As the child of an alcoholic you are likely to go through several rights of passage. My latest is being told that I am, what they term, a “child parent”. That’s what they call you if you had/have to take on a parenting role to your own parent, and other dependants, at a young age. I spent this Christmas sorting out my older sister’s disability benefits and my mum’s taxes. That’s now my thing.
I’m also a student, with my own life and passions. In my final year, as I am now, I have discovered that actually this whole being a child of an alcoholic thing is really hard and lonely and anxiety inducing. This thought was compounded when an irritated student support officer told me that she had no other students with alcoholic parent[s] in my entire school. That translated as: you’re more alone than you thought.
So if you’re alone too, let’s share our experiences. I’ll start first. My name is… and I’m an alcoholic’s daughter. Mum drank since I was a baby, but as a middle class woman with friends who thought that Ab Fab was hilarious, the constant glass of white wine in hand was not perceived as a problem. There were three of us; us twins and our older sister who is disabled, how did she cope? Mummy’s happy juice, that’s how.
The glass in hand stayed as a facade of respectable drinking…but then bottles appeared in every nook. The morning mug of tea was just wine. She smelled of Estée Lauder and fumes. We thought it was normal. In fact, when I was 6 years old I remember that she kept a bottle of wine hidden in a salmon kettle next to the fridge which I regularly gulped down because it made me feel grown up and “funny”.
The outrageous friends stuck around for a while as Mum slept through school pick ups, fought violently with Dad, and snapped irritably at us. The odd smack here, a meal forgotten there. But most of the time she shone with moments of brilliant parenting: camping trips, fairy gardens and art-filled mess-making. Then, when my sister and I turned 11, old mum faded and drunk mum turned full time.
We went to grammar school, and were bright kids. Mum left school at 16, became a hairdresser and envied the opportunities we had. She took this out on us. She screamed for us to be in bed by 7pm even though homework took until at least 9pm and our journey to and from school took one and a half hours by train. She screamed at us to tidy, to shower, to do this and do that. We quietly obeyed, and promised to do better, until one day we stopped. I remember turning around and shouting that what she was asking was physically impossible. Looking back, I see now that she wanted us in bed so that she could drink, guilt free. Our older sister was at boarding school and we were in the way of inebriated bliss.
Home became unbearable, and physical fights would break out most nights. We were falling asleep at school and were struggling to keep up. Mum always kept up a good front, she seemed diligent and caring and generous, which she was when sober. But that made it difficult to ask for help; no one believed us, they thought our accusations were teenage exaggerations and fantasies. Our friends gushed about how great Mum was whilst we ran through the previous night’s torment in our heads.
Unbelievably, it took us until we were 14 to realise that she was not only abusive, but an alcoholic. It became unsustainable to lie anymore and so we told school. They were supportive, and sympathetic, but offered no counselling, no referrals, and no practical advice. I developed a close friendship with one teacher whose own dad was an alcoholic. We shared anecdotes and she was source of tremendous comfort.
With alcoholics, there’s sadly nothing you can do to make them overcome their addiction. It’s only within the power of the alcoholic themselves to do this. In my case, going to bed at 19:00 didn’t work; getting straight A’s didn’t work; being clean and tidy didn’t work; getting a job didn’t work, buying presents far beyond my means certainly didn’t work. My mum carried on, on her path of vitriol and wine, and I just became more and more run down. We struggled through to sixth form. I became Head Girl of my school, and experienced a bout of bullying where one girl recorded a conversation in which I confessed my less than perfect home life and she broadcast it throughout our common room. At least then everyone knew.
At home, the abuse got worse. We worked to pay for train tickets to school because by this stage mum had drunk away any resources. We were broke: bailiffs, no food, really broke as a joke, broke. She accused Dad of abusing her which meant that he was scared to go near her and only intervened to restrain her when she was really violent. We hid her car keys so she wouldn’t drive drunk (which she was known to do) or we threw away her booze. Both actions elicited the same response: white hot anger. She strangled, beat, pulled, pushed and spat until she got her way. We’d only give up when we were too tired to do anymore.
That Christmas, I was working at a gift shop round the clock and avoiding the house. Dad was taking care of our older sister. It was Christmas eve and I had no choice but to go home. I unlocked the door and called for my older sister. I found her obviously distressed saying “Mummy drank vodka, don’t leave me with her again,” her face crinkled with worry.That’s when I found Mum slumped in her own sick, unresponsive.
She recovered and carried on drinking through Christmas. But she managed to convince Dad, whose elderly mother was ill, that she was aware enough of her alcoholism that he could move 3 hours away to temporarily live with grandma. Blinded by her admission of a problem, something she had never done before, he believed her. She was already drunk when he got in his car and left.
She forgot my 18th birthday, then crashed our car on the night before one of my A-level exams. She even got onto the roof of our house in a faux suicide bid “just to see [our] faces”. She was sectioned eventually. They treated the depression with drugs that nearly killed her because she drank whilst she was on them. We screamed for help from those around us and yet none was offered further than Alanon and AA.
We lived alone for a while, and then moved out to take our exams four counties away. Thankfully we passed them with the grades we were aiming for and got into the same university, escaping a woman, and a house that had imprisoned us. When she dropped us off at our halls of residence she announced that she was divorcing Dad, having an affair, and “learning to drink” again. For alcoholics*, there’s no such thing. You either drink to destruction, or you don’t drink at all; moderation doesn’t figure.
From then on we went through various periods of estrangement. She tried to continue the abuse when we came home but now we had enough money to escape it. We had agency that before was off limits to us. I moved abroad and, after eight months, she turned up at the airport unable to stand. She refused to hug me because she didn’t want me to smell the vodka on her breath. She spent her only day in my new country vomiting and shaking; withdrawing. Six months later she missed a flight for another visit, drunk. I booked her a new one and she missed that one as well and went AWOL. I had a hunch, called the police and found out that she had been arrested for drink driving. She was five times over the legal limit; she had the same blood alcohol level as Amy Winehouse had had at the time of her death.
Things spiralled from there. Anorexic already, she lost more weight. She was slapped with a driving ban, meaning that she lost our older sister’s wheelchair friendly transport. She reoffended the day after the first court case and ended up jailed for 3 months. I found out by googling her and received no contact until 1 week before her release. It was also one week before mid-term exams and my final essay deadline and anxiety had reared its ugly head. She’s out again now. She started drinking the day she got out of prison. The next day she lost her purse in her driveway and fell face first into a rock trying to find it. She broke her nose. Apparently that still wasn’t rock bottom, excuse the pun. Dad now lives in his own house and when university semesters finish I go back to him. We all look after each other most of the time.
Now I have cut contact again. I struggle everyday not to pick up the phone and call her. I find myself looking at my friends’ mums and wishing, just a bit, that my mum was as reliable, relaxed and present as them. I feel like I’m grieving my real mum. But I’m still here, after all of that. I’m learning new ways of coping and coming to terms with my experience. In terms of advice, each situation is unique, but no less detrimental, they don’t always fit the stereotype. Alcoholism takes many forms and nearly always profoundly affects the friends and family of the person concerned. All we can do is repeat the National Association for Children of Alcoholics’ 6 Cs: we didn’t cause it; we can’t control it; we can’t cure it; we can take care of ourselves; we can communicate our feelings; we can make healthy choices and, my own addition, we can break the cycle.
I have chosen to remain anonymous, not for my own benefit, but because Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship based on confidence and anonymity; my purpose is not to out my mum, but to share my own experience.
If you’re the child of an alcoholic, visit the NACOA website: www.nacoa.org.uk.
For free Edinburgh based counselling specifically regarding alcohol abuse (whether your own, or the affect of someone else’s) talk to the Edinburgh and Lothian Counsel on Alcohol: www.elcaalcohol.co.uk.
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*Although rare, few alcoholics are able to drink moderately after recovery*
*This is not the case for the author’s mother*
(Image was sourced from: here)
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