I have no memories of my first seven years. Memories of later times I have recently acknowledged cause me to dread the realities of the forgotten experience. My mother claims that her problem began when she heard of the start of the troubles in the north of Ireland. I suppose that could explain the absence of earlier memories. Unfortunately, my conscious awareness causes me to doubt the truth of her dating.
Truth and falsehood are strangely and disturbingly linked in the sayings of my mother.
My mother did not drink every day. She remained sober for months at a time. When she did drink, she consumed with a vengeance. She could – and did – pass a fortnight without a sober waking moment. When sober, my mother was frantically house-proud and paid particular attention to matters of personal hygiene and to her appearance. When drunk, my mother would think nothing of taking to the streets dressed in no more than a pair of urine stained trousers and a fake fur coat. Sober Mother would refrain from company;
Drunken Mother took up with a host of characters she would otherwise have disdained.
Drunken Mother acquired a considerable list of convictions for shoplifting and being drunk and disorderly.
Sober Mother took the moral high ground and was merciless in her condemnation of the faults she perceived in others.
Though compelled by law to receive treatment in an alcohol dependency unit, my mother has yet to overcome her 25-year compulsion.
My mother is a domineering and angry person.
Family members were forbidden to broach the subject of her drinking under pain of severe punishment.
My brother and sisters and I barely talked about this great bane of our lives. My brother went through a period of drug-taking and alcohol abuse before applying himself with robotic efficiency to his work. My older sister endured years of anguish before her death at the age of 24. My younger sister weeps uncontrollably without evident cause. All the children left home as soon as we were able to.
My father was a mocked and distant figure. My mother never missed an opportunity to abuse, belittle or ostracise him. He ate his meals alone, living in fear of my mother’s sober aggression. He took cruel revenge when she was in her whisky fortnights. The horror of the violence between my mother and father is difficult for me to face. Mother would be very drunk, father would return from the pub. Mother would orally abuse him; he would return the abuse.
The dreadful noise would escalate.
Mother would throw an ashtray or cup with unsteady aim and furious rage at my father’s head. Father would punch mother repeatedly as hard as he could. There were strangling, unearthly howls and groanings. There was blood and bruises and black eyes.
To witness the scenes was to be subjected to a terror beyond my control.
I was overwhelmed by such happenings hundreds of times over a period of at least ten years.
These days, at the sight or prospect of violence, I become paralysed with fear or start to feel panic.
Sober Mother was very harsh in her attitudes towards displays of childhood sexuality, loudly asserting the evils of an eight-year-old boy playing with himself, even more disapproving of the first evidence of orgasm. I don’t think mother and father enjoyed a full sexual relationship. I recall hearing their lovemaking just once. I found it uncommonly disturbing. Drunken Mother thought nothing of engaging in casual sexual activities with a host of loathsome pick-ups, men and youths I hated with impotent fury. She would perform lascivious dances before me despite my evident distress. My sexual relationships have been generally unsatisfactory; I have difficulty in associating physical contact with love or guilt-free pleasure, and feel self-disgust after arousal and desperate expression.
I used to come back from school dreading what I might find.
I avoided bringing friends home – they might see my mother drunk or worse. Sometimes I took advantage of her drunkenness to steal money from my mother’s purse and I still feel guilty about that. Sober Mother would exact retribution for real or imagined transgressions with furious fist, wooden spoon or hairbrush to head or body. But she would insist – to me as well as other people – that she never did more than spank my bottom in response to even the gravest crimes.
My own eighteen-year career in the world of drink and drugs began at the age of 14 with a bottle of cider and some Valium.
I embraced opium, LSD, speed, cannabis, magic mushrooms and every kind of chemist-bought pharmaceutical, all washed down by gallons of wine, beer and spirits. I stopped this involvement when I realised it was adding to my sense of unease rather than masking it. When finally I did, I received only poorly-considered advice and a few prescriptions for benzodiazepines.
In November 1994 I was devastated by what I now know was a panic attack, but what I thought of at the time as the onset of a life – or mind-threatening disorder. When it did not pass of its own accord, I sought treatment and found nightly doses of Amitriptyline to be helpful. I have also decided to take part in a course of psychotherapy. Though I look upon the drug as a temporary measure, I will not lose sight of the principle that whatever helps me to limit the impact of the most distressing and intrusive of my experience is a good thing. I have retained control in my purposeful dealings with medical and mental health professionals.
It is only recently that I have challenged my previously held notion that I enjoyed a generally happy and contented childhood. The experiences related here still have the power to upset and alarm me.
I am haunted by the idea that the telling of these dark truths is an unwarranted betrayal of my mother. I am convinced that these experiences have played a major role in allowing my life to be subsumed on occasions by misery, fear and despair.
I live 50 miles from my mother. I correspond regularly with her, but seldom visit. I do not know my father’s address. I write to my brother occasionally. He sends me a card for my birthday and at Christmas. I lament my sister’s passing although I am no longer overwhelmed by grief at her absence. My mother’s drinking remains a taboo subject within our fragmented and secretive family.