Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Mother's ruin: how my mother's drinking sent me down that same dark road


The truth is, I was born drunk. I lay screaming on the delivery table, blowing out alcohol fumes as if my life depended on the stuff, the smell so strong a theatre sister asked who'd been drinking - so my mother told me, years later.

She had tippled gin the night before to calm her nerves and my father, a consultant anaesthetist, told me she'd been drunk again on the way home from hospital a few days later.

He'd smelled her breath, stopped the car and dragged her out onto the road. "You useless bloody woman," he bellowed, shaking her shoulders. "Can't stay sober long enough to have a bloody baby."

"I know what I'm doing," she shouted back. "I'm a doctor, too, you know." That was how they went on all the time. She was terrified of him and drank because of his shouting, and he shouted because of her drinking.

By the time I was 12, my mother was a chronic alcoholic. I watched her drink from the bottle until, one day, the tables turned and the bottle began to drink her; all of her. In a matter of months, she turned from being a strikingly beautiful woman into a pickled old prune, her youth sucked utterly dry.


As for drinking, I started really young myself, heading exactly the same way as my mother; drinking simply because there were so many things I couldn't face.

By 17, I couldn't even dry my hair without a glass of something in my hand. I had watched for years as booze stripped my mother of her face, friends, figure and life - yet I let it set about destroying me as well.

It was almost impossible to believe how privileged my mother's own childhood had been; her family's beautiful homes in Guernsey and London, the servants, a first- class education at a top girls' school, Roedean.

Her mother, Lady Edith De Saumarez Craig, had been a debutante presented to the Queen. Her father, Sir Maurice Craig, was a prominent psychiatrist famous for treating the Royal Family. But my mother had swallowed the silver spoon she'd been born with and had nothing left over.

My mother, Monica, met my French father, Claude, as medical students at Edinburgh University. Conventional and ambitious, he fell for her ebullience and passion.

My parents moved to a terrace of three-storey Georgian houses in Murrayfield, Edinburgh, in 1949, and in their early days they both drank a lot and liked a good time. But it wasn't long before my father's beautiful wife became an embarrassment.

By the time I was eight, they were restricting their social life to the odd cocktail party, until she started sneaking into the pantry for drinks - and was seen, standing in a smart party frock, tippling straight from a bottle.

She invariably ended up in an armchair, dress pulled up to reveal her underwear, legs apart, brain elsewhere.

My father - scolding, disapproving and unhappy - kept everybody at arm's length, including his children. My brothers Michael, Peter and Richard, who were just a few years my senior, were dispatched to Ampleforth College in Yorkshire, and when they came home, they either stayed in their rooms or went out.

Because the neighbours were polite, nobody ever said anything when Mummy staggered out in the mornings, her black leather shopping bag full of rattling empties. Eventually, her drinking made her reluctant to leave the house. By the time I was ten, she was sending me out to collect stashes of vodka from a friend.

One day, I arrived back with the booze to find Mummy shaking. "Hurry up, you stupid bitch," she shouted. "You should be at school by now. You're always late."

She snatched the bag from me and took the bottles up to her bedroom. Minutes later, she was back out on the landing, begging me to go to buy some cheese and a loaf of bread - her favourite snack.

I loved Mummy more than anything, but just wanted her to be normal like other kids' mothers, to bake scones, make us meals and look after us.

If I found one of Mummy's bottles of vodka after she'd had too much, I'd chuck half the contents away then refill the bottle with water. Usually, she was too drunk to notice. If she did realise, she beat me on the bare bottom with a belt.

The scariest times were when she came into my bedroom in the middle of the night, drunk, stumbling about in the dark. On one of these nights, she fell on top of me and lay there, refusing to move, a ton weight. I felt all the air being squeezed out of my chest as she crushed me into the mattress.

Often, drunk and full of sleeping pills, she would perch on a chamberpot in her room at night and fall asleep sitting like a Buddha until, eventually, something would startle her and she'd jump, sending the pot and its contents flying over the carpet.

She spilled medicine and booze onto that carpet every single day of her life.

I was ten when I arrived home from school and found I couldn't get into the house. The door was blocked by something large. I realised to my horror it was Mother motionless - possibly dead.

Dad was on one of his frequent climbing trips, so I ran to a phone box and dialled 999. The police smashed their way in and I could see she was lying on her back in a torn nightdress, her face tear- stained and bruised from the fall.


I put my arms around her and hugged her for the first time in years, amazed at the sense of relief I felt.

"I thought you were dead," I said. "Poor Mummy."

They took mother to hospital, where she became more and more agitated. She pointed at me, screeching: "That girl there, she's trying to poison me."

She lurched towards me, raising one hand as if to slap my face. A male nurse grabbed her arm.

Back at home, life carried on as normal. My father grew more and more remote, staying away from my mother as much as possible.

At 13, I went to board at a convent in Littlehampton, Sussex. There, in the middle of a lesson, my mother stormed in. She had come all the way from Edinburgh.

Seeing her standing in my classroom - her hair dishevelled, wild eyes darting, made my heart thump. The room went quiet, then my mother turned to me and screeched: "Nic, I've come to get my skirt . . . that one you're wearing. I need it to go away on holiday. Take it off immediately."

She came closer, until I could see the pinks of her eyes. I wondered whether she had slept recently. She must have stopped drinking for a few days and developed delirium tremens, the DTs. I knew the highpitched voice and ridiculous, illogical requests from past experience.

"All I want is a short holiday but I can't go if Nicola doesn't give me that skirt," my mother complained. The headmistress approached with the school doctor, and gently led mother away. She was admitted to a local nursing home, where she remained for several days before she went home.

By now, I had watched for years as booze stripped my mother of her life - yet I was about to let it set about destroying me as well. My first taste of alcohol came just before my French oral exam. I was 16 and I asked another girl to buy me a bottle of vodka.

I'd seen my mother drown her terror with gin. I would do the same with vodka. I drank enough to make me feel very confident for an hour or two and I got full marks for the exam.

After A levels, I spent a year teaching English in France. I started buying vodka from the local shop and drinking alone in my room.

By the time I returned to Edinburgh a year later I was drinking a lot, usually in secret, just like my mother. I rented a flat, doing odd jobs to fill in time before university.

One morning I set out to see my mother - I tried to visit her once a week to check she was OK.

Letting myself into the house, I found my mother lying face down in the kitchen, totally still. I dabbed her forehead with water until she opened her eyes.

"What the hell have you been drinking?" I asked, glaring at her. "No, wait at minute," she retorted very slowly. "What the hell have you been drinking?"

My mother, now in her late 50s and despite her years of drinking, managed to look elegant occasionally. She had neat, greyish-black hair swept back off her face and large brown eyes, somewhat redrimmed of late.

Her chin was beginning to slacken and lipstick, always applied in the morning, had smeared around her mouth by lunchtime. Her breasts and stomach sagged, her shoulders seemed to cave in.

Sitting in her bed the next day, she had a rare moment of clarity. "There must have been so many times you've come into the house and found me in that state and been disappointed, angry . . . hated me even," she said sadly.

"A kid coming home, wanting her tea, and all she finds to greet her is a drunk mother."

A statement or a question, I wasn't sure which. "I know you won't believe me, darling, but I have tried to stop. I used to think I could stop any time I wanted. Now I'm not so sure . . ."

My father had been particularly cold towards me recently, the result of two drink-driving episodes in the same week. I was 19 and borrowed his car to drive to a party in Edinburgh. The first time the police stopped me I'd had 20 vodkas. I was stopped again, well over the limit, just a week later.

In 1970, I met a gentle marine biologist called Colin at university in St Andrews. I was 20 and he was my first serious boyfriend.

Mum begged me to invite him for dinner and finally I gave way. She was in her room when we arrived, knocked out by tranquilisers and drink. Colin and I ate together, and eventually the door handle rattled and Colin prepared himself to greet a possible mother-in-law.

Then Mummy chose to stumble into the room, totally naked, intent on finding something to eat. Colin sat frozen. My mother's face was streaked with make-up, her thighs covered in bruises from bumping into furniture. Her backside wobbled along behind her.

"Hi," she said, her voice thick with alcohol, "I'm Nicola's mother. How are you?" Then she wobbled out.

I drank more during the time I was with Colin than ever, yet we stayed together for five years. At times I felt I was turning into the one thing I dreaded: my mother. Like her, whenever I was called upon to make an impression, I needed drink.

One night, Colin took me to a restaurant to meet his friends. I drank a whole bottle of wine beforehand for courage, downed a vodka and tonic when I arrived and then needed the loo.

An Italian waiter was watching me beneath hooded eyes. I winked at him and he jumped to hold open the toilet door. In the dark corridor that ran past the Ladies, the waiter drew me towards him. He was kissing me, and I didn't object.

This was something I did when drunk - went along with a person's wishes because I couldn't be bothered fighting.

Unsurprisingly, Colin and I finished. I graduated and flew to Japan to teach English. In 1976, a diving accident left me with a broken neck. I returned home - still drinking a bottle of vodka a day. Even an attack of alcohol-induced pancreatitis which nearly killed me didn't stop me.

Finally, on Saturday, September 16, 1978, I called around to see my mother, to check she was OK while my father was away. I didn't need a key to get into the house - which was unusual because Mummy always locked the outside door.

I opened her bedroom door as quietly as I could and stuck my head inside. The first thing I noticed was her bedside lamp lying on the floor, its bulb dead, having burned a hole in the carpet.

Next to it, in a disorganised heap, was my mother. Her head looked awkward, as if it had been screwed onto her body back to front. She lay on her right side, facing the door. Her old blue dressing gown, gaped down the middle.

Her arms were outstretched, mouth wide open; saliva running down her chin and down the front of her dressing gown. I wanted to go to Mummy, but my legs wouldn't move. I could see empty bottles of vodka and pills scattered around her. She was dead.

The moment I had been dreading so long was here and I didn't want to know. "Mummy, I did love you," the words blocked my throat even as a voice inside my head asked: "Did you really love her that much?"

I stumbled into the garden and sat for an age, sobbing, before finally phoning my father. I had always promised I would take her to be buried alongside her parents.

So, a few days after her cremation I drove her ashes to an old Sussex village, close to where she had lived as a child. There, I met my brother Peter and a vicar. As we stood in that churchyard, I vowed that I was not going to waste my life in the way she had wasted hers.

No matter how hard it proved, I would not allow myself to sink into drink and drugs. I was going to live my life to the full. It was the greatest tribute I could pay to a woman I felt I had not loved enough.

I turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help and I never went back to drinking - not even after the death of my father or my beloved brother Richard in climbing accidents.

Occasionally, I start a glass of wine, but I rarely finish it. Drink represented a battle my mother had fought, lost, then passed on to me.

I miss my mother and wish I could see her now, to bring her up to date with my life as a writer, happy wife to be and stepmother. She is still managing to exert a powerful influence over my life.

During the good times and the bad, she lives on like a faint but persisting echo.

source: Daily Mail

author: Nicola Barry

ADAPTED from Mother's Ruin by Nicola Barry, published by Headline on July 12 at £12.99. °Nicola Barry 2007.

1 comment:

MICKY said...

A recent copy of Reader's Digest has a couple of articles on Alcoholics Anonymous. The crux of the articles is that the famous 12 Steps, don't work at all. Apparently, there's no data to support the claim that Alcoholics Anonymous is successful at getting people to stop drinking. From my own experience, the 12 Steps, shut down the critical thinking section of ones brain. What do you think? Comments are welcome!!
PEACE BE WITH YOU
MICKY