Learning to Fly

Featured picture is of the author Helen, pictured with her second son, who was 10 weeks old when her mother died (around the time this picture was taken)

Helen Wilson is a 37 year old journalist, yoga teacher, vegan chef, mother of two and child of an alcoholic. Helen’s mother, Jane, died in July 2017, aged 69, of final stage liver cirrhosis and associated complications. Helen is in the middle of writing  a self-help book for Children of Alcoholics, called Learning to Fly. She is also director of Womankind Yoga Wales, and runs the UK’s largest Beach Yoga Class, for donations, with the aim of reaching out to as many people as possible and helping them improve their lives through yoga.

Remember Nacoa can offer help and support and if you would like to share something as a COA then please get in touch.

Excerpt from 
Learning to Fly – Self Help for Alcoholics, by Helen Wilson

Life after Love – Derek Walcott

The time will come 

when, with elation 

you will greet yourself arriving 

at your own door, in your own mirror 

and each will smile at the other’s welcome, 

and say, sit here. Eat. 

You will love again the stranger who was your self.

Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart 

to itself, to the stranger who has loved you 

all your life, whom you ignored 

for another, who knows you by heart. 

Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, 

the photographs, the desperate notes, 

peel your own image from the mirror. 

Sit. Feast on your life. 

“My earliest memory is of sitting with my mother, in the bath, when she was pregnant with my sister, Emily. That was in the house that I lived in from birth, until I left home shortly after my 18th birthday. I have a tiny collection of cosy, happy memories from my early childhood – the next being seeing Emily asleep under the cherry tree in the garden in her carry cot on a summer’s afternoon. The garden that would become the place we spent many happy hours as little girls, picking daises, making herb potions and playing with the rabbits and guinea pigs in their pens on the lawn. Inside, I remember mother teaching us to draw at the table, watching kittens being born in the bedroom and playing houses around the Christmas tree in the sitting room. Hopping into mum and dad’s bed to eat biscuits and drink tea in the mornings and dad reading us stories at night after bringing us home new stationery to play with from his job as a sales engineer. Since my mother’s death in 2017, we have unearthed several boxes of photographs documenting our parent’s lives before us and also forgotten happy times as small children. We had a honeysuckle tree climbing up one wall in the garden behind the garage, and whenever I see one I get a deep pull of nostalgia and desire to dig deep into my mind to search for more of these happy images.

But the problem is, things changed. We are unsure when, but my mother’s unresolved past and emotional instability started to raise it’s head and seep into our family life. 

Opening boxes of photographs really was like uncovering Pandora’s box for my sister and I. A picture of my mother in her late twenties, wearing a glamorous black dress and matching jewellery, sat at a table in a restaurant with her first husband, Richard. She has a sadness in her eyes, although this was taken ahead of their marriage ending due to his infidelity while working away for the Royal Airforce in the Middle East. It was during this period that mum told me she first started to drink, because Richard was working away, she missed him terribly and was lonely. So the habit was already established. When the marriage ended, she told me he later asked her to take him back, but in pride, she said no. 

Helen is pictured with her mother, Jane, during her graduation from Falmouth College of Arts in 2002.

Richard later died after being robbed at knifepoint while abroad, an event that tarnished mother’s life until her last days, a sadness that she never found the strength or resource to recover from. 

I know that mum was a good mother to us when we were little children. I remember not wanting to leave her side to go to school, her sense of humour and how she shared her love of animals with us. I’ve since found boxes of children’s books, which I can remember her reading to us, doing the little voices of the animals featured in them. The problem is so much happened in later years that I lost the clarity of these memories, many of them vanished altogether, overlaid by what followed as alcohol began to influence her personality and presence as a mother.

We’ve been told she could always be seen having a drink in the evening when we were little children, but I don’t remember this. What has become significant in my understanding of some of the difficulties I’ve had as an adult is pinpointing my first memories which suggest something was going wrong. 

At school I was picked for being tall and having ‘goofy’ teeth.. so I had some of the usual insecurities. But more significantly I can remember desperately trying to seek attention and approval from my teachers, being absolutely distraught at getting something wrong or even worse, being told off. Somewhere inside, little Helen was not growing up with the knowledge that she was loved, she was OK and perfect as she was. Aged 37, looking back on this time, now with my own young children, I believe my mother’s addiction to alcohol had began eating into her emotional ability for us and her capacity to nurture our self-esteem and provide a place of physical and emotional security. 

Before I remember mum actually being drunk on a daily basis – there lies a few years of general absenteeism, where it was dad who took us out for the day, went to parent’s evening, took us to the cinema and helped with homework. I can’t recall much apart from my parents having massive arguments all the time and feelings that I didn’t really want friends to come to my house after school.

When I was 13 and Emily was 10, my parent’s marriage ended and dad left us. As he drove off down the road, we watched his car disappear around the corner. Mum said: “Things will be better now”. If only that had been the case. 

It seemed that without our father around, mum’s deep unhappiness needed a new outlet for release. In our younger years she had been a member of the local church, but after one of her cats died she took it to mean there was no god and she abandoned her faith. It seemed following a difficult childhood herself, with a father who had a violent temper, the death of Richard and the breakdown of her marriage to dad, she never found a long term and sustained outlet for healing and working through her problems. Her solution and escape became drinking.

Have you ever seen one of those memes online showing a persons deterioration from crack cocaine? You could make a similar one about the life of an alcoholic. Over the next few years my mother went from an intelligent, funny, sociable, active person, with a family, job and friends, to a woman who a shadow of a person who never left the house apart from to visit the local corner shop. Her clothes were dirty and smelt and her social skills and awareness vanished.

My early teenage years were filled with regular arguments with my mum, which led my sister and I to begin the habit of retreating to our bedrooms whenever we were at home. Bottles of white wine were a common sight in the glass kitchen cupboard above the workshop, but we became aware that the cork was getting opened earlier and earlier. And once you saw the glass out you learned to tread very carefully, and not to answer back or argue. Every evening from about the age of 15, my mother was like a ranging time bomb. Her face would become redder and redder, if you appeared to ask if there was any dinner to eat you’d lay yourself open to a violent argument that could go on for hours. She would sit on the stool in the kitchen slurring, swaying and splitting at you as she shouted. If you walked away, she’d follow you up the stairs and continue shouting. If she’d laid into me, I’d often go and sit with my sister in a hope she’d leave us alone. We’d turn the lights out and pretend to be asleep, hide under the covers. Mum would open the door, turn on the light and rip the duvet from your face and start shouting at you all over again for going to bed without saying goodnight. Sometimes I’d beg to be left alone, other times I’d scream obscenities and try and stick up for us, other times I’d curl up in a ball on the floor sobbing. Nothing had any effect or did anything to make mum stop what she was doing. Being hysterical became a nightly occurrence. This sounds dramatic but it is not written for effect. It’s what happened to us, Helen and Emily, aged 15/16 and 12/13. I’d cry so much I would hyperventilate and my face would swell, I couldn’t sleep because my face hurt so much from sobbing. My sister self-harmed. The worst part of it all was that no one helped us.

My dad was living in the next town with family and didn’t have a spare room for us. In the same town were our grandparents, who were in a lifetimes denial that their daughter had a drink problem. Whether it was too embarrassing or shameful for them to admit, even when we telephoned them one night from a call box to ask what to do because mum was passed out on the floor, they told us to go home. 

We had neighbours who mother used to go to church with and share afternoon tea with. They closed their doors, turning their backs and a blind eye to the shouting that came from the house and the weary teenagers slamming doors out into the night. One such evening it got so bad that my sister and I packed bags, snuck down the stairs and out the front door. She had passed out over the workshop after the nightly tirade. We walked again to the phone box down up the road. This time we called Childline. They too told us to go home. 

Time and time again we wanted to run away. A few times I hitched as far as town with the intention of not stopping, but I ended up going back because I just didn’t know where to go, and I was scared. Home was not a place of safety or sanctuary. We dreaded going back there, not only because of mother’s drinking, but also because she had allowed her many cats to completely destroy the house. Cats were mum’s life, her love, her other obsession. But as she went down hill, the cats were out of control. Many of them didn’t go outside and they urinated and defecated everywhere. Carpets were ripped up and soiled, the kitchen workshops were often a swill with cats’ wee and the house stank. Emily and I tried to keep our bedrooms closed off and clean, but they didn’t stay that way for long. It wasn’t our house mother said and the cats came first.

Brimming with teenage angst, insecurities and hormones, my increasingly turbulent relationship with mum left me feeling desperately unhappy, lost and angry. I got through by confiding in a tiny group of very close girl friends; we gathered in each other’s bedrooms, sat around candles and listened to the sorrows of grunge and heavy metal music. I found a lot of comfort in music and began singing and playing guitar around aged 14. I used music as an outlet for my anger and confusion and have kept some of the lyrics to this day.

Tell Me
Tell me now, is it ever going to change,
Will I always feel the same,
At the end of the day
Tell me now, your twisted dreams,
And my life it seems,To you on the outside

It’s just me, what do you want me to be?
Do you want me to change myself?
For you or anyone else?
Tried so hard to please,
You had me on my knees,
But I am six foot tall,
Yet you make me feel so small…

I formed a band, aged 17, with some friends from college and we played the local gig circuit. When we weren’t doing this, I went off to as many gigs and possible and immersed myself in an active social life that avoided being at home as much as possible. My sister and I retain to this day, it’s a miracle we didn’t go off the rails completely. I stayed out all night, got drunk, went to gigs with no way of getting home and often hitch hiked back as no parents were around to collect me. Sometimes we’d go and come back the next day and mum wouldn’t have even noticed we’d gone. This was particularly the case after I’d left home, when Emily remained there. She fell in love with the bass player of a rock band and would often disappear for days, aged 15/16. She told me years later she spend the night alone sleeping on a bench in London Victoria Station once. 

Somewhere deep inside I’ve always had this drive that’s kept me mostly on the straight and narrow. After the gigs and the parties I always knew I had to study to do well at school and get my GCSEs and then A Levels. I saw them as a ticket to freedom, so I could leave home and go off on my own. I was always bright, but still had to work hard to get the good grades, which was often hard as I could never concentrate very well at home.

As I got older I got less tolerant of the drinking and less scared. I’d go around the house looking for cans of Tenants Extra or Special Brew and tip them down the sink. I once found open cans in her dressing gown pocket and thrown under the bed. She was knocking these back with a cocktail of prescription drugs that the doctors just kept giving her despite it being clear she was an alcoholic. I’d open the back of the car when she got back from the shop or delve into shopping bags… pulling out the cans, quizzing her, shouting why? What is this?

That’s one of the things we could never understand. Why doesn’t someone do something? Why doesn’t someone help us or stop her? One evening, we thought they had. We’d come home from school and college and mum wasn’t anywhere to be seen. The darkness came and then we saw the flashing lights of a police car coming around the corner and pulling up on the drive way. That’s it! We thought. They’ve caught her drink driving! I was relieved. She got out the car and seemed to thank the officers, who then drove off. The lights had failed in her car and so she had been driving home over the hills with no lights on. A police car saw her and they were kind enough to escort her home! No they hadn’t smelled the booze and no they hadn’t thought to breathalyse her. Once they had gone we saw her reach down and take the empties from the foot well and head towards the front door.

The horror stories could continue for pages, the recollection of being pulled aside by my college lecturer and asked why my face was all swollen one morning, the day I found mum slumped over the wheel or her car where she had driven into the hedge at the end of my friend’s drive way and passed out…

What matter beyond these sad tales is the effect that these type of events have on children and young adults and how it effects the adult you become…  

Helen is keen to hear from anyone who was raised by an alcoholic parent, who would like to share their story and share the things that have helped them to heal and grow from the experience. If you’d like to be involved, please email her at annapurnahelenwilson@gmail.com 

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