A sobering anniversary

A year ago today I received a text message from my mother while I was at work. I was 36 weeks pregnant and on crutches thanks to rupturing my Achilles running for a bus and a week away from maternity leave. My sister was in hospital. She had been having convulsions due to severe alcohol withdrawal. I thought she was going to die. It was a week before her 30th birthday.

The months leading up to this moment had been pretty horrendous. She was kicked out by her husband just before Christmas after a drink-related incident, the exact nature of which I will never know. This permanently separated her from her two step children and effectively split her from her own daughter, who moved in with her father. Two drink-driving convictions followed.

I watched my parents become thin and drawn with worry. I saw all our expressions turn from sympathy to thinly veiled disgust. But always underlined with worry. I listened incredulously as my parents gave dire ultimatums and deadlines I could never have imagined them issuing. Even as I saw how helpless they were in the face of her addiction. How helpless we all were.

I received calls late at night and stumbled heavily pregnant to the phone, terrified by what I might hear. Only for it to be her calling to see how I was. For a chat. She dropped my three year old while holding her on her lap, she had so little control over herself. She talked a lot about how excited she was about the arrival of her niece. The thought of what to do if my sister was still in this state when my baby arrived kept me awake at night. Should I stop her from seeing the baby? Ban her from holding my tiny, fragile, precious newborn? What new depths would she sink to if denied this human contact she so craved?

She moved into a hostel. She went to a lot of groups. She didn’t stop drinking. She gave varying accounts of why this was, the advice she had been given. If I go cold turkey, she told me, I’m afraid my level of dependence is so high it might kill me. She refused to take the anti-withdrawal medication she had been prescribed due to their catastrophic interaction with alcohol should she fail to stay dry. She wanted to do it as an inpatient. She was on a waiting list. I thought these were excuses to continue drinking. That she hadn’t really resolved to stop. She was existing in some kind of limbo, fooling herself.

That day she had decided to go cold turkey, two months before her detox bed would be ready. She had not taken her librium. She had not underestimated her addiction either. I had. Her withdrawal symptoms were extreme, debilitating and severely unpleasant. But it didn’t kill her. And she hasn’t had a drink since.

Every day I think about her. She has lost everything – her home, her family, her job, her driving licence. She is slowly starting to rebuild her life. She has a new job now and is no longer consigned to the shared bathrooms and regular police visits of the hostel. She has her own front door: a space where her daughter can stay over. But there are things she has lost she will never get back.

It took me a long time to appreciate my sister was an alcoholic. We were a convivial family and alcohol, food and merriment flowed freely when we came together. I tended to see her on occasions where having a few drinks was not out of place. I didn’t think about it as much as I should have. I enabled her drinking, looking forward to boozy dinners at hers. Of course these were rare occurrences for us. For her they were the tip of the iceberg.

Not all alcoholics get a happy ending. When I was 14 one of my father’s closest friends died of alcohol poisoning. He had drunk no more that day than most others. On that day, it just happened to be enough. I have painted one picture of an alcoholic but there are countless others. Having a glass of wine every day does not make you an alcoholic. Needing to have one might do. The person who can go for weeks without a drop but will only ever drink in excess to get drunk may have a problem. Or the ‘lightweight’ who after a couple of glasses loses all control and has little recollection of their actions the following morning. The solo drinker, the person who will always finish a bottle of wine once it’s open, the mum who cracks open the gin as soon as the kids are in bed, the person who is economical with the truth when asked how much they had last night. They might all be just fine. They might not be.

I still drink occasionally but every time I have a glass I feel conflicted about it. I am very conscious that it is a drug. It has power. It can take away my power. I would plead with anyone who has concerns about their own drinking or someone else’s to do anything apart from ignore it. Talk to them. Talk to someone else. Make a change – maybe just one small step at a time. Put yourself back in control. Don’t let alcohol win.