When I was growing up in Scotland, drinking was a rite of passage — and, as it did with me, typically started around age 13. During my teenage years, I associated alcohol with the good times: birthdays, house parties and summer holidays.
It wasn’t until I left home for college that my drinking took a dark turn.
In the U.K., the student experience is centered heavily around going out to the pub and getting drunk. I stayed in the dorms during my first year, living with other students in a culture of binge drinking. If you wanted to make friends, then you had to be comfortable with drinking.
While many enjoyed their nights out and still made their way to class the next day, I was often still drinking. Alcohol stopped being about the social aspect for me — in fact, I preferred drinking alone.
My time at university was very isolating. I was socially awkward, found it difficult to make friends, and used alcohol to escape loneliness and provide comfort as I sat alone in my room. Drinking began to take priority over everything else in my life.
As my alcohol abuse worsened, I dropped out of university and moved back to my hometown with a girl I had met while working a bar job. It was my first relationship, but looking back, I think we mostly found comfort in each other.
We had been together for five years when she found out that she was pregnant.
When I learned I was going to be a dad, I felt genuine happiness, something that I hadn’t experienced in a long time.
We stayed together during the pregnancy, and I helped her out — when I was sober enough. By that point, I was drinking a liter of vodka a day. I only left the house to go to work, which was in a dingy restaurant across the road where no one cared that I smelled like booze. I had cut off the few friends I had, and drinking myself into unconsciousness became the norm. When my wages were spent, I turned to my parents for money. I would lie about why I needed the extra cash, telling them that my shifts had been cut at work or that I needed help with bills.
However, the single biggest consequence of my drinking was the way I treated the mother of my child. I would get irritated, start arguments over nothing and call her terrible names. It was inexcusable behavior, but that’s what addiction does — it turns us into the very worst versions of ourselves.
When Neil was born, his mother and I were still together, but things between us deteriorated quickly after his birth. I developed postnatal depression — which was, of course, exacerbated by my drinking — and she had to look after our newborn child almost entirely alone. Instead of using those first few months to bond with my son, I chose to sit in our bedroom drinking myself into oblivion.
Neil’s mum had finally had enough and left me when Neil was about 6 months old. She told me that I could see Neil whenever I wanted, but she urged me to get help. However, at the time, I refused to accept that my drinking was a problem.
When he was 2, Neil was over one day and amusing himself with his toys on the living room floor. I playfully asked him, “Do you love Dad?”
He stopped, locked his eyes on me and clearly replied, “No.”
I had always struggled to deal with my emotions and usually resorted to suppressing the hell out of them. But at that moment, I couldn’t stop the tears from pouring. I wasn’t just crying because I had failed my son, but I was also ― for the first time — accepting the fact that I was an addict, and I needed help.
As much as it pains me to say, Neil’s response to my question didn’t come as a total shock. So far in his life, his dad was someone who was always yelling ― because I was either hungover or still drunk from the night before — and showed him almost no affection.
I rarely cuddled him, hardly ever said “I love you,” and I almost never played with him because I was usually lying on the couch, nursing a splitting headache.
On one occasion, Neil was supposed to be getting dropped off by his mom, but I had gotten blackout drunk the night before and didn’t answer the door. I eventually came to when I heard an even louder knock, which was enough to get me on my feet to stagger over and see who it was.
When I opened the door, I saw two police officers. They had been asked to do a wellness check after receiving a worried call from my mother. As it turned out, I had been drunk-calling people all night in some sort of cry for help.
I have no recollection of that night. And yet, I still carried on drinking.
Children learn what love is from their parents, and today when I think back to that moment when Neil said he didn’t love me, I realize that it’s because he wasn’t sure if I loved him. His mom had shown him what it meant to be loved, and he knew he wasn’t getting that from me.
After accepting that I had a drinking problem, my mom was the first person I reached out to. She told me that she had been waiting for this call for a long time, and was so pleased I was finally accepting that I had an addiction and needed help. As well as my weekly 12-step meetings, my mum has been my crutch during recovery.
Seeing Neil for the first time after getting sober is a moment that will stay with me forever because I was finally able to give him something that he deserved from the start: a dad. I was no longer an empty shell of a person, focused only on feeding my habit. I was sober and ready to be a dad that my son could love.
Today, my son looks forward to staying with me, running into my arms with a smile on his face when he’s dropped off. I take him on days out, we play with his toys together, we laugh, we cuddle, I read him bedtime stories, and I kiss him good night. Neil now tells me that he loves me because he knows that I love him, and I tell him so every day.
After only months of sobriety, I know there’s a long road ahead, and recovery hasn’t been without its challenges. But focusing all my efforts on rebuilding my relationship with my son and being the best dad I can be has given me a purpose in life that alcohol had deprived me of for too long.
There’s one thing, more than any other, that is keeping me sober, and that’s having a son who says, “I love you, Dad.”
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.