This is the story of living with an addiction that’s not mine.
Booze was a mainstay of my privileged liberal upbringing. It was used for celebrations, after stressful days at work and for everything in between. For me, that was normal and, as a teenager, pretty cool when my parents would supply me and my mates with gin and tonics and a place to drink them. When I was 19, following her separation from my father, my beautiful, talented and popular mother decided to spend some time alone in France. I went to visit her a month or so after she had arrived and, walking into her house, I was struck by how scrappy everything looked. This was the woman who had always taken so much pride in the home that a gruelling but successful career had afforded her. Papers were strewn across the table, dirty laundry on the floor, gone-off milk in the fridge.
The first evening, we went out for dinner, and over plates of spaghetti and glasses of red wine – much nicer than the crap I had spent my first year of university drinking – she told me about her childhood and estrangement from her family in her 20s; about the time my father had accidentally stubbed out a cigarette on a woman’s shoulder pads (it was the '70s), setting fire to them on a dance floor; about the challenge of being a more-than-full-time working mum; about how time had just disappeared...
I’m sure there is a time in everyone’s life when something shifts and they begin to see their parents differently. Not as the loving guides of authority who tell them not to do stuff, but as actual human beings who’ve had break-ups, failures and wild nights out, too. That night I realised I was sitting opposite another person – not just my mum but an adult, in all her fallible glory.
The bike hadn’t swerved out and crashed into her, she had been drink-driving; the cat hadn’t knocked over a table, she’d fallen into it. My mum was an alcoholic.
Things spiralled for her very quickly after that trip. She lost her driving licence, then a high-profile job; most of her friends and family deserted her, in all her unreliable, inconvenient horror. She still had a house but the only real thing in her life was alcohol. She was my mother, though, and I tried everything: being nice, being angry, being encouraging and supportive, just being there. Once, in my naivety, I poured away and denied her all alcohol for a weekend, watched her withdraw, held her hand as her body went into toxic shock and then spent a fortnight by her bedside in intensive care. In trying to cure her, I had nearly killed her.
During those years, my own life unravelled alongside hers as, in my desperate attempts to fix her, everything else stopped mattering. Every decision I made was compulsively balanced on her alcoholic whims, which became more self-destructive and dangerous as time went on.
There was a constant life-or-death situation playing out in my head, replacing my reality. As she lost herself to the incessant need to drink, my being was solely intent on keeping her together. I felt like I couldn’t live my life while hers was falling apart. I almost lost my job after walking out of an important meeting, convinced she had fallen over and cracked her head open; burst into tears at a friend’s wedding reception because I couldn’t get the thought of her having choked on her own vomit out of my head; collapsed in Palermo from a panic attack induced by the thought of her falling asleep with a cigarette in her mouth. These were all legitimate fears, because they had all happened to her at one time or another. For a while, my fix was to call her phone 24 times a day, her answerphone message inexplicably reassuring me.
I’ve lost count of how many rock bottoms we hit and how many times I resolved to walk away.
Addiction is a solitary experience; as the addict isolates with inexpressible shame, so do those around them. How could I ever tell anyone with any dignity that my mum lived in squalor, that alcohol had made her incontinent to the extent that she was literally living in her own shit, or that bar alcohol, all she consumed was eggs, organic full-fat milk and wine gums? Shame was one part of a fragmented identity that I had developed; sadness, bereavement, guilt and anger were some of the others. The anxiety of her addiction was so omnipotent that I could not define myself in any other way than as the daughter of an alcoholic. This internal identity crisis came into other people’s consciousness as well, as friends would ask "How’s your mum?" instead of "How’s work?", "How’s life?", "How are you?" I’ve learnt that it is common for those close to an addict to shift their identity away from anything distinctive about themselves towards an articulation of their addict’s latest impulses, relapses, and respites. Addiction doesn’t just swallow the user, it engulfs everything and everyone around them, too.
In some support groups, they talk about the friends and families needing to find their recovery. Why the fuck did I need to spend time recovering from something that I didn’t actively participate in? The resentment became overpowering. Why should I spend my time, risk my relationship, my friendships, my career and my happiness, trying to fight this addiction?
I reached an impasse when I was hospitalised for stress in September 2015. My body had finally said 'no more'; my mind only followed a few months later. The week after I was discharged, my mum was sectioned for the fourth or fifth time, which allowed me a taste of respite. Having fallen back off the wagon the same evening she was sent home, in mid-December, she spent that Christmas on a bender, evidenced by the 40 bottles of wine and champagne (it was Christmas, after all) that the police found alongside her, lying unconscious with a head injury. Leaving her in the care of the GP, the mental health workers and a housekeeper my godmother had found, I went cold turkey.
Part of me expected that giving up my addict would make her give up her addiction; most of me knew that it wouldn’t.
Part of me expected that giving up my addict would make her give up her addiction; most of me knew that it wouldn’t. A year later, she is still drinking, still living in squalor, still not there. Despite the situation being materially worse, I can think about it with distance and love, and sadness – different from the destructive sadness of before.
I am so grateful to my mum. When I was a child, she was superwoman, and it is to her that I owe all my strengths, confidence and fearlessness of failing. I know I’m fortunate to have had a rich childhood, clean of addiction; many children of addicts cannot say the same. The sadness is sharpened by this colossal loss. I dream of the day that my mum finds a life without alcohol, that my ex’s brother kicks the crystal meth, that my friend can meet a man without fearing the active return of his sex addiction. But that’s up to them. For now, recovery from their addiction begins and ends with me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Action on Addiction offers information and support.