September 7, 2017. First Minister’s Questions. Ruth Davidson, the Tory leader, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon are having a rammy over tax.

Monica Lennon, Labour MSP for Central Scotland, has question number six. It is about deaths from drug and alcohol abuse. The numbers are up again. Lennon knows the numbers. She’s a shadow minister, it is her job to know the numbers. But today something about the numbers is bothering her.

Her turn is getting closer. A decision has to be made. Before she knows it she’s up and talking.

“I have deep concerns about the funding and adequacy of recovery services,” she said. “But I want to focus on a different barrier to recovery: the stigma around addiction.

“Too often, families only break their silence about drug and alcohol harm after they have buried their loved ones. I know that because two years ago my dad died as a result of alcohol harm.”

Numbers like these are never just numbers. Behind every number is a person. In 2015 one of them was Gerry Ward, Gerard to his daughter.

We are sitting in Lennon’s kitchen in South Lanarkshire, talking about that moment seven years ago in the Scottish Parliament.

“I felt really upset after it. Had I done the right thing, what would the family think, all of that,” she says.

Read more in the series, Scotland & Alcohol:

She is distressed now at the memory of it. “Sorry,” she says, wiping her eyes and half laughing. Tears and laughter: Scotland’s epic relationship with alcohol summed up in three little words.

Why did she do it? “I just felt the people behind these numbers were completely unseen. Where was their voice?”

Lennon was elected to Holyrood in 2016, a year after her father died. Dad and daughter shared an interest in politics. They wanted the world to be a fairer place. He was a “big character” she says, a clever man with an appetite for learning. He worked hard at school, wanted to be an accountant, but people from his background didn’t get those opportunities.

He found a job with the council and worked his way up to health and safety officer. Through the council he did a diploma at university. He was the first in the family to put a foot in the door of a university, Lennon the first to do a degree (environmental planning).

Besides family his other great love was music. He was a regular in the local pubs and clubs. “He enjoyed his weekends,” says Lennon, but then the weekends became the weekdays as the drinking took over. He retired at 51 and by 60 he was dead.

The Herald: MSP Monica Lennon with a photograph of her beloved father, Gerard Ward, who lost his battle with alcoholism in 2015MSP Monica Lennon with a photograph of her beloved father, Gerard Ward, who lost his battle with alcoholism in 2015 (Image: NQ)

Gerry lived alone after his divorce. The pub was where he went for company. Though there was comfort in knowing where he was in the evening, Lennon dreaded the thought of him walking home on his own in the dark. In the literature, they call this “parenting the parent”.

Lennon was learning a lot about alcohol addiction, applying herself as a good student would. She went with her dad to open meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. At some point in her teenage years dad went to the GP and asked for help. The doctors warned him that liver damage was already evident and if he carried on the way he was going … In those days there seemed to be more help available. “It’s immoral that rehab is only for the rich,” says Lennon. “That’s the reality now. It’s frustrating because in the parliament and as a society we encourage people to come forward if they need help, and then the help isn’t always there.”

In February this year, Public Health Scotland published a report on residential rehab. It counted 812 funded placements for alcohol and drugs in Scotland in the last financial year. In 2022, 1276 deaths linked to alcohol were registered. In short, there are more deaths than beds to treat the living.

Help was there on this occasion for Gerry. He even had a choice of places he could go; he opted for Glasgow.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, this is brilliant,” says Lennon. The family could visit, there was group work, lots to learn. I was hopeful this was going to be the game changer.”

Weeks passed and he came home. The pub beckoned. Lennon didn’t think that was a good idea, but the drinks were low or no alcohol, he insisted.

“I don’t know if that was just his way to kid himself, or us, that he had got this under control. I’m not sure he ever did fully admit to this illness that he had.”

Read more in the series, Scotland & Alcohol:

Last year, Lennon and the Conservative MSP Miles Briggs, who also lost his father to alcoholism, helped to front a campaign called See Beyond, See the Lives. The idea was to remove the stigma and blame around addiction and show it was an illness deserving of care and compassion.

As part of the campaign, Lennon and Briggs wrote letters to their fathers. Lennon’s read: “I was always running towards you. Meeting you at the gate when you came home from work.”

Later on there were times “it was too difficult to be around. Too many days when it was too painful to run to you. On those dark days when we were apart, I hope you know you were always loved.”

One of those days was her wedding day. Lennon was 24. Here was a young woman who would one day be elected an MSP. She would stand for the leadership of her party, and deliver a world-first scheme to end period poverty. She did not know any of that then, but she did know having her father at her wedding was not going to work.

“He was really unwell. At the time when you are going through that with a loved one you have so many emotions, you’re angry, resentful, frustrated. It can bring out the worst in everyone,” she says.

Would she do the same again?

“Yeah. I don’t think I had a choice. It wasn’t an easy time.”

She goes on to talk about the great work being done by charities and support groups. Lennon does this a lot, moves from the personal to the general. She wants to answer the questions in the hope it might help others, but at the same time it is upsetting. This wound is still open.

I wonder how it must feel when the drinks industry lobbies her. “Big Alcohol”, as she calls it, is in the parliament “a lot”. Whenever they seek a meeting she makes a point of looking at how much profit the company has made in the last couple of years. They put money into harm reduction, supporting local charities, and so on, she acknowledges. “But a lot of that is also about managing their image.”

At the same time, she accepts that jobs and livelihoods are involved. There are no quick, easy fixes. She knows that.

Gerry Ward died in Hairmyres Hospital, East Kilbride, in May 2015. His passing, mercifully, was peaceful. She was able to sit with him. “Other family members were there. He was surrounded by people who loved him and he loved us.”

When she thinks of her dad now, is there comfort in knowing that his suffering is at an end? Is there, and I cringe later when I hear myself on the tape using the word, any sense of ‘closure’?”

She is silent for a while. Then she finds her voice.

“I don’t think there will ever be closure,” she says. “My dad died prematurely at 60. He didn’t get to see his grandson being born, my little nephew. He’s missed out on his granddaughter becoming a young woman. My daughter turns 18 this year. He adored her. She’s very musical, very clever, a lot like him. She’s full of plans. It looks like she’ll be going to university this year. He would have been so proud.

“I feel sad for him that he’s missed out on a lot of that. I feel sad for us that he’s not here. But there was relief that he wasn’t suffering and he wasn’t coming to more harm.”

Last year she gave a speech at an event. Someone came up later to say he had worked with her dad years ago.

“He said some really lovely things, how much they respected my dad as a colleague, as a manager. They told me that when he retired from his job he was full of plans and things he wanted to do. When people talk about my dad in terms of the man that he was, not the illness that he had, it makes me so happy.”

Now 43, what would the Monica of today say to her younger self, the girl waiting anxiously for her dad to get home safely?

“I’d say stop blaming yourself. Try not to worry so much. Sometimes we get so worried and caught up in what tomorrow’s going to bring. Just enjoy, appreciate what you have. I was lucky that we did have my dad for 60 years. How he got to that age probably is a miracle. Rather than focus on what’s been lost, focus on what we had and be grateful for that.”