I am sitting on the couch in front of the TV. We are all there as a family, all except my father. We are sitting with eyes glued to the television set, watching our favourite program Sons and Daughters.
I hear it as background noise. The scraping of his chair, the clearing of his throat, the opening of the pantry door and the stream from the cask as it hits the side of the vegemite glass.
But I am counting all the same. That’s three so far. He’s finished his dinner. We’d already eaten but dad always sat alone at the dinner table later, after he’d got home from work, with the paper and his vegemite glass, sitting behind us, sometimes muttering under his breath at the mindless shit we were watching on TV.
He’d shake his head and go back to the paper.
Tonight’s a quiet night, nothing of what’s on TV has riled dad too much. Yesterday was different. Yesterday it was the Labor party. I didn’t know much about the Labor Party except that they, whoever they were, would ruin the country. I knew Bob Hawke of course, everyone knew Bob Hawke, he was the Prime Minister, the most important person in the country, everyone loved Hawkey but I was too young to really make the connection between Hawkey and the Labor Party. All I knew was that last night was a six glass night and we were on the topic of politics.
Spit would fly from his mouth, “Do these blokes even know what they are doing? They’re gonna fuck this country, I tell you what. Go on, why don’t you cry Hawkey, a bunch of pussies, the fuckin’ lot of them,” there was the shake of his head, the way he pinched his bottom lip between his teeth in disgust as one of us, I don’t know who, it never mattered who, stupidly tried a retort and before we knew it the cutlery would clatter on the plate as his fist came down hard on the table. “What the fuck would you know.”
Six glass nights were often finished with one or two straight whiskeys as a nightcap.
These words might not be exact, and it wasn’t always about politics, there was women in the office (they were cry babies too), clients who didn’t know a good idea if it bit them in the arse, the Cats (they were also pussies, ironic I know), family, friends, it didn’t matter. I counted the glasses and I learnt to stay quiet.
I had just turned 13, the first time I was allowed to drink. It was New Year’s Eve and we were camping on the banks of the Hume Weir.
I remember the heat was stifling and carried on through the night as it always did at this time of year. The group had made a circle with their cars for us all to party inside the ring. A trailer was backed up to the circle and filled with ice and drinks for the party.
My cousin and I were bought West Coast Coolers for the occasion. She was two years older than me, but I was always permitted to do what she was doing. I can’t remember now who bought them and I can’t remember how many, I only know that we were allowed to have it.
I had tasted alcohol before, a sip here and there of dad’s beer or wine, but this was the first time I had my own. I was finally old enough to be included, within reason of course, it was only West Coast after all.
It didn’t taste like the alcohol I’d had before. None of those tastes had appealed to me. This cooler, it was super sweet, cordial sweet and delicious. I savoured every mouthful and shared it only sparingly with some of the other kids in our group as we sat just outside the circle and played Truth Dare behind the cars. The party was cranking up inside the circle, music blaring, the adults drinking and dancing as we dared each other to kiss for three seconds. On my tongue was the taste of cooler, it was like eating a whole packet of Juicy Fruit all at once, and as I worked through my share of coolers I felt giddy and lightheaded waiting to be dared to kiss the cutest boy in the group.
The next day I played the part, I had partied hard well past midnight and the next day was all about recovery from the revelry of the night before.
Some of the adults talked about who stayed up until stumps. No doubt Dad was among them, up until sunrise, “solving the world’s problems,” I was told. Wow! What a big task. The adults shared lots of giggles and laughs, lots of sore heads and sideways glances.
I saw the boy, the one I wanted to kiss. We didn’t end up getting dared but at midnight he kissed me on the lips longer than a standard peck and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“How are you?” he asked.
“Pretty rough,” I said. I was chewing on a dry piece of bread. “Can’t manage more than this piece of bread, feeling a bit sick.” But that was a lie, I felt perfectly fine.
“Yeah, me too, got the dry horrors,” he said. He was sitting back relaxed on his BMX, swinging the handlebars left to right.
“Me too,” I said.
“Can’t be too bad if you’re eating dry bread,” he said.
Busted. Lesson learnt. When hungover you can’t eat dry bread. My face reddened. This boy was a year older than me and I desperately wanted to appear cool, but cool I was not, I didn’t know what a real hangover was.
“Catch you later,” he said. I was crushed.
By the time I was 14 I had graduated to drinking Southern Comfort and Coke, but only at parties, usually with my older cousin and her friends, not my own friends, they weren’t into drinking yet, but I told them my stories.
By 16 I was drinking rocket fuel with my friends. I made it from what I found in the bar at home. It was on the sly of course and it was completely unremarkable, we were all doing it.
When I was in Year 12, before I turned 18 and was officially old enough to drink Mum was away overseas and I had a get together at home with my friends. Dad was there, when we ran out of grog he supplied more. He sat up drinking with us late into the night.
“Your Dad is so cool,” my friends said.
And he was at these times, we had a lot of fun. Drinking like this, before the legal age, was completely normal. By this time I had stopped counting the drinks, because if I was to count his, to be fair, I should have also counted my own.
It’s Friday night, the first week of Febfast, I walk in the door with the kids behind me, plonk my keys and bag down and don’t know what to do with myself.
Normally I would head straight for the fridge for my first well-earned Friday-night drink. A cider, a G&T, a wine, it didn’t matter, but I looked forward to that drink from the minute I logged off the computer at work.
The usual routine would be drink first, then sort dinner. I didn’t do this during the week. There is no cask in my pantry so surely there is nothing wrong with a few drinks on a Friday night. Is there? I could easily finish a bottle of wine on my own on a Friday night – even if I was on my own with no one to drink with. And I would wake up fine the next morning, no hangover. That’s what Dad used to say too, that he was lucky, he didn’t suffer from hangovers.
It’s hard, to resist. But it’s week one, how bad would it be if I caved already? So I found things to do, a couple of loads of washing, tidying the house, I started a Febfast journal, I cooked a meal rather than get take-away and I looked forward to Saturday morning.
By Sunday, after one weekend of not drinking, my head felt amazingly clear, I was brimming over with energy and I felt I couldn’t possibly have milked any more out of my weekend.
“Wow, you look amazing,” a colleague said to me. This was after one week of Febfast.
“Yeah, I feel great, actually I can’t believe how good I feel already.”
Febfast for me was just an experiment, how hard would it be to give up alcohol if I had no reason too? How would I feel after one month off the booze?
The results are in, I stuck it out and lasted the month. After just one month I have broken many of my drinking habits. Many but not all.
During the month I experienced the best, most refreshing sleep I can remember, I lost weight, I had more energy and so was more active being able to go from running zero kilometres to five kilometres non-stop (yes, just in the space of one-month), emotionally I felt calmer and more able to deal with stressful situations, sleeping better meant I was less cranky, more exercise meant I felt happier, feeling less stressed meant I felt more able to cope with extreme demands of work, kids, running a household. I spent more sober hours in my studio, writing, painting, drawing. There were so many pluses I found it hard to find reasons to drink.
After a particularly stressful day at work last week another colleague said to me: “Pour yourself a very large glass of wine when you get home!”
“Ha! Yeah,” I said, but actually it was the last thing I felt like.
It’s Saturday morning and I am tired and cranky. My head has a dull ache. Fabfast month is over and I had a few too many drinks last night.
I slept terribly, waking up many times throughout the night as my body processed the alcohol and in the morning my brain is in a fog. I don’t have the energy to do much at all and I snap at the kids.
I am taken back to the last bad hangover I had, only recently after a big drinking session over the Christmas break with friends.
My son said something like “Cool, it’s a hangover day, that means we get to just watch TV all day,”
At my Dad’s funeral one comment I heard many times was “He lived life to the full”.
And I always agreed: “Yeah, he did”.
We toasted dad well over many red wines and talked openly as a family about the good times and also the hard times.
But now I wonder, did he live life to the full? I want to know if he had any regrets about his drinking but I can’t ask him.
What would he have done better or differently if he hadn’t been a drinker?
Anyone who knew my dad knows he was an intelligent man, a particularly talented artist who was always the life of the party.
But alcohol was his vice. It had control of him, not the other way around. How did it all start for him? I will never know. What I am struck with about my dad was that there was so much about his drinking that was excessive, to the point of being destructive at times, but also completely normal.
It’s a bigger reflection about our society and how much over-consumption is accepted as the norm – indeed, there is something wrong with you if you don’t indulge in over-consumption at times.
All our milestones are marked with it, 18th birthdays, 21st birthdays, weddings, funerals – these days even kids’ parties.
Our teenage right-of-passage is the first time we get drunk, and how many more of those teenage firsts happen under the influence of alcohol?
Alcohol has had a big impact on my life, from a young age. I now have a love/hate relationship with it and struggle to stop drinking when I start. Do I have regrets? Yes, I do, many. Do I want something different for my kids? Yes, I do. Of course I do.
Karina, it is wonderful that you are able to write these experiences from your life with Dad, I can fully understand the trials and tribulations you have experienced in his time with you.
It will also ultimately give you peace of mind as you grow older and see your kids come to the same cross roads in their life with understanding the need or not to drink.
I congratulate you with your writing.
A talent not everyone has.
Carel de Boer
Thankyou Carel, your words mean a lot to me.