“Laughing Matters”, a comedy troupe made up entirely of ex-alcoholics was supported by Harry Hill at a benefit gig this September. Some will survive to laugh in the face of their pasts, however, according to statistics provided by Alcoholics Anonymous 33,000 will die of alcohol related incidents or health problems in the UK every year. Furthermore, The British Liver Trust reports that each year 6,500 will die of illnesses directly attributed to alcohol misuse.
It is estimated that one in thirteen people in the UK are currently dependent on alcohol. Helen was the wife of one these unlucky ones. After years of suffering, Paul, her husband, would eventually become yet another contribution to the mortality statistics.
The 55-year-old York-based beauty therapist has been widowed now for three years. Alcoholism or the condition of “being an alcoholic” is defined by some as a “learned behaviour” and others see it as an “illness”. “Sometimes”, she tells me, “I think it’s a bit of both”.
This is the first crossroads we come to when discussing the subject. It is my first insight into the sense of frustration with the lack of definition and clarity which all sufferers, carers and loved ones alike are forced to deal with. And this same frustration is felt in response to almost every aspect of the condition.
When Paul 51, eventually died as a result of liver and kidney failure, several individuals were absent from the funeral. Helen tells me that the way some people spoke of her husband, even once he had died, made her realise just how stigmatised alcohol addiction is.
“If someone had multiple sclerosis you would never say, “He is putting you through hell”. When you’re caring for somebody with a mental illness, a physical illness or any kind of disability you could say, “I’ve had a terrible day, I had to get him to the loo or feed him.” But no, you don’t discuss somebody who has alcohol problems because it’s frowned upon. People don’t understand.”
Before Paul was an unemployed alcoholic, he was a successful and charismatic architectural technician. However, after a string of redundancies he began to lose heart. Finally, after yet another redundancy letter, he told his wife that that as an unemployed 50 year old, he felt as if he had been “been left on the scrap heap”. In the years following Paul’s death, Helen would be told by former work colleagues that he had always enjoyed drinking. However, she believes that Paul’s final job loss contributed heavily to the loss of control he experienced with regards to his addiction.
“It’s so degrading, standing in that queue”, he told Helen after yet another fruitless visit to the Job Centre. “Well, there’s people from all walks of life”, she told him. “Oh it’s just all these druggies and alcies, I just feel so degraded”. Helen told me the true extent of discomfort these demonstrations of denial would cause her. “He was relying on the drink, but he just couldn’t see that. It wouldn’t have been false to describe it as a split personality”.
With her husband out of work, Helen worked hard to support her family through her salon business. Paul spent money on alcohol when he could. “He didn’t actually have a bank account – I had an account. All the money used to come out of that but he used to get hold of my card quite easily and when he could at every opportunity he’d take money out. We got into dreadful problems with money. The week of the funeral we got the letter saying that the house was going to be repossessed.”
Helen was the sole breadwinner and was unable to trust her husband with the money she was bringing in. “I’m diabetic and insulin dependent. I wasn’t totally aware of my loss of weight but everybody else was. I’m only slim anyway, but I’d lost a stone in weight and my blood sugars were all over the place. I was just living off my nerves.”
The difficulty of trusting so often accompanies alcoholism, and it was this new side to her husband which Helen found particularly difficult to bear. “All the lies and the deceit and slyness started. So over a period of about six or seven years, all of these little traits started to appear. I discovered that he was buying twice as much and then hiding it in the car so he got four cans and would stuff two in the glove compartment. Then I noticed him going down the garden a lot – we have a big garden and he would be going down there and stashing bottles.”
Caring for an alcoholic often means caring for somebody who is very different to the person you once knew and most likely loved. Helen was forced to ring the police for her own defence on three occasions. The first call was in response to Paul threatening both Helen and her 8-year-old daughter Alicia, through obscene language. The second incident for which Helen had to call the police was particularly upsetting for both her and her daughter. It occurred shortly after the family had returned from a parents’ evening at Alicia’s school. Alicia was eleven at the time
“The whole family had gone together and he stunk of booze, it was the most embarrassing thing. But he kept on saying to the teachers, “I’m so proud of my daughter, she is doing so well!” They were all singing her praises. But when we got back, he popped out for twenty minutes and by the time he came back in he was a completely different person. He was telling Alicia, “Oh, you thought that parents’ evening was good, well I thought it was crap”. I was holding a pan of boiling water with potatoes. Before I knew what was happening, he had picked it up and was threatening to throw it at me. Alicia was there and she said, “Don’t you dare do anything to Mummy”.
“I’m waiting for these results, but by the time they come through I will be six feet under.”
Alicia and Paul’s daughter from his first marriage, Rebecca who is nine years older, were forced to watch the deterioration of their beloved father. Helen, who is close to both her biological daughter and Rebecca told me just how much this affected the two daughters. “My husband’s alcoholism had a devastating effect on the daughters and they both handled it in different ways. Rebecca had always been very close to her Dad from when she was very little. Alicia had also been very close, but she was always a lot more feisty than her sister. It’s amazing to see how they’ve surfaced from what was just such a horrendous thing – losing their dad.”
As Alicia was living with her Dad at the time, she was the daughter who tended to be directly involved in incidents involving Paul, such as the one that occurred after her parents’ evening. “There have been all sorts of little incidents that have impacted on Alicia – she remembers it. She was very, very close to her Daddy when she was little and she can’t remember those days, only snippets of them. She remembers the awfulness of it all and that’s awful.”
Helen made the third call on an Easter Sunday. Paul had forced her through the door of the family garage, before locking it so that she couldn’t get out. “I rang the police and since he had already had two call-outs, that time he was arrested and was taken down to the police station where he stayed for most of the evening. Eventually, he came back with his tail between his legs. He kept on saying, “You’ve ruined my life, you don’t know what you’ve done by ringing the police. I’m not like that, I’m a respectable person!” Each time he sobered up, he would never remember his actions from the night before.”
It was not long before Paul’s health began to deteriorate at an unprecedented pace. After visiting the hospital for tests, he darkly told his wife, “I’m waiting for these results, but by the time they come through I will be six feet under.” This was a phrase Paul often used flippantly, however, this time with a terrible irony, it would prove true. Six days later, Helen would find Paul shivering, sweating and delirious. Within 24 hours almost every close family member had gathered round Paul’s bedside as the hospital staff prepared to turn off his life support machine. Alicia had decided not to be present at this particular stage. She told her mother, “I’d rather see Dad at peace than going through it.”
By the time Paul died, Helen admitted to me that she no longer recognised the emaciated stranger who had once been her loving husband. The couple no longer slept in the same bed and Helen spent much of her free time struggling to provide as much financial, emotional and of course maternal support for her family as she could.
The voluntary work Helen now does with York Carers Centre has enabled her to directly support those who are caring for people affected by substance misuse. With alcoholism on the rise, Helen has noticed that there are far more services available to both carers and alcoholics in York than there were while Paul was still alive. “The recession and people losing jobs are definitely two major factors for the problem’s increase. There are a lot of people like Paul who can so easily lose their self-esteem and confidence when they lose their jobs.”
York Carers Centre offers one-to-one support for local carers as well as groups and workshops. As a final thought, Helen tells me about how important it is to many of the people who come to the Centre to find solidarity. “You can’t talk about alcoholism. You lose friends, you lose friendly neighbours, and you no longer want to be part of social gatherings. You know that if you have an alcoholic as a partner and you are going out at all, the evening will rarely be a success.” There follows a silence in which, I suspect, we are both thinking about Alicia’s parents’ evening.
If you would like more information about the substance misuse service for carers provided by York Carers Centre please contact York Carers Centre, 17 Priory Street, YORK, YO1 6ET 01904 715490 or visit www.yorkcarerscentre.co.uk.