Those words roll off my tongue quite easily these days: “I’m an alcoholic“. I find myself telling my story openly, freely and – actually – keenly. Sure, I find addiction a very interesting subject just based on its superb ability to hold our brains hostage alone, but beyond this I think the more we talk about it, the more chance others will have to get out of the dark pit of alcoholism. The more we talk and share, the more we will understand and the more we understand the better placed we will be to have empathy. And once we have understanding and empathy, perhaps the last thing the addict will have to worry about is the shame and stigma traditionally associated with being a drunk. I mean, clawing your way out of that pit is bad enough as it is without people judging you too. So I talk about it. A lot.
Went and got my hair done as it was once again starting to resemble the sort of hedge you get around derelict buildings, where green fingers stopped lovingly tending to it a long time ago. Hairdressers are chatty folk, aren’t they? Sometimes you see these articles or even books where e.g. flight attendants will disclose the worst instances of passengers’ behaviour. I’d love to read a book titled ‘Things I Only Tell My Hairdresser‘. They’re sort of neutral, aren’t they? Actually, I’m often way too open as it is, but because it struck me about hairdressers just now because, well, I only went the other day, and also you spend at least half an hour with them and actually (hopefully!) much longer than you ever spend talking with your doctor.
Well. There I was, having aforementioned hedge chopped and tended to by a lovely chick I’ll call Rosy because her hair was a really cool shade of dusty rose. We chatted as you do and I found out she works at this salon a couple of times per week and on the side runs her own business.
“So what line of work are you in, then?” Rosy asked.
“Ah, well…” I started, made a face and chuckled, “I quit my job Friday, so I suppose nothing right now, but I’m hoping to get into addiction counselling.”
“That’s great, really great!” Rosy told me and even stopped for a moment to place her hands on my shoulders, gave a little squeeze and smiled broadly.
A bit over enthusiastic I thought, but hey, hairdressers are always chirpy and bubbly, aren’t they? But this wasn’t just as-you-do chatter, and when she went back to separate out the next strands of my hair to cut, I found out why my future career had made her stop and smile.
“You know, I grew up with addiction.”
“Oh wow, did you really? That must have been very hard,” I felt that old knot of sorrow in my chest like I always do when I hear these stories of the children who grow up with people like me for parents.
“Yeah, it was. I was taken away from my mum,” Rosy told me but this didn’t make her stop what she was doing, “but she’s clean now. She went to rehab five times before it stuck and the last time was really her last chance and it was on condition that she also moved. The other times she’d come out and then her old dealers would come around with whatever.”
Rosy told me matter-of-factly of a life growing up with parents who weren’t sober, being separated from mum and having dad in jail. Mum now in a different part of the country and dad in Spain. Stepmum and brother dead, both due to addiction and in the past couple of years.
“Dad’s doing well. He got clean when I was five and has kept at it. Mum had to go to rehab several times over and now she has decided to drink again, which I’m really upset about but I think she feels she should be allowed that as long as she doesn’t go back on the drugs.”
“Do you think she’ll manage?” I asked.
“I don’t know. She does drink every day. It’s hard because she gets really upset when we talk about it, I think she has a lot of guilt.”
I told Rosy my story and imagined her wanting to plunge the scissors into my neck. I genuinely felt ashamed confessing to drinking for so many years and my son witnessing it so often. And quite rightly – I’m not trying to unnecessarily beat myself up here but I bloody SHOULD feel shame at that part, end of story. We talked and talked. Of course what I wanted to know more than anything else is how I best go about this for Bambino’s sake.
“I have tried to bring about the conversation, but he either bats it away or tells me it wasn’t so bad, which is obviously something he only says not to upset me,” I said.
“It’s so hard isn’t it,” Rosy agreed, “I have things to say about it but I can’t stand to see mum get upset. Dad has never given me any opportunity to talk about it at all.”
And that’s the problem! Bambino might hold back on the old MUM YOU AWFUL DEVIL WOMAN HOW COULD YOU KEEP DRINKING AND HURT ME just to protect my feelings. Speaking to Rosy helped and when I got home I knew what to say and so I did. Bambino was sitting in the kitchen having cereal for an after school top up ahead of dinner (we get through Crunchy Nut like you wouldn’t believe) and I asked him to put his phone down. Full attention. And I said the things Rosy told me she’d wanted her parents to say to her, which is what I’d asked her.
“Right, listen. I know you feel awkward and uncomfortable about this and I’m not going to force you to talk about it, OK, but I want to make something clear so you just know, alright?”
Bambino nodded but was squirming a little.
“No matter what you say, I know I’ve upset you with my drinking and that it’s hurt you.”
“No, let me finish, I need to say this to you.”
“Oh God, fine, go on then.”
“I know you probably don’t want to say anything because you worry I’ll feel sad or upset and I know you want to protect me. That’s utterly lovely of you and you’re such an amazing person for wanting to look after me, OK. But I want you to know how sorry I am and how unforgivable it is. No! Don’t,” I told him when he drew breath to protest, raised my hand to signal to hold on, “Don’t say anything, unless of course you want to, but there may come a day when you feel you want to tell me a thing or two. You might be furious with me or there might be something you really want me to understand about how you felt in all of this. And all I wanted you to know right now is that when you do, I will give you my full attention and I will listen. It doesn’t matter how I feel about it or if it upsets me to hear it. I will always listen when you want to say your peace. OK?”
“Alright, cool,” Bambino told me with a roll of the eyes as usual.
No, I can’t undo years of drinking by a nice little speech to my teenager. But I can make sure he gets to have his say when he is ready, and like I promised him, when that day comes I will listen. Until then, I won’t force the conversation or labour the point, but I will talk about it generally – we have to talk about this. You never know who might need to hear it. I needed to hear what Rosy had to say, hear another child (although Rosy is of course no longer a child!) who grew up with addiction. It helped me. And perhaps in some small way it was good for Rosy to hear an old drunk like me wanting to do better and help others, but perhaps I’m just being a bit narcissistic now.
Today I’m not going to drink.