It can happen to anyone
We were a nice family. Grandpa was a smart man who drove a Jaguar and owned lots of businesses. Him and my grandma had a big posh house, as some of my school friends pointed out. They lived across the road from my secondary school in Somerset.
So, we were respectable right? Up until my early teens, my mother, Jane, had been part of the local ‘church family’. Ah that’s nice isn’t it. Go to church on Sunday in your best clothes. Pretend not to be annoyed about being there and being forced to engage in polite conversation with adults you didn’t know.
But it can happen to anyone, you know. Behind the pretence of a well-turned-out family, addictions can be brewing beneath the surface.
Did my mother spend hours propping up the bar at the local pub? No.
Did she sit on a park bench and heckle the traffic with a bottle in a paper bag? No.
She made polite conversation with strangers, she accepted glasses of wine poured for her during Sunday dinners with the family. Everything was respectable, on the surface.
In the beginning she’d buy white wine, pour herself a glass while cooking dinner. It was Jacobs Creek, I remember. The bottle would always be slightly hidden in the cupboard above the worktop, so you couldn’t tell how many top ups she’d given herself.
Mother was slowly getting more and more intoxicated, every night, in the privacy of her kitchen, with two young teenage girls cocooned in their bedroom’s above. My sister was 3 years younger than me.
Late nights and empty stomachs
Delicious dinners cooked from Sainsbury’s recipes and served up on the table turned into late nights and empty stomachs, wondering if she was going to feed us or not.
And all we knew is that as time went on the arguments got worse, the shouting got louder and most nights we would end crying ourselves to sleep under a blanket. The woman who gave birth to us turned into a tyrant.
But no one knew. Or did they? Curtains twitched; doors were closed. People living around our house turned a blind eye to the children running down the street in the night. The girl on the bus with the puffy, red eyes. The girl who hides the cuts of self-harm beneath her school shirt.
Oh, they are a nice family, aren’t they? There can’t possibility be any problems there and if there was, it’s none of our business, is it? Those kids seem fine, they are bright and doing well at school, aren’t they?
No. If people had only opened their eyes, they would have seen, we were not fine. After one particularly nasty argument, we fled the house and called our grandparents from a phone box to ask for help. “Mum has passed out drunk and won’t get up, we don’t know what to do”. “Go home” Grandpa said. Being an alcoholic isn’t something that happens in our family.
It happened to me
Young people stuck at home with a parent who has an addiction are often exposed to a massive risk of emotional, psychological and physical abuse and neglect. Home is no longer a place of safety, acceptance and sanctuary, but a place to of fear and huge instability.
And I’m only now learning 20 years later the huge effect childhood trauma can have on emotional regulation, stress mechanisms and production of neurotransmitters. Experiences like these leave people at high risk of long-term mental health problems, including depression, anxiety and vulnerability to stress, according to addiction specialist and author, Dr Gabor Maté.
And this can happen to anyone. My mother had endured a lifetime of suffering, grief and mental health problems that were never properly addressed and so those social G and Ts of the 80s, turned into bottles of wine in the early 90s, then tins of strong larger and spirits that we were tipping down the sink by the millennium.
Around 2003 she suffered a massive internal haemorrhage in her throat and nearly died. She survived, after months recovering in hospital and didn’t touch a drop of alcohol again. But the damage to her liver had been permanent. In July 2017, she died of multiple organ failure and Ischaemic bowel disease.
Having an addicted parent is something that can happen to anyone. Having a parent die young, as a result of alcoholism, can also happen to anyone. It happened to me.