Norrie T MacDonald: Grief “legitimised my downward spiral”

NorrieT MacDonaldIn an honest and frank account Norrie T MacDonald, our regular golf columnist, details his battle with alcoholism

The last time I laid eyes on my father, he was in a position I’d only ever seen him in once before in my life. He was on his back, and he was perfectly still.

Previous to this, the last time I saw him so prone was after the car accident which claimed the sight of an eye. That time, too, he had a sheet drawn up around his neck, only then it was covered with his recently-spilled blood. None of us is used to seeing the dominant male in our lives so vulnerable, and indeed it does come as a huge shock.

That last time, however, he was wrapped in the coffin which would carry him to his grave.

The ornate satin fittings of the interior, the handiwork of the undertaker, had never caught my eye so keenly before. I had never been this close to the ultimate finality.

I hadn’t realised quite how snug a fit it was, how little room (and why should there be any more than just enough?) for manoeuvre was afforded.

I bent over him and touched his face. It was very grey and very cold.

Only a couple of days previously I had knelt over him, pushing on his chest for all I was worth and trying to breathe the ebbing life back into him.

I felt as numb then as I feel now writing this.

Only then, 20 years ago, my feelings were anaesthetised through drink.

The funeral was a blur of activity, visitors, condolences, cups of tea and lots of excuses to feel sorry for myself.

I was a drunk and I had lost my father; why wouldn’t the world immediately stop to offer me sympathy and understand how utterly devastated I was.

Never mind the pain of my mother, that of my two brothers, his own brother and two sisters-in-law. Never mind the bewilderment of the two grandchildren (my own son and daughter) who had witnessed his crumpling to the ground from our kitchen window as he changed a wheel on our car that fateful Monday morning.

”Tha d’athair air tuiteam, tha d’athair sios,” my mother had screamed through the house, a certain knowledge in her cry that all was already lost. He hadn’t been well. She knew.

In the years following, I was oblivious to the devastation his death had wrought on my own doorstep. Still drinking, still a drunk, already an alcoholic, mine was the life disproportionately affected by ‘our’ loss.

In my warped mind I wanted the grief to be mine, and mine alone, so that I could legitimise my downward spiral. Everyone would understand. ‘Poor Norrie, he’s inconsolable’.

Never mind the fact that I was already a mess, long before the death of my father. In my selfishness I thought I could claim our family’s loss as my own.

The cailleach would be fine – after all, she was made of good stuff and Lewis women coped, didn’t they?

We never talked about it. She had lost her partner for life, the father of her children. I had never considered how alone she would feel for the rest of her life; after all, I was at home, she still had me.

Instead of helping her with her grief, through her loss, I became an even more intolerable burden.

Luckily, I managed, several years down the line and before she disowned me, to get myself somewhat sober and passably ‘normal’.

But, and this but is the huge elephant in the room, I can never undo who I was then and what I had become before the death of my father.

He went to his grave sure in the knowledge that I was a failure, a disappointment, a fool.

Football, and our common history having played for Point FC, had given us a special bond before my untimely ‘retirement’ through drink. Even though he thought I was useless, I’m sure that secretly he loved to see me falling over at Garrabost. For our whole family, ‘playing for the red jersey’ was a huge deal.

Luckily he saw his three sons manage, with varying degrees of success, to don the crimson.

I managed, in every other aspect of my life as well, to go very quickly from hero to zero through my alcoholism. At work, as a husband and father, amongst my closest friends and my own immediate family, things reached rock-bottom.

For a period I went through the common, cyclical, patterns of behaviour so predictable in the drunk.

I was a failure, therefore I was depressed. I could never atone myself in the eyes of my father (certainly not now), therefore I was depressed. I drank to feel better and afterwards I felt depressed.

The wonderful solution was to stay drunk and avoid depression. It was my problem, my issue, my depression. How dare anyone else claim it was affecting them; after all, through my kaleidoscope they each had normal, perfect, non-alcoholic lives. How could I possibly be affecting them?

The pebble is never aware of the size, or the distance, carried by the ripple.

I could never make things right, so what was the point of trying?

I HAVE BEEN to have CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) whilst filming a programme (‘Trusadh’) I was involved with along with other addicts.

We investigated the underlying reasons behind my drinking and I like to think I was honest enough to lay all of my cards on the table.

There were myriad reasons behind my destructive relationship with alcohol and I speak today about just one of them in the hope that someone reads this, understands what I am trying to say, and does something about their own issues before things get too late.

Fathers – mothers, too, obviously – are a hugely-important part in the psyche of the average Hebridean male. Our relationships with them can be massively influential and defining.

I never tire of hearing my mother telling me, when I inadvertently trigger a memory, or folk who knew my father, when I display an inherited characteristic, saying: “Tha thu co coltach ri d’athair.” I’m one of the very lucky ones and I know it.

I’m as ‘sorted’ about my past and the present as I’ll probably ever be.

I inhabit a very good place thanks, in the main, to my family. Herself and the dog are a bonus.

It’s okay, in fact it’s quite wonderful and sometimes brilliant. I can cope, nearly effortlessly, when it’s not, because I never forget who and what I am.

I don’t need, or want, anyone’s sympathy. To anyone out there who is struggling with alcohol and hiding from their reality by diving into a bottle whenever the honest appraisal of their situation makes them feel helpless, please read this and think again. If you are running away from your failures and going around in a cycle of drink and depression, there is a solution, however unpalatable it may be.

Go to an AA meeting and take it from there. It may not be your cup of tea (no pun intended), but the chances of you succeeding in giving up drinking on your own are broadly similar to those of bombing Syria being the solution to preventing moslem extremists carrying out further atrocities.

I haven’t been to a meeting for many years, yet I know who it was who put me on the ‘road to recovery’.

Staying stopped is the only important, and initially most difficult, bit.

Yes, this whole process has been cathartic for me; even this brief plea to folks who are still banging their heads at a brick wall of their own making.

Accepting your own shortcomings is one thing, making amends for them entirely another.

Even the most ‘ablach’ alcoholic has moments of clarity when they understand, entirely, their situation. They come often to that fork in the road. Every one of them has the ability to, one day, choose the different route.

Before it’s too late. Before they can no longer say ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m sorry’.

And, folks, here’s the surprise: you don’t need to be an alcoholic to say it.

Say it today.