Monday 21 November 2016

A Personal Piece Following Alcohol Awareness Week | Challenging Secrets

I was moved to write this after reading Steve Topple’s informative and honest account of his experiences of alcoholism, and the lack of resources given to this area, written to coincide with Alcohol Awareness Week (14th – 20th November)

What follows is (part of) my story.

My husband John died in February 2010.  John was kind, clever and funny. He supported me, and others, practically, intellectually and emotionally. He had the most beautiful speaking and
singing voice. I miss him.

John had been a heavy drinker for many years before we became a couple. Members of his extended family knew this as did some of our, shared, work colleagues. In the early days of our relationship he drank a lot but not in a way that appeared to affect his working or home life too much: he never appeared drunk although slept a lot in the day when he had the chance. A couple of years on he was drinking more and I began to find bottles of vodka hidden around the house. In the autumn of 2000 whilst off work having been diagnosed with depression John had a fit. At the time we assumed this to be a bad reaction to tablets he had been prescribed but I feel sure this was the first of very many alcohol withdrawal fits. For a couple of years following this he had perhaps three/five fits a year – each time related to excessive drinking followed by alcohol withdrawal – and then many more; eventually one every 10/14 days. Following a year signed off sick he left full-time work altogether. Over the next seven years John was hospitalised approximately 20-25 times. At first I called the paramedics whenever he had a fit but soon I was less frightened by them and became at least as knowledgeable as the A and E staff in caring for him during and after such an episode. When I was worried enough to ask for help medical personnel were always kind to both of us but often did not seem to understand what was going on and usually sent him home far too soon (in my view) and rarely acknowledged my growing expertise. Sometimes fits happened when John was outside of the house on his own and the ambulance was called by a stranger. Sometimes he fell and hurt himself badly when drunk. Over the years John had at least five longish stays in hospital (over a week) and he had to have stitches in his head several times. Other physical, psychological and emotional consequences included poor sleep, poor appetite (when drinking), lack of interest in hobbies, disinterest in family, frequent nausea and sickness. I’m not sure if John felt suicidal but he often talked about not caring if he was alive or dead. He also had increasing difficulty with mobility and when drinking heavily at times could hardly walk. He often collapsed/passed out on the bed, in the chair or on the floor and once set fire to the bedroom carpet as he passed out whilst smoking. Luckily his youngest son (then in his 20s) was there at the time and able to put the fire out.

Over a number of years (from the end of the late 1990s to 2007) John was offered and took up several offers of support, including a three month stint in a treatment facility which offered daily support to addiction sufferers, a three month stay in a residential treatment centre and living at a ‘dry house’ for approximately two months. I am absolutely sure that none of this would have happened had it not been for me advocating on John’s behalf. He responded well to this sort of support, whilst it lasted, although he never stopped drinking completely. He went to AA once and came home drunk. Much of his distress and low self-esteem related to his Catholic upbringing and schooling and any support accompanied by any suggestion of religious faith was abhorrent to him.

In 2005/6 things hit rock bottom when John’s attention to personal care deteriorated and he began to look much older than his chronological age. He seemed quite happy for me, or anyone, to take over the responsibility of care of the self from him. In February 2007 he was hospitalised due to a fit in the street and although he usually (on admission to hospital) asked the staff to ring me this time he was too confused and ill to do so. I was working away and when I couldn’t get hold of him on the phone I rang the hospital. The misspelling of his family name on admission meant that my call received a negative response. I rang the police who contacted the mortuary before ringing the hospital again and correctly identifying him. This hospital stay was the catalyst for change. Appreciating the seriousness of the situation the ward sister advised me to stay away and to fight (from a distance so he wouldn't be sent home) for institutional care for John. This I did and he was subsequently sent to a facility that cared for people suffering from alcohol induced brain injury. A regime that included no alcohol, good food and some exercise showed that this was not the kind of support that John needed and after six weeks he moved to a residential rehab centre, where he stayed for three months, and then spent a year in a half-way house. Having been alcohol free for more than 18 months John was diagnosed with mouth cancer in September 2008 on his birthday. He bore the treatment well but the after-effects were hard and he was in a lot of pain. In the late summer of 2009 I went looking for and found a half bottle of vodka in his backpack. Things got worse and in February of the following year John died following a fall the result of, or resulting in, a bleed on the brain. Despite the cancer diagnosis and treatment and the hard emotional work that John was engaged in the two ‘dry’ years were mostly happy ones for us.

I always tried my hardest to support and care for John. I managed some of the time. Other times I felt very low and overburdened by the responsibility. Although I often appeared calm and matter of fact about the situation, I cried a lot  and sometimes I screamed (at John) in frustration and anger. In addition to becoming more carer than partner over the years I was distressed by the fact that throughout our relationship John lied to me about his drinking (and related issues e.g. surrounding money); on occasion telling me that he had not had a drink when he was obviously drunk or promising not to drink and then immediately doing so. Additionally I spent much of the time feeling frightened. NOT frightened OF John; he was never physically or sexually abusive to me whist drunk or sober and was always a passive (if sometimes a bit belligerent) rather than an aggressive drunk. But I was afraid of what I might be coming home to after a day’s work (John dead, John drunk in a chair, John collapsed on the floor, John missing, the house on fire); afraid of John and John’s behaviour embarrassing me in public with friends and strangers and/or afraid that John might fall on me as I helped him up the stairs to bed, afraid that John might break his latest promise to me; which more often than not he did. During all of this time I was supported by friends, John’s sons, and most significantly by my wonderful mum (who sadly died in 2012).  Over our 18 year relationship I was offered and took up a total of two hours of counselling.

Sociologists, of which I am one, argue that family secrets operate to enable families to create a story through which a family can appear more like the ideal or mythical family. Although alcohol misuse may be one family member’s ‘secret’ it is a secret, like many others, that affects all the family. Indeed, alcoholism, alcohol abuse/misuse is sometimes called a family disease.  There are a number of websites offering support to those suffering from or living with problematic alcohol use. Not surprisingly many of these focus on the negative aspects of secret keeping  (see for example For many years John denied that he had a problem and whilst I tried to convince him that his drinking was more than just a ‘habit’ I colluded in his secret keeping. Of course many people knew, including many of my Facebook and Twitter friends and acquaintances who may or may not read this. About four years before John’s death I began to disclose ‘our’ secret when asked about my husband’s illness and/or lack of a job. At first I was surprised by how many people responded by telling me of a friend, sister, father with a similar problem.  I believe very strongly that John’s and my story, Steve Topple’s story and other similar ones need to be told, rather than hidden, to highlight the vital need for support services for all concerned. 

When John died, and before I had time to contact her, I received an email from the manager of the half way house he staying in in 2007/8. When I asked her who had told her she said that someone at my university who had heard of John’s death knew of him through a support group (for alcohol misuse) they accessed. I do not know who this was; clearly someone else with a family secret. I hope that s/he and those who love and support them are doing ok. 

NB: I have previously written about these issues. An extended and slightly different version of this account forms part of a book that was published by a study group of my professional association:  Letherby, G. (2015) He, Himself and I: reflections on inter/connected lives. Durham: British Sociological Association 


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  2. Hi Gayle thank you for sharing this. It's clear and honest, and really allows me to get at least some sense of what is, as you say, still secret, still taboo. I wish you the wind at your back, love Judith x