For as long as Tanvi can remember, her father used to drink. It was a fact of her life. Her father drank. Socially at first, but soon, he was drinking every day, at home or outside, despite her mother’s increasingly aggressive opposition — a glass, a pint, a bottle. It took a toll on her parents’ already volatile marriage.
Tanvi’s parents came from vastly different backgrounds. Her father Atul hailed from the slums of Mumbai and severed contact with his family at an early age. Her mother Jyoti was raised in a typical middle-class family by a strict father who instilled in her a very rigid sense of right and wrong — it was all black and white, with little room for ambiguity.
Atul and Jyoti married very young, and their personalities and backgrounds meant they were unprepared for the challenges of marriage and parenthood.
Tanvi was three when her parents first began to live apart. After a particularly nasty fight, her mother took her and moved in with Tanvi’s maternal grandparents. Tanvi’s parents barely had any contact for the next few years. Sometime during that first separation, her father moved from Mumbai to Abu Dhabi, and Tanvi and her mother moved back into the apartment they had lived in with him. For roughly the next half decade, Tanvi grew up without a father.
When Tanvi was about 10, her parents, who had gradually re-established contact, decided to try and live together again. They discussed Jyoti and Tanvi moving to Abu Dhabi, and even started on the visa procedure.
But in the years that he lived alone, Atul’s drinking problem had worsened. An introvert with few friends, he tended to internalise and suppress his worries rather than share them. Whenever he visited them in Mumbai, Tanvi’s parents’ fights worsened. Home swung between being a warm, loving place and a warzone. Her mother became increasingly vicious and vituperative, and her father stayed increasingly silent and drank some more.
Every fight felt like the final one, and Tanvi would cry in the bathroom, not knowing whether her family would still be together when it ended or whether her parents would decide to divorce for good.
Tanvi took upon herself the responsibility of keeping her family together as much as she could. On her father’s visits home, she tried to ensure that he consumed food and not just alcohol. For her mother, Tanvi became the shoulder to cry on. At an age when most girls’ lives are about Disney and dolls, Tanvi became marriage counsellor, mediator, confidante and caregiver.
Trying to hold the family together also skewed Tanvi’s perception of right and wrong, because whatever kept the family happy became the right thing to do, and whatever did not was wrong.
The breaking point came when Tanvi’s maternal grandfather, Shriram, died. Atul and Jyoti were both devastated. Jyoti had always been closer to her father than her mother. And for Atul, who had long cut ties with his own parents, Shriram had become like a father. Their grief caused Tanvi’s parents to lash out at each other in one of the worst fights she had seen.
Tanvi’s parents made up after the fight, and her father quit his job in Abu Dhabi to move back to India to live with his family. But, having lived away for so long he couldn’t find work in Mumbai, and they soon began having financial troubles. Her mother became the sole breadwinner, and struggled to provide for the family. This added to the already existing tension between them.
Atul’s drinking worsened so much that even treatment couldn’t help control it. The medicines made him vomit, and since the stress of their situation aggravated Jyoti’s moods, Tanvi was the one looking after her father in addition to dealing with her mother.
Tanvi’s relationship with her parents deteriorated. Circumstances forced her to become a parent to her own father and mother. Struggling to handle her family’s turmoil, Tanvi resorted to several unhealthy coping mechanisms as a young adult, including drinking, smoking, promiscuousness and even self harm.
The two years that Tanvi’s father stayed with them were filled with the constant fear of what the next day would bring.
When Tanvi turned 18, her father returned to live in Abu Dhabi. Unable to hold a job for long due to his alcoholism, he died there a few years later.
Her father’s drinking and her parents’ volatile marriage had a profound impact on Tanvi. As an only child, she had no one to turn to, and grew up feeling ashamed, frightened, and lonely. Her mother initially tried to shield her from the worst of the situation. But children are perceptive, and since Tanvi’s family life was largely dominated by her parents’ issues, she felt unwanted and unloved. Like so many children in such situations, Tanvi blamed herself for her father’s drinking, her parents’ separation, and her family’s problems.
The social stigma surrounding alcoholism meant neither Tanvi nor Jyoti could approach relatives for support. Today, Tanvi’s biggest regret is that they didn’t have access to professional help during their ordeal. Whatever help they did get via Atul’s treatment focused on him. There was no support available for Tanvi and Jyoti, who were the caregivers in this situation.
Tanvi found solace in books and friends, both of which helped her endure and survive the worst. It was only the support of her friends — something her father never had — that prevented her from going off the deep end. Going abroad for her higher studies had a huge impact because she was physically removed from the situation and could finally focus on herself and her needs.
While Tanvi is fully aware of her own limits with alcohol, her reaction to other people’s excessive drinking was, for the longest time, characterised by intense anxiety. She didn’t know what to expect from them — vomiting, violence, or vicious words.
Today, despite her distressing childhood, Tanvi is a successful working woman. Part of it stems from her own strength of will and the determination not to let her past affect her future. But, she says, recognising the need for — and reaching out for — professional support also played a huge part in who she is today.
“Alcoholism impacts more than just the person suffering from it,” she says. “And it is not always possible nor desirable for the caregiver to remove themselves from the situation.”
While her father was the patient, it was she and her mother who dealt with the brunt of the consequences, both at home and outside. Access to caregiver support would have gone a long way in alleviating their situation and helping them cope.
“So take professional help and support. Ask for it. And be open to it and accept it when it is given. As a caregiver, you deserve it, and you need it. It will help you cope.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.