Monday 21 October 2019

My dad, the alcoholic: BBC NI reporter Richard Morgan on father who drank himself to death

David Morgan, one of the most respected journalists of his generation, drank himself to death after his wife Tina died in 2015. His son Richard, a BBC NI reporter, set out to find why he chose alcohol over the family that loved him. Leona O'Neill reports

Richard Morgan as a boy with his father
Richard Morgan as a boy with his father

Leona O'Neill

David Morgan was one of the most highly respected journalists of his generation. The 56-year-old Belfast man was one of the best-known journalists in Northern Ireland. In a career that spanned three decades, he worked at the Irish News, BBC Northern Ireland and UTV. When he retired in 2011, he was a news editor with Citybeat.

David was known for his meticulous attention to detail. He was one of the contributors to the book Lost Lives, the definitive record of people killed during the Troubles, and reported on much of that era's violence in his career.

But his work and his empathy came at a huge personal cost. He suffered, like many so journalists, from post-traumatic stress disorder.

He was a professional and respected journalist, but behind closed doors he battled with alcohol issues that only his close family knew of.

After his wife Tina died in 2015, intense grief and alcoholism took their toll on his body. The drink would eventually kill him, just one year later.

Now his son Richard, a journalist with BBC Northern Ireland, has embarked on a personal and at times excruciatingly painful journey to find peace in the wake of his father's death for a new Radio Ulster programme to be broadcast tomorrow.

In Stories In Sound: Under the Influence, Richard talks poignantly to his father at his graveside about how he feels.

He speaks to a number of other people whose lives were affected by their parents' alcohol addiction and wonders if any of them can ever come to terms with the damage that was caused by someone they loved.

As he stands at his parent's grave, he speaks of his anger at his father for choosing alcohol over him and his ongoing struggle to forgive him.

"Dad, I'm still very angry with you," Richard says. "I'm more angry than I thought I was. I think I've tried to keep it at bay, or tried to get on with life, but I was not sharing milestones in my life with you.

"I want to forgive you, but it's very difficult when you can't have a conversation with someone. But I also hope that you will forgive me as well for not understanding your illness, for saying the things that I said and for the arguments."

Richard says that, over the three-year period since his father's death, he has felt everything from intense sadness to intense anger.

He stresses his hugely respected father had many good points but loved alcohol above everything else.

"David Morgan was good at his job," Richard says. "He reported throughout the Troubles. He was kind, he was thoughtful, he had a very dry sense of humour and was fun.

"He had asthma and he smoked too much. He enjoyed fishing and liked to paint. He was a great cook - his chilli recipe still goes down a treat in my house - and he liked listening to the Eagles.

"He loved me and he loved my mum, but the thing he loved most of all was the thing that ended up killing him. Dad loved a drink. He was an alcoholic."

Richard tells the Radio Ulster programme that in the wake of his father's death he was "sad that he was gone but angry with him for going", explaining that he also felt "ashamed for the way he died".

"Our relationship drowned in Dad's drinking," he says. "Our time after my mum's death was terrible and I've been left with so many questions. Will I always feel this way? Can I ever forgive him for choosing drinking over me?"

These questions sent Richard on a quest to find other people like him who have been adversely affected by their parent's drinking.

He talks to Catherine, whose father was also alcohol-dependent. The two speak of their experiences, of the years of hurt, upset, fear and unhappiness.

Richard tells Catherine about having every ounce of sympathy he had tested to the limit.

"I would have been coming home from work and Dad would have fallen and I'd be picking him up off the floor," he says.

"I remember a time I thought he had broken his ribs and he was bleeding. I told him that we needed to go to A&E and he just laughed at me. I got irrationally angry and thought 'You know what? If that's how you feel, be in pain. I just can't keep doing this'.

"I think sometimes I almost felt that I had lost the last bit of my humanity. Whatever was happening, the anger and the embarrassment was more overriding than the sympathy around my loved one being in pain. I kept thinking 'I can't believe you are doing this to me again'."

The two converse about detaching themselves emotionally from situations to protect themselves, being constantly left to pick up the pieces and being retraumatised every time they went home.

Richard says that in his dad's early journalistic career, the pub was "his office", where he'd meet contacts and find stories. He says that, after his mum's death, his dad spiralled into an alcoholic abyss from which he would never emerge.

"He'd always enjoyed a glass or two when I was growing up," he says. "It seemed normal. But things got worse after mum died. Dad was devastated, he was heartbroken. There was an emptiness about him after that. He was there, but he wasn't.

"Every day, his drinking seemed to increase - beer, wine, Bacardi. His life and mine began to unravel. Why did he choose drink over everything else?"

Richard speaks to Elizabeth, whose mother has an alcohol problem. She talks of walking on eggshells and not knowing what was ahead of her when she came home from school.

She remembers cooking her own Christmas dinner at 12 years old and wrapping her own Christmas presents as a child as her mother lay drunk on the sofa. She says she has now cut ties with her mother and has found peace, something Richard says he is still seeking.

"I have found myself thinking about my dad in a softer way," he says.

"That things were just pretty bad for him and he wasn't well. He couldn't help it.

"And I think that is helping me move towards viewing him, or at least alcohol, differently in a way I didn't think I was ready to. I would say I was there yet."

Going back to one of his father's old haunts, The Duke of York pub in Belfast city centre, Richard meets psychologist Gillian Shorter.

He tells her he wants to forgive his father, but he also wants forgiveness for "at times being so intolerant of him". He speaks of one of the last arguments the two had before his father died when Richard told him he was a "bad dad", something he feels he didn't get to resolve.

"I didn't mean it," he says. "And I know what he said to me, he didn't mean. I'd just like him to know that."

Richard speaks to Decky, a former heavy drinker. He tries to reconcile his emotions by asking if Decky chose alcohol over loved ones.

The two talk about how people outside addiction find it hard. Decky tells him that "when the addict does get at you, it's all about you, nothing else matters, it's just me, me, me".

With those various views in his mind, Richard finds himself back at his father's grave, speaking to him of his quest and his findings, with a softer heart.

"I think I've come further in two weeks than the three years since you've been gone," he says to his gravestone.

"I don't feel as angry as I did and I'm more accepting that you weren't well and you didn't choose to do this to yourself. It was an illness. And if things could have been different, they would have.

"I'm happy that you are at peace, because you weren't when you were living and drinking the way you were. I just feel a lot better and warmer about you and it's nice to have that."

Belfast Telegraph

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