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My Alcoholic Parents Destroyed Our Family

“I have to remind myself the cool dad I once knew doesn’t exist anymore. Now he’s just a shithead who screwed up our lives.”
Brussels, BE

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

Growing up, I saw my parents drinking booze at family dinners or on special occasions with friends. I remember these moments as fun; joyful, even. But in some families, alcohol becomes an addiction that destroys both the addict and their loved ones. What happens if one of your parents is an alcoholic and all you can do was watch? 

Caroline Depuydt, a psychiatrist and assistant medical director at Epsylon, a Brussels-based mental health centre, has seen many patients who spent their childhood with an alcoholic adult. When drinking enters the family dynamic, kids can be more exposed to violence — verbal or physical — as well as negligence. It forces them to take charge of things alone, she says, sometimes even of their own education. Every situation is different, but in general, one thing tends to stay the same: Kids with of alcoholic parents grow up feeling profoundly lonely.

Depuydt adds that children of alcoholic parents are also four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves. Genetics may play a role, but family structure can influence your beliefs and behaviour patterns – all of which can be a risk factor for subsequent addiction.


Zéphyr, Camille and Ingrid all watched a family member falling into alcoholism and were impacted by it. They agreed to share their stories under an psuedonym to protect their own and their loved ones’ privacy.

‘The thing is, you can’t save an alcoholic’

“Up to a certain age, you could say I had a happy childhood. My dad has always been the impulsive one in the family. When I was little, it was nice because he would say things like, ‘You like hot air balloons? Let’s go fly in one tomorrow!’ 

When I was 12 to 13, he decided to quit smoking. At first, he replaced his cigarettes with food, but then he turned to alcohol. He started drinking more and more often. I remember when I was a teenager – 15 or so – I didn’t really understand the problem. I just knew he started to be a pain in the ass after the second bottle of wine. He got aggressive and hurtful.

I’d see him sober for 25 minutes in the morning, then he’d come home from work at 6PM and by 7PM, he’d already finished his first bottle. He’d start his second bottle during dinner and by 8.30PM, he’d finish it. We stopped eating dinner together as a family, because it always ended in a fight or tears over something stupid. 

My younger sister and I started shutting down and made a point of being at home as little as possible. I found refuge in video games: As soon as I got home from school, I’d eat and play.


When I was 18, things really started to fall apart. One day, my dad said something like, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. I’m going to get stuck and waste my life if I stay.’ He stayed for four more months during which he’d always get totally shitfaced in the dark, in silence. By that point, he was up to two or three bottles a day. We didn’t talk once during that time – except for fighting. There was no point talking to him after 8PM anyway, because he’d never remember anything the next day. 

At some point, he started seeing specialists, but as soon as they’d tell him to go to rehab, he’d look for someone new. He even went to a psychiatrist who prescribed him painkillers. He started mixing drinks and meds, but then stopped, because it was making him ‘lose his spark’, he said.

Four months later, my dad left for good. It was sort of a relief, but he still has a certain hold on me. He sends me the weirdest emails sometimes. Some are apologies and I-love-yous, others are all ‘you’ve ruined my life’ and insults. After he left, I saw him a few more times, but I eventually stopped, because I realised I was trying to reconnect with something that wasn’t there anymore. I have to remind myself the cool dad I once knew just doesn’t exist anymore. Now he’s just a big shithead who screwed up our lives.

I used to be mad at him, but it hurt me more than anything. The thing is, you can’t save an alcoholic. Either you leave or you stay, but both options hurt. It killed me to see he didn’t realise he was living in a hole, a parallel universe. 


I think my dad’s alcoholism has affected how I’ve built my own identity, and I have to be really careful, because I don’t want to end up like him. The fact that he insulted me has affected my self-esteem. I have huge issues because of that. I think my sister struggled even more, and my mum paid the price, too. I try to be there for her as much as possible, but it’s hard to rebuild a family life after something like this.

Besides that, I just can’t stand the smell of red wine. It really disgusts me.” – Zéphyr, 23

‘I’m constantly afraid I’ll become an alcoholic’

“I never knew my dad sober; he’s been an alcoholic since uni. On the rare occasions I saw him drink water, something clicked in my head, like ‘I don’t think what I’m seeing is normal’. 

Because of him, I know every technique to open a can while driving. He used to say he drove better drunk than a young driver sober. It’s crazy how invincible alcoholics think they are.

Because he’s always been drinking so much, you can’t even tell he’s constantly drunk. I remember once he fell onto my little brother – that traumatised me because I realised he really had no control anymore.

I used to hate my father. His priorities were his job and alcohol, and we came last. I don’t think he raised me; he just gave me money. He came home from work at 7PM, ate, then went to drink, smoke and wallow on the porch. These days, I don’t hate him anymore, but I’m still mad at him. He knows he’s an alcoholic, but he doesn’t give a shit and he tells us so. I’m sure he’ll end up with health issues and my brother and I will have to take care of a vegetable.


My parents separated when I was 12. My mother left my father because of his drinking, but after their separation, she got into it, too. Early on, she’d have just one glass [of wine] while cooking, but then it was two, then three, and so on. She can’t handle alcohol at all, so after a few glasses, she becomes dumb. 

When she was still taking care of me and my brother, things were still under control because she had responsibilities. But then it got worse. There was a point when my mum was drinking all the time, every day. Sometimes, she’d drive completely smashed to go buy cigarettes, even though she couldn’t even walk properly. I remember one time, she threw up on herself while driving and we found out the next day when we saw the puke in the car.

Alcohol caused a lot of violence at my house. My mum’s addiction really pushed my stepdad to his limits. Once I had to call an ambulance because he had pushed her and she’d fallen. Some mornings, I’d come downstairs thinking we had been robbed because of the mess, but it was just my mum – she’d gone crazy because my stepdad had kept her from drinking.

Today, my mum only drinks on certain nights of the week. She’s seen specialists, but nothing’s really worked so far. But at least she’s trying, unlike my dad.

Our family dynamic still affects me. I’m constantly afraid I’ll become an alcoholic. Whenever I feel like I party a bit too much, I suddenly stop drinking for three months, to make sure I’m not hooked. My parents are still a mental burden. I’m always mentally prepared for a call announcing my mum died in a car crash, or my dad has terminal cancer.” – Camille, 23


‘It wasn’t my mum anymore’

“My parents separated when I was 13 months old and their divorce was complicated. Most of the time, I lived with my mother, and every other weekend I’d go to my dad’s. When I was at Mum's, I saw her drinking with my stepfather every day. At first, they’d drink with friends, then they started drinking with just the two of them. Alcohol quickly became an essential on the shopping list. There were a lot of cases of red wine at home. 

It took me a while to realise there was a problem. It wasn’t immediately obvious, because there was a lot of loud talking and yelling at home – a sort of commedia dell’arte vibe. So I didn’t necessarily know what was due to alcohol and what wasn’t. When I was 16, I started to see things more clearly and tried to casually bring it up, but their reaction was so cold that I realised I’d better keep my mouth shut.

My stepfather was 18 years older than my mother, so he retired earlier than her. His new routine was a glass [of wine] at 11AM. When my mum retired, that was the real descent into hell. The fire department would call me at 3AM to tell me my parents were in hospital, had fallen down the stairs, or couldn’t get out of the bath. I was so over being woken up at night. There were times my mum really drove me insane. It made me aggressive – at one point, I could’ve hit her.

When I became a mum myself [more than 20 years ago] and had my mother babysit my children, that was a turning point. When I’d call to check if everything was okay, my eight-year-old daughter would answer things like: ‘Grandma’s been asleep for hours on the sofa.’ I remember getting a call from my kids telling me they didn’t want her to come to their birthday parties anymore, because she’d fallen over and broken the table. 


I have memories of my mum finishing all the wine glasses at a Christmas dinner. Once, my son climbed onto the chair she’d been sitting on, and she’d peed on it. My daughter also recently told me her grandma once drove the wrong way up the highway and veered off the road, with the kids in the back seat.

At one point, I told her I wouldn’t let her watch the kids anymore. She was mad at me and tried to pit them against me while also telling me I could keep my ‘shitty kids’. 

In 2013, my stepfather died and the situation got worse. At that stage, she’d go around with dirty skin and messy hair. It wasn’t my mum anymore. I took to avoiding her. She was in complete denial and we couldn’t speak to each other normally. I think what separated us from each other wasn’t just her drinking, but her fear of being judged. In fact, I wasn’t judging her; I was just setting boundaries. 

She was found dead in her flat in 2016. Because she was old and an alcoholic, there was no autopsy, but I think it was suicide by alcohol – she wanted to join my stepfather. It’s hard to watch someone sink like that. I was mad at her for a long time. I think being angry allowed me not to be sad. Today, I’m finally at peace and I can remember my mum as I knew her before the drinking.

Luckily, I’m not drawn to drink myself. I’ve only been drunk two or three times in my life and I can’t handle alcohol well. Last time it happened, I was sick for the next three days – my kids love to remind me of that. I think I also avoid people who drink too much – I don’t have any in my circle and my husband doesn’t drink.

My kids and I have a transparency policy: I’d rather they tell me about their nights, even if it’s not always easy to hear, than hide things from me. They know they can talk to us about anything. Who knows if our relationship will always be like this, but I'm lucky it's the case while they're young.” – Ingrid, 50