Christmas is hell when your parents drink: In Worcester, a counselling service is helping young people to cope with the alcohol problems of those who are closest to them. Chris Arnot reports

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Indy Lifestyle Online
CHRISTMAS was always a particularly tense time when Pam lived at home. There would be the inevitable call from the local casualty department. Her father had fallen over and hurt himself again after one social function or another.

On Christmas Eve she would lie awake, not with excitement but with dread. Eventually she would hear the commotion of his homecoming, the heated arguments with her mother, the clatter of something he had knocked over, the sound of him being violently sick.

When sober, her father could be delightful company. Pam remembers him bringing home exotic presents. 'He once bought me a doll that was as big as me.' It was a peace offering, compensation for his behaviour the previous night. The gifts rarely appeared at Christmas. At Christmas he was drunk, not just much, but most of the time.

Pam is in her forties, composed, articulate and outgoing. But memories of her heavy-drinking father, now dead, can still cause her distress. She talks about him with head down, plucking at the ends of her fingers.

She knows her childhood experiences are all too common. We are talking at the headquarters of Support for Children of Adult Drinkers (Scad) in Worcester. Set up with a grant from Children in Need, it remains the only service of its kind in the country.

Graham Fanti, director of the city's Alcohol Advisory Service, applied for funding when he saw a need that was plainly not being met. 'There was help for drinkers and their partners,' he says, 'but nothing for the children and young people affected by it. I was having to say, 'There's nothing we can do for you until your Mum or Dad stop drinking.' '

He managed to get pounds 43,000, enough to fund a part-time project for two years. It opened on 26 October after extensive preparation involving the installation of telephone help lines and the recruitment and training of volunteers to staff them.

The Scad co-ordinator, Gill Hollyn, scoured schools, colleges and clubs. She contacted probation officers, social workers and other agencies that have contact with young people.

Eventually she recruited 13 volunteers, of whom six have successfully come through training as counsellors. All are aged between 18 and 25. All have close relatives who are heavy drinkers. All are committed to offering support and advice to young people with similar problems.

Their stories are grim testimony to the potential effects of excessive alcohol on family life. One young woman remembers a childhood Christmas afternoon watching EastEnders with a bowl of corn flakes because her mother was too drunk to cook the turkey. She also knows what it is like to sit around hospital corridors while Mum's stomach is being pumped.

Others talk of embarrassment and cover-ups - discovering the sherry in the coffee cup; rushing to clear away bottles before friends come round; trying to glue smashed ornaments back together; the shame of being in school when Mum bursts into the classroom screaming abuse.

Parents are not the only culprits. For Lisa, the problem is her older brother. He is 26, unemployed, and living with their mother, from whom he regularly borrows money to spend on drink. Rarely does he pay her back. For most of the day he sits watching television with a can of lager wedged in his right hand.

Lisa is six years younger and away at college. She was not looking forward to the Christmas vacation. 'I'm going because Mum needs support,' she says. 'It's very tense at home because of his drinking. Everybody tries to ignore it, but I won't. Why should my mother work hard to keep him in drink?

'We used to get on really well until he started drinking, when he was 17. He does it because he lacks confidence. It makes him angry, arrogant and snappy. And when I confront him about it, he says I know nothing about his problems. He's full of self-pity.'

Susan, like Lisa, is a 20-year-old student. She works in a pub three nights a week because she needs the money. But she does not drink herself. Seeing the effect it had on her father has put her off for life.

'It was just frightening. He was a very intelligent man, a salesman, but you couldn't reason with him. The work would get on top of him and he'd spend the whole day in the pub.

'He kept losing jobs. We moved 15 times in less than 20 years. There was no stability in the home. It's left me very insecure. I find it very hard to trust anybody.'

As a child she incurred physical abuse when her father would come home drunk, try to play with her too boisterously and drop her because he lacked any control. Cases of violence or abuse that come to light through the Scad helpline are referred to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

'In practical terms, there's not a lot we can do,' Mr Fanti says. 'The emphasis is not on confronting the parent but trying to help the young person cope through the support of those who have had similar experiences.'

Some of the callers prefer to remain voices at the end of a phone line. Others will agree to face-to-face counselling at the Scad office, a friend's house or some other neutral ground.

Ms Hollyn points out that one in three of those who come from families with a drink problem are likely to develop one themselves. 'Part of our work is to try to break that cycle. A lot of young teenagers in this situation are vehemently against alcohol. But by the time they're old enough to get served in a pub, the pendulum has often swung the other way. We try to educate them about the social context in which alcohol can be acceptable.'

Scad's work also involves a certain amount of assertiveness training. Youngsters are taught how to say no when a drunken parent arrives in a car to pick them up from school. They are encouraged not to make it easy for Mum or Dad to drink by covering up for them. Looking after brothers and sisters, clearing up the bottles, doing the shopping are all discouraged.

'At the same time,' says Ms Hollyn, 'our counsellors can help them to overcome feelings of guilt, anger and rejection in a safe environment. A lot of them feel very disloyal to their parents. But it doesn't seem so bad if they're talking to people of their own age who know what they've been through.'

An extensive lifestyle survey in the Worcester area (population 246,000) has led the Alcohol Advisory Service to estimate that there could be 2,000 children and young people living with problem drinkers. But the issue is hardly confined to Worcester. Since the phone number was publicised on the BBC children's television programme Newsround, calls have been coming in from as far as Cornwall and Scotland.

'I'll lay odds that in 10 years there will be groups like Scad all over the country,' Mr Fanti says.

Meanwhile, the volunteers are bracing themselves for a busy new year. They know full well that the festive season is not always a time of good cheer.

Scad can be contacted on 0905 23060. Pam, Lisa and Susan are not the real names of those quoted.