Part 1 – Growing up, going mad and alcoholism
This, believe it or not from the title, is a story of hope.
It is also a story of chaos and pain. It will be raw. I make no apologies for this. Some of it may make you uncomfortable, but my truth is my truth. I own it fully. Just maybe it will help someone.
So, who am I? Still figuring that one out. I am Jenny, nearly 48, mother, daughter, wife, ex-wife, sister, friend, ex-teacher, therapist and a recovering alcoholic. What I do know is that none of those things define me. I am just Jenny.
So…a bit of background. I did not grow up in a home that was violent, my parents are still together, I suffered no massive trauma that neatly explains what would transpire. Whether you believe that alcoholism is inherited, an illness, a disease or has a more scientific explanation to do with the reward centre in the brain is irrelevant.
Alcoholism, or any form of addictive behaviour or compulsion, is a mental health issue. It is insanity. This will become clear.
Although my upbringing was pretty ‘normal’, it also was not, because three years after I was born in Northern Ireland, my Dad took a teaching job in Germany and moved us all there, initially for a year – this ended up being 23 years. All my education was in forces schools. Think of the worst comprehensive you can imagine and then some. It was a tough environment. Even tougher when your parents teach in your secondary school – this makes forming friendships hard. It was also hard because every child in the school had a father who was either a teacher or in the forces. People moved on. Regularly. I didn’t really have friends. Actually, I always struggled with this – I felt like everyone else had read the instruction booklet and I hadn’t. So I just copied what the others did. My school was on an army barracks. This was my ‘normal’. It definitely contributed to my feelings of being different and isolated when I ended up in England at university.
Aged 10, I began to be scared of going to sleep in case I died. In my teens I became obsessed with Sylvia Plath and the poem ‘The Birthday Present’ where what she wants most in the whole world is to end her life. I then developed horrific health anxiety – my parents’ response was to tell me I was ruining my mother’s life. Nobody seemed to notice there may have been something not quite right, so I stopped telling anyone. I lived in my head. I was terribly scared and horribly lonely.
I figured out very quickly that the only way to get attention and survive this thing called life was to be ‘a good girl’ and excel at school. So I did, And…drum roll…got a place at Oxford to study languages. This was greatly celebrated, mostly, it seems, because it made the school look good and because my American mother got to dress like Jackie Onassis, pillbox hat and all, at my graduation.
My Dad drove me over from Germany and left me alone in a room with my suitcases and a kettle and I have never felt so scared. I identified as ‘shy’ – I didn’t know what to do. Then the most pivotal moment in this part of my life happened. An older student knocked on my door and said a group of them were going to the pub – and I went. And I discovered the solution to all my problems. Beer. Beer made me sociable, extroverted, funny – boys talked to me. And so it began.
From that night on, there was not one single day that I didn’t drink for 10 years. I wasn’t the clever one anymore, so I became the drinker. Over the next 10 years, I qualified as a teacher (mostly because I had no idea what to do so I copied my parents), had a string of relationships where I was always dumped, and finally found a nice boy that I thought my parents would like and who wouldn’t reject me. I took him hostage, made him marry me and stopped drinking briefly while I had two babies. This was quite a feat since I didn’t really find him attractive, so I managed to only have sex twice – which meant I had babies and a husband and that was what ‘normal’ people did. On my wedding day, I was drunk before it started and snogged a woman in front of everyone at the reception. Not the greatest of starts. He is the kindest, gentlest man and eventually, when I got sober, I set him free.
Fast-forward a bit, my drinking ramped up, I was always the last to leave, I engaged in appalling and dangerous behaviour, had affairs, and eventually he threw me out. Before this – and this is raw reality – my life consisted of calling a taxi as soon as the off license opened, giving the driver a blank cheque, getting my vodka, fags and wine as agreed with the manager of the off license and sitting with the curtains shut drinking until I passed out. Even after having my children, although there was a brief spell of sobriety.
I will never forget the day it happened. I looked at the faces of my beautiful daughters, who were just 5 and 8, and walked away. I am not a bad person or a bad mother and I loved them dearly, but alcohol was in charge. I loved it more. I can only now talk about this without feeling sick because I understand I was ill. Sorry. I know it’s awful to read.
I then spent a week living in the Kingsway Hotel on Worthing seafront, drinking, puking, waiting in the dark to die, until they kicked me out and I slept on the beach. I spent time in ambulances, police cars, obsessed with getting myself sectioned. Anyone who knew this hotel will understand it is quite an achievement to get yourself thrown out. I was a teacher. A ‘good girl’.
Addiction does not discriminate.
So. I had reached the end of the road. Rock bottom. David had taken the girls and changed the locks. I had nowhere else to go, no depth left to reach – I was broken. On my knees. Picked up off the beach weighing 6 stone, covered in vomit, shit and urine. This is my truth.
My neighbour broke into the house for me, I called the doctor the next day and spent two weeks alone in detox with the small dog who is my saviour staying constantly by my side. Eventually I was well enough to stand rather than crawl and I called AA. I realise that the 12-Step fellowship approach is not for everyone, but I finally felt as if I belonged. It is a spiritual programme which has really very little to do with alcohol and everything to do with life – and, one day at a time, I have lived that life for nearly 9 years. I also believe in a holistic approach and my sobriety is enhance by all manner of influences. I have learnt gratitude and humility. I have two beautiful, wise young women who I am proud to call my daughters living with me.
I am aware that this is uncomfortable to read. I know that it is raw and real. But my message is one of hope. I was literally hopeless – without hope. If you have made it to the end of this, please know that there is always, always hope.
Today I live in the light. I wish that for all of you too.