This is a really important piece written by Bronwyn that shows just how deep the illness of alcoholism runs. It explores how it goes much beyond the drinking itself and how simply stopping the drinking changes very little. If you feel personally impacted, then Nacoa is there to offer you support. If you would like to share something as a COA then please get in touch.
I am round my Nan’s, enjoying a cigarette with her on a quiet evening, when I get the call I’ve been dreading.
With panicked breaths, my little brother vents, “I don’t know what to do, Bronwyn, I can’t take this anymore!” From what I can gather, he’s had yet another argument with our mum, and this one’s the final straw for him. It sounds insignificant, silly even, but I know all too well how mum can turn the smallest molehills into impassable mountains.
Me and Nan make hasty plans. We are veterans at jumping into action where my mum is concerned and we agree that he should spend the night here, away from that claustrophobic house. Here he can calm down and reflect, there he can do nothing but seethe in his bedroom and panic.
My uncle picks him up, and soon we are sitting round the kitchen table talking things through and letting him unwind. He explains he’d asked for her help in finding something whilst she was watching TV and she’d snapped. She’d shouted at him that she wished he’d go live with his Dad. I say that its maybe a good idea for him to stay with his Dad a little while, to let her cool off. I tell him to text her and let her know he’s okay. He is shocked and numb, and types in the words with a dead look.
I want him to know we will listen to him, that his opinion matters, so I ask him “Leaving everyone else aside, what do you want to happen?”
He looks up at me like a child, his eyes raw from crying, and his voice breaks as he says “I don’t know.”
His head jerks downwards, hand reaching to cover his eyes, and dissolves into tears. I can do nothing for the moment but let him cry it out and hold his hand. He’s 15 but right now he seems so much younger.
Suddenly, I get a horrific sense of déjà vu. I haven’t seen this in a dream, but I’ve been here before, in his place, crying noisy tears, Nan holding my hand. I realise he’s just had the same thought which struck me nearly a decade ago.
My own mother doesn’t want me.
I go cold. It’s a soul-crushing realisation and is made even more potent by the fact that, whilst she is an alcoholic, not a drop has touched her lips in ten years.
So how can it be that, in many respects, she hasn’t changed? How can she still be the same cruel woman that terrorised us, when she is totally sober?
When I was younger and my mum was in one of her worst phases, I was certain that if she stopped drinking, things would be different.
I remember being told countless times that inside that husk of a woman lay someone who loved us.
“She’s just struggling…”
“Of course she loves you…”
“It’s the alcohol that’s the problem…”
“She’s trapped by it, she can’t help it…”
“That’s why they call it the Demon Drink…”
Social workers, friends’ parents, relatives, teachers, counsellors, her AA friends – everyone. They all believed that if she stopped drinking, I’d have a Real Mum. Someone who’d love me, encourage me, keep me warm and fed and safe. When everyone around you repeats the same thing, you begin to believe it too.
I yearned for that Real Mum. The idea that she’d one day be free of alcohol and become the mum I needed filled me with hope. It kept me going every time she said something cruel, or got angry and scared me, or put me and my brothers in harm’s way.
When she finally stopped drinking, I learned there is nothing more defeating than having your hopes burn up in front of you.
For a long time, she was constantly angry. Everything I did started an argument. The tiniest mis-step had the potential to bring down an avalanche of hate.
Everything she felt was wrong was projected onto us. The house was a mess because of her kids – despite the fact she rarely cleaned. She never had any money because she had to spend it on uniforms, school-supplies and trips – despite the fact she got financial help from the schools and council. She was always the victim.
It seemed she managed to convince a lot of other people – especially her AA friends – of this too.
My mental health plummeted. I couldn’t get myself out of bed for school. I felt totally unwelcome in my own home. Listening to her drone on about how her life would be so much easier without us zapped my energy completely. Was I so unlovable? Did I cause this?
She did mellow out a little eventually. She went to AA more. She got a job and started to do some more things round the house, but she still had a fearful temper.
Some of the cruellest things she’s ever said to me were said when she was sober.
I remember one incident in particular. I was babysitting my little brother whilst she was at an AA meeting. It was her first in a while, so he was playing up and refusing to go to bed. I ended up losing my temper and grabbed him to carry him upstairs. He squirmed so much that he fell from my grip and hit his arm on the edge of the stair. He cried so much I was scared it was broken. I felt awful and guilty. Thankfully he didn’t break it, but he was left with a small bruise. I relented and said he could stay up til mum got in, but then straight to bed with no arguments. He agreed.
Naturally, when she returned, he immediately showed her his bruise.
“Ohhh dear,” she crooned, “what happened?
“Bronny did it.”
She started to chivvy him towards the stairs and turned to face me.
“How dare you hurt your little brother,” she screamed, “what an evil, wicked thing to do!”
And finally, “I hope you NEVER have kids!”
It’s a line that has stuck with me ever since.
The fact that she was sober when she said it made it so much more hurtful. This was something she really thought – she couldn’t explain it away as “just the drink talking”.
She had put down the drink, but the Real Mum was nowhere to be found. Why had it gone so wrong? It was meant to be better than before, not worse.
My own time in therapy has given me some insights into why she is still so full of hate and envy today.
Since 2014, I have lived with psychosis. I hear voices and, if I push myself too hard, experience breakdowns in which I am so intensely paranoid that it becomes impossible to leave the house.
I manage it with medication, but this has had mixed results, and in 2017 during a particularly bad episode, I decided to start psychotherapy. I’ve been going weekly ever since and think it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
My therapist works with the theory that when you suffer emotional pain (trauma) your mind develops ways to protect you from it. It, in simple terms, buries the pain and gives you things to distract you and stop you feeling it. Many of these are harmful for us in the long-term, but if they work at dampening the feelings the mind adopts them and they become coping mechanisms. They are habitual and automatic, so much so that they seem like they are a part of your identity.
The voices, he reasoned, were a coping mechanism my mind was using to avoid pain from childhood. If I faced these painful feelings and built up my tolerance to them, the voices would eventually subside.
Also, feelings which had been viewed negatively in childhood would be suppressed by the mind as it learned they led to negative consequences – such as being rejected or abandoned by others.
Family often remarks that I always seemed happy as a child. Despite all the chaos, nothing ever seemed to faze me and I was always cheerful, enthusiastic, and eager to help. The truth is that I learned very early on to hide anything negative. If I cried, no one would listen, and if I got angry, that would just make it worse. I threw my efforts into being the “perfect” child instead. Even as a baby, I rarely cried, and when I was a little older I tried my best to make everyone in the house happy. If I made them happy, they would love me, right?
Today, I still have a real problem feeling anger in particular. In childhood, I learned from my mum and big brother that all anger ever did was hurt people. Hurting people was bad. Being bad meant I’d be abandoned. Therefore, anger equalled abandonment. Abandonment equalled pain. Now, feeling angry is one of the main triggers for the voices. To stop me getting angry, the voices pipe up and give me something to fear instead. Fear is much easier to feel.
You are probably thinking: this is all interesting, Bronwyn, but what does this have to do with your mum’s drinking?
Having secretly read some of my mum’s old dairies, and from the few honest conversations I’ve had with her, I know that my mum has a very low sense of self-worth. She is deeply afraid of losing the people around her – despite pushing them away – and is convinced that she is fundamentally inadequate.
Whilst it impossible to know what has caused this harsh view of herself, it is obvious that it stems from a previous trauma – one which left her fearing rejection and abandonment. It also explains much of her behaviour as being coping mechanisms to protect herself:
Self-absorption – my mum is fixated on her identity, experiences and feelings to the extent that no-one else’s are important to her. By doing this, she is denying her feeling of inadequacy with the idea that she is “special”, and therefore her identity (her feelings) matter more than others.
Self-bias and victim mentality – this is linked to the above mechanism. She shows extreme bias towards herself. When something goes well, it is her achievement. When it goes badly, it is the fault of someone else. She finds it impossible to own up to mistakes and, when she is blamed for something, becomes hostile and defensive. She is always misunderstood and hard-done-by, and the rules that apply to other people don’t apply to her. It is her mind’s way of saying “Don’t reject me- can’t you see how special I am?”.
Rage – she is quick to step on and ridicule the feelings of others, but even quicker to defend her own. If she feels her identity is being attacked, she flies off the handle. She seems to be constantly seething underneath, ruminating on all the bad things that have happened to her. This anger gives her something to hold on to, and focusses her attention away from the fear that people will reject her for her feelings. This used to come out a lot when she was drinking – she was often verbally abusive and sometimes violent.
Envy – she constantly focusses on objects which are out of her reach. She’s moved home more times than I can count, and buys far more stuff than she has space – or money – for. She is never happy with what she possesses and often says things like “if I had…x… things would be better”. If she attains something, she then wants a better version. She looks at people who are doing well for themselves and only thinks of how nice it would be to have their life, without thinking of how hard they’ve worked to get there. She even does this with animals and people. She wants better kids, then misses them when they’ve moved out. She wants pets, until she has them, and then bemoans the money she has to spend on food and vet’s bills. She under-appreciates everything of value, wanting something more, and then only sees the value when she’s lost what she had in the first place.
Addiction – when sober, my mum was constantly insecure, and felt like people would not accept her, despite being ridiculously talented in art and music. When she began to drink, this went away. She became the life of the party. Confident, smart, funny, beautiful – she felt invincible. Naturally, it spiralled. She needed more each time to quiet the self-criticism. She’d end up getting plastered and doing something stupid, or starting an argument. Unable to tolerate the shame, she’d drink the next day to numb it, starting a downward spiral. She’d drink to chase her perfect self and end up further away from it each time. When she finally stopped drinking, she retained this need for a crutch. She began to take co-codamol to battle the withdrawal headaches. You are meant to stop taking them after 3 days – she was on them for 5 or 6 years. When one pharmacy stopped serving her, she’d hit up another. She needed numbness to cope.
Her alcoholism was a scapegoat. It was such a major part of her coping mechanism, it was easily confused as the main issue. In truth, it was just an attempt to medicate the issue away. For her, it was like taking cough medicine. It wouldn’t get rid if the infection causing the cough, but it would numb the pain enough for her to go about her day.
With her though, it got to the point where it exacerbated her other destructive behaviours. She’d drink to get rid of the feelings; she’d often get angrier than normal due to lower inhibitions; she’d feel guilty when she sobered up; she’d criticise herself (another of her coping mechanisms); she’d drink even more to quiet the criticism… repeat ad nauseam.
This potent mix of defence mechanisms was distilled over time, until it became a volatile cocktail, destructive to everyone around her.
During her sober years, my mum has made no attempt to face the underlying feelings these behaviours were developed to keep locked away. She has not sought therapy or help.
She has fallen for the myth that it is the alcohol which makes an alcoholic.
You can’t have an alcoholic without alcohol, it’s true, but it is more likely a deeper trauma which is the real cause – as Josh Connolly said in a recent ITV news online interview.
Until she finds the courage to face this pain, I don’t believe she will change. Until she changes, I cannot have that Real Mum. I hate the idea that she is in pain, but I hate the fact that she is unwilling to fix it more.
My mum’s actions over the past 10 years have shown me that the struggles of a COA do not stop when the parent stops drinking. I’ve learned that many people don’t like this opinion, because they think this means there is no hope.
I think there is. There is hope, but only if the deeper issue which led to the addition is addressed.
Facing the underlying feelings gives you a choice. It allows you to try to break down the harmful coping mechanisms you’ve developed, strip away the habits which hurt you, and enables you to become a better – more real – version of yourself.
This is what leads to lasting change for the alcoholic and their family – but it is not a quick fix.
Reflective recovery is hard. It takes a long time. These behaviours were built up over years – they cannot be torn down in a month.
I’ve been in therapy for a year and a half now and I still consider my healing to be in its early stages. I still walk out feeling bruised and raw. The wins are happening more frequently – but I’ve learned it is a marathon, and not a sprint.
I believe the alcoholics and their families need support during the entire recovery period, not just during the addiction. The children will need support in coming to terms with their parent’s addiction and the traumas it created. The alcoholic will need help to unpick the threads of pain which led them to drink in the first place.
Not just this, but if the parent is not seeking help for the underlying pain, the children need even more support. It is likely that, in addition to the trauma from the addiction, they will also have to contend with continuing destructive behaviours.
These can be even more damaging to the child, as I found. You go from the devil you know to the devil you don’t – a devil who appears to be a saint to the outside world, because they no longer have a bottle in their hands. For me, this was far more painful to deal with than Drunk Mum ever was.
This is why I think the work that NACOA do is so important. To quote them, they are there for COAs from the ages of “1-101”, whether the parent is still drinking or not. I wish they’d had more publicity when I was a child. I only heard of them a couple of years ago, but their resources would have been so helpful for a child like me. Until the government puts a holistic health and social care strategy in place for alcoholics and their families, the work of services like NACOA are vital in helping to end the cycle of trauma.
My time in therapy, whilst far from over, has given me the realisation that, until she begins to look at her behaviour in a broader way, and deal with the deeper issues, I cannot suffer through having a relationship with my mum. It is sad, and hurts me deeply, but it has enabled me to set boundaries and take care of myself and the other people who matter in my life. The people who love me and encourage me, not hinder and fill me with doubt. My real family, in many ways.
To finish off, I want to offer one bit of advice to COAs like me, whose parents – sober or not – continue to cause them pain. It is good to love your parents – but it’s okay to hate the things they do. Its good if you want to help them – but it’s okay to step back when they become too much. You didn’t cause this. You can’t control it. They must take make the decision to pursue and work at recovering. If they don’t, that’s not on you. Don’t sacrifice yourself. Time is the one thing we can never get back – so make sure you use yours to heal yourself first.
Thank you for reading.