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Louisa Young on alcoholism in the family: "Just because you're strong, don't mean it's easy"
What happens to the rest of the family when one member is caught in the grip of addiction? Author Louisa Young describes the spectre of alcoholism, and its effect on the man she loved.
You Left Early
Posted on: Tue 10-Jul-18 17:08:14
(90 comments )
I’m lucky enough to have the instinct which says ‘that’s enough’ after a glass or two. My clever, gorgeous, successful, kind fiancé lacked that. He broke his foot, had a psychotic episode, and fell into a coma before truly accepting that drink was the problem. We got together on a project of sobriety - and he did sober up. AA took a long, long time, but he emerged a positive, grateful, and determined, if disabled, man. Then, two years on, he was diagnosed with throat cancer caused by alcoholism. He died sober, after five sober years.
Much as I resisted it, being with him was like a full-time job. Alcoholism is known as the Family Illness because it expands beyond the person who has it, and gets its hooks into everyone who loves them. It fills parents, siblings, partners and children with doubt and fear and shame and unearned guilt, making them think it’s their fault and their responsibility to solve the problem. And it is an illness - it has known symptoms, a predictable course, it damages both the body and the mind, it requires medical attention, it can kill. Don't let anyone tell you it’s a moral failing or a lack of willpower.
Do you think someone in your family is drinking too much, too often? Is it causing trouble? Is it your partner? Your child? You? When they pass out yet again or make another scene - is that alcoholism? We see the clues but we so want it not to be true that we can’t see the woods for the trees, and become blind to those indications. Bear in mind that it’s not what you drink, or how much you drink. It’s why you drink and what it does to you.
Do you think someone in your family is drinking too much, too often? Is it causing trouble? Is it your partner? Your child? You? When they pass out yet again or make another scene — is that alcoholism?
Some people get rat-arsed from time to time, but they don't ruin their life as a result; they don't make their children fear them or their partner hate them. Other people have a beer or two and take on a different personality: often arrogant and argumentative, frequently glassy-eyed and comatose; sometimes violent and aggressive; almost always incapable of stopping once they’ve started.
Drinking alcohol is normalised in Western societies and people who don't drink are often treated as bores or weirdos. Say no at prosecco o’clock and you get: ‘Are you pregnant then?’, ‘Oh, can you not drink?’, ‘Oh, go on!’ Sometimes, the whole world seems made up of people with alcohol problems who can’t bear it when someone chooses not to join in.
When drinking itself is so normalised, it’s no great leap to normalising alcoholic behaviour: the defensiveness when people who love them try to talk about it, the bravado, the blaming everyone else, the not listening, the not taking responsibility, the not being there, physically, emotionally or domestically. This is followed by the hangover days, the loss of memory, crashing the car, losing the job, and always drinking more, in a futile attempt to get past the shame. It is a dismal merry-go-round.
The family members don’t recognise it at first, and almost get used to it in a weird way. They slip into acceptance, while feeling they should be able to do something about it. It’s bad enough for adults, but for children it becomes a very damaging shadow under which they cannot grow straight. For parents looking at their drunk offspring, it’s harder still not to feel that you should have been able to stop this from happening. That it’s your fault.
But it’s not. Don’t blame yourself for its existence, or for the fact you can’t cure an illness with love. You have to get past that, and the sooner the better. Because then you can get help.
So, if we love an alcoholic in our family, what are we meant to do? It’s such terrible, complex territory. Nobody wants to go there. But it’s so hard to desert family who are so clearly in need of help. You love them. You're tied in. But here’s one thing - in the words of the song, ‘just because you’re strong don’t mean it’s easy’. There is no shame in seeking help for illness. It’s necessary.
Talk without shame. Go to the GP. Go to AlAnon. Get on the support threads here on Mumsnet. Google ClubSoda. Know that you didn't cause it, can’t change it, can’t cure it. Get help for yourself. Lead by example.
And then, if and when they come to recognise their condition and get help, you need to prepare for whatever it was they were drinking to block out.
Louisa Young is the author of You Left Early: A True Story of Love and Alcohol, published by Borough Press. Please post your comments and questions for Louisa in advance in the comments below and she will be joining us to answer questions on Monday 16 July at 9pm.
By Louisa Young
As an adult child of an alcoholic thank you for speaking about it.
My mother became an alcoholic when I was 13 fast forward 20 years and we are no contact. It is a family disease as you say but as one of two children living with their single alcoholic mother we were left to it. Everyone around us knew about her but chose to ignore it or put on their rose tinted glasses only showing up when times were good and quickly distancing themselves when it was bad. I tried everything going to her go, begging her to get help, picking her up when the police or pub landlords would call to say she was being a disorderly, fighting off men when they thought they were onto a good thing with with a barely conscious woman, tracking her down when she disappeared for weekends and dealing with the abuse she handed out, the names she would call us for asking her to stop, the destruction she would create in her wake.
You cannot help someone who doesn't want to be helped or who the law fail to deal with no matter how many times they are done for drink driving or being drunk and disorderly, community service does not cut it, being sectioned or placed in rehab might.
Anyway she is still an alcoholic to this day and it was difficult to take her anywhere that alcohol was not being served book shops, the cinema, cafes, restaurants even some McDonald's!
I also have the ability to limit my drinking, I have never opened a bottle of wine to drink myself alone and rarely even have it in the house, I can't stand going out past 10 and being around drunk people especially when I see kids with their drunk parents-it hurts me a lot.
No questions as such but I will be reading your q & a session with interest ☕️
Good post , have been in recovery for over 30 years, seems like several lifetimes ago!!
Great post, I almost lost my husband to alcoholism, I have since left him as I finally realised it wasn't worth all the emotional abuse that cane with it. I wish I had more people to talk to at the time, even now. It's such a horrible illness and could have been so easily prevented if support was available sooner. People try to drown out their demons when intact alcohol creates more demons that it silences .
My son, my only child. There's a line with me and that bugger passed it last week.
I am in the process of divorcing my husband of 20 years because of alcoholism. It's the right thing to do and I know it - since he has been gone, my life and my DDs' lives are infinitely better. His life is shit, but he still will not seek help and alternates between drinking and going 'dry drunk'.
I'm honest about the reasons why my marriage has ended and it's shocking how common alcoholism is. More people need to talk about it openly - especially the people living with alcoholism in a loved one.
@MamaMumMama I know the feeling,my mother is also an alcoholic (albeit high-functioning and quite improved since her lowest point) and the worst is the way everyone else pretended it wasn't happening when I was small and still to this day.
How can we ever hope to have a normal relationship with alcohol?
I struggle so much with drinking and enjoying myself occasionally without guilt or panic that I'll turn out like that. As a result, I usually turn it down.
Many thanks for the original post and thread. Im an adult child of an alcoholic and am estranged from my alcoholic husband who has been near death this year.
I think that as a society we are utterly ignorant of the physical effects of alcohol, other than liver failure.
I'm so sorry for you and your partner op - to have gathered the courage and energy to beat this bastard illness, then to pay the ultimate price because of it, is desperately unfair.
My Dad was an alcoholic. Ironically, he also was the better parent but because he was ill, he never protected us from our Mum and although I forgive him, my siblings and I were desperate for him to take us away.
My dad gave up alcohol in his early 50s but by then had damaged his kidneys and heart.
He was fiercely intelligent, physically strong, handsome and could be breathtakingly kind. The alcohol made him angry, weak, depressed and violent.
Alcohol took away my childhood.
I grew up with an alcoholic parent and its a horrible existence. Always walking on egg shells, the uncertainty of what will await when you come home from school.
Seeing your parent someone you are supposed to look up to in a complete drunken mess is horrible.
When I became a parent I virtually gave up alcohol completely for fear my children would ever see their mother drunk.
the worst is the way everyone else pretended it wasn't happening when I was small and still to this day.
👆🏼 that's is the worst, I've never asked anyone to not speak to her because I'm not speaking to her but apart from my dsis and myself they all just act like there's no problem despite all the problems she still to this day causes for them all. Truly horrible problems. If I'm honest I thought going no contact would make her come to her senses and feel like she wanted to get better to have a relationship with me and my amazing kids but no. The bottle wins.
I can't let myself lose control the way some of my friends and family do with drink, it's just one of those things I guess but seeing how nasty and out of control people can get makes around 3-4 drinks my limit if I'm out. It scares me.
@knewme @pointythings 💐 it's one of those things that I could never tolerate in my life again, and my husband knows it. I may be sensitive to it but I couldn't take it and I would never put any kids through living with a drunk- it has had a major impact on my life so if you're ever in doubt just know that you're doing the best thing- you can't make someone get better, they have to want to.
I lost my mum last year to alcoholism ( well, malnourishment caused by being an alcoholic). The shame I felt in the hospital when the Consultant asked how we had "allowed" her to get to 5 stone.
It's still so raw
We provided residential care for a friend’s dd for 18 months as she was unable to live at home due to her mum’s alcoholism. The hardest part was listening to the lies and vitriol and blame. She had repeatedly told her daughter that she was to blame for her alcoholism, that she had given up her whole life for her daughter, and that her daughter was an ungrateful hateful bitch who wanted her mum dead. And then to have to hold the poor kid while she cried her eyes out, because she loved her mum so much, but couldn’t take any more abuse. And watch her mum consistently choose alcohol over her child.
I’m curious how a child can recover from this - how can someone rebuild their sense of worth when someone has torn it down?
And how best to help her mum? She says she wants to go to rehab again (7th or 8th time) but I don’t believe she wants to stop drinking, just take time out of work and check into somewhere that she will be looked after and nurtured for a while. I understand her urge, but it won’t help her deal with her life and how to live it without alcohol.
People talk about needing to hit ‘rock bottom’ before they are ready to quit, but she has lost jobs, her (second) husband (and possibly the first - I didn’t know her then) her house, and her only child, and been charged in court for breaking a no-contact order taken out by her ex. She has been through several suicide attempts. I just don’t know what rock bottom might be, and she has removed herself from counselling again.
I am a recovering alcoholic - 9 years sober. I recently "came out" at work and it has been so liberating to have everyone know why I don't do big lunches or team drinks and stuff like that. No one has batted an eyelid.
My father was a chronic alcoholic after he lost his job from the ages of 13-20. He died as a result but it was a miracle he lived so long. He ended up very weak and with brain damage as a result. My family we're middle class and my father was like a down and out. He was eventually removed from the family home through interdict, which he broke and ended up in the best rehab place of all prison (which sobered him for a month or two). As children we got no support if anything I was made to feel responsible for something I had no control over. People treat you with a lack of respect as a child due to your parents illness. Even parents not wanting their children to associate with you because your father is a drunk or my Aunt who during this time got my Grandparents to redo their will so my father wasn't a beneficiary (not to the benefit of the children either as we are seen as scum too no doubt). Both my brother and I became successful brother a Dr and I run a successful business. Several presidents and famous people have had drunks as parents. I still enjoy a drink but I am mindful it takes very little to go from a normal functioning life to rock bottom and then keep digging. For a child it is others perception that is the hardest. I remember once being on a bus I was 14 and saw my Dad lying drunk in the middle of the street I got off to help him. The ambulance came and he taken off to hospital when he got there a nurse said "he is in here all the time is there not something you can do about him?". I wish! I couldn't tell my father where I worked as he would turn up drunk. He would phone up my school drunk. Most days there was drama. When my father died I was free to get on with my life and somewhat reinvent myself. Very few people who meet me after this would have any idea of what I went through, not because I'm reluctant to tell but because I don't think they could ever grasp how dreadful that time was.
My parents are currently in the process of divorcing after 30 years of marriage as my mother can no longer cope with my fathers alcoholism. He still refuses to accept he has a problem. It is very hard.
I will be getting a copy of that book, thank you for this post.
Speedy bit of a random thing to say. I will be scarred for the rest of my life as a result and lost both parents young. I don't mean that in a victim mentality either just no one was there when growing up and some dreadful thing happened to me as a result of parental care.
My gran is an alcoholic. Her father who I never got to meet was an alcoholic, my grans brother died from alcoholism few years back (swallowed his tongue in his sleep) and my gran lost her second husband to alcoholism. My gran denies she has a problem and will not entertain the idea. She justifies it by drinking only in the evenings. She really does need help.
I have many friends who are functioning alcoholics. Good jobs nice lives and they too deny there is a problem. I used to be a binge drinker on the weekends but knew it was beginning to be a problem when I was losing jobs, hangovers for days, feeling guilt over my antics, getting into arguments and fights, i found out after seeing a diet nutritionist that I am actually allergic to some of the ingredients that are found in alcohol and it depletes b vitamins quickly out of my system so basically my hangovers last a lot longer, I sweat really bad in those days after and I feel like crap. So drinking for me now is just special occasions but do feel occasionally I miss out on good times with friends and family because everybody just seems to drink. Any excuse we drink..... tv shows and adverts glamourise it, swanky bars on our high streets and in our town centres, restaurants, cafes u name it, it's in our faces all of the time.
Alcohol is essentially a poison, it causes loads of health problems but yet we look down our noses on people that abstain from it. We all no the risks, we all see what it does to people, most of us no somebody who is addicted to it yet it gets brushed under the carpet.
And then, if and when they come to recognise their condition and get help, you need to prepare for whatever it was they were drinking to block out
I’ve not come across any alcoholic explaining why they drank. Or what they were blocking out.
Perhaps it is just like drugs and makes you feel good. Certainly it puts a shine on the world when I have a drink but that fades after the next.
I’ve been reading the joy of being sober by Catherine Gray , great book if you want to reduce drinking, but I havevt seen her say what caused it.
A lot of people do start drugs or drinking to block out traumatic events. My father would tell anyone in great detail who would listen about his fall from grace. He could quite happily feel sorry for himself and give no regard to the others around him suffering. I once when I was 13 accompanied him to the Gp, after going in to great detail about his troubles he then turn to me and said "aww she's on anti depressants", to which the Gp replied "I'm not surprised having a father like you". Perhaps some alcoholic are narcissist or at least have Aspergers traits which enable them to just think of themselves. I suspect it's a personality disorder.
My father is an alcoholic. I won't have my children around him after promising to never drink when we visited and he broke that promise. He's a brilliant GP when sober but when drinking he's argumentative and difficult despite claiming he's a "happy drunk". He might be happy but he's made the rest of us miserable. Our family is estranged.
My childhood was a wreck and now as an adult I have crippling anxiety.
I've gone NC as I've finally accepted that he can't change until he wants change himself and that's not going to happen. I await the day I get a call telling me he's died from liver failure. Sad but true.
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