I look forward to holidays with misplaced optimism. It’s never a trumph of hope over experience. Christmas… well, let’s not go there. Other holidays can be just as bad – it’s an excuse for an alcoholic to hit the bottle more openly. Last Easter I went on a family outing (minus mum, who is probably agorophobic), when dad got home about 5pm he found mum face down in a pool of blood in the kitchen, she had smacked her mouth which was all swollen and mashed up. Dad got her upstairs, cleaned the blood out of her hair and she was sitting up on the bed when he called me. We think it must have happened after 4pm as his tea was on the table. I said he should take her to A&E but he seemed to think she was ok and she wouldn’t go anyway. But obviously he thought she was dead when he got home. And I was just angry, again. At both of them, her for doing it and him for not calling an ambulance.
The phrase ‘elephant the in the room’ is used a lot in writing about alcoholics. We all know what it means – family and friends ignoring the reality that person X is a drunk, is drunk most of the time. The elephant in the room we don’t talk about. Papering over the cracks. But sometimes phrases like that are tired prisms that distort what’s actually going on, and stop those of us affected by a family member’s alcoholism from facing up to what we see, think and feel. Accepting the ‘elephant in the room’ is like a rubber stamp on our denial: giving us permission to mentally walk away from the problem and get on with real life.
There’s nothing wrong with doing that, let’s face it – if we open up to the mantra of ‘I didn’t cause it and I can’t cure it’, then that means giving up a few of those battles we’ve been slogging away at for years. (Giving up the battles in the physical, one to one space is difficult but achievable; hanging out the white hankie in your head is an awful lot harder, there’s a lot of noise going on up there.)
What I’m trying to explore though is whether it’s better for our mental health to stop hiding behind the distancing, anaesthetising comfort of words and use of the third person. And maybe until we drop the exhausted phrases, and until we/I focus on using the first person instead of hiding more comfortably in the third, then I/we, won’t truly own my/our feelings.
I don’t know what’s more heart breaking, when mum’s drunk and she doesn’t try and sits in the kitchen like a zombie in front of the Food Channel, or when she’s drunk and she does try. Today she was trying, coming in to the living room holding out the Round Britain Quiz box, and Dad says, ‘no, we can’t play that with the kids here’. There are three grandchildren ages 4, 5 and 13 running about. ‘I’m trying to make an effort,’ she mutters, leaving the room. She never comes into the living room, I mean hardly ever. It’s like a different hemisphere or time zone to her, she maybe visits three times a year. But like she says, she’s making an effort, and she comes back.
Mum tries to sit in the armchair with me – this doesn’t work, as while she is skeletally thin, I am not, and there’s an awkward jostling bit where she’s almost sitting on my lap and I have to heave my way past her and drag the footstool out to sit on. It makes me feel sad as she’s trying to be matey but the laws of physics are the laws of physics. The 13 year old produces a pack of happy families with a total lack of irony and deals for himself and the adults; the little ones are still charging around like demented Muppets. We play, I get competitive and then remember it’s only a game when my nephew starts getting whiny, and I give him the cards he’s looking for. Throughout, Mum can’t understand when it’s her go, though to be fair neither do I and I’m sober. Either she needs an eye test and new glasses or she’s having trouble focusing, as some of the families get slurrily renamed; Mr Spud the Florist? The game ends with my husband mystified as to why he has a lone Master Bacon left in his hand, and it turns out mum has put down at least two completed sets with only three family members in.
All in all it could have been worse, but the devil on one of my shoulders gets angry, she knew the kids were coming round after school, why couldn’t she make the effort to stay sober? She’s certainly managed before, but today she can barely speak straight at 4.30 in the afternoon. The angel on my other shoulder feels sad – dad’s been suggesting she sees her GP about depression, so she’s trying to show us all that she can do it, she can join in and be normal, nothing’s wrong. But all of it just feels like a deviation from the abnormal normality, and part of me feels annoyed at her for not doing what’s expected – for not sitting and stewing with her wine and leaving the rest of us alone to carry on without her, like we’re used to. It might not be normal, but it’s what we can cope with.
At 5.30 dad gets up to deliver two of the grandchildren back to their parents, so we get ready to go as well. I don’t want to stay and chat with mum, it’s murder having a conversation with a drunk person, what’s the point. She’ll just stumble over her words and tell me things she’s told me three times before, and I’m not sharing any confidences with her as she won’t remember them in the morning. Does that really matter I wonder? If it makes her feel good right now? But I’m not that much of a saint. Plus 5.30 is, no word of a lie, mum’s bed time. Every day, without fail except for Christmas Day. ‘Oh I’m just going up to listen to the radio and have a flick through my mags’ she says, as if it’s only just occurred to her it would be nice to relax in that way once in a while. She’s 74 and she’s been doing it every night for 20 years.
So an old lady has a few too many glasses of pop and slurs here way through a game of cards, big deal, middle class problems or what. But the alcoholism is endless and relentless, and I’ve adjusted around it over the years. I don’t phone mum to speak to her after midday because I know she’ll be drunk. I can’t pop round for a cup of tea after work because she’ll be in bed. If I ring after 4pm and dad’s not there, she won’t pick up the phone. This makes life worrying. She hasn’t had a fall for a while but a few years back she went through a phase of falling down the stairs and she has had black eyes, a fractured shoulder, a chipped elbow, and her front teeth are still all broken but she refuses to get them fixed. On a big holiday in Kenya she tripped over the hem of her skirt and had to go to hospital in an ambulance, and spent the rest of the trip with a fracture and a walking stick. More recently she’s stopped drinking spirits and sticks to wine, which seems to be safer and there haven’t been any accidents for a while. Although a bottle of gin usually creeps in at Christmas and hangs around for a bit like an evil green Cassandra.
Dad has a theory that mum has undiagnosed Aspergers, and that’s why she drinks: fear of small talk and social situations. She might well be on the spectrum somewhere. She is distant and hard to engage, and she’s certainly got worse over the last couple of years. But maybe that’s the booze. What came first, the chicken or the egg. The alcoholism is definite whatever the reason, and she won’t admit that she has a problem. Sometimes dad hides her drink when he knows the kids are coming over, but recently he seems to have lost heart and doesn’t bother.
This year he had major surgery, and I’m angry with her for not looking after him properly when he came home from the hospital, for still being dead drunk every day, for still going to bed at 5.30 every afternoon and leaving him by himself when he was in a bad way. It’s like there’s an impenetrable sound proof bubble around her and she can’t hear or see anything outside it. When I was pregnant with my hard fought for baby, she didn’t buy me any baby clothes, not a thing. No frilly dresses, tiny shoes, mini socks or stripy rompers. I tried to get her involved with a trip to Mothercare just before I was due and she just stood in the middle of the entrance area looking round with big eyes like ET dropped in the middle of a government research laboratory. Wouldn’t normal people pick things up and exclaim over them? Or point at the cots and say I like that one, or I think that one’s a bit girly get the yellow one? And if you truly hated being there, wouldn’t you just take a deep breath and pretend otherwise, just for half an hour?
She doesn’t go out, she doesn’t have any friends. She’s never had any friends. Years and years ago, when they moved to where they are now, an old neighbour kept in touch and used to come on the bus to visit her. Then Mum wrote her a letter asking her not to come any more and that was that. Once a week Dad will take her out for lunch – she doesn’t really eat at home, just smokes and picks at a sandwich – and every Wednesday morning he takes her to the supermarket. I’ve always clung on to this as a good sign, at least she still enjoys cooking and planning meals. Not that she ever sits down at a table and eats with Dad, or anyone else, at home. But then my husband pointed out to me that she wouldn’t get her bulk load of wine and cigarettes if she didn’t go the supermarket, and their fridge is full of ready meals.
Dad has built his own life – he has lots of friends, hobbies and interests outside the home. Maybe Mum feels left out and lonely, the angel says. But what was he supposed to do, give up and rot because she decided to? The devil sneers back. When he was recovering from his op, I had a heart to heart with him: haven’t you ever thought, fuck it, let’s get divorced? I’ve threatened moving her out and installing her in a flat if she doesn’t stop, he said, but how could I, she’d be dead within a month. And he’s right, there’d be gin, then a fall, or a cigarette end would set fire to something and that would be it.
This all leaves me with a headache, torn between anger and guilt. And neither are any good to me, or to her. So I just give up, carry on, work around it and try and figure out if it’s really my problem to fix, or my fight to fight. It’s not of course, I’ve done some googling and reading. I know I didn’t cause it, can’t control it and I can’t cure it, but doing nothing feels like I’m telling the world I don’t care. And I do, I love my mum.
What I don’t ever do though is say out loud, mum you’re drinking too much, have you thought about stopping. When she’s drunk, what’s the point – she’ll just shut down and not listen. And when she’s sober I’m so pleased to be having a normal conversation with her I decide it’s not worth poking a snake with a stick and leave it.
It’s hard work thinking this much, making this many decisions all the time about what to say, what not to say, what to ignore, what to confront. So perhaps I just need to focus on being kinder to myself, and take it from there.
I started this, forgot about it for three years, then wrote a lot of stuff down today and resurrected the blog, only to see that my last post, which I’d totally forgotten about – is very similar. Which tells me something – things don’t change, however angry you get.
I found a good site today – http://www.nacoa.org.uk and I’m quoting from there:
Actually I suspect not. I have started this to sound off, because I’ve looked for self help books and there are none.
Here it is – my mother is an alcoholic. She is 73, I am in my 40s. There is plenty of stuff out there for adult children of alcoholics, but I just don’t recognise myself. I had a happy childhood, middle class, ordinary. I didn’t have a pony but I went to ballet lessons. I was in the Guides. Christmasses were nice. My parents argued sometimes. That’s about it. I’m not writing a life history, but genuinely there are no repressed horrors. I don’t know how it got to this, and it’s not my job (I think?) to work out how it did.
The most recent event was her falling off a kitchen chair, unable to get up. Dad got her up again and on a chair, she fell off again and had such a massive black eye and lump on her forehead. Over 20 years there have been broken shoulder blades, black eyes, broken teeth, twisted ankles, falls down stairs, falls off chairs. And a total collapse that we all thought was a stroke but turned out to be from not eating.
I can’t explain how upsetting it is to see your own mum with a face that looks like she’s been mugged and beaten up. Or to pop round for coffee and not to be able to hold a conversation with her at midday because she is so drunk she can hardly speak.