27 February 2012

Two years and counting.........

It's coming up to the second anniversary of Greg's death and I'm surprised at how my feelings keep changing. All part of the grieving process, I know, but nevertheless strange to experience it for oneself. Two years ago, I'd just come through six years of hell, living with a full-time, non-functioning alcoholic. Six years of us both shouting, weeping, frequent trips to A&E, doctors, detox, counselling clinics, queuing at supermarkets with cratefuls of whisky, cleaning up toilet accidents on the carpet, because he could not make it in time. Not to mention the sleepless nights worrying whether I'd wake up at all the next morning, because he might forget in a drunken stupor to put out his cigarette and burn the house down. In addition there was the shame and embarrassment of being seen out with him, as he never washed, cleaned his teeth or changed his clothes and had lost all sense of social propriety.

The climax of these six years was the final week of his life up to 6 March 2010. Looking back now to his final visit to A&E at the very end of February 2010, I was annoyed that yet again here we were wasting doctors' time over something that was in his power to stop and that his many promises over the previous years never to get in that state again had been broken. He was admitted to a ward and I was forbidden to visit him, as there was an outbreak of the winter-vomiting bug and visitors were not allowed. I was furious with him and stormed out of that casualty department, both soul-destroyed by yet another broken promise, yet elated that I was going to have a night or two on my own where I could sleep peacefully for a change in a smoke and alcohol-free zone. An oasis of respite in a desert of despair.

A few days later, I was to be tested on the principle of "be careful what you wish for......." as he was moved to Intensive Care for the last 5 days of his life. It was only then that the hospital allowed me to visit him, but by then he was already unconscious. Watching him die was harrowing. Physically he no longer looked like my husband. The alcohol had ravaged his face, his hair and his body. Gradually bit by bit his body was delivered over to the toxins. His lungs were full of water, his kidneys started to fail and his liver was diseased beyond help. He was bleeding internally and because of the kidney failure he was swelling up like a sumo wrestler, but his skin could not cope with this sudden increase in size and was bursting all over, oozing liquid or blood. I could no longer converse with him as he had been sedated to the extent he was unconscious. The only sound in the room was that of the life-support machine. I didn't even get to say goodbye, although I whispered it to his lifeless body.

My life changed drastically from then on. I heaved a sigh of relief with thoughts that the living nightmare was finally over and I could dare to breathe freely again. I picked myself up and started to deal with the many practicalities that came steam-rollering in. People to tell, a funeral to arrange, letters to write, bills to pay and accounts to close. Once the hurly burly had stopped, my daughter had returned to university and I was alone, I threw myself into house projects to distract me. The house had been badly neglected as Greg had had neither the health nor sanity to do it himself any more and all our spare money had gone on his cigarettes and whisky addictions, so there was no possibility to get a professional in to do it. It was a case of killing two birds with one stone - a much-needed refurbished house and a distraction for me. Whenever I thought of Greg, I was still angry for what he had done to himself and to us. That anger inside me was hard to shift. I couldn't cry at the funeral or in the weeks and months afterwards, even when I tried as hard as I might to think back to the more distant happier times.

Then came a period when I mellowed a bit. I thought how sad it was that he was missing out on things...such as Kay's progress at uni and her placements at hospitals. He was missing out on important world issues too, as he used to work as an international journalist. Things like the demise of Gaddafi and bin Laden, the Euro crisis, the London Olympics, the Middle East problems to name but a few would have had him working extra shifts when he could still work and had him sitting on the edge of his seat shouting at the television news in his retirement. Now, he would never know these things and I felt a certain sadness that he wouldn't know them.

Next week is the second anniversary of his death and I find my anger is subsiding even more. Possibly it is due to the fact that the passing months have helped to erase the nightmare. It is true that when I read some of the archive to this blog, I have to pinch myself that things were actually as bad as that. On the other hand, everywhere I turn there are constant reminders. Programmes on TV highlight the escalation of binge-drinking, SOS buses, fly-on-the-wall documentaries featuring doctors dealing with alcoholism. Even some of the soaps carry alcoholic storylines. Kay is being confronted with it too in the line of her hospital placement. She recently examined a 57-year old man who was an alcoholic in the final stages. To cap it all, I heard Alistair Campbell say on a recent Panorama programme that maybe Labour got it wrong introducing a 24-hour drinking culture to this country. Tell me about it! What have I been saying all this time?

Two years on, I miss Greg like crazy. Selfishly, I wish we still had our golden years together to explore the world and see a bit more of life or just muck around at home together. I wish he were here to potter as he wished, switch on the radio or TV and soak up all the current news. I wish he were here to see Kay as she grows into a beautiful independent young woman and I wish he were here to grow old disgracefully with me. I do appreciate better now that he had an illness he could not fight, a sort of depression that can physically kill. He would not have wanted to cause suffering to his family. He did not want to die. The illness dictated it. His broken promises did not just let me and Kay down, they hurt him too, because he believed he could fight this disease. His last words to me in that A&E bed were "the drinking stops now, I promise".

I am no longer angry with him (although I am angry with a society that could allow it to happen and turn a blind eye to our repeated pleas for help.). I am no longer sad. Instead I ponder; I question; I yearn. But I still cannot cry. Maybe that phase is still to come.

13 February 2012

Falling over to get a badge

I'm due a monthly visit to my 88-year-old mother to do chores for her - the usual gardening and odd-jobbing, big food shop etc. I should have gone a few days ago, but the bad snap of Siberian weather we have been experiencing in the Southeast made me nervous about leaving. I don't like the idea of driving in snow unless I really have to. I also worry about pipes freezing in the house while I am away and worry even more so about the cat freezing into a lollipop. She has her own front door (ie a catflap) but will insist on waiting at the back door for hours on end so that I can let her in and out again. When I am home, she does not have to wait long, but when I am away, she'd sit outside there all day, hence my worry. Now the temperatures are rising again, hopefully she'll not come to any harm while I am away. My neighbour checks on her twice a day, so she'll get fed and my neighbour always like to sit with her for a half-hour or walk around the garden with her, so she will not be starved of company.

One of the jobs I am doing for my mother is to update her disabled blue badge for her. She has scoliosis (severe curvature of the spine) and these days can barely stand unaided and hangs on to furniture when she walks across a room. Any walking outside the house(when we go shopping or to appointments together) is very slow and extremely painful. (She is even afraid to go into her own garden alone in case she falls and nobody knows she is there.) Having the blue badge means she can park on double yellow lines or in special disabled parking bays close to where she needs to be. It cuts down time and pain. Sometimes it can be quite galling when, say, at supermarkets, we have trouble finding a disabled bay to park and we then see someone returning to their car so obviously NOT disabled, in fact they positively have a spring in their step. It reminds me of a Michael McIntyre sketch about what we expect when we see someone parking in a disabled parking space. I attach the only link to the sketch I can find, although the sound quality is poor. Do we expect them to open the car door, fall out and crawl to their destination? All joking aside, we certainly don't expect them to be wearing 4-inch killer heels (as I have often seen happen) or walking at great speed with no apparant physical disbility. Unfortunately the system is often abused by healthy relatives who "borrow" the passes to nip to the shops. My mother's pass is due for renewal and this time the application is more stringent - she has to supply signed photocopies of her passport, utility bills, her latest prescription and have two recent photographs signed and confirmed by a non-relative of some professional rank that it is a truelikeness of her, plus the usual questions about how far she can walk without pain or difficulty. All by a certain deadline which has already passed. I am all for stamping out fraudsters who abuse the system, but tell me, how is an 88-year old woman, housebound by her disability, who never goes out unless I drive her somewhere once a month, supposed to get photocopies and signatures from strangers? She's disabled. Hello! That's why she needs the badge. You would think the authorities could offer to make personal visits home in extreme circumstances, but that looks out of the question. I think I'll get my mum to deliver the application to the local authorities personally on all fours - the way she always goes up stairs - she's bound to get her badge with no problem.

08 February 2012

Attention, All Medics!

The Immortal Alcoholic has highlighted a problem that seems to be happening worldwide - that of the medical profession not taking alcoholism seriously and treating alcoholic patients as "throw-away people". Just like the case Immortal Alcoholic presents, as soon as your average alcoholic turns up at Accident & Emergency with a non-alcohol related complaint, the staff, on hearing that the person is an alcoholic, tend to roll their eyes heavenwards and dismiss the symptoms as unimportant or alternatively automatically connect the symptoms to the alcoholism and fail to do further more searching tests.

I have personally witnessed this happening in the many visits Greg and I used to make to A&E, some alcohol-related and some not. On one occasion, Greg had torn off two of his toenails. (Because of his sloppy hygiene, he had allowed them to grow ridiculously long and then would walk barefoot around the house until one day he caught them on a sofa leg and they ripped off.) I managed to get him to Casualty with blood pumping out of his toes, but as soon as "alcoholic" was mentioned, he was left unattended on a stretcher for several hours as a non-priority to "sleep it off". On another occasion, I took him to A&E because he was feeling very unwell, kept collapsing and looked pale. He was sent home, almost immediately as the staff concluded he needed to sober up, even though he was at that time clinically dependent on alcohol and could not just stop drinking without a proper detox system in place. The next day he collapsed at home complaining of the same thing and was taken this time by ambulance to the same A&E, wherepon this time they discovered he had internal bleeding and had probably had it the day before too.

I know from what Kay tells me that precious little time is spent teaching medics about alcohol abuse and what is taught is very superficial. It is shoved in to a small corner of a lecture here or there when covering other subjects, such as the liver or dementia or depression. It is not really given much weight of its own and certainly not the wider implications of how it affects the whole family, or how an alcoholic has every right to be taken as seriously as someone with cancer when the alcoholic is seriously ill, even if the damage is self-inflicted. Oh no. The eyeball rolling is by far still the most common reaction.

Alcoholism is on the increase. Dawn closing times at clubs and pubs means people have longer time to drink even more. Supermarkets and petrol stations stay open all night and sell the stuff. Students and the young in general seem to be out till the wee small hours binge-drinking on a regular basis. Clubs offer ridiculously cheap shots to lure customers in. Some large towns have an SOS bus hanging around the main town centre to help cope with the amount of injured drunks stumbling around at the weekend and relieve the pressure on the local A&E. This problem is not going to go away. In fact it is going to get worse. So like it or not, the medical profession needs to address how they intend to deal with this. I know that they are understaffed and that money in the NHS has to go a long way round, but one day they will dismiss a person as an alcoholic and fail to see something more serious.

Alcoholism doesn't hand-pick its victims. There but for the Grace of God and all that. One day, it could be their child or their mother or brother. It could be yours.