Growing up with an alcoholic mother made me a buyer and a doer

Tominey: ‘I solved it by conforming where she had rebelled’ – Andrew Crowley

My mother had been an alcoholic for years before we as a family could bring ourselves to openly admit that she had a serious drinking problem.

I vividly remember the moment we broke our conspiracy of silence, when I was about thirteen. We were on holiday in South Africa and staying at this beautiful hotel in Plettenberg Bay, but mum had refused to leave the room and seemed to prefer the minibar. business than her own husband and three children.

In a characteristic attempt to keep the show going, my father suggested we play some board games downstairs, hoping Mom would eventually surface.

I think it was during Monopoly when I blurted out, “Mom’s an alcoholic, aren’t we Dad?” Until that moment, a combination of loyalty and shame had kept us from confronting the devastating effect her uncontrollable addiction had on our lives.

My parents eventually agreed to divorce shortly afterwards, but despite being a ‘daddy’s girl’ and having a very good relationship with my two older brothers, I moved in with my mother, fearing she would drink herself to death if she was left to her own devices. My father and the boys were strongly against this, but also respected my sense of duty as a daughter.

Having taken responsibility for household chores from a very young age – regularly saving food from burning and dealing with the last-minute discovery of unwashed school uniforms – I was able to cope with the practical challenges of living alone with my mother. But emotionally it took a huge toll.

When you live with an alcoholic, you never know who you’ll come home to: the sober parent you know and love, or the drunk stranger who takes his place. Mom would give me the There was a little girl nursery rhyme: “When she was good, she was very good indeed, but when she was bad, she was horrible”.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently wrote about his own childhood, which was plagued by parental alcoholism: “Children vary in the way they deal with such things, as do adolescents and adults. But those who grew up in families broken up by mental health issues or substance abuse also often do great harm to themselves later in life. Guilt compromises joy and paralyzes relationships. For years I coped by cutting myself off from the world around me. I withdrew into an inner fantasy life.”

As Hilary Henriques, founder and chief executive of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics (Nacoa), of which I am a patron, explains: “There is a magical idea around children of alcoholics that when you turn 18 the world opens up to you. you and legal independence sets you free. The reality is often anything but.

“The grip of responsibility can only increase, especially when a parent’s health begins to fail. Shame keeps you from speaking out, even to those closest to you. The legacy of insecurity, neglect and abuse lasts a lifetime in the form of poor mental health, relationship problems and self-addictions.

Growing up with an alcoholic mother, I didn’t exactly close myself off, but I did actively choose to suffer in silence by not telling my friends or teachers what was really going on because school was my only escape. Unlike at home, life at school was not determined by whether she had been drinking or not. And unlike Mom, school was reliable; it was consistent; there was routine and order. (This is why the closure of schools during the lockdown had such a devastating impact on the children of alcoholics and neglectful parents.)

So I dealt with it by adjusting where she had rebelled. I studied hard, played sports and performed in school plays, almost in defiance of my mother. A small fire grew in my teenage belly: I would do anything to avoid turning into her. I became self-reliant, resilient and flexible (useful skills for my later life as a journalist). I was a buyer and a doer – and I still am. But as a child it was quite lonely always having to be the adult. I had become the mother and she was the child. It was like living in a real episode Totally awesomeexcept the joke was on me.

Tominey writes that she “actively chose to suffer in silence” because school was her “only escape.”Tominey writes that she “actively chose to suffer in silence” because school was her “only escape.”

Tominey writes that she ‘actively chose to suffer in silence’ because school was her ‘only escape’ – Andrew Crowley

Being too embarrassed to invite friends left me feeling quite isolated. My mother would occasionally ask people around, pour a drink and pass out, while I had to make excuses at the front door. The visits soon dried up. I missed my brothers so much that I often cried myself to sleep at night. I lived in constant fear that something would go terribly wrong, which was of course disturbing. I would have to endure blood-curdling school runs knowing she was driving heavily under the influence.

Vacations were also a challenge as I found myself in unfamiliar territory with an irresponsible adult. I remember naively trying to limit her alcohol consumption on a trip to Dublin by watering down her duty-free gin, but she ended up collapsing in the street from alcohol withdrawal. As always, I covered for her and told lies to keep us from getting into trouble. That’s what you do as a child in these situations: you protect the person who should protect you in order to protect yourself. My mother was a supposedly respectable middle class woman, a doctor’s ex-wife, for heaven’s sake, the last thing I wanted was social services knocking on the door.

When I turned seventeen, I decided, out of self-preservation, to pass my driving test as quickly as possible. One night I was in the middle of doing my homework when she came in and drunkenly hit me over the head for no reason. In a rage, I punched her right in the face (it’s the only time I’ve ever hit anyone) and at that moment I realized I couldn’t stay any longer because I was in real danger of hurting her. She was desperately ill and extremely vulnerable and I felt incredibly guilty about leaving her.

I moved in with my father, who had remarried a woman who would become a second mother to me. I then passed my A-levels with flying colors and went on to read law at the University of Leeds, by which time my mother was so completely ravaged by alcoholism that she kept having severe internal bleeding and ended up in intensive care. She died in 2001, a year after I graduated, and had just started as a cub reporter at a local newspaper. She was only 54.

It may sound strange saying this after all I’ve written, but I wouldn’t have changed anything about my mother or my childhood, because they were both full of love. Of course, I wish I could travel back in time, to the time when she first hid whiskey bottles in wardrobes and started drinking before noon to stage some intervention. But deep down I know it wouldn’t have worked. My father had taken her to a series of psychiatrists throughout her marriage, all of whom confirmed that she was in complete denial. She even went to rehab for a while, but emerged after a month convinced she could still drink spritzers. She would never stop.

What you have to remember is that she was the only mother I knew and I loved her with all my heart. When she was sober, she was a truly fascinating woman. Not only was she stunningly beautiful, but she also had enormous charm and a great sense of humor. She was well-read, cultured and had impeccable taste. In many ways, she was the woman who had it all, which makes it even sadder that she threw it all away.

The truth is, I will forever be forever grateful to her for making me the woman I am today.

Some of it was intentional. She kept harping on the importance of having my own career – and my own money – even as she took the term “lady of leisure” to new heights.

But her alcoholism also had the unintended consequence of making me determined to be everything she wasn’t. According to Nacoa, the three million children in Britain affected by their parents’ drinking are six times as likely to witness domestic violence, five times as likely to develop an eating problem, three times as likely to commit suicide to consider, and are twice as likely to experience difficulties at school, twice as likely to come into contact with the police and twice as likely to develop alcoholism or addiction themselves.

I had a period in my twenties when I drank too much – largely to numb the pain of losing my mother – and developed all kinds of wounds. Because I always had to be in control during my childhood, I longed for the loss of control after her death. But I stopped drinking after I had my first of three children in 2008 because I really couldn’t stand the idea of ​​history repeating itself.

I consider myself fortunate to have always had a loving husband, father, stepmother, brothers and friends who supported me. Some people don’t have that and that is why charities like Nacoa are so important. They offer children and adults the insight that despite a difficult start you can make healthy choices and live a happy and fulfilling life. Philip Larkin was right: they can fuck you, your mother and father, but only if you let them. There were times when Mom was a fantastic mother – and times when she really wasn’t. I’m certainly not perfect, no parent is, but I am a very stable, reliable presence in my children’s lives. That’s not just the result of what my mother did wrong, but the golden moments I will forever cherish are when she did it right.


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