By Jessica Blackwell
But it can’t all be on me and people like us, to have to get strong enough... At some point society is going to have to start looking us in the eye too.
TW: Mentions of suicide, abuse, violence and addiction
I’m the child of an alcoholic… Writing that felt as lacklustre as it gets. Because how can using that label even begin to describe the reality? Where do I even begin?
Card shops aside (where apparently it’s required by law to sell at least five cards that joke about getting black-out drunk), I do see small improvements in the way society approaches addiction. For example, there has been a welcome surge in people openly discussing their own troubles with drink, with writers like Bryony Gordon and Millie Gooch (the founder of Sober Girl Society) at the forefront of this conversation. However, something I feel again and again is that the conversation massively misses out on the unbelievable impact that addiction has on the loved ones around the individual.
A research study with 4,000 respondents estimated that there are 3 million children in the UK living with parental alcohol problems. That is 3 million children, and their voices, that are not being represented in society, or in the discussion around alcoholism. And they need to be because, in a statistic that genuinely makes my blood run cold, a survey done by the Department of Health and Human Services showed that children of alcoholics are 85% more likely to die by suicide than those without parents who abused alcohol. That is the reality. That is some reflection of what it feels like to be the child of an alcoholic and the demons that play in your head. (And the demons that somehow, for the love of God, end up on cards in Paperchase.)
So, this is why I speak about it, and why I’m about to tell you what I am now. Of course, I can’t speak for everyone’s experiences, but I can tell you what mine was.
I cannot possibly put into words the effect my Mum’s drinking had on my life. There’s a quote that says, “addiction isn’t a spectator sport, eventually the whole family gets to play,” and it’s so true. You get so drawn in; you beg someone to stop and they don’t, and it feels like being told you don’t matter, or they don’t care, over and over for years and years.
I grew up so quickly, facing and witnessing violence. I became an expert at reading people and body language, both to gauge if my Mum was drunk as quickly as possible and to know what I needed to do if she was. I experienced and saw traumatic things at an almost relentless pace. I was made to feel like the weight of the world was on my shoulders with the question “what should I do?” constantly beating its wings inside my head.
That’s not to mention the sheer amount of times I have been lied to in my life. I think it is impossible to comprehend what it does to the trust you have in your own emotions and perspectives, and your own feelings of paranoia, when you are gaslit so many times. It’s finding an empty wine bottle and being told it was old, or that it was your own bottle, or that you were going crazy. It’s staring at a drunk woman and being told she’s sober. It’s being told that you’re the one with the issue.
And when you do reach out to people, especially at school, you get slapped in the face with comments like, “My mum is embarrassing too”. Nope, Jane, I’m not talking about her making an occasionally bad joke; we’re talking about my Mum knocking back a bottle of vodka and dropping unconscious on the kitchen floor.
Some of my most painful moments are clouded by the brain's attempt to protect itself, rationalising the chaos with so much necessary rationality and calmness. I think back to the weeks preceding my Mum going into rehab. She was drunk driving so often that my sister and I would try to come to terms with the fact that, if she continued at this rate, she would likely die in a crash or kill someone else. Obviously this serves a function - it means you continue, but ask yourself how much you have to repress in order to do that? And over such an extended period of time, what does that do to someone? All of this with the duality of things often appearing so okay from the outside, which only adds to that void of understanding between yourself and friends.
These things leave a mark in a way that is impossible to describe. Despite of this (or perhaps because of it?) people have tried. In her 1983 landmark book Adult Children of Alcoholics, Janet G. Woititz Ed.D points out 13 different characteristics often found in families of those dealing with addiction. These include “judging themselves without mercy”, “overreacting to changes over which they have no control”, “extreme loyalty, even in the face of evidence that the loyalty is undeserved”. There is also, more famously, what writer Tony A. called The Laundry List. This list outlined another slew of qualities – being approval seekers, viewing life as a victim, having an overwhelming sense of responsibility, being more concerned with others than themselves, feeling guilty when they stand up for themselves, confusing love and pity, loving people who need rescuing, losing the ability to feel – and other fun, really chill personality traits.
Reading The Laundry List made me feel sick. So many of the items listed seem to shine a torch on what I see as the worst or most damaged parts of myself. They are the parts of me that I am hyper-aware of, and a list of things that frankly cause me a lot of trouble - especially losing the ability to truly engage with your emotions without feeling like a nuisance.
You may read this and see it as a falsity – clearly I am displaying emotions here – but I’m talking about tending to emotions as a flow of energy in a relationship; being able to explain and believe in how you feel when someone hurts you, and feeling able to say them without the painful compulsion to instantly reassure the other. The ability to investigate an emotion that prioritises you but may hurt someone else – this I find incredibly difficult.
On a greater level, I find it near impossible to really engage with how I feel about my childhood. In fact, to get to this level of honesty - something I rarely ever do - I’m having to type through a thick veil of fogginess and a sound of static which makes me feel like the corners of my mind are peeling away from the centre. Because, when I start thinking about my childhood and who that made me, all I feel is fear. When I start to worry about the woman I have become, I don’t find a woman at all. Instead, I find a scared seven-year-old girl who is so terrified; a seven year old who just wants to know what she can do, or who she can be, to make it better.
It scares me that I might be fucking up my life now. I worry that these traits have been planted in me, ready to go off at any moment. I fear that only when I have truly fucked up, will I be able to look back and see my actions for what they were – the actions of a hurt child, making unhealthy decisions purely because they feel more familiar. Sometimes I fear that I learnt to adapt too well; that I just become what people need of me, that if there was a ‘real’ me, she lies too dormant to be awoken. That all I am is my trauma. Sometimes it feels that, in all honesty, I just don’t know who I am.
I carry these scars in so many layers of my life. I battle them in self esteem, in self loathing, in my relationships, in my own actions and mistakes. I am always trying to be ‘good’. More than good – I want to be the best. I want to be more likeable, more clever, more everything than anyone who has ever come before me, just to try and be enough. Or just to try and create the safest, most stable environment I can, often at the sacrifice of expressing myself fully.
I think back to some of the worst moments of it all: the violence, the bruising, grabbing the wheel when she drunk drove to avoid a crash, the look of her eyes at her most paralytic, knowing that I could drop dead in front of her and she wouldn’t be able to do anything about it; the screaming, the never ending family conversations that go on and on and on and on and on and on until one of us loses it and starts throwing drink down the sink just to hear the sound of it, to delude ourselves that she won’t drink if it’s not in front of her; remembering the things I have heard my family say to each other, the things I have said to my family… I feel like I have seen such complex cruelty in the pain that we are capable of inflicting onto the people we love because we love them, that sometimes it just takes my breath away.
I think of all of this, and then I try to think of any of the help I have ever been offered. Or the scope of understanding available out there for me, and I find it so lacking.
I am so glad that the conversation around dependency and addiction is getting louder, but I can’t help but wonder where our voice is in this discussion? It can feel like our emotions are forgotten, or worse, used as tools. Rehab centres, for example, ask you to write an ‘impact letter’ to your loved one, detailing the impact of their drinking and what will happen if they don’t stop. They are asking you to hand over your heart on a plate, in an act that feels like begging, knowing that you could, very likely, be ignored, again.
Sometimes it doesn’t just feel like a lack of understanding; sometimes it simply feels like there is no space for us. It feels like being left to fight alone.
To anyone reading this who supports a loved one facing an addiction, it’s work but there is help out there that my 13-year-old self would have thought impossible. The freedom from worry I have found today, via counselling and other things, is a state that I never thought I would reach. So it is out there, I promise.
But it can’t all be on me and people like us, to have to get strong enough to roll with the punches, or the jokes. At some point society is going to have to start looking us in the eye too.