I always hesitate to write anything on my Mum’s alcoholism. Unless your family member is a raging public drunk, alcoholism is usually a secret. A big, fat, destructive secret and for years the only people to know about my Mum’s drinking were me, my Dad and my best friend. About 3 years ago I started writing about it here on my blog purely because keeping the secret had gotten all too much, and I also told one of my cousins who had noticed Mum’s strange behaviour and thought maybe she’d had a stroke, but other than that no-one knows. Not even her 3 sons. So when I talk about it here it feels like a huge betrayal of the secret.
There is deep shame for the alcoholic in respect to their drinking and my Mum was very upset with me for telling the Consultant last time she was in hospital (which of course I had to do as it affected her health care). Family members who know about the drinking are very aware of the shame, and they carry the shame burden on their shoulders like a ten tonne weight. I particularly feel for my Dad, who has absolutely no-one to talk to about his wife’s behaviour and the stress it places on him. I, on the other hand, am now at the stage where I will tell people if I need to, because I refuse to be manipulated by my Mum’s alcoholism or let the stress of keeping the secret affect my own emotional, physical or mental health. If she choses the behaviour, she also choses the consequences.
My Mum has been an addict one way or another since she was 14 years old. She was addicted to cigarettes, smoking a pack a day since she was a teenager and only giving up 10 years ago when she had to have a lobe of her lung removed due to a tumour. In her late twenties, from what I can gather, she became addicted to benzodiazepines prescribed by her doctor. We didn’t know anything about depression in those days and women who suffered with their “nerves” were given diazepam like it was smarties. My Mum left my Dad at the age of 34 and that’s when the Whiskey drinking started. After a couple of years that settled down, but she had a couple of drinks every day after work – not alcoholism, but definitely a coping mechanism. She’s been mildly depressed for most of my life, and has been on antidepressants for over 2 decades.
I knew from an early age that my Mum was emotionally fragile and I’ve spent my whole life walking on eggshells around her. Having a parent with mental health issues changes who their children are on a fundamental level and I’m sure much of my kindness, empathy and caring nature comes from taking care of my Mum, even if this care wasn’t overt.
The alcoholism started about 10 years ago after her lung surgery – she had to give up smoking, so she took up drinking instead. Looking back, the situation was given a kick start when we employed a cleaner for my parents. She was 24 and got on with my Mum like a house on fire. I now know that the cleaner was a functioning drug addict and alcoholic and she gave my Mum permission to drink. I, on the other hand, did not. So the cleaner became the friend and confident and I became the enemy, which is when my relationship with my Mum broke down. Up until then, my Mum and I had been best friends and it was really tough for me that the cleaner’s weekly visits were excitedly looked forward to and she was given a big hug and a kiss when she walked through the door, whereas I was tolerated and never touched. Having already been rejected by my biological Dad as a child, to now be rejected by my Mum was devastating emotionally and something which, if I were to dwell on it, would be deeply painful.
There are 6 established roles which family members take on in the face of addiction and my Dad has always taken on the role of Enabler/Caretaker. He hates my Mum’s drinking, yet at the same time is the person who goes to the supermarket in secret and buys her booze for her. If he didn’t do that she couldn’t drink because she can’t leave the house on her own. I try not to judge him for the enabling because I don’t walk in his shoes – I get to come home and have a break from my Mum while he does not, and I have no clue what I’d do in his position. Which doesn’t mean to say I don’t occasionally get angry with him over it, but I try not to blame him. He has cognitive issues and learning difficulties, can’t cope with stress and just does whatever he has to for a quiet life.
My Mum uses my Dad as the Scapegoat, taking out all her shame, anger, guilt and frustration on him. It’s incredibly difficult to watch and when it gets bad I do step in and pull her up on it, but they’ve been together for 45 years and I’m not spending what little energy I have trying to fix their marriage – it’s not my place.
I have very much taken on the role of Hero. I’m the person my parents lean on and depend on, regardless of the fact I am ill myself and have no support. I am also the Caretaker but don’t feel I overtly enable my Mum’s behaviour. I do all their shopping but have always refused to buy her alcohol and if she is really drunk and being either abusive or aggressive I leave and refuse to go again until she’s sobered up and can treat me with more respect.
It took about 5 years for me to learn to negotiate my way through my Mum’s alcoholism. Although she has had mild addiction issues all my life, the drinking only became a big problem 10 years ago so it was a new scenario for me. It was a fairly gradual decline into alcoholism too, so it took about 18 months for me to realise that Mum had a serious drink problem and then about another 3 years before I reached the stage where I could no longer cope with her behaviour and the emotional impact the situation was having on me. Luckily I recognized that I needed help and sought counselling from an addiction specialist, which enabled me to take a step back and take stock.
I then had to decide my future relationship with my Mum. If my parents were younger and healthy, I know for a fact I would just have walked away. My life is difficult enough without adding addiction to the mix. However, neither of my parents are well and they are both in their 80s, and I would not have been able to live with myself if I’d just left them to it. I need to be able to sleep at night and for my own peace of mind I needed to know they were safe and cared for. So I took on the role of Carer but……..and here is the important part…………..with boundaries, which are:
- That I have time to myself each week.
- That I have 3 holidays a year (which doesn’t mean I go off on holiday as I’m not well enough, but that I have time where I don’t visit and they are left in the full care of other people. In practice this doesn’t work well, but I still aim for it!).
- That if Mum is abusive to me, I will leave and not come back until she is sober and can treat me with the respect I deserve.
- That they help themselves to the extent they can. I am their daughter, not their servant.
Under these circumstances I feel I can cope with the situation without it having too detrimental an effect on my mental and physical health. Being a Carer is stressful whatever the situation, but when you add addiction to the mix it’s doubly so. The Mum that I have known my whole life has been replaced by someone I don’t even recognize let alone have a close relationship with, and there is huge grief that alcohol has robbed me of the last years of my Mum’s life.
I am also angry, which I think is natural. Alcoholism is not a disease. Let me make this clear. The “alcohol is a disease” excuse is what alcoholics use to rid themselves of responsibility for their drinking. M.E. is a disease. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is a disease. Endometriosis is a disease. I can’t wake up tomorrow morning and decide not to be sick, however much I would love to. My Mum, on the other hand, can wake up tomorrow morning and choose not to drink, albeit she might need a lot of help to do so. Addiction and disease are two separate issues.
Family members caring for an addict tread a fine line between caring for and enabling their loved one. We don’t always get it right, but I’ve learned that when I start feeling exhausted, snappy or upset, or when I’m making sure everything is fine at my parents’ house while leaving my own home a tip, or when I find myself being sucked in to visiting every day leaving no time or energy for my own hobbies or friends or life, then I need to take a step back and re-adjust the balance. My parents have lived their life and I deserve to live mine. They have chosen their own paths, and I have the right to choose my own path.
But it is not easy. Alcoholics can be demanding, very selfish, controlling, needy and manipulative and before you know it your every waking moment is spent thinking about them, worrying about them or helping them. As I am a very caring person by nature I have to be very mindful about getting sucked in to my Mum’s drama. Alcoholics are massively self absorbed and they often have little or no empathy for those around them, so for me it’s been important to try and keep some emotional distance so that I can view the situation more objectively and take back control when Mum tries to wrestle it from me. I’ve had to learn to say “no” which doesn’t come easy for a child with their parent.
For anyone coping with alcoholism in their family here are some things I’ve learned, for what they’re worth:
- Set boundaries and keep them.
- Love but don’t enable.
- Or don’t love – that’s your choice and it’s OK.
- Take time for yourself – you deserve to have peace and to be happy.
- Accept you can’t fix the alcoholic.
- Accept you are not responsible for other people’s choices and behaviour.
- Be mindful about being sucked in to the drama.
- Get professional help if you need it.
- Walk away if that is what’s best for you.
- Live your own life. I can’t stress how important this is. You deserve love, affection, peace, support, comfort, fun and all the other positives healthy relationships bring. You can never get today back and it should not be robbed by the destructive behaviour of someone else who has clearly stopped caring about you.
For anyone living with an addict I send hugs. Remember, their life is not more important than yours and you deserve to be happy.