One of the basic instincts as a child is the one of the infallible parent. At that age, you don't question your parents, it is impossible to comprehend that they aren't perfect. It is that unerring belief, that trust, that innocence, that defines the parent-child relationship.
I was 4 years old when my innocence was destroyed.
My dad was an alcoholic. He was never violent to me, but I saw his violence first-hand. I used to sit there, cowering on the stairs, watching it all. I was far too young to understand what was going on, but I knew one thing - when my baby brother tried to join me on the stairs, I had to get him back to bed. I couldn't let him see. I had to protect him. I only wish I could have protected everybody else as well.
When my father no longer lived with me, I used to see him at weekends. I remember two incidents vividly, both involving my brother. One time, he refused to let us wear seatbelts in the car. Apparently "only babies wear seatbelts". He then went driving around at 100 miles an hour. Aside from the blatant disregard for his sons' safety, the speed itself was utterly terrifying to me as a child. Yet he didn't care. Only babies wear seatbelts.
The second also involved my brother. We got in the car, and my brother said to my father "Daddy, I'm going to be a Newcastle fan". My dad forced him to get out the car. He made him stand outside, in tears, and refused to let him back in until my brother swore to be a Sunderland supporter.
Watching a grown man bully a 3 year-old child, humiliating him, over something as irrelevant as a sporting team was disgusting. I was appalled by my father. Yet, I sat in the back, quiet. I was too scared to speak up to him. I was 6 at the time, an age where life should be about fun. But when I look back, all I feel is guilt. I'm ashamed I did nothing. I can rationalise it in my head, but deep down, I still believe I was a coward for not standing up to my father.
23 years later, I still haven't come to terms with what went on. What I experienced defines me as a person. When a therapist told me that she believed I've had a mild-grade depression from a young age, she says it is what I saw on the stairs that instigated it. Maybe she's right, I don't know. But I do know that I blamed myself for my dad's actions, and I can't forgive myself for not standing up to him.
My father died when I was 12. I saw him a month before he passed. I don't recall a lot of the meeting. I remember he gave me lemon squash. I remember he took me to my Grandma's, and we ate garden peas by the back door. I remember getting home, and receiving a phone call a few days later. He asked if I would send a photograph of me and my brother. I told him I would, but then, life got in the way. "I'll do it tomorrow" I told myself, only tomorrow never came.
I still feel monumentally guilty that I didn't find the time to send him a photograph. I felt like he had given up living because I didn't post a picture. It sounds irrational, and looking objectively, I can see it is. All he had to do was stop drinking, and he would have been able to see me. He would have had all the pictures he wanted. But the bastard chose drink over his own sons, and then he drank himself to death without ever holding his hands up, without ever apologising, and without ever absolving me from the guilt that coarses through every inch of my being.
The truth is, from the age of 4, I have blamed myself for my dad's actions. If I had been a better son, he wouldn't have felt the need to drink so much. If I had said something in the car, he would never have bullied my brother. If I had stepped off the stairs, I could have stopped his violence. But I didn't, and I can't forgive myself for that.
If you are a parent, please think about the impact your actions have on children. Don't use the old maxim that "they're too young to remember" because you can never know what will imprint on a childs mind. You are the example to your children. Your actions will define them as people, and the way you make them feel will affect every inter-personal relationship they have. Children don't understand nuances; everything is black and white. Children may not understand why something is happening, and they probably won't remember circumstances. But what they will always remember is the way you make them feel.
I'm extremely lucky; I had one parent who did everything she could for me, who tried every single day to make me feel loved, who devoted her life to giving me the best she could. I can never thank my Mam enough for loving me like she does; without my Mam, the truth is, I wouldn't be here today. Sadly, I had one parent who I was terrified of; who has scarred my very soul, and has left wounds that will never fully heal. No child should ever be made to feel like I felt, not by their own father.
To those that have been through much worse experiences than me, I'm so sorry for what you have been through. Please know that it wasn't your fault. It was never your fault. You were a child, and someone you loved should never have put you through what they did. My father should never have made me witness what I saw. Your parents should never have put you through what they did.
We should have been protected by our parents, not destroyed by them. It wasn't our fault. We were innocents.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @LordGeord