Being the child of an alcoholic is a full time job.
Even after moving away from home, and starting over at University, I felt burdened with the feeling that disruption was coming. I struggled to enjoy the calm, always pre-empting the storm, and then there was the guilt. I’d left my little sister behind.
My mom was a full-blown alcoholic by the time I was 15, but it started a while before then. I was about ten or eleven when she drunk-drove us home from school and crashed through a hedge. The hedge was guarding a rockery about 20 feet off the ground; our car was balancing on the edge. Had it toppled, there’s a good chance we’d be dead.
It took me a while to forgive her for that, but I did, I always did.
She wasn’t drunk all the time. As dumb as is sounds, one of the most difficult parts was the complete lack of consistency. When she was sober, she was the kindest, most generous person. I’d often be so desperate to keep her that way that I’d pretend like her drinking never happened. Sometimes, though, I’d stand my ground. I was hoping that maybe this would be the defining moment in which she’d realize what she’d done and stop, but she never did.
Slowly but surely, the light at the end of the tunnel went out. I came to learn that no matter what you did or said, her sober moments would unravel in front of your eyes and you’d lose her to the bottle again.
And when she was drunk again, as she always would be, she was nasty. The anger and bitterness that consumed her was spat out at us all. She despised my father, and I suppose she had her reasons, but it became unbearable to hear her pick him apart, all the while knowing he was as much of me as she was. He’s still her main complaint, and I’m still not desensitized to the hate in her voice.
When she was drinking, I’d often return home from school to find the front doors locked and bolted. My keys were useless, and she’d rarely answer the door. Being locked out became such a fear of mine that I used to collect the keys from all the doors around the house before I went out and leave windows ajar, so that whatever happened, she couldn’t stop me from getting in. I was desperately trying to win back some control over my own life, which was pretty quickly being taken over by the instability of alcoholism.
The anxiety that comes from this lack of control was fueled by a constant paranoia. Not knowing when she was going to drink, but simply knowing that she would, led us to take mental notes of signs and symptoms that indicated what was to come. If someone had upset her or she was under stress, she’d be drunk soon. If she went out for cigarettes, milk, or juice in the evening, she was actually going for drink. If she spent a lot of time in her room with the door locked, she was drunk. By the time I was 16, I could tell immediately by the tone and pitch of her voice if she’d had a drink; by 18, I could tell by the drop.
I still spend up to the first three minutes of any conversation with her working out if she’s been drinking or not, and I don’t even live with her anymore.
Having my little sister to look after added to the need for control. I became her stand-in mom when ours was out-of-order. My little sister soon became resentful of me telling her what to do, though, and she had a habit of screaming back: “You’re not my mom!” It was really difficult trying to be her big sister and her parent, and I never quite managed the balance.
As I got older, my role became less admirable. I did my best to look after my sister and protect her from it all, but her retaliation and the feeling of helplessness that stuck in my throat pushed me away. I have memories of leaving her in on a Saturday night in favor of going out with my friends. Sometimes our mom was there, and she would always be drunk, but sometimes she was out and we had no idea where she went. I still left my little sister alone. I think that’s when the guilt started. I wanted to get away, and my ID enabled me to do so, but she was only 14 and had nowhere to go. I wonder if she remembers those nights and whether she felt like I’d abandoned her. Maybe when it’s her turn, she’ll understand that I had to get out.
Alcohol and violence are inevitable. My mother was often aggressive, but at the very least, she was always verbally abusive. At 5 ft 1 though, she didn’t stand a chance against me. Once I realized this, her trademark sinister smirk became my red flag, and the disappointment and frustration at seeing her with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other, sent me over the edge. All it took was her nails dug into my arm and I’d leave her bruised. My memory of kicking her whilst she was down is a literal one; I hated her for ruining herself, and for ruining us, too.
Nobody prepares you for the continuous feeling of being let down. From a young age, we’re conditioned by outside forces to believe our parents are superhuman. In children’s programs, the vision of mother is reliable and organized; she doesn’t get drunk and forget to pick you up. She’s always smiling, and she’d never throw a glass ashtray in your direction.
How do you reconcile the expectation and the reality when nobody warned you it could be this way?
Fundamentally, against all the social markers available to me as a young teenager, my mother was inadequate. This in turn, made me inadequate. If she loved me, she’d stop drinking, I reasoned. If she saw me crying and screaming, she’d pour it away. And seeing as though she didn’t, I couldn’t shift the feeling that it was because we weren’t worth it. She confirmed this in my mind when she tried to kill herself, twice.
For some reason, my memory has blocked out the second time, but the first I can see. We were at ASDA, dad, my sister and I, we’d had to go live with him for a while because she’d got out of control, whatever that means. We were there looking for his Father’s Day present. The year before, she’d gotten drunk at the restaurant and we were asked to leave, so this time we didn’t make any plans. Anyway, she’d called us all a few times whilst we were in ASDA, but we’d got used to not picking up. She’d only hurl inaudible abuse at us, and I suppose we’d had enough. When we got back in the car, my little sister, who was about eleven at the time, had a voicemail. It was our mom. She said she wanted to die.
I don’t know what happened next, but we ended up back at the house. We managed to get in; she wasn’t there but her car and keys were. I went out into the garden and I could hear her whimpering. My dad found her in a ditch full of mud. We lived next to a park with a train track running through it, and that’s where she was headed when she fell.
I gave up on her for a while after that. I didn’t understand how she could have gone through with it, and why we weren’t worth living for. She said she was on the wrong medication, that combined with the alcohol, had sent her crazy, but she was crazy all along.
Being a child of an alcoholic isn’t something you grow out of, just something you get used to being. Things have calmed down recently; apparently, they got her meds right this time. I’ve been at University for two years now, trying to claim a normal life for myself, but not long ago I realized that normal doesn’t exist, not for anybody. The expectations I had of my parents were constructed by ideals, and this isn’t an ideal world, nor would I want it to be.
I’m grateful for the sober days, because some alcoholics don’t have them, which reminds me constantly that it could always be worse.