Saying my father was a man unwilling to change is like saying South Carolina is hot in the summer. It is such a given circumstance that discussing it was a moot point. This was driven home for me throughout my childhood and adolescence. The point was driven home when we’d take family trips to the Edisto River, even though it was clear my mother hated it; when my father was so chronically late he became infamous throughout the Palmetto state; when he’d repeatedly opt out of visiting my maternal grandparents with us; when he’d disappear and no one knew when he was coming home; and, if he did come home, he stood in front of the kitchen television set nursing glasses of bourbon radiating toxic waves that made his three children stay away.
This principle of my father’s nature was further proven when my mother, after surviving several of his marital dalliances, finally filed for divorce. My dad disappeared from our home without a trace overnight, and we got no explanation. I guess my dad never owed anyone an explanation, much less his children, and my mother was too distraught and exhausted to think straight. Honestly, things weren’t that different once he was gone, and I’m sure my mother clung to that with all her might, determined not to allow interruption in our lives, or admit defeat.
He came in and out throughout the years of my adolescence. He was much more eager to be present once I became a teenager with dynamic thoughts and experiences of my own. I went to boarding school for the arts, became disciplined and hungry, and my father would pick me up and deliver me the 200 miles to my mother’s home on extended weekends and holidays. Here is where our relationship truly began. I told him everything about my intellectual and artistic pursuits and he was more than impressed. We had golden conversations which I ate up like a child who had been starved for years. My father was finally interested in talking to me, and we had so much in common. It felt blissful to discover how to relate to him. He was not a dad. He was dad-adjacent, and that was fantastic for me.
This ‘special relationship’ manifested in dinners out whenever I was home from school, and one full day at Christmas, eventually at his home with his second wife whose hostessing was so effortful it was painful to watch. When I was a senior in college, he flew to Dallas to see the play I was in, and afterwards, took me out with my best friend and my boyfriend. That night was possibly the best time I have ever had with him. He was in his element. Alcohol-driven, performing, thrilled to be able to be a dad on his own terms – drinking with his kid and her friends.
My satisfactory relationship with my dad-adjacent father crumbled in my hands when I started to plan my wedding in 2017. My mother had taken him to court for unpaid alimony, to which the judge responded with a massive judgment against him. That must have rocked him to his core, because he started calling me in the middle of the night, drunk, asking me if I thought he was a terrible person, telling me my mother quit her job, complaining, lamenting, for which I originally tried to hold space. I thought, I can be here for him. This quickly deteriorated into an unhealthy codependence he attempted. I started to feel dread surrounding his calls, sadness, fear – I started to think he might even be suicidal. My high school boyfriend had committed suicide, and this relationship dynamic started to feel eerily familiar. Someone who is not well is depending on me to make him feel better, and I’m trying. The world felt dark. I started to feel a sense of impending doom. Anxiety stepped into my life.
Then, I started to hear the stories of his bizarre behavior. His wife began to recount instances of falling out of bed, peeing on the floor, and drinking whiskey first thing in the morning. Simultaneously, he answered the question of a father-daughter dance at my wedding with a “no.” Then, his wife kicked him out. He called me that night, drunk, at his office. I was terrified he might commit suicide. I tried to, from afar, keep him on the phone as long as I could; I tried to garner reassurance he was not going to harm himself. I couldn’t get satisfaction. I finally called a family friend who had worked with my father for decades, and she showed up at his office. She became my hero. My dad went on to live with her for a year – she gave him food, shelter, everything, when he would have otherwise been on the street.
During this time, I had my wedding, which had no father-daughter dance and from which my father left early; he expressly was trying to stop drinking but only because he wanted to return to his home with his then-wife. He called me, drunk, pleading with me to call his then-wife on his behalf. To advocate for them getting back together. I may have done it once or twice, but then, in an effort to construct a boundary, refused to do it again. I tried to stop taking his calls altogether, but contended with a constant dread that he would hurt himself or finally drink himself to death.
It wasn’t until I was in South Carolina for my mother’s wedding that I finally got tipped off to something else going on entirely. The day after my mom’s wedding, my dad planned on driving to a halfway point to see his three kids. When I spoke to him on the phone, he said he was driving but didn’t know where he was. He said he needed directions. This was impossible, because it was a route he’d driven hundreds of times in his life. I suddenly realized, in a stone-cold wash of terror, that he wasn’t just drunk. Something truly sinister was going on. I told him to stop driving and stay put. My husband and I drove and met him. His behavior was that of an alien inhabiting his body. When he looked at me, it wasn’t familiar. He wasn’t familiar and I wasn’t familiar to him. He seemed lost in some fourth dimension, going through the motions of speaking and moving as if he was controlling his motor functions from a satellite in outer space. We rushed him to the Emergency Room. He had already had several strokes and considerable brain damage due to not getting medical care on time. He already had vascular dementia.
I became his primary caregiver, and in the years since it’s been easy for me to disregard his alcoholism and focus purely on the effects of his strokes and newfound Parkinson’s disease. However, I recently read this article by Nicholas Chan published in ‘Being Patient’. Here’s a summary:
Later-Life Alcohol Abuse: A Possible Sign of Dementia
Recent research suggests that alcohol abuse can also be one of the earliest symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases, including the behavioral variant of frontotemporal dementia (bvFTD).
- About one in every 50 people with dementia had issues with alcohol abuse at the age of 40 or older, and it was much more common among those with bVFTD than Alzheimer's.
- Alcohol abuse coincided with the onset of people's neurological conditions for roughly 1 in every 60 patients with dementia.
- The researchers noted that in bvFTD, damaged regions of the brain are involved in behavior, impulse control and reward processing, and these injured brain regions could all play a role in alcohol abuse, they hypothesized.
- Considering the possibility of dementia for a patient who abuse alcohol later in life could mean finding the right diagnosis and treatment earlier.
This article stopped me in my tracks, because I’ve never seen anyone else discuss alcoholism and dementia and their blurred lines. I always blamed alcoholism for masking symptoms and signs of a stroke in my father. Consider their shared behaviors: slurred speech, falling down, falling out of bed, disorientation, amnesia, and saying things that don’t make sense. However, it also seems to make perfect sense that he began drinking so heavily (whiskey first thing in the morning) as a brain-damaged reaction to the onset of dementia.
This is huge. In the article, the clinicians who conducted the study express caution in drawing conclusions, but I am proof that this happens. My father is that one in 50 people with dementia who also began to abuse alcohol after age 40. If only his doctor had been armed with this knowledge. If his then-wife or co-workers had only been able to look at his behavior and question what was the underlying problem.
I’ve learned that it’s unfair to myself to not deal with my father’s alcohol abuse and how it hurt me. I am glad I was able to intervene when I did, but if I had more help dealing with his alcoholism, perhaps he would have gotten help sooner and wouldn’t have so much damage as a result.
That’s why I decided it’s important for I-Ally to have content to help caregivers whose loved one has addiction or alcoholism mixed in with their illness, or as a comorbidity. The article above validated my experience, and made me realize how many others may have experienced the same. Therefore, I-Ally has partnered with youturn, a company who maintains the world’s largest library of proprietary, therapist-led video content about substance misuse. Developed after engaging with 40,000 individuals through nationally-recognized, non-profit partner, FAVOR Greenville, youturn provides evidenced-based training content to individuals and enterprises. These training protocols reduce risk related to drugs and alcohol while also increasing patient and caregiver resilience and productivity.
youturn has content specifically for families of substance abusers. Knowing now that it may be a sign of dementia onset, it’s more important than ever that substance misuse stay at the forefront of difficult but vital conversations and health interventions.
You can access youturn content and learn more about youturn here.