Happy Birthday, Dad. You Died Far Too Young.

Dad Alcoholism Birthday

My dad would have been 76 years old today. “Should have been 76,” I need to clarify — but he died far too early, eight years ago from cirrhosis of the liver. He was a wonderfully warm-hearted man with a hearty laugh, but he was also an alcoholic who slowly drank himself to death. I have countless fond memories of us over the years, but I also have nightmare memories of holding his hand as he died in the hospital, in a coma, his skin yellow and lungs filled with fluid as his kidneys and liver finally gave up from the years of toxic abuse. These are memories that no son should have, but death from alcoholism is an unfortunately common disease in all societies, and my heart aches every time I meet a patient who clearly is along this same destructive path.

Why is alcoholism such a scourge to society? When compared to many other common diseases such as heart disease, alcoholism has a much more devastating social effect — not just on that person, but also their family, who painfully watch for years, helplessly, as their loved one slides into decline. Yes, many diseases are terrible and affect others; smoking can cause secondhand smoke diseases to family members. But it’s those bad memories that really haunt families of alcoholics — memories of being afraid as we weave across wintry roads as dad drives home tipsy; memories of mom crying as dad refuses to hand over the car keys; memories of watching his belly get bigger and his memory weakening as his liver starts to fail.


But it’s the final stages of alcoholism and liver cirrhosis that really leave their unwanted stains on their loved ones. Our modern society is now very far removed from death and dying, so it’s hard to convey to people just how awful the last months of a cirrhotic’s life can be. As the liver dies, the body can no longer process normal bodily fluids, so a person’s legs slowly fill with fluid, which slowly travels up to the belly. When their skin and eyes turn yellow, a doctor has a dread in their heart that this person is approaching no return. The final, and most disturbing part for families, is the mental confusion they get. Called hepatic encephalopathy, these patients are initially mildly confused and emotional but then can become quickly comatose. During my residency program I saw many alcoholics repeatedly admitted to the hospital for another burst of confusion; they would be tweaked up with medicines, sent on their way, and be back again in a few weeks. And there was always a last time they’d be admitted, where their liver and kidney simply ran out of steam. Their families would sadly stage a vigil at the bedside, waiting helplessly for the end.

If I sound a bit macabre here, it’s because I want to be. I want society to stop glorifying drunkenness as a pleasant diversion; I want people to take a second look at their constantly drunk companion in Sanlitun and actually wonder if they aren’t really crying out for help. I want Chinese businessmen to resist the social pressure to drink endless rounds of baijiu at dinner. I want to wake up my readers and have them look at their own life and honestly answer these four simple questions:

  1. Have you ever felt you needed to Cut down on your drinking?
  2. Have people Annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
  3. Have you ever felt Guilty about drinking?
  4. Have you ever felt you needed a drink first thing in the morning (Eye-opener) to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?

If you’ve answered “yes”  to 2 or more, then you indeed may have a problem with alcoholism and may already be causing liver damage. These questions above are called the “CAGE questionnaire” and are used as a screening tool for alcoholism.


What If You May Be Alcoholic?

First of all, congratulations if you’re honest enough to admit you may have a problem. Secondly, you need to know that you are not alone, and many people and organizations can help you:

  • Your family loves you and is worried about you; let them know and get them involved
  • Your family doctor can check out your liver and kidney health.
  • Some newer medicines may actually help you quit drinking; your doctor can discuss these with you
  • Psychologists and psychiatrists can help you in many ways, from quitting drinking to processing underlying stresses and depression, to fixing family and job problems related to your drinking
  • Alcoholics Anonymous continues to be an excellent source of strength for recovering alcoholics, all over the world. Beijing has their own Alcoholics Anonymous branch. Their website mentions a hotline number: 13911389075, and email: [email protected]

My Dad’s Legacy

Clearly, living through my dad’s illness has had a profound influence on me as a doctor, and I do find myself drawn to these patients. I’m sure it’s partly an effort to make up for what I couldn’t do for my own dad.

But despite all the pain of those later years, my strongest memories are the good ones. I will always remember his laugh, and to this day I vividly remember how he could light up a room. I’d like to honor him with a poem from Ralph Waldo Emerson, which we used at his wake:

To laugh often and much;
to win the respect of intelligent people
and the affection of children;
to appreciate beauty;
to find the best in others;
to leave the world a bit better
whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed
social condition; to know even
one life has breathed easier
because you have lived.
This is to have succeeded.

Happy birthday, dad. I love you, and I wish you were still here.


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Photography: richardsaintcyr.com

9 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Dad. You Died Far Too Young.”

  1. Thank you for sharing such a personal story. You conveyed your feelings eloquently. Alcoholism IS a terrible disease, esp. For the families.

  2. Yes that is a sad story. However the problem of alcohol and other addictives substances is closely related to fundamentals issues related to the inner human nature that are not exactly solved until today.

    Is it the role of the governments to try to stop the consumption and/or abuse of strong alcohols, or is it a private thing and therefore the individual should bear the (psychological and physical) consequences that comes with it.

    How far exactly should the hygienic society go ? In Western Europe and the US, it is already practically impossible to smoke cigarettes in any public space. Advertisements for fast foods or food that contain a lot of fats/sugars are banned on Television. Alcohol and cigarettes advertisement is already prohibited in France, for example.

    I can see in your website, that I visit at least once a week, that you promote a healthly lifestile in a city where it is quite hard to lead such a lifestyle, i.e. Beijing. But, maybe after buying your air purifiers, your water cleaner, your organic soaps, your organic beans to make soybean and avoid drinking tainted chinese milk, your anti pollution mask when you ride your bicycle, after trying to eat “healthy” food everyday, work out, well, perhaps tomorrow you will take a plane and die in a crash, too young to enjoy the benefits of your lifestyle.

    I do not want to promote unhealthy lifestyle, I am just questionning myself, being a health “freak” as well. I am wondering. Yes, I never drink strong alcohols. I know that most alcohols in bars in Beijing contains very dangerous and uncontrolled liquids. perhaps it is tainted. Yes, everytime I want to go out in a club, I am asking myself all those questions. Should I drink this, should I drink that ?
    Of course I avoid to show it in public, but my body usually rejects all those toxic products, and therefore it is almost unbearable for me to drink it, and therefore, I am not sure I am enjoying my life as much as someone that doesn’t worry too much about his health, and just….live.

    So the dilemma is here. Is it the purpose of mankind to live 100 years old, or even more, with a very “stable” life, nothing exciting (like strong alcohols for example, or other eccentricities)..or die younger, but living “faster”, and perhaps enjoying more your life.

    Sure you can tell me that you can also enjoy your life and leading a healthy lifestyle. Some people will see it as absolutely boring. Maybe they are right. Maybe you are right.

    I know that nazi germany and hitler was very interested in all this kind of topics. Promoting a very healthy lifestyle. The objective behind that was of course cancer fighting. Hitler himself was a vegetarian. So the population will be healthier and more able to cope with the future challenges. If you think about it, from the government point of view, it does make sense. But then, how far can a government go for the sake of its population before reaching “1984” and be labeled as “against personal freedoms”.

    So, where exactly are we going with this in western countries ? It seems like, no matter how many advertisements against bad health habits you put on TV, no matter how many new laws forbid to use this or that product or drug, there will be always people who will have the tendancy to use it.

    An unsolvable problem. Only little improvements, little by little. And everyone is different. Some will find the will to change and not drink anymore. Some will not see why they should do as we told them to do, and are more than willing to accept the consequences of a dangerous lifestyle. However, I am sure your father enjoyed his life despite the painful alcohol related disease.

    Should I forbid a mountain climber to try to climb the Jomolungma during the winter season, knowing that the outcome will surely be death ? Well, maybe that’s what he is actually looking for…dying in the mountains, painfully but willingly, not being euthanized in some hospital after living 150 years.

    1. “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away…”

      I don’t think drinking alcohol by itself is evil at all. It’s a great social lubricant, and I love a glass of wine with meals or a gin and tonic at night. And there are a lot of good studies that show how moderate drinking actually helps lower risks for heart disease. But as usual, with anything, moderation is key. And no, there’s only a certain amount that government can dictate in terms of behavior: banning alcohol in the US during Prohibition did not go over too well.

  3. Very well written, and very touching. Just found your website while looking at ways to work as a physician in China, and you’ve just won yourself a new reader.

  4. I´m very surprised about your story, I thought you had a privileged life without any issues…
    I wonder if, on the pictures you´ve posted, he was sober. I mean, did he light up the room because he was a bit drunk or he would light up the room any time…
    I think the number of years he lived is not on the post and when, why and how it all started.

    Very good post, and I would also like to know more about alcoholism in Chinese natives, Beijing natives.

    Is it acceptable for teenagers to go back home drunk? Is it now fashionable to get drunk?

  5. Can you also explain why alcoholism is so common among doctors. I know first hand that many surgeons in the west are alcoholics despite knowing about the risks. Why is that?
    Was your father a doctor?
    Thank you!

  6. Can you also explain why alcoholism is so common among doctors. I know first hand that many surgeons in the west are alcoholics despite knowing about the risks. Why is that?
    Was your father a doctor?
    Thank you!

    1. I’ve heard anecdotal reports of doctors smoking and drinking more, but honestly I haven’t seen real data so I don’t know if it’s simply fiction.

      My father was not a doctor, he was a blue collar guy. He was a high school grad who worked hard, occasionally with 3 jobs, to take care of his wife and 4 kids. He worked his way up into machinery and became floor manager, where he was well loved. I should know — while we were in college, to “keep us real”, he allowed his kids to work at his factory during our summer vacations.

  7. Losing a family member, particularly your father to alcoholism is really very sad. So many families around the world experience the same issues. Alcohol looks so very innocent sat on shelves waiting to be bought and drunk, but alcohol has managed to get into every aspect of our lives and for some, including me, it has enormous potential to destroy. Thankfully I managed to give up drinking before it destroyed me. My heart goes out to you and your late father. Good luck to you in your process of grieving. This blog though is a very good idea to help others and I’m sure is a worthy legacy your dad would have been happy to see.


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