was so sad and sick in his soul that he could not cope with a life without drink.

The theme of redemption is recurrent in adult children of alcoholics. The author Jo Spain, whose father Ray died in 1995, told me in an interview how she lives twice her life: her own life and the life he should have had.

"My father was the nicest, funniest, most charismatic, intelligent man when sober," she said. "But he was drinking himself to death. There was an inevitability about it. I always want to honour him. I believe this is why I am so driven."

Journalist Mariella Frostrup said she felt a "Messianic sense I could repair the damage of the past" and spent decades feeling guilt that, "I should have, or could have, saved him somehow." Her father Peter's life decreased in comfort as he went deeper into his descent - "dirty dishes and despair". She described the "supreme sadness" of knowing he was aware he was unable to help himself.

We are part of a group that is recognised by psychology as Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA). Characteristics include confusing love with pity and having relationships with those they can rescue; having difficulties with trust and intimacy; judging ourselves too harshly, while being over-forgiving of others. ACOAs have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, a trait connected with anxiety and poor mental health. We can be impulsive and secretive. We are often seen as overly serious; not easily able to relax and have fun. We are also prone to repeating the pattern, by either falling into alcoholism ourselves or into relationships with alcoholics. We have no idea what normal drinking is, or what normal family life is. I personally believe it is much harder on children whose mother is an alcoholic. I feel thankful for having a non-drinker mother who was strong enough to play the part of both parents, when alcoholism robbed me of one of them. I was also fortunate that the domestic violence and abuse that is often part of problem drinking in the home was not the case in my family.

Sometimes people ask me what seems to me a bizarre question: would I change any of it? I would change all of it. I often wonder what would have happened if he had dealt with the underlying problems - the anxiety, the depression - instead of self-medicating. Would he have had the life he deserved? Would all of us? I don't believe in regret - an unhealthy, pointless emotion - but if I could "fix" anyone, I'd fix him.

This is what Hickey's Feargal does. He reimagines himself as sober and gifts his mother back the life she should have had.

"It was my mam. She didn't look locked or dishevelled. She was glamorous with her hair done and everything. I said: 'Mam, is that really you? You look great.' And she said: 'Yeah, I stopped drinking a few months ago. And I said: 'Mam, I'm so proud of you. And she said: 'You're proud of me? I'm proud of you, son… And it was brilliant."

A former drinker who has not had alcohol in four years, 37-year-old Hickey's creation has a jarring emotional effect.

For those who have grown up with an alcoholic parent, this is a vital catharsis. For society, it opens up an important conversation that we have been reluctant to have. Go see it.

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