Christmas is a key time for alcoholism to really do some damage to families. As Alcohol Awareness Week draws to a close we talk to two people – an alcoholic who got sober, and someone who has lived with alcoholics most of her life.
I always knew my drinking was different to everyone else’s. I started early, for one thing. And I don’t mean early in the day, I mean early in life. I went to a strict boarding school that I hated, and by the age of 10 I realised that drinking made everything much more bearable. I was a weekly boarder, so when I went home at weekends I would simply siphon off booze from the considerable stores at home (both my parents were alcoholics) and fill flasks with brandy or whisky. I had a little hip flask I’d nicked from some cupboard at home, and I just used to keep it in my bag. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal. I was just pleased to have found a way to cope.
Growing up through my teens and twenties I just threw myself into drinking with considerable enthusiasm. Looking back now my life was – is – a complete blur. At that age there are plenty of willing wild ones to play with, and my drinking at that age never really seemed outwardly much different from anybody else’s. We were all partying, all the time.
I would drink in the mornings – a couple of glasses of wine to get the day off to a good start
But I knew it was different. I mean, looking back now, I knew inside. At the time I was in denial. But I would drink in the mornings – a couple of glasses of wine to get the day off to a good start, and then during the afternoon and into the evening. The volume I drank was extraordinary. But it was the possibility of NOT having it that made me know it was wrong. If I went to a party I’d always take spare stores and hide them – the idea of running out of drink was terrifying. I couldn’t conceive of having a day off drinking. I got a stomach ulcer and even that didn’t stop me, when I was coughing up blood. And still I thought I was okay.
As I started my thirties, that’s when I really started to feel broken inside, and spiritually bankrupt. I spent my entire life either drunk, or full of remorse. I’d wake up with a sense of dread, and remember things I’d done yesterday. Or the things I should have done, and failed miserably to do. Obviously the answer seemed to be to just drink again. It made all the worries go away. But inside I was deeply unhappy, and I felt trapped. It never occurred to me that I was an alcoholic. I just thought life was shit – but I knew that three glasses of wine in, it stopped feeling that way. So why would I stop?
I was cheating on my husband at a drunken party when things changed. Literally. I woke up in someone else’s bed, when I had promised to be back early because he had been looking after the kids all day, and just felt like a shit, and like shit – again. But the guy I was with was in a worse state and he was crying, and ringing his AA sponsor because he’d fallen off the wagon. I still don’t understand why, but he passed me the phone, and I talked to this sponsor, and in that flashing second, everything fell into place. In AA they talk about the ‘gift of desperation’ and I had that in spades that morning. The timing was perfect. God-given, you might argue.
I don’t think either of us were prepared for how rough the next few days were going to be on me – basically I was having a hangover from about 18 years of drinking
I went home and confessed to my husband, which was messy and unpleasant, but that evening I also went to my first ever AA meeting. I was terrified – my biggest fear was how it was going to feel when I stopped drinking, how would I cope with the anxiety? I knew how I felt if I couldn’t drink until later in the day, let alone not drink all day! But someone welcomed me in, and I sat and listened, and drank tea, and the rest is history. I’ve been sober 16 years.
I went home after the meeting and told my husband I would keep going back, who was so relieved he sobbed. I can’t believe he stayed with me but he did, and I don’t think either of us were prepared for how rough the next few days were going to be on me – basically I was having a hangover from about 18 years of drinking. I was so ill, I literally thought I might die. The doctor prescribed me some Valium to help me through the worst of the early stages, and that made a huge difference. But actually in a weird way, being so ill really made me even more determined. I was finally able to admit I was sick. My life fundamentally changed.
To say I’m grateful is the biggest understatement possible. I was so desperately unhappy, and I didn’t think I could change. But I could, and I did. It was only when I stopped drinking that I began to see the damaging effect my behaviour had had on other people and I’ve spent a lot of time making amends. I’ve ruined so many events (so many Christmases full of dramas and tears and honestly, all because of me. That was really hard to admit and face up to, as I have kids). And I’ve really had to put some work in to try and repair the damage I’ve done at home, emotionally. But my focus now is also on taking care of myself, not allowing myself to feel complacent. I know that picking up literally one drink will mean the end of me. It’s like being given a second chance at life and I’m not ever, ever throwing that away.
I grew up in ‘an alcoholic home’ which is how it’s described, although of course it’s not the home that’s the alcoholic. It’s people. And for me it was my mother.
As a very young child I remember her being really lovely; engaged and engaging, warm and loving and kind, and involved in me and my life. We laughed a lot. She was clever and funny, and an artist who could fashion pictures out of nothing, delighting me and my brother with drawings of dogs, or sculptures from twisted napkins.
At that time my parents seemed happy enough – they were very sociable and we had a lot of parties, and dinners at the house. And a lot of babysitters – they went out a lot. But as time passed things changed.
Mum was often drunk when we came home from school and that became a bit like Russian roulette
It was when I was around eight or nine years old I really noticed stuff wasn’t right. Our house was always untidy, I stopped wanting to bring friends round because I was embarrassed about the mess. Mum was often drunk when we came home from school and that became a bit like Russian roulette – some days she’d be upbeat and playing music, enjoying it – but often not. Often she’d be scowling and shouting, or crying and telling my brother and me how unhappy she was, sobbing about how our father had ruined her life.
My parents seemed to argue all the time. Every day. The coming-home Russian roulette got worse then, because we used to dread dad being there too. That would always make things ten times worse because he was angry and stressed and it felt like we got it from both barrels then. We’d try desperately to find excuses to go to friends’ houses and just avoid going home but when you’re 11 or 12 years old, you don’t get much choice in matters. My brother and I used to sit at the top of the stairs crying silently and watching them throwing things at each other, watching it get more violent. It was terrifying.
I can picture myself still, a small child, marking the labels on the whisky bottle to see how much she’d drunk, as a kind of barometer
Identifying that the drinking was at the root of the problem, we used to beg her not to drink. She’d promise not to but obviously not keep that promise. I can picture myself still, a small child, marking the labels on the whisky bottle to see how much she’d drunk, as a kind of barometer. I didn’t understand that she couldn’t stop. I just thought she didn’t care about us.
The house was absolutely riddled with empty bottles she’d hidden. I was doing my own laundry one day (she’d stopped doing anything like that from the time I was about 11) and everything came out streaked with pink. She’d hidden an entire bottle of Dubonnet in the washing machine. The stuff was everywhere, in drawers, cupboards, under beds…
When she was really bad, really full of fire and anger, she’d take it out on me and my brother because my dad was often not at home. She had this thing where she’d sit downstairs getting more and more drunk and stewing on some invented issue, then come into our rooms when we were fast asleep and just start screeching at us. I remember one night I was fast asleep and the light suddenly went on; she launched herself from the bedroom door at me, slapping me round the head, because I was ‘ungrateful’. To this day I have issues about being woken up from sleep by other people.
Many children in alcoholic homes blame themselves for their parents’ drinking – they believe if they behave better or perform better they’ll make their parent happy enough to stop drinking, that somehow it’s their fault. I never felt like that. I always knew it was her, even though she tried to say it was me, or my brother or – mostly – my father’s fault. And I was so angry with her. I was angry with her well into my forties.
I went to visit mum in the psychiatric ward they’d put her in to dry out, and she was shaky but OK, and it was like having a glimmer of the person she used to be
My mother died when I was 18. I had her committed myself once, at the age of 16 when she was so ill she couldn’t get out of bed. I didn’t know what to do – dad had left home and was trying to set up a new place elsewhere – so I called the doctor. He was absolutely horrified when he did the house visit, and sectioned her. I stayed with my grandmother which was a magical oasis of calm; I never wanted to go back. I went to visit mum in the psychiatric ward they’d put her in to dry out, and she was shaky but OK, and it was like having a glimmer of the person she used to be. I was so hopeful for the future. But she came out and lasted less than a week. I didn’t know enough then to understand that sobriety only sticks when the alcoholic chooses it themselves.
After the hospital called and she had died I felt nothing except relief. I know that sounds awful but it’s true – it had been so horrible for so long and she was so unhappy. Unfortunately in the 80s there wasn’t much in the way of understanding for addiction issues, not like there is today, and I wasn’t offered much in the way of support or counseling.
Basically I left my home town, ran away to London and lived a really wild life for years, unconsciously recreating the chaos and madness I’d grown up with, partying, drinking, taking drugs – I got into the rave scene which was great for a while, I managed to lose a good few years in a euphoric fantasy. And I’ve lost count of the number of boyfriends I’ve had who’ve been alcoholics or addicts. I was a mess.
I finally found peace in Al Anon, which is the flip side of AA, for the friends and families of alcoholics. I actually ended up going one night because I’d broken another relationship with my mad behaviour and whereas normally I didn’t care, with this one I cared enough to finally consider that perhaps the reason stuff kept going wrong in my life might have something to do with my own behaviour.
Anyway I went to this meeting in pieces and it changed my life. I finally realised that alcoholism had made me ill too, even though I wasn’t an alcoholic, and was able to change my own behaviour. I got the guy back, by the way, and we have been together for about 12 years now! I’m living proof that you can definitely fix the damage, but it takes work, and it takes humility.
If you’ve been affected by this article or you’re worried about your own, or someone else’s drinking…
Alcohol Awareness Week – find out more
If you’re worried about someone else’s drinking – or indeed your own wellbeing – Al-Anon is a good place to start
If you’re a teen (for ages 12- 17) who has parents or family members or friends whose drinking is making you worried, there is also Alateen
General advice about addiction – not just alcoholism – can be found at Addaction