Monday, 5 April 2010

A tale of two cousins

As promised many months ago, I am going to tell you about my cousin and her battle with alcohol addiction. She's happy for me to do it but she doesn't want me to use her real name which is a shame because it's a nice name and I always wished, as a child, that I could have had that name instead of my one syllable Anne!

Maybe it was just because I looked up to her that I wanted her name. Clarissa was 3 years older than me and very trendy. No, I can't call her Clarissa, she'll kill me and besides, she's way too cool to be a Clarissa. OK so Jemima ... Right! Enough silliness, this is a serious story. We'll call her Susan. Susan was (and is) 3 years older than me. So when I was an impressionable 13 year old she was 16 and the last word in sophistication. She had a fringe like Chrissie Hynde, knew how to apply eyeliner and was far more worldly than me.

I won't tell you the entire story or we'd be here all night but when Susan was 16 she met her boyfriend Clarence (you can guess my opinion of him from the pseudonym!) and some time later discovered she was pregnant. They got married when she was 17 and were happy to do so. Soon were the proud parents of a beautiful baby boy. He had a number of disabilities but despite her age, she just got on with the job of caring for him and did as most mothers do, fell madly in love with her baby boy.

Their joy was to be short lived and at the age of only *four and a half months, their baby son died. They were heartbroken and their lives soon spiralled out of control. Susan tried to cope and did her best to overlook the insensitive comments of the insensitive minority - "you only had him for 4 and a half months so you'll be fine"; "ach you're young, you'll have plenty more"; "it's been 2 months, why are you still crying?" - because most people were trying to help.

Her husband couldn't face up to it, turned to drugs and in no time was addicted to heroin. He'd been violent to her when his baby son was alive but now it escalated. So at the age of 17, she was married to a violent drug addicted husband and had suffered the worst bereavement anyone can suffer. She turned to alcohol. It helped but of course it didn't help. I don't know when Susan became an alcoholic, I can only tell you for sure when she had her last drink and that was nearly 5 years ago.

She's 46 now so she would have been 41 when she last drank alcohol. But that means for at least 25 years, it was a huge part of her life. I listen to the argument against minimum pricing of alcohol that people who are addicted won't care about the cost and to a certain extent, I agree. Susan would have had almost no choice when she was drinking. You could have doubled the price and she would still have had to get it somehow. So although minimum pricing might force an alcoholic to think about their lifestyle and to address their problems a bit sooner, in the way that many people (myself included) finally got round to stopping smoking when it became so difficult to find somewhere to do it, for many who are addicted, it won't make a massive difference.

But surely what we're trying to do is tackle the problems early on. And that's one area where it WILL make a difference. Susan had her first drink at the age of 14. A completely dim-witted aunt used to slip her a vodka any time she was visiting. She never asked for it so the stupidity of that is completely beyond me. The aunt wouldn't have cared much about minimum pricing. But had alcohol not been so readily available and so pocket money cheap, would Susan have bothered going on to drink with her pals at that age when her aunt wasn't there to fund it? I seriously doubt it. When you're that age, you have pocket money and it can only go so far. She spent it on magazines, make up, records and cheap alcohol. If she'd had to give up the make up in order to fund the alcohol, trust me she wouldn't have done it!

And when the baby died and her husband became completely lost to her, had it not been for her already proven easy access to alcohol (for 'easy' read 'CHEAP'), it would never have occurred to her that it might provide an answer. She would have grieved of course she would, I imagine she'll grieve for him all of her life, but she would have gone through a natural grieving process instead of one that chemically masked the necessary stages of grief. And she would have been spared the decades of pain that inevitably accompanied alcohol addiction.

Many times she tried to stop. Sometimes she did but it never lasted. Until now.

I will be honest and I'm sure she knows this although I've never actually said it to her. There were times when I avoided her. I cared about her and I wanted her to be well but I didn't know how to help and when someone's drinking in that way (as she knows because she's also witnessed it first hand) you can love them but hate their behaviour. I rarely felt angry with her. She was always a really good person, that was obvious. I also knew she had never wanted her life to turn out like that. And I was aware that despite not having a problem with alcohol myself, I would find it hard never to drink again so I knew it was an awful lot harder for someone who was addicted. But it really is torture sometimes when you're watching someone do that to themselves.

This blog piece was not actually supposed to be a pitch for minimum pricing although I believe it would have made such a difference to her life. The reason for writing is to try and give hope to anyone out there who is having problems with their drinking or for anyone watching someone they care about seemingly drink themselves to death, that it can all change.

As I say Susan stopped drinking nearly 5 years ago. Maybe she'll write a piece for the blog about that. Since stopping her life has not exactly been stress free but she has faced all of her problems and conquered them - sober! I'm amazed by her strength. It took more than 4 years for her to feel ready to work again and she was so nervous when she started applying for jobs. But she finally had some self confidence and she took the plunge and eventually she was successful.

She started work for the first time in years, full of trepidation but excitement too. I was so angry when she started to tell me about the way she was being treated in her new job. Petty people picking away at her self esteem, not giving her the chance to adjust, behaving, in short, like school bullies! I feared for her then. I was scared she would start drinking again. She didn't. She tried to work round them and when that didn't work, after much thought she handed in her notice. A real shame but she'd worked too hard on getting herself well to risk it all for them. The first major test and although it didn't work out the way she wanted it to, she dealt with it - sober!

Her mum has been very ill for months now and she's the only one who lives near enough to look after her. It's been unbelievably stressful for her - her mum has some physical ailments and is in her 80s but she's also got Alzheimers which is confusing, hurtful and distressing in the extreme. And I know she has been feeling the strain a lot recently. And yet, she's dealt with all of that almost completely single handedly and again, sober.

I could tell you more about the damage that alcohol did to Susan but I'm really hoping she'll do that when she's got a bit more free time on her hands. Incidentally her mum's getting the right help now and Susan is hoping to go to Uni this year so things are moving in the right direction. I just want to emphasise how important it is that we help people who are struggling with alcohol problems. I want to keep campaigning for minimum pricing per unit of alcohol so that pocket money prices disappear and kids can enjoy their childhood and spend their pocket money on other things.

And I want to say how proud I am of my cousin "Susan". As a teenager I looked up to her. Now I am in awe of her strength and determination. Today is a particularly relevant day to be writing this because her cousin who was also an alcoholic, died a year ago today, devastating his family. He didn't die of alcoholism but had he not been an alcoholic he would still be here. He tried to overcome it but in the end, he just couldn't do it. So I stand in admiration of the fact that she's stronger than the lot of us put together. And we are all very thankful for that.

When I think of her these days, the word alcoholic is not the first word to spring to mind. I think of her as the intelligent, funny, caring and competitive (when playing Scrabble or Countdown!) person that she is. And she's still got a modern day Chrissie Hynde fringe so that, alone, makes her well worth a mention on the blog!

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