Alcohol ran through the veins of my family, flooding everything with intoxicating darkness.
As a child growing up in the early 90’s I had no idea what an alcoholic really was or what one looked like. It was a term so flippantly put about by adults and other children, in almost a comical and stupid way. It was also a word that held great shame.
My father was a Captain in the Royal Logistics Core, his father, my grandfather was someone I never met. I was told he was an alcoholic and had been abusive to my grandmother, aunt, uncle and father, until my grandmother was able to get away from him. My father was killed when I was five and up until that point, I don’t remember any negative memories of my parents. Only positive playtimes and traveling to the hospital to meet my baby brother after he was born.
A ‘high functioning alcoholic’
Reality came crashing down on me from that point onwards. Unbeknown to me, throughout my childhood, my mother suffered from manic depressive episodes and an eating disorder.
When my father died she would function during the daytimes as she needed to keep life going and to hold up a veneer of normality, but during the evening it was only alcohol she turned to. Somewhat of a ‘high functioning alcoholic’.
When I was young I didn’t really know what this meant, all I knew is that my mother relied on me to support her and I would do anything not to see her sad. She called me her rock. I felt a huge burden and weight on my shoulders.
During the times my mother was not drinking she was often controlling and quick tempered. Everything had to be done by her set standard or we were chastised, there was no margin for error. I remember feeling continual terror of upsetting her and facing the consequence.
I often didn’t sleep well
Most evenings consisted of her drinking and becoming increasingly aggressive and hostile towards us, more so than when sober. She would throw things, smash plates etc and chase us, sometimes threatening to burn the house down.
I would sometimes barricade my bedroom door at night in the fear that she would get into my room and drag me out of bed. Sometimes she would remove us from our beds at 3-4am and drive us drunk to my grandparents or elsewhere. I often didn’t sleep well at night due to the noise that came from downstairs, loud music or television, shouting, screaming, crying, smashing, a heart breaking.
This was all whilst she drank, many times when she was sober, she could be loving, gentle and kind, always apologetic of how she had been the night before. We never needed anything as kids, we had enough food, toys and clothes etc. Nothing fancy, often second hand and on a budget, but we didn’t mind.
Drinking transformed her fragile mental state into something of monstrous proportions.
My mother was too well dressed
We had no help as a family and no matter how many health professionals she saw no one saw the true impact. Our family GP thought my mother was too well dressed and presented to be that mentally ill (I’ve seen all her medical records and notes). He thought she would pretty much just get over it on her own. Social services made some vague attempts to intervene but did absolutely nothing. Family avoided discussing it or confronting the issue at all costs, it was glossed over for fear of the shame and difficultly of addressing those types of emotions. Why couldn’t she be ‘normal’? Why couldn’t she stop drinking?
One time my mother was even arrested for drink driving with us in the car. This time she lost her license and we went without a car for almost 3 years. I felt punished once again by her drinking. It was embarrassing at school and with friends because we were told to lie about why we no longer had a car. We suddenly had to cycle and walk miles to everything which made life even harder.
I lost friendships to my mother’s drinking, I was afraid to invite school friends’ round for sleepovers or even dinner because of how erratically she would behave.
It was embarrassing at school
When I was about 7, I remember being very upset after losing a close friend to my mother’s behaviour. My friend woke up in the night crying as she felt homesick, she told my mother she wanted to go home and this triggered her irrational rage. She had been drinking. I was blamed for waking up my friend and causing her to want to leave. I can still remember being forcefully dragged by one leg out of bed and all the way down the stairs and chucked under the dining room table and told to stay there until her mum came to collect her.
The girl I invited round for a sleepover was so frightened she never spoke to me ever again. I withdrew at school from most friendships and kept a very small circle of friends for that reason. No one would believe me if I even tried to tell them what my mother was really like. Even as an adult, I had some people laugh and say I must be exaggerating as she was such a kind person when they met her.
Alcohol was also having an impact on my family elsewhere, my aunt had struggled for many years with alcohol addiction, even featuring on the BBC documentary Rain in my Heart. I managed to see her around 6 months before she died. She was in hospital on the chronic liver failure ward. Her skin and eyes were bright yellow. It’s an image that will haunt me for a long time.
Her actions haunted her every day
My aunt was 45 when she died. I think it had a big impact on my mother and maybe influenced her stopping drinking. By the time I reached my early twenties, my mother had stopped drinking completely. I was very glad and we were able to start building a new relationship without alcohol. A relationship that in the later years grew very close and supportive, something I greatly appreciated and cherish.
However, none of her past behaviour was ever acceptable or warranted, but I forgave her because she was very ill and I understood how much pain she must have felt and how isolated she was.
Her actions haunted her every day. She felt immense guilt and pain for how she had treated us and punished herself repeatedly for her behaviour. My mother also had an eating disorder of varying degrees throughout her life, which developed into anorexia around the time she stopped drinking. Sadly, she lived that way for around 7 years before she died from the illness. As a child I always used to be terrified that I’d wake up one morning to either find her dead from drinking or from suicide. I never expected this.
I supported him as much as I could
I did not expect my experience of alcoholics to continue since my mother’s death, but very sadly, as is often commonplace with children of alcoholics, my brother developed a severe alcohol addiction.
We faced many very difficult years of rehab and relapses, I supported him as much as I could throughout.
I’m happy to say my brother turned his life around and has now been sober for well over a year, coming on two. I am very proud of him in the face of all he has been through.
I want to hope that my experience of alcoholism will end there and I will never suffer the pain and torment of it again. But in life you never know what will happen. I do know that I have built strength, resilience and empathy that has aided me many times navigating through the difficulties and challenges of life.
There are so many fantastic resources and charities out there like Nacoa that can offer help and support when you feel completely alone and lost.
It was not my fault
What helped me the most to get through the hardest times was remembering that it was not my fault, that I was loved and that I could not change their behaviour. When I accepted these things, I was able to let go of anger and resentment and live my life.
It’s incredibly easy to blame the alcoholic and fuel their shame. It is never a black and white reason why they drink. It’s not because they don’t love you and it’s not because they don’t want to stop. They struggle to face themselves from the inside and gain the strength to make the change they want to make. It is incredibly difficult to see your own flaws and acknowledge that you are not a failure because of them. If they don’t change, do not feel it is your fault, reach out for support and counselling.
My mother suffered complex mental health problems, alcohol addiction and a lack of family support. That’s only one tiny part of her story and it is not how I will remember her.
I will remember her as someone who was dedicated to charity work, she dedicated thousands of hours of her own time to helping the elderly and young low-income families.
I will also remember her as someone who would do anything for her children and deeply loved us.
Read more personal experiences, find Support & Advice.