30 May 2008

Booze cruise

How dare she? The leaflet, which my neighbour had given me, incensed me - and my husband was pretty cross too, to put it mildly. This woman did not even know us. How on earth had she got the idea that he was an alcoholic and, even worse to contemplate, was she spreading malicious gossip about us, based on an untruth? The next day, I gathered up all my courage and went over the road to confront her about it. I am not normally one to stick my head above the parapet, but this could not be left unchallenged. If it was to do with seeing him on early mornings out on our forecourt doing DIY with a drink in his hand, I explained that Greg often worked night shifts and that other people's breakfast times were his supper time. Therefore to see him with an alcoholic drink in his hand at breakfast time was not as odd as it seemed. It was his nightcap. She still insisted we were in need of the advice she had presented me with. She had seen the signs in her own husband (from whom she was now divorced) and she was trying to spare me the same experience she had gone through. I was very upset that she continued to take that stance and through gritted teeth I said she couldn't be further from the truth - my husband was not an alcoholic. She had got it severely wrong. She apologised, but I never spoke to her again. Shortly after that, she moved away from London altogether. Everyone in our small close thought her a little strange anyway, so good riddance, I thought.

A year or so later, we discovered France. We had hitherto not thought much about the place - it was just somewhere we had to drive across to get from the English Channel to Germany, where we still visited our many friends. But we had meanwhile acquired a dog, Snoopy, and we were too soft to go away on holidays and leave him in kennels. Snoopy used to pine terribly if I left him alone for just an hour to go to the supermarket, for goodness sake - how would he cope for a fortnight without us, if we went away on holiday? So we prepared him for the Pet Passport Scheme and decided to go on a short camping trip to Northern France, taking him with us, just to test out the scheme and hopefully bring him back in one piece with us again. There was a residue niggle that we might have to leave Snoopy in quarantine on the way back, if we had unwittingly overlooked one of the conditions of the scheme. More than we could bear to think about. We found a superb camp-site with a huge swimming pool, which I couldn't tear my daughter away from. The weather was ideal too - much treasured when you are overnighting in a tent! It was quite cosy huddled together with Snoopy as one contented pack. We managed to communicate to the locals with our rather awkward school French and decided that there was more to France than just the transit route from Calais to Lille. On the return journey, we stopped at the famous Cite Europe just outside Calais and found by trial and error a wine we really liked. We had heard about other people's experiences of booze cruises and decided to take 12 cases of this particular wine (6 bottles in a case) back with us to eke out through the following 12 months. Roughly a bottle and a half a week between the two of us. An occasional glass with a meal, or for taking to dinner parties with friends, you understand. You can imagine the sight of us as we drove off the ferry and through the customs' shed at Dover. The car was piled high with the camping gear - tent, cooker, lanterns, kitchen sink etc - suitcases, us, 72 bottles of wine, a few bottles of spirits, AND Snoopy perched on top. You couldn't have found room for a pin. The customs officials waved us through with bored looks on their faces and had no queries at all about the dog. We breathed a sigh of relief. The holiday had been a great success.

That was in late August. In November, I had occasion to go into our celler, where the wine was stored, and noticed that the last bottle of wine had been drunk and I had only had about six glasses in total myself.

27 May 2008

The Early Years

He has not always been an alcoholic. We were married 32 years ago and knew one another for 5 years before we married, so that is a shared life of 37 years so far. We met as students studying the same subject at university and we married in a very hot and humid summer of the mid 1970s. I should have known the omens were not boding well when we picked our honeymoon in Cornwall - the only two torrential rainy weeks of that summer. Some people joke that for a honeymoon it shouldn't matter what the weather is doing. Then, it didn't!! In retrospect, that was a sign I should have heeded! Until 4 years ago, the majority of our 37 years together had been fine. It had had its ups and downs, like I suspect most marriages, but we never doubted we would stay together forever. We had so much in common, both before we met and afterwards. Too much to lose if we drifted apart. It would be like losing a leg. Little did I know that the concept of legless would take on a different connotation!

As soon as we married, we spent the first three years in Germany, where Greg was employed by a media company. It was the done thing, certainly in those days in German households to have a crate of beer in the house, to drink with a meal, or if guests called unexpectedly by in the evening. If we turned up at German friends' houses, beer was offered to us too. Or we would go out in a group to a beer keller or jazz keller. For a change we bought Rhein or Mosel wine as it was ridiculously cheap compared with what you have to pay in the UK. We did not over-indulge, but it was there all around us in abundance, if we wanted it. We hardly touched it. We were young, living and working hard abroad, making a wide circle of German and English expat friends.

When we returned to London in 1979, we were busy settling down into our new jobs and starting out belatedly on the housing ladder. I had returned to my former employer, but in a different office. Greg was working for an entirely different employer, but still in the media. We were in our very late twenties. It took quite a few years to nestle into our professions and acclimatise to being back in Britain. It took many (too many) more years, after giving up all hope, before we were blessed with a beautiful healthy baby daughter at long long last (in my fortieth year). We were gloriously happy.

Greg's job was getting more and more stressful and he had to cope as a matter of routine with deadlines at hourly intervals. His unit had high standards to keep and every word had to be checked and double-checked, as a mistake in the reporting could literally mean life or death to their audience. For this reason, he was very pedantic at home about the correct usage of words and would shout at the TV when the News was on, if they got something wrong - in his eyes. He found it very difficult to switch off from work when he was at home and in any case, the very nature of his job meant keeping abreast of international news all the time. His office was run in three shifts (mornings/afternoons, afternoons/evenings or nights) and he had to work a week of night shifts once a month on a rota, as well as bank holidays. He worked four shifts and then had four days off. It is a well-known fact that shift-work can play havoc on your health, particularly night shifts, and he seemed desperately to need his days off, particularly after night shifts, to get back on an even keel again. There was a staff bar in the building and it was not unusual for him and his colleagues to gravitate there during the lunch-hour. Or they would slip across the road to one of the many bars in the area. After a night shift, he would often come home at breakfast time and have a glass of wine or a shot of whisky. It was his way of relaxing and winding down ready for bed. On the last day of his night shift patterns, he would often stay up during the day instead of going to bed in order to acclimatise to the day shifts again and do some DIY which he found relaxing and therapeutic. We had just moved to a house which needed a lot doing to it. Rather than call in professionals, he liked to do the work himself. Often he would have the door of our integral garage open and would potter in there with his designs and work tools with a glass of wine or whisky in his hand. Often he would emerge from the garage and do some carpentry on the forecourt in front of the house.

One day, I was driving home in the early evening with my daughter from a Brownies (Girl Scouts) meeting, when a neighbour who lived opposite us approached my car as I was parking it. I barely knew her, except to nod good morning from a distance or comment on the weather. She was clutching a small leaflet which she shoved hastily into my hand, so as not to alert my daughter's attention to it. "This", she said, "is for you. You might need it because of your husband." She scurried off across the road, before I could say anything to her. When I got inside, I took off my coat and looked at the leaflet. On the front title page were the words "Alcoholics Anonymous. Advice for families living with an alcoholic".

25 May 2008

I am not alone

In one of today's Sunday newspaper magazines is an article about how alcohol has wrecked people's lives, taken from the viewpoint of a widowed wife, a daughter and several recovering alcoholics themselves. It helps me to read these articles and know that what I am going through is about typical for the "illness". Sometimes when I am in the middle of this nightmare, I feel as if I am the only one going through this, that Greg's behaviour or the illness itself is atypical. I sometimes get so angry with him that he does not seem to want to stop drinking and save his life. I cannot even understand simple things like him not wanting to wash or groom himself, or to even change his clothes for days and weeks on end. But in those articles, others have done the same, so it reassures me. I hope too that someone reading this blog will be equally reassured that their relative/friend is going through similar phases and that they are not alone. It also helps me to read that excessive drinking destroys relationships, as I have been feeling guilty that maybe I am wrong to throw in the towel and think about leaving him. It is not easy to know that the probable outcome will result in his early death, although I am sorry to say that sometimes I wish he would die quickly to put the family out of our misery. I hate myself for thinking that unspeakable thought, but, if I am honest, I often see it as the only way out of this mess.

One hears so much in the media about binge drinking. That conjures up in my mind teenagers or twenty-somethings who just go out on the town maybe once a week and get plastered. They meet at clubs, drink excessively, vomit and then go home. They can take it or leave it for the rest of the week. It is almost a social thing, like cavemen collectively clubbing a wild animal, then taking it home for supper. But how many of those binge drinkers will go on to be a true alcoholic?

A true alcoholic drinks alone, often without any close family or friends even knowing. They drink to excess because their body is dependent on the alcohol and will undergo physical changes if they try to abstain. Far from just drinking to relax in the evening, they start to drink as soon as they wake, to avoid the awful withdrawal symptoms such as the shakes or hallucinations. Empty bottles are hidden in overlooked nooks and crannies. They neglect their appearance and hygiene. They cannot be bothered with any of the day-to-day intrusions of life such as bills and relationships. Their sole concern is where the next bottle is coming from. Those are the tell-tale signs of an alcoholic. There have been a few articles recently about alcoholics and together with the six cases quoted in this article today, it got me wondering just how many more cases there are out there. It is a disease on a truly large scale which is costing and will cost the health system a lot of money, if more of the young binge-drinkers turn into the older alcoholic. How will our taxes cope with the rising costs of the NHS treatment and how will the local taxes cover the costs of detox and rehab, particularly when most alcoholics go on to re-offend and will need several detoxes and rehabs in their lifetime?

Curbing smoking and obesity is very much in the forefront of the nanny state's attempt to make us healthier, but what is being done to stop alcoholism? It not only affects the health of the alcoholic, but their families too - physically and mentally. How could we stop it? Would we want to stop it? Surely, there is nothing nicer than an occasional drink in the evening with a meal or on a hot summers' day with friends at a pub.... by the sea.....in the countryside? Surely we do not want to go down the route of prohibition American-style? The majority of us know when they have had enough and can stop. So how do you go about stopping those people who don't know when to stop?

22 May 2008

Out of the Closet

Alcoholic Daze – it seemed such a good name for my blog – a play on words of daze and days – because alcohol features quite a lot in my days, and weeks, and months, and years. But before you go leaping to conclusions, I am stone cold sober. All the time. My husband Greg on the other hand is not. I am watching him slowly kill himself and our love with it. He is an alcoholic. There, I have said it, spoken it out loud and now I believe it myself. HE IS AN ALCOHOLIC. Up to now, not many people knew he was, including me. At first I did not see it creeping up on us, then when I did, I tried to excuse it for something else. Eventually, when there was no doubt about it, I tried to keep the “problem” to myself for years until I broke down one day and told his sister Jill. She in turn told their mother. A few months down the line, I decided to bare all to my best friend S, whom I mainly email on a weekly basis, as she does not live close by. Then eventually, when my mother came to stay with us for a week over Christmas, eighteen months ago, it was so obvious to her and so she became enlightened to my world. The small circle of those that knew remained confined until recently. They were there in the background offering me support when I felt down or frustrated. Before I had told them, I had felt in the middle of a nightmare. Once they knew, I felt I could at least share the nightmare with them.
But recently, things have reached such a peak – I shall endeavour to explain later as the blog unfolds- that it was proving difficult to contain the problem. My daughter Kay who is in the throes of sixth form and all the pressures that brings with coursework and exams, was finding it impossible to get the peace at home she needs to study. Normality for us is Greg shrieking his head off when anyone dares to say boo to a goose. The simplest things can set him off. Harmless questions to me or you can send him into orbit like the incredible hulk. Obviously the later in the day, and the more alcohol he has consumed, the greater the outbursts. Which usually coincide with my daughter coming home from school and attempting to do her homework. I use the word attempt advisedly because often she has to give up…..like she did a few weeks ago, when trying to revise for a chemistry test. She had to give up. He was shouting for so long and for hours on end. He usually follows us around the house as we move from room to room to get away from him and diffuse the situation. The result was that she did the test not having been able to revise a single thing the night before. She knew she had done badly and the results a few days later were confirmed. The teacher was not best pleased and took it out on her. Her A-levels were at risk. That for me was the final straw. The pretence could go on no longer. Suddenly, all these years of trying to hide it from everyone because of our collective shame was no longer important. We had to admit it and explain. For my daughter’s sake. For her future. Now was my time to come out and admit to the world that my husband is an ALCOHOLIC. It was at that point I made an appointment to see the school. Now the small circle of those who knew was about to be made bigger.