I have been living with addiction for the past decade. Not my own; my mother's. And as it turns out, my (now ex-) boyfriend’s brother’s, my friend's, an ex-colleague’s, another friend's boss... the list goes on. Addiction is so ubiquitous (according to the NHS, there are an estimated two million sufferers in the UK) that it’s always nearby. But it’s also one of society’s least accepted and least appealing mental health and medical issues of recent times. The discourse around addiction is very focused on the addict: their pain, their grief, and the heroism of their recovery. This is very important, and it's crucial for there to be an open and frank conversation by addicts, for addicts, to inspire others to feel like they're not alone, and into recovery. However, for the friends and families of addicts, the pain and stigma of addiction can be just as life-changing – yet it is seldom discussed in public.
This is the story of living with an addiction that’s not mine.
Booze was a mainstay of my privileged liberal upbringing. It was used for celebrations, after stressful days at work and for everything in between. For me, that was normal and, as a teenager, pretty cool when my parents would supply me and my mates with gin and tonics and a place to drink them. When I was 19, following her separation from my father, my beautiful, talented and popular mother decided to spend some time alone in France. I went to visit her a month or so after she had arrived and, walking into her house, I was struck by how scrappy everything looked. This was the woman who had always taken so much pride in the home that a gruelling but successful career had afforded her. Papers were strewn across the table, dirty laundry on the floor, gone-off milk in the fridge.
The first evening, we went out for dinner, and over plates of spaghetti and glasses of red wine – much nicer than the crap I had spent my first year of university drinking – she told me about her childhood and estrangement from her family in her 20s; about the time my father had accidentally stubbed out a cigarette on a woman’s shoulder pads (it was the '70s), setting fire to them on a dance floor; about the challenge of being a more-than-full-time working mum; about how time had just disappeared...
I’m sure there is a time in everyone’s life when something shifts and they begin to see their parents differently. Not as the loving guides of authority who tell them not to do stuff, but as actual human beings who’ve had break-ups, failures and wild nights out, too. That night I realised I was sitting opposite another person – not just my mum but an adult, in all her fallible glory.
The bike hadn’t swerved out and crashed into her, she had been drink-driving; the cat hadn’t knocked over a table, she’d fallen into it. My mum was an alcoholic.
The next morning, waking with a fuzzy head, she offered me a gin and tonic. It was 10am. Of course I didn’t want one; why did she? Did she not think it was weird? But we were on holiday, it was nice not to have to stick to a schedule and if I didn’t want one, I should stop harassing her about why she needed one, because she just did, okay? This battle raged on throughout my visit, as she insisted on mad drinks at mad times.
Back in London, the weeks that followed were flooded with reframed memories: the bike hadn’t swerved out and crashed into her, she had been drink-driving; my sister hadn’t stolen the case of wine from the larder, Mum had drunk it; the cat hadn’t knocked over a table, she’d fallen into it. My mum was an alcoholic.
Things spiralled for her very quickly after that trip. She lost her driving licence, then a high-profile job; most of her friends and family deserted her, in all her unreliable, inconvenient horror. She still had a house but the only real thing in her life was alcohol. She was my mother, though, and I tried everything: being nice, being angry, being encouraging and supportive, just being there. Once, in my naivety, I poured away and denied her all alcohol for a weekend, watched her withdraw, held her hand as her body went into toxic shock and then spent a fortnight by her bedside in intensive care. In trying to cure her, I had nearly killed her.
During those years, my own life unravelled alongside hers as, in my desperate attempts to fix her, everything else stopped mattering. Every decision I made was compulsively balanced on her alcoholic whims, which became more self-destructive and dangerous as time went on.
There was a constant life-or-death situation playing out in my head, replacing my reality. As she lost herself to the incessant need to drink, my being was solely intent on keeping her together. I felt like I couldn’t live my life while hers was falling apart. I almost lost my job after walking out of an important meeting, convinced she had fallen over and cracked her head open; burst into tears at a friend’s wedding reception because I couldn’t get the thought of her having choked on her own vomit out of my head; collapsed in Palermo from a panic attack induced by the thought of her falling asleep with a cigarette in her mouth. These were all legitimate fears, because they had all happened to her at one time or another. For a while, my fix was to call her phone 24 times a day, her answerphone message inexplicably reassuring me.
I’ve lost count of how many rock bottoms we hit and how many times I resolved to walk away.
For anyone living with someone else’s addiction, one of the hardest parts is how unrelentingly cyclical the illness is. Instead of getting easier with each round, practice and knowledge makes it harder – or at least it did for me. It pushed me closer and closer to the edge, although with every cycle I survived, the precipice seemed to move further away. I’ve lost count of how many rock bottoms we hit and how many times I resolved to walk away, like everyone else. So malicious and insidious is the force of addiction that just as she flirted with the idea of rehab, it would grab her by the shoulder and fling her back to the bottle; then, at the moment I found the courage to think that I could walk away and leave her, my mother would spring back from the darkness with maternal platitudes and generosity, as though nothing had ever happened. The demon of alcoholism had wiped all memory from her brain.
Addiction is a solitary experience; as the addict isolates with inexpressible shame, so do those around them. How could I ever tell anyone with any dignity that my mum lived in squalor, that alcohol had made her incontinent to the extent that she was literally living in her own shit, or that bar alcohol, all she consumed was eggs, organic full-fat milk and wine gums? Shame was one part of a fragmented identity that I had developed; sadness, bereavement, guilt and anger were some of the others. The anxiety of her addiction was so omnipotent that I could not define myself in any other way than as the daughter of an alcoholic. This internal identity crisis came into other people’s consciousness as well, as friends would ask "How’s your mum?" instead of "How’s work?", "How’s life?", "How are you?" I’ve learnt that it is common for those close to an addict to shift their identity away from anything distinctive about themselves towards an articulation of their addict’s latest impulses, relapses, and respites. Addiction doesn’t just swallow the user, it engulfs everything and everyone around them, too.
Eventually I came to recognise that I was suffering from my own illness that manifested itself through desperate attempts to try and save my mum from something that is stronger than everything. As her daughter, the inability to help or soothe in any way created a feeling of extreme rejection. Beholden to alcohol – the sole purpose, pain and pleasure of her life – my addict didn’t need anything from me. I spent most of my 20s taking it very personally. Why won’t she listen to me? Why won’t she stop drinking for me? Why can’t she see what this is doing to me? Those questions swirled round and round in my head for years. Just as her addiction was cyclical, perennial, so were my own debilitating thoughts.
In some support groups, they talk about the friends and families needing to find their recovery. Why the fuck did I need to spend time recovering from something that I didn’t actively participate in? The resentment became overpowering. Why should I spend my time, risk my relationship, my friendships, my career and my happiness, trying to fight this addiction?
I reached an impasse when I was hospitalised for stress in September 2015. My body had finally said 'no more'; my mind only followed a few months later. The week after I was discharged, my mum was sectioned for the fourth or fifth time, which allowed me a taste of respite. Having fallen back off the wagon the same evening she was sent home, in mid-December, she spent that Christmas on a bender, evidenced by the 40 bottles of wine and champagne (it was Christmas, after all) that the police found alongside her, lying unconscious with a head injury. Leaving her in the care of the GP, the mental health workers and a housekeeper my godmother had found, I went cold turkey.
Part of me expected that giving up my addict would make her give up her addiction; most of me knew that it wouldn’t.
It is said that an addict lives with their addiction for the rest of their life, and that’s the same for those around them. My first year away from my addict has been a traumatic emotional experience: I had reached rock bottom and had to grapple my way out of the darkness. But I have found a huge reserve of strength, lightness and understanding. The last year has been very testing, but I’ve survived.
Part of me expected that giving up my addict would make her give up her addiction; most of me knew that it wouldn’t. A year later, she is still drinking, still living in squalor, still not there. Despite the situation being materially worse, I can think about it with distance and love, and sadness – different from the destructive sadness of before.
I am so grateful to my mum. When I was a child, she was superwoman, and it is to her that I owe all my strengths, confidence and fearlessness of failing. I know I’m fortunate to have had a rich childhood, clean of addiction; many children of addicts cannot say the same. The sadness is sharpened by this colossal loss. I dream of the day that my mum finds a life without alcohol, that my ex’s brother kicks the crystal meth, that my friend can meet a man without fearing the active return of his sex addiction. But that’s up to them. For now, recovery from their addiction begins and ends with me.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, Action on Addiction offers information and support.
Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?