Memoir: The character of my Uncle Keith, an addict

First impressions are profound as a child. When I was about four, I remember meeting my Uncle Keith for the first time. His face was round and healthy, with a dark olive complexion glazed by the sun. He seemed so kind and full of love, and that was it — my first impression of the man. My father’s brother-in-law seemed like a nice guy.

It wasn’t until years later, when I was 12, that I saw him again. By now, my demeanour had changed. I was quieter than I used to be and a lot sadder, although I wasn’t sure why. My dad attributed my disposition to the hormones — I attributed it to the lack of familial involvement. I’m the youngest of over 20 significantly older cousins (that I know of) and it can be hard to feel like part of a family when you are, in essence, the youngest in the flock. 

I’m sure you’d agree that while adults talk about booze, work and politics, as a child, you wonder when you can just get the hell out of there and play with your friends from across the street. 

My Uncle Keith wasn’t an adult. Of course he was grown up, but he had a playful air about him and he never made me feel like an outcast, while the others so easily did. My uncle never tried to be an adult — he just was. He never tried to tell me to be a kid — he just allowed me to be myself. He never ordered me around — he appreciated, and even more importantly, respected my presence as a human being. This outlook solidified my bond with the man. He was cool.

Two more years passed and I was 14. I felt completely different now — stronger, more confident. Puberty is gracious, but I was still young and had a lot to learn.

It was during this year — 2008 — that my first impression of my Uncle Keith would be challenged. One warm afternoon, my family and I visited him and my Aunt Jenny. Much of the usual adult shenanigans ensued such as talk about work and politics, but this time, something was markedly different: no one mentioned alcohol. 

I realized that something seemed off. My family’s disposition was cold. Their body language, their expressions and their energy — it all seemed wrong. My uncle sat across from me at the cherry-red dining table, cutely fidgeting about. I knew that sooner or later, he would swoop in and save me from this weird adult mess — we were going to chill together. Whenever I felt alone or mildly uncomfortable in my environment, he had been the troubleshooter and I was immensely sure that he would play that role once more. 

It was at this point that Uncle Keith stood up. Everyone looked at him with huge, gleaming eyes. He stood there for a few moments with an odd, rather stupid smile on his face, then he moved into the kitchen. 

I stood up, only to have my mother put her hand on my shoulder. I looked at her, slightly confused. She shook her head and her eyes conveyed a very strong message: something was wrong and it was something serious. I looked around the room and everyone else who was there — my father, Aunt Jenny and my cousins Telford and Amanda — had that same look in their eyes. This “look” was a strange combination of fear and dejection. I assumed that it stemmed from the fact that they had just disallowed me the right to interact with my uncle. I understood that. However, I didn’t understand their fear. I knew that it had to do with my Uncle Keith, but I didn’t exactly know how. I obeyed my mother and sat back down, puzzled. 

A few admittedly awkward moments passed, after which Uncle Keith emerged from the kitchen, holding a glass of whisky in his left hand and a cigarette in the other. He walked over to the front door and, without even saying a word, left the house.

“Go into the kitchen now,” my mother said. “Serve yourself some food.”

So I did. The plate was full and my stomach was empty, but I couldn’t eat. My curiosity burned my hunger to ash. I poked my ear out the kitchen door and it was in that moment that I first became acquainted with my uncle’s struggles with alcoholism and smoking. 

I heard words such as “alcoholic,” “addict,” “help,” “intervention” and “nicotine” being thrown around freely. I remember feeling this stabbing sensation in my chest. I couldn’t breathe. Could this man — the man that had been so loving, supportive and seemingly invincible in the past — fall prey to something like addiction? I began to ask myself many questions — some despicable (and of which I admit now that I am ashamed of) and others, perhaps, quite valid in their line of inquiry. I began asking myself whether I would ever have the privilege of being able to interact with my uncle as much as I had been able to in the past. 

It seemed as though my uncle couldn’t be my friend anymore. Soon after acknowledging this realization, worry most definitely did set in. Would my uncle ever be the same? It certainly didn’t seem so. Would he kick this obstacle in the butt? I sincerely hoped so. Quite simply, I was afraid that I had lost him forever. He was alive, but he wasn’t well.

My parents and I left soon after, and it wasn’t until I was 16 that I saw my uncle again. In that time, my parents had refused to tell me about his predicament, despite my knowing that on several occasions, my Aunt Jenny had phoned them. 

During our next visit, I saw his struggle first-hand. My parents and I went over at his place for lunch, and this time, the tension was at its peak. He had seemed relatively harmless, but I still got the sense that something was about to happen — something explosive. He seemed uneasy all day, fidgeting about with every little thing, from his shirt and his hair, to his watch and his teeth. It was truly frightening to see him so on edge. 

At one point, I remember Uncle Keith looking at my aunt with wet eyes. He closed his fist, opened a thumb and touched it to his mouth. My aunt refused. Again, my uncle made the gesture and again, she remained defiant. This trend repeated until they had a fight and it was a brutal one. Later in my room, my mother explained that these fights had always existed and that my uncle’s constant need for alcohol and cigarettes worsened that. This wasn’t the man I had thought I had known. 

Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, a few days later, I learned that my cousin — his son — had found him passed-out on a road somewhere. Cars, trucks and scooters would have passed him by. He could have been the victim of an accident, or even worse, the cause of one. My aunt was distraught, my parents were as concerned as they seemed ashamed.

Years later, the whole family met up for a Christmas break in Dubai. Uncle Keith was there. He had the same habits, and still suffered from the same cravings. Everyone was weary of him, but there was this one moment where he looked at me and I feared that something had been lost from him — his authentic character. 

Upon noticing his gaze, I thought that he was going to make the same drinking gesture that he had been making to all of my other family members throughout that night. However, he simply made me sit next to him and asked, “So, how are you?” And that was it — the moment where I realized, to my relief, that he was the same man.

I had never been told or taught in school that addiction is a disorder. The compulsive nature that it causes its sufferers to experience stems from a variety of different factors, except one: a person’s character. My uncle had a good character and he still does. And even though his constant craving for alcohol and smoking tens of cigarettes every few hours made it seem like he had lost his brilliant sense of compassion, I came to realize that addiction, frightening and powerful as it may be, is not who he is. It controlled my Uncle Keith, but in no way did it define him. And today, as I write this and he sits at home completely safe and sober for years now, I want to thank him. Even during his years of abuse when there had been a lack of communication between us, he showed me the awesome power of his character.

Thank you, Uncle Keith, for being a triumph of an individual. I love you.