My parents split up when I was 7 and I was moved 200 miles away from everything I knew to live with a succession of relatives. In the first 2 years we moved 9 times, usually after my Mum had fallen out with whoever we were living with at the time and often for good reason (eg. my Nanna used to belt me and if I wanted to read a book I was made to sit outside in the car, in the middle of winter).
I’ve never talked to her about it, but my Mum obviously had mental health issues. Anti-depressants as we know them today didn’t exist though, so I’m fairly sure she was put on some kind of benzodiazepine probably valium.
I’ve always loved animals but had had to leave my cat behind, so when I was 8 my Mum got me a rabbit. She couldn’t afford to go to a pet shop to buy one so I’m fairly sure my Uncle (with whom we were living at the time) caught a wild one. It was vicious its whole life and I never even got to stroke it, let alone cuddle it. I called the rabbit Whiskey, which tells you a lot about my Mum’s drinking habits at the time. She wasn’t an alcoholic though – that came much much later.
When I was 9 my Mum met my step-Dad. It was a volatile relationship from the start and they argued like their life depended on it. I would come home from school with a sick feeling in my stomach, not knowing if they would be speaking, not speaking, if my Dad would be in a strop because his favourite football team had lost a match the night before or if my Mum would chuck something at him across the dinner table in temper. Our home with filled with a constant under-current of tension and you could often cut the atmosphere with a knife.
On the other hand, when things were good they were great. My Dad has the most wicked sense of humour and there were days when everything was hunky dory. But I always knew it wouldn’t last and even when I was laughing I’d be waiting for someone to say the wrong thing and for it all to kick off again. They were both wonderful with me though and never shouted or raised to a hand to me, but the consequences of living within their toxic relationship and with their almost split-personalities changed me forever.
Of course our home life was a big secret and I instinctively knew I wasn’t allowed to talk about what went on within our four walls. To the outside world my Mum was lovely and all my friends envied our close relationship. My Dad was a bloke’s bloke who played darts, loved the footie and would help anyone at any time. If I meet people in the street even now who know him the first thing they say to me is “he’s a grand fella your Dad” and, when he wasn’t losing his temper like a 5 year old child, I’d agree with them.
Add to the mix the issues I had with my absentee biological Father, my giftedness and the emotional depth and sensitivity which comes along with that, the pressure I was under at school to achieve academically because I was gifted, the lack of any adult in whom to confide and it comes as no surprise that I spent most of my teenager years clinically depressed and by the time I was 18 was on anti-depressants and regularly sat in a Psychologist’s office trying to make some sense of the world. I couldn’t wait to become an adult and get the fuck away from home. I loved my parents but when I finally had a house of my own I had peace and stability and could live without the daily anxiety of wondering what was coming next.
Fast forward 30 years, I’m now 50 and both my parents are ill and in need of huge amounts of help. Consequently I’ve been drawn back into their lives and back into their relationship dramas which, despite being married for 40 years, have never changed.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, my Mum was forced to stop smoking when she had half her lung removed 6 years ago so in order to get through the days her drinking took off in earnest. She became an alcoholic who was drunk every day by noon. This brought back hugely negative emotions from my childhood and I really struggled to cope with it, so much so that a year ago I paid to see a counsellor. She was helpful and I did manage to come to some sort of terms with the situation.
In the summer of this year my Mum contracted Guillain-Barre Syndrome and was in hospital for 3 weeks. During that time she dried out and I lied to her and said the Doctors had told me that if she drank when she got home she would die, so she didn’t. The last 3 months have been fantastic. She has been back to the Mum I’ve always known, without the nasty bullying of my Dad (who is in the early stages of dementia), the finding everything hilarious because she’s plastered and who rings me lucidly every day for a chat and a gossip. Over the past few years I’ve really missed the friendship my Mum and I have always had and it was wonderful to have that back.
But of course she wasn’t receiving help for her alcoholism, so I knew it was just a matter of time before she fell off the wagon. She was housebound for the first 2 months after coming home from hospital, but the second she told me “I’m going to go with your Dad in the wheelchair to Sainsburys on Friday just to get out of the house” I knew it was only a matter of time. And sure enough, 3 weeks later I turn up at the house to find her drinking a glass of wine.
She’d only bought one of those little 18cl bottles, and her excuse was “I’d like a glass of wine with my Christmas dinner but don’t know which one to choose, so I thought I’d try this little bottle to see what it’s like”. I felt sick. That she would be wondering what she could drink on Christmas day when it was only 14th November tells you everything you need to know about her mind set. So I sat down and, as gently as I could bearing in mind I was in bits, said that I loved them both but I was going home and I was not coming back. And I got Bertie and my handbag and left.
That was on Tuesday and I have felt horrendously ill ever since. I wake up with a huge sick knot in my stomach, can’t eat and feel so exhausted I’m like a rag doll. Years of living with the anxiety and unpredictability of my parents’ behaviour seems to have come to a head and I feel floored. I have spent 3 days spontaneously sobbing and feel on the edge of some kind of breakdown.
It would be so easy to simply walk away, but they are old and sick and my poor Dad really doesn’t need this drama. So I have rung my Mum and told her that I love them both, and I will take care of them, but I simply cannot visit them – not for a while. Things are going to have to change I’m not sure what the new future looks like yet.
They depend on my hugely, I have been the glue that’s kept our family together, and I know they will be terrified I am going to abandon them, which I would never do because I couldn’t live with the guilt, but there are going to have to be new ground rules. I have felt responsible for keeping them on an even keel my entire life and I am too fucking tired to do it anymore. That I am ill myself seems to totally pass them by.
In not visiting them, however, I have no-one to look after Bertie, my dog who is a rescue with severe separation anxiety and who can’t be left on his own. That means I can’t go to my Camera Club which is my passion and often the only thing which keeps me going. It’s the only time I get out of the house all week, the only time I ever see anyone other than my cleaner and the post man and is the only social life I have. I feel such rage that my Mother’s selfish behaviour has robbed me of the only joy I have in life. A life which is devoid of any pleasure and any of the normal things healthy people take for granted.
Sometimes I wish she were dead. The second she retired from work she sat in a chair, watched telly, smoked and drank and basically waited to die. There are times when I wish this would happen and put us all out of our misery. She has been unhappy her entire life and has made me unhappy along the way. Then I think about all the times she’s helped me, comforted me, been there for me, loved me and am wracked with guilt.
So, that’s where we are today and I’m in complete turmoil. I feel so poorly I can barely get dressed and am constantly on the verge of tears. It’s like every emotion I’ve ever felt towards my parents has come to the surface and I can’t push them down any more.
Please don’t tell me to get help, contact al-anon or anything else. Trust me when I say there is no avenue I haven’t been down. My Mum doesn’t want help. There is no al-anon where I live and in any event I don’t do the bullshit “higher power” thing. My parents have what they need to live: a cleaner, carers to help my Mum shower, a gardener, their meals provided. But as I’ve mentioned before it’s all the stuff that paid help can’t do which is the stumbling block, like finances, paperwork, mending the seam on my Mum’s nightie, submitting electric meter readings, grocery shopping, talking to medical staff as neither of my parents are capable and 1001 other things. I feel so trapped, and resentful and guilty.
There aren’t any easy answers. Walking away and leaving a parent with dementia is not an option. Carrying on as we always have is not an option either. I have no clue what to do.