Drink with mother
You expect your parents to teach you things. But alcoholism? Frances White recalls how her mum encouraged her to binge when she was just a child – and eventually passed on her own addiction
I was nine when my mum poured me my first drink. “Here,” she said, handing me a glass of Cinzano and lemonade. “Now you’re just like me!” I am 40 now and have spent most of my life since that time trying to prove her wrong.
As children, we have little sense of what is or isn’t normal, but I always had an inkling that something wasn’t quite right in our family. On the outside we were perfectly respectable. My dad had a good job in the fishing industry and we lived in a big house in a village by the coast. My brothers and I appeared to want for nothing. Behind closed doors, though, things were not quite as idyllic as they seemed. Dad’s work took him away from home most weeks and Mum had given up her job in order to bring us up. I think it was a combination of loneliness and boredom that drove her to drink. We had moved to the area because of Dad’s career and Mum had few friends around her.
I remember the feeling of dread that would build up inside me as I walked home from school. Would Mum be cooking our tea, or slumped over the kitchen table clutching an empty wine glass? When she drank, only passing out would cause her to stop.
I could always tell if she had been drinking, even if it was just a glass. I could see it in her beautiful green eyes. They became cloudy and distant. The way I saw it, alcohol took my mum away and replaced her with a stranger.
This stranger was short-tempered and defensive. She wouldn’t ask about my day at school or my plans for the weekend. Instead, she would either sit silently doing a crossword, or go on and on about her problems: the husband who didn’t love her, the friends who had let her down, the loneliness she felt. Sometimes she would get angry and cry and smash crockery.
I was too young to understand why Mum was like that. But I remember feeling dreadfully anxious about her erratic behaviour. My mind would go into overdrive, and I would worry about what would happen if we were burgled. With Dad away, Mum was the only one who could protect us. Often, she was in no fit state even to rise from the chair.
I remember vividly the night I confronted Mum about her habit. I was 13 and had been watching an episode of Dallas on TV. Someone described the character Sue Ellen as being an alcoholic. Mum was having one of her drinking sessions and it was the early hours of the morning before she dragged herself to bed.
I could never rest until I knew she was asleep. It made me angry. I had school the next day and knew I was going to be exhausted. I thought it was time Mum started to take responsibility for herself. I went into her room and told her I was worried she was an alcoholic. She flew into a rage. “You don’t know the meaning of the word,” she yelled, hitting me hard across the face.
Even as I ran sobbing from the room, I knew it was the drink making her act that way. I also knew I could never mention the A-word in front of her again. From then on, it was a taboo subject.
Soon after that, I started drinking regularly with her. I hadn’t touched a drop since that first bittersweet taste of Cinzano, but when she offered me a glass of red wine, I took it. She hated the disapproving looks I gave her when she was drinking. Seeing me with a glass stopped her feeling guilty and put her at ease. She let her defences down and I became part of her world.
To start with, I drank out of loyalty to Mum because I knew it made her feel better. Soon, though, I was drinking for my own selfish reasons. A night on the sauce with Mum was far more fun than one spent watching her drink herself into a stupor alone. She would put on her Bob Dylan and David Bowie records and we would dance and sing until the early hours. At those times, I felt closer to her than I ever had before.
I also began to understand why she loved drinking so much. It took the edge off my anxiety and made me forget about all my problems. I didn’t realise it then, but Mum’s addiction was slowly becoming mine.
Looking back, Mum did try to find other ways to fill the void in her life. At one stage, she even started going to church. I always felt a little guilty when Mum’s religious friends came round because they had no idea about her drinking.
It is a common myth that alcoholics need to drink all the time. When she had to, Mum could get through daylight hours without alcohol. That is why no one else realised she had a problem. Dad was emotionally very distant from us and difficult to talk to about personal matters. I don’t think he understood just how serious Mum’s addiction was. It was probably because she was such a lovely person when sober. Kind and outgoing, she was the sort who would talk to anyone.
By my mid-teens, Mum’s drinking had ravaged her looks. She had put on four stone and her face was constantly puffy and red. I was still drinking with her and even started inviting friends home to join in the party. I think some of them thought my mum was cool because she had such a relaxed attitude to booze, but to me she was an embarrassment.
After school, I fled to the continent and got a job as an au pair. I wanted to get as far away as possible from Mum and all her problems. I didn’t drink every day like she did, but I still used it as an anaesthetic whenever I was feeling nervous or sad. And, just like her, I didn’t know when to stop.
I suffered all the usual consequences of binge drinking. I would sleep with inappropriate people, have memory blackouts and tell lies to cover up my bad behaviour. The next morning I always vowed, “never again” but, of course, there always was a next time. I also excused my behaviour because everyone else was doing the same thing. Getting drunk was a normal part of growing up. Only somewhere, in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn’t normal for me. I tried to convince myself that my drinking habit wasn’t the same as Mum’s, but I didn’t really believe it.
I was 25 when Mum called to tell me she had collapsed and been rushed to hospital. She was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. By then, Dad had met someone else and left her. I nursed her at home as her health deteriorated. She told me how ashamed she was about what she had done to herself and begged me not to tell my dad why she was so ill. She must have known I couldn’t stop him finding out, though. He eventually talked to her doctors himself. She died two months later.
Even seeing her in the last stages of her life, when her belly swelled and her skin turned yellow, failed to put me off drinking.
A few years later, I became a mother myself, but that didn’t stop me going on binges. Friends looked after my son when I got really bad. No one ever chastised me for my behaviour, but I was starting to realise I had a serious problem.
The final straw came when I got drunk at an in-law’s birthday party. We were in a restaurant having a big family meal when I sat on his lap and started flirting outrageously. Minutes later I fell down and promptly threw up all over the floor. After I had been carried away, another guest approached my husband and told him she thought I was an alcoholic. She told him she was one too and gave him her number in case I needed her advice.
I rang her the next day and finally admitted to myself that I needed help. I started seeing a counsellor and made contact with a charity called the National Association for Children of Alcoholics, which helped me no end.
I have been sober for five years now and the relief I feel is immense.
For many years I felt angry at Mum for the pain she caused and how she allowed me to drink from such an early age. Now I have learned to forgive her. A couple of times before she died, she mentioned that her father had sexually abused her. Drinking was not her only secret.
I don’t know whether people can inherit a predisposition towards alcoholism, but it seems more than a coincidence that my brothers are also suffering from the same addiction. Unlike me, they have been unable to kick the habit. Even today, we are all still suffering from the effect of Mum’s alcohol abuse. I will never let myself forget how bad it was, or how close I was to ending up just like her.
Frances White is a pseudonym.
source: The Guardian