After a year of not seeing their families, most people will be looking forward to reunions this Christmas. But for the family of an addict, Christmas is not a time of goodwill. It is a time of dread.
When you imagine an alcoholic, you may well see a destitute man, wearing a dirty parka, holes in his boots, swigging from a bottle on a park bench. You’re far less likely to picture a respectable, professional woman in her early 60s, who owns shares and a semi-detached house. And so, when my mother walks into the supermarket and buys six bottles of wine, nobody bats an eyelid.
And yet, my mother is an alcoholic. Her addiction is our secret family shame. And I suspect there are many more families carrying the same secret burden, exacerbated by the pandemic.
My mother has been an alcoholic since I was five years old. I am now 32. She suffered a trauma when she was around the age I am now and used drink as a coping mechanism. This is not uncommon; often people’s stories of addiction start this way.
But when you have four children, the impact is catastrophic. Your addiction shapes not only your relationship with them, but their relationship with themselves.
My youngest brother – who is five years younger than me – does not remember mum before the addiction. Which is a shame, because she was great. She was vibrant and beautiful. She had a wild imagination and so much intelligence – she was a brilliant artist. Above all, she was fun. We used to laugh so much.
There is one memory I have of us sitting in the back of a car. I put my head on her shoulder and as I fell asleep, I remember thinking, I love you mum.
And now? I can’t bring myself to say it. How awful is that?
Spending time with her makes me uncomfortable. Every family occasion is fraught with tension, my siblings, my long-suffering father and I all anxious that she will ruin it, forever on ‘mum watch’. I couldn’t enjoy my brother’s wedding because I spent the day trying to stop disaster. When she is intoxicated, she is wrecking ball, destroying anyone and everything in her wake.
And yet, no one outside the family circle knows. By day, mum is a sentient, ‘normal’ woman. By night, she drinks until she blacks out; but not before she causes arguments, shouts and screams, lashes out.
I’ve prised pills from her clenched fists and pulled her off the window ledge. I’ve gone searching for her in the middle of the night when she’s escaped from the house, too intoxicated to walk straight. I’ve rammed my fingers down her throat to make her sick and tucked her into bed as she cries uncontrollably, telling me how much she hates me. I’ve found empty bottles of booze hidden everywhere – from the washing basket to the garden shed.
The morning after one of her episodes? She won’t discuss it. She is like a petulant toddler. And when you do provoke her into talking, everything is someone else’s fault.
She can’t possibly have a drinking problem, because no one else (except for her children and husband) say she does. The five of us are in cahoots; conspiring against her to make her sound crazy. But the reality is that her addiction is ruining my dad’s life.
Having moved out at 18, I tried at first very hard to have a relationship with her. But I realised how much her issues were having an impact on my own mental health and later, my marriage. I don’t know what a functioning mother-child relationship is and that makes me question whether I should have children.
According to Adult Children of Alcoholics, a 1983 book by Dr Janet G. Woititz – one of the scarce resources about people like me – having a parent with an addiction can have a life-long impact. Characteristics of children of alcoholics include judging themselves without mercy, constantly seeking approval and feeling abnormal.
I couldn’t let my mum’s issues ruin my future and, as she wasn’t willing to change, I had to walk away.
I know my dad will never be able to do the same. He is of a generation of men who don’t talk about their problems. She has removed him from all his friends and social life and so he suffers behind the closed doors of their lovely-looking semi-detached in suburbia.
Official statistics place the number of children in Britain who love an alcoholic parent at 200,000. But experts believe the true number is more like 2.6 million. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was higher.
We don’t talk about it. It’s cloaked in secrecy and stigma. And I wrote this article so that anyone else in the same situation would know they aren’t alone.
I will not be going back home over Christmas. And I feel a huge sense of guilt about not seeing my dad. But he chooses mum over his own happiness. And I can’t make the same choice. Because the problem with loving an addict is that you will never be enough. The drug, the drink, the bet – it will always come first.
You can beg them, plead with them, force them into the car and drive them to Alcoholics Anonymous – but for as long as the addiction comes first, it’s all pointless.
Right now, again, the Commission on Alcohol Harm is calling for minimum unit pricing and restrictions on the advertising of alcohol in a bit to cut down on alcoholism.
These measures plaster over a huge problem in our society. Alcoholism is far more pervasive than the statistics show – and it’s confined to the park bench or the council estate. It’s in quiet neighbourhoods and chocolate-box villages. It’s the family next door, the school headteacher, the doctor, the accountant.
A minimum unit price will not stop addiction. Firstly, an addict will pay any price for their drug. Secondly, the face of alcoholism isn’t the face you think it is.
Yes, Britain has a drinking problem. But it isn’t necessarily boozy nights out and pub crawls. It’s family Christmas dinners. It’s sitting there at the table, right next to the organic turkey and the Waitrose No.1 stuffing.
I try and keep my memory of mum as what she used to be. The mum who sang with me, danced with me, laughed and was full of life – that’s the mum I want to remember. That’s the mum I wish I could see this Christmas.
If you relate to any of the issues raised in this article, help and support is available on the website of Adult Children.