The Challenges of Being a Full-Time Caregiver to an Alcoholic Parent

Me and my dad

He told me that he’d kill me. He said it while talking in his sleep, so I didn’t take it personally. I don’t know why this happens, but he fights the same two or three battles every night and shouts the same threats, like he’s reliving something in his dream or planning his next move. It’s always “Ambra, I’ll kill you” and “do not fuck with me,” emphasis on the f. And sometimes it’s “I’ll tear you a new asshole,” “I’m the Devil” and “God, forgive me,” for good measure.

And despite being cast as one of the many demons he’s fighting in some alternate reality, I always swing by his bedroom to check on him. That’s what good daughters do, right?

This is the reality of becoming a full-time caregiver to a 65-year-old man who has been drinking excessively and uncontrollably for decades. Meet Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a disease of the brain commonly caused by alcoholism that robs you of the ability to create and retrieve memories but gives you the superpower of confabulation to fill in the gaps. To the untrained eye, you’d never know anything was wrong. WKS affects your gait, but so does old age. It causes confusion, disorientation, and aggression but so does tiredness. You might even conclude that he’s just having a bad day. But it’s not just a bad day, it’s a bad everyday and I am the unfortunate beneficiary.

Late last year, just 3 weeks after purchasing my first home I got a call from my dad asking if he could come over. It was a random call on a Friday evening, but given the state of the pandemic I didn’t have any evening plans. When I picked him up, he was waiting outside with two black trash bags full of what he deemed his essentials — meds, toolbox, paperwork and (you guessed it) beer. I thought he was coming for just a night or two. But clearly he had other plans.

He got into the car and we drove a full 6 minutes to my house, just a few miles away. On the drive to my place, it became clear that his intentions were to move in with me. “You have a room for me, right?” he asked. I could smell the beer on his breath and the cigarette smoke on his clothing. That night, he talked a lot and cried a bit. It was mostly drunk, incomprehensible chatter about…I don’t even know. But he felt safe and had a spot on the couch to crash while I tried to figure out what was going on. I called my sister who suggested that after a night’s sleep, he’d probably want to go back home in the morning. He didn’t really like being away from home. To my surprise, the next morning he was making calls to my brother so he could help pack up the rest of his stuff and bring it to my house in his truck.

My dad has been with me ever since. It has been an emotional rollercoaster to say the least — I’ve experienced the simple joys of having breakfast, coffee, and smiles together and going for walks in the neighborhood. But I’ve also been the target of his aggression and frustration, and the victim of harassment and intimidation by his sister who no longer has access to his pain meds or his money, thanks to me. What’s the saying, “no good deed goes unpunished?”

I have a handful of friends that I invite to my place on occasion. One night, my best friend and her mom were staying at my place for the evening but traveling to Sedona early the next morning. The plan was that my sister would pick my dad up and he’d stay a few days over there while I had friends in town. But when she came to pick him up, he unleashed his anger at her, going as far as curling up his fists and furling his brows like he was going to throw the mightiest punch that his 130lb body could deliver. It didn’t get to that point. He’s not quick or strong enough to take either of us, anyway. But his outrage was loud, and my embarrassment nearly brought me to tears.

My friend and her mom went outside to give us some privacy. Once it settled down, they were cool about it, having experienced something similar in their family as well. That night, my dad was so confused that he couldn’t tell that my sister and I were two different people. We were both Ambra, and when we appeared in his bedroom at the same time, he called her a witch. When he saw us both in the hallway, he growled at us. He contorted his face and waved his hands in our direction while audibly grunting and hissing. I think it was a curse.

Another friend of mine stopped by last week. We were sitting down watching American Idol and we could hear my dad talking in his sleep from his room in the back of the house. I muted the show and we listened in. I told her what to expect, given that I have a VIP exclusive pass to this nighttime show that airs at least four times a week. It took a while, but finally when he said, “do not fuck with me, I’ll tear you a new asshole Goddamnit” I looked at her and we laughed, “I told you he’d say it!” It’s his signature threat, empty as it may be.

The last few nights have been rough. He falls 4 or 5 times a day, he can’t make it to the bathroom without falling. Even when he can physically walk to the bathroom by using the wall to hold himself up, he empties his tank on the way there without even realizing it. I sent photos and videos to the family thread and let out a cry for help. My brother showed up to help clean up the mess and keep an eye on him. During the first hour of my brother being there, my dad fell twice. My mom showed up. My other brother showed up. And so did the paramedics. But when the medics arrived, they said he was fine — just really drunk. Go figure.

So, what’s a good daughter to do? More specifically, what’s a daughter-who-typically-does-not-ask-for-help-and-tries-to-manage-on-her-own to do, now that we’ve established that this is a challenge far greater than I imagined? My mom (my dad’s ex wife but current good friend) has stepped in to see what help we can get from the state, given that he is a low-income senior. My sister is checking for any resources that his tribe might offer. My brothers have promised to take a more active role and get him out of the house (and away from the beer). One of his sisters will start coming to spend time with him, set his appointments, get referrals, and things like that. So, I’ve got help. It’s a start.

Oh and if you’re wondering how he gets the beer, he walks with his walker and stops frequently for breaks on his way to the corner store. He’s come back bruised and scratched up so many times; I know that sometimes it’s a bumpy trek. If you’re wondering why or how he has money to purchase beer, it’s because he has no expenses except for the “rent” that he pays me. Beer and cigarettes are the only thing he spends money on. If you’re wondering why I don’t just take his money away, it’s because he becomes angry and aggressive, that’s when the name calling starts, and the slamming of all doors, and the balling of fists. And even when he runs out of money, he calls on one of his sisters — the same one who was taking his money and pain meds, the one that called me the N word (with a hard -er) and shows up to my house to rock the boat.

Did I mention I work from home full-time? Yeah, I’ve been on many zoom calls, video off, mic muted, trying to calm him down, clean him up, or pick him up off the floor. It’s tough. I told my manager about what’s been going on behind the scenes, and I promised that I would take time when needed, drop from calls when necessary, and take care of myself so I can manage. That’s tough, too.

Today, he wants to take me to dinner and I get to choose where. What’s the occasion? “Because I love you, forever and ever,” he said. It’s a far cry from “Do not fuck with me, I’ll kill you,” so I’ll take it.

Bon Appetit.

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