I was 17 when my mam died. She had been ill for many years and when it eventually happened I was devastated. It had been a long struggle – she was an alcoholic for over 25 years. I wish I knew some of things that I know now. It might not have changed what happened but I think it could have made things a bit easier for me.
Her problems started when she left home at 18, she came from a close-knit village community and left to be a teacher in the city. She was a lovely person but she lacked self-esteem and confidence. My mam never learnt to cope without the support of her friends and family, and she turned to alcohol for comfort. Drinking was initially a social thing for her, but after a while she started to drink alone. Things gradually declined and her drinking became heavier. When she was 25, she unexpectedly became pregnant with me and returned home to her family. For a few years she was well and made a real effort to fight her problems. She was a good single parent who encouraged me in every way. By all accounts her drinking was under control at this point and I wasn’t even aware there was a problem until I was about 7. As I grew up though, she gradually returned to the drink. It seems that looking after me had kept her sober, and as I became more independent and started to spend time away from home, she was left alone and became depressed.
As I grew older things got worse and I became an expert at hiding my feelings. At the time I thought nobody knew apart from family, although looking back it was probably very obvious what was going on. I would put on a brave face and pretend everything was okay, especially to my mam’s siblings and parents. I would try and hide things from everyone. I became obsessed about being ‘normal’ and I craved things that seemed normal. We lived in a horrible council house, but I had a silly idea that if we moved somewhere nice everything would be okay. I was scared to get a girlfriend because I was worried that she might find out. I never invited friends round to stay. I’d do anything to avoid going home and would play football for hours and hours, even after it got dark. I took a job after school that involved working until 10pm and I thought that was great because I had a really good excuse not to be at home.
By the time I was doing my A-levels things had become much worse. One night when she was very drunk, she had a really bad fall. I came home after work to find her in bed with a huge gash in her head. She was barely conscious and there was blood everywhere. We got her to hospital and the doctors said she was lucky to survive as she had lost so much blood. We were desperate at this stage and tried to convince the doctors to section her. This would have meant forcing her to have treatment in a mental health hospital. The doctor said he couldn’t and with that, I think her last chance went.
After the horrible night, I finally realised that I needed to tell someone outside of my family, so I spoke to a teacher which helped a lot. I wish I had done that earlier. I now realise how much easier it would have been if people had known. Looking back I can see that I needed help. I had a strange way of looking at things; I kind of treated her illness as my illness, as though we were both alcoholics and both had something to hide. That way of thinking was wrong and I now realise that I had nothing to be ashamed of. She was the one that was ill, not me. I shouldn’t have tried to hide anything. Why did I think people would think badly of me? My teacher suggested ways in which she could help, and it sounded great, although sadly it was too late. My mam died a few weeks later.
Things had become so bad before she died that when it happened, me and my family were devastated but also relieved that she was no longer suffering. Although I never really thought it would take her life, after her death I realised that she had passed the point of no return long before. I had probably lost her about twelve months earlier when was forced to take sick leave from her job. She gave up hope when that happened. Hope was such an important thing. When there was hope of a better life there was always a chance she might get better, but when that went it was inevitable because she was drinking so heavily.
The last 6 months were a very dark time, but I’m happy to say that I have little memory of that period. It’s now 8 years since she died and after a long grieving process I’ve actually been left with mostly happy memories of her. ‘Time is the best healer’ – a very true cliché.
Grieving for her was as much about understanding her alcoholism as it was about coming to terms with losing her. I think one of the most difficult things for the family of a drinker is to fully accept that alcoholism is a disease. It often appears as though there’s an element of choice and I used to think that people with ‘proper’ disease like cancer had no choice over their condition. How could my mam have a disease when she decided to drink something, knowing that it would make her ill? After her death I finally began to understand why addiction is a disease. I realised that she didn’t want to be ill; she no longer had control over what was happening. She didn’t mean to hurt herself or her family. Her addiction had consumed her to the point where she no longer had freedom of choice when it came to buying alcohol. She HAD to buy it because without it she would shake, vomit and feel depressed. The drink comforted her, and she came to totally depend on it. It helped her sleep and that’s all she wanted, she would sometimes sleep for 20 hours or more a day just to get away from things. Her life had become a mess but sleep offered relief. She was at peace when she slept and I take comfort from knowing she’s at peace now.
I come from a family with a history of drinking problems. As my aunty says “it’s in the family”. I’m an addict too and for a time after my mam died I could have maybe gone the same way as her. Luckily that hasn’t been the case and, with the help of my family and friends, things have worked out pretty well for me and I’m now studying to be a doctor. I learnt to channel my addictive tendencies into more positive things such as my great passion in life, surfing. I think it could have been the same for my mam too, if only she had turned to something like yoga instead of alcohol!
The most important bit of advice I could give to anyone in a similar situation is to tell people, don’t be quiet about your parents drinking. I was too proud and didn’t want people to know, but I now find myself asking if it really mattered that people knew? I think it’s best to be honest with yourself and honest with others about your problems at home. You don’t need to tell the whole world, but talking to the right people could make a big difference. This might be a good friend, a trusted teacher or a Nacoa counsellor. I now realise that nobody should have to deal with these problems by themselves.