Today’s piece shows the most extreme progression of the family illness that is alcoholism and just how awful the ending can look. The anonymous author shows incredible courage to get this written down and articulate it in such a relatable way.
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It’s difficult to pin down the time when alcohol became such a big part of my parents’ lives. As a small boy I remember the normal few drinks at Christmas, along with the occasional summer outing to a country pub. I only recall alcohol becoming more mainstreamed in our family life in the early 80’s, when bottles of wine began to accompany meals, followed by tins of super strength lager in the evening, their insidious presence sometimes causing my parents to argue fiercely.
I had just discovered my independence and had a car, so I would drive – just drive anywhere, so I didn’t have to go home if there were arguments. I wouldn’t go home until I saw the lights were out indoors , too anxious to go in, in case there had been another row – this was the true start of my own anxiety issues growing, which persist to this day.
I remember in 1986, on my dad’s birthday, he was so drunk he stormed out of the house, only to return once we were all in bed, his finger on the door bell until someone answered. I did answer, after which he held me against the wall by the throat, his other hand drawn back in a fist, telling me that if I moved, he would ‘fucking kill me‘. I remember my sister, 11 at the time, tearfully peering round her bedroom door and me telling her to go back in and keep quiet.
There were many similar episodes – toxic, simmering anger, followed by explosions of a seemingly murderous rage. On one occasion I was so scared to go to the toilet in the night in case I woke him by shutting the bathroom door that I actually peed out of my bedroom window onto the flower bed below – I felt cowed and humiliated. I sometimes hated him, but 99% of the time he was till my awesome dad and I loved him – I still do, and miss him, because he was mainly great .
In the early nineties, they divorced. That was the tipping point. Dad became a normal social drinker again, but Mum tipped over the edge. I would call her to see if she was okay and get no answer, so would pop round only to find her slumped in the chair, still in her dressing gown, barely coherent. This would sometimes be before 11 a.m.
After a year apart and a very acrimonious divorce, they got back together and re-married, and they both took early retirement. I realised just how much her drinking was known by colleagues – her boss even saying at her leaving do how much she ‘liked a drink’.
Dad was keen to start a new life so they moved to a small north Norfolk fishing town, where they soon became involved in community life, mum getting a couple of part time jobs, dad getting involved in a local charity. They seemed happy and settled, but the spectre of Mum’s drinking was never far away. On Christmas day 1996, Mum was so drunk that she could barely talk, and Dad seemed bewildered and sad, saying only that “Mum is slurring her speech”. It culminated in another of their rows a day later, and we left quickly, my anxiety giving me a desperate urge to simply free.
In February 1997, after only seven months of their new life, Dad died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 57. Without anyone with her to deter her, Mum’s drinking spiralled. Mum would slur and shake when we arrived for visits, but if I challenged her, she would deny it, blaming her thyroxin levels, or get angry and say I was paranoid with an ‘over active imagination’ and that I was a ‘nervous wreck‘, which of course I was by this point. This ‘gaslighting’ type behaviour really affected me and I became more and more anxious, thinking that it was me that was the problem, despite the evidence. The glass hidden behind the toaster in the kitchen, stinking of spirits, told a different story. On one occasion I found a stash of spirits hidden, and lost my temper. I tried to pour them away down the sink, my Mum shouting and frantically grasping, trying to wrestle them out of my hands – it was so degrading and humiliating.
There were phone calls where she could barely speak, and when my Nan was dying, an awful meeting with social services where she stank of drink and left me to do all the negotiating as she could barely string a sentence together. I loved her – yet pitied her at the same time – I felt anxious, guilty and disloyal.
As we lived over 100 miles away, our visits were planned as weekend stays. As Mum’s drinking became more all-consuming, I would insist we left home earlier and earlier, to try to get to her house before she was too drunk – dreading the inevitable row . I would be in a state of high anxiety, snapping at my wife if we were later than I wanted, dreading the state we would find Mum in.
We hoped that becoming a grandmother would change her when our eldest daughter was born in 2001. She was an amazing grandmother when sober, but would be so drunk on occasions when we arrived, that we couldn’t let her hold her granddaughter in case she dropped her.
The behaviour continued – the slurred phone calls, the early starts when visiting. There was one occasion when she ‘collapsed’ in the street and paramedics came – we know now that she was drunk. Somehow though, she held down her jobs and maintained good friendships, but there were always give away signs – her breath, the occasional smell of urine where her continence was suffering.
Our second daughter was born in 2004 and Mum continued to be an amazing grandmother, always there for us. The drinking however remained an ever present spectre, spoiling visits to her, and generating huge amounts of anxiety for me, ultimately contributing to me being referred for counselling and being diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
In May 2006 Mum come to stay with a friend in our town and I picked her up in Norfolk to bring her back. She was vacant, withdrawn and really not herself. The idea was that she would get a lift back to Norfolk with the friend, and we would take the girls to see her for the late May Bank Holiday a couple of days later.
On the Saturday morning of our visit we were up early – visit planning now having become like a military operation so we could get there early. We were on the road by 8 a.m. and my wife made a couple of concocted phone calls to check if she was sober. I was absolutely in shreds – anxious, pre-occupied and tense.
Twenty minutes from her house, our youngest daughter was sick in the car. We rang ahead to ask Mum to put the hot water on for a bath for her, but got the answer phone, and assumed she was just out shopping.
We parked up on arrival and got the girls out of the car. On entering the outer porch lobby of her house, we saw empty carrier bags against the inside of the glass front door, which seemed odd, and there was no answer when we rang the bell.
Having our own key, I undid the front door and there was Mum, laid in the hallway in her night dress, her feet on the bottom stair. She was purple and had been sick. I shouted at my wife to get the girls away and rolled her over, my first aid training kicking in. I shook her, called her name, but there was no response. I opened and checked her airway and started CPR, even though she had been sick as she fell, and my wife dialled 999. I remember the community paramedic arriving after a few minutes and touching me gently on the shoulder and saying “leave it mate, she’s gone”.
After that I had an experience like I have never had – I equate it to the trip switches on a mains fuse box all tripping out and then tripping back on, one by one. I remember bits – her friend crying in the street, the local Methodist Minister next door taking in my wife and daughters as I waited for the Police. I remember my eldest daughter, then four, doing drawings of her nanny – trying to draw her back to life, her understanding of death not yet developed. I remember ringing my sister, random friends, anyone who would listen. I remember the awful Norfolk Police Officer who left his radio on full as a conversation about a missing teenager in Great Yarmouth played out, then boasting about training Police officers in Iraq. I remember having to step over my Mum, in her body bag in the hall, to move my car so the funeral directors could carry her out of the house. I remember the sofa, soaked in urine, a tea towel over the wet patch, and the house filthy where she had lost the will to keep it clean, as well as her self control. I remember little else – it has gone – but that day changed me forever and I have never been the same since.
I blamed myself. Why did I lack the courage to have the difficult conversation? Could I have stopped it all from ending like this? I saw a counsellor at a local alcohol charity, who explained that I couldn’t have changed a thing – my Mum had to acknowledge her problem for change to occur.
One particularly scarring experience was the inquest, held at Norwich Coroner’s court. I was accompanied by a marvellous man from the witness support charity and he arranged for me to see the Coroner privately before the hearing. I remember the whiteboard behind the reception desk listing the cases and the cause of death – ‘RTC’, ‘heart attack’ and so forth – and there was my Mum’s name with ‘alco’ next to it. I know that the staff would never have intended to cause upset, they were lovely, but I guess they were so immune to their daily diet of pain that this was how they saw their day – my dear mum just another dead alcoholic.
At the time of death, Mum had 360 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood – well above the level at which the respiratory centre of the brain stops functioning, according to the post mortem report. Looking through her till receipts showed that Mum had downed phenomenal amounts of alcohol in the few days since we last saw her – including at least a litre of vodka on the morning we found her.
So what has been the legacy of my alcoholic Mum? I have an ongoing anxiety disorder, which has affected my friendships, my career, and every aspect of my life. I get incredibly anxious if my wife goes out with her friends, in case she gets drunk (she never does) – an utterly selfish and unreasonable response, and I avoid all confrontation as far as I possibly can. Our girls hate having no grandparents – the eldest can remember my Mum and has a photograph of her in her room, but our youngest daughter can’t remember her at all. It is heartbreaking, and I long since vowed I would never put our daughters through anything like this.
Most of all I wish she was till her to see her granddaughters as they are now – bright, intelligent young women with the world at their feet – she would be so proud. Ultimately though, as a family we have had to acknowledge that alcohol had a more powerful hold over her than her much adored granddaughters, and that really hurts.