For the Commission on Alcohol Harm, 2020
In September 2020, the Commission on Alcohol Harm launched their report ‘It’s everywhere’ – alcohol’s public face and private harm: The report of the Commission on Alcohol Harm (2020).
This independent Commission was established to examine the current evidence on alcohol harm, recent trends in alcohol harm and the changes needed to reduce harm caused by alcohol. The Commission’s remit was also to examine the need for a new comprehensive alcohol strategy for England, which takes account of the strategies in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and to consider UK-wide priorities in areas where policy is not devolved.
Three family members shared their in-depth Family Stories with Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs for the Commission, in response to their call for written evidence. We submitted these separately in their own right as evidence from individual family members. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak prevented two additional Scottish family members from presenting oral evidence to the Commission in March 2020. At the Commission’s launch event for the report on 16 September 2020, our media volunteer Beverly bravely shared her own Family Story with all attendees.
Following the publication of ‘It’s Everywhere’ by the Commission on Alcohol Harm, we are now sharing these Family Stories in full, with the permission of the family members involved.
In launching the Commission’s report, members noted the powerful impact of all family members’ testimony in informing their recommendations, including both children and adult family members.
All names and identifying information have been changed to protect the identity of the families involved, with the exception of Beverly’s story which is in her own name.
(A) ANNA’S STORY
‘Anna’ is being supported by Scottish Families in relation to her husband ‘David’.
The following is an attempt to explain the worry, anxiety, fear, sympathy etc. that I have been feeling for many years, because of David’s addiction, and the reasons why recently (in the last year or two) it has got worse because of his behaviour. He has no life, spends his days and nights on a filthy couch covered with a filthy duvet, only gets up to go to the toilet or occasionally to make himself a sandwich or fry something (which is terrifying in itself, as he has the gas up maximum). He has periods of not even going to the toilet which means he must be relieving himself in bottles or other empty vessels lying about. I offer him food and drink as I am concerned that he eats at least something decent every so often. He will eat half of what is on the plate, refuse to let me take the plate away and it, along with many others before it, gets slowly buried in the mountain of newspapers, empty cans, boxes and all manner of other debris that he is accumulating around him. A few months ago when the weather was warmer, there was another plague of fruit flies in the house.
The first was a couple of years ago when I went away for a few days with my daughter. I came home to them everywhere – breeding in the half empty cans of beer and rotting fruit that he had left lying about. On both occasions it has taken weeks to get rid of them and my stress levels have gone through the roof. I feel my house is dirty and infested and David is completely oblivious and totally unapologetic. Our house is now pretty much divided in two – he has the living room and the small bedroom, which is stacked so high with bags of empty cans and bottles, and more of the same debris that half fills the living room, that it is now almost impossible to open the door. The electricity meter and junction box is in this room and while the embarrassment of trying to force the door open to let electricity company staff in to read the meter is bad enough – if a fuse tripped, or worse still a fire started in there, we would be in serious danger. And the very real likelihood of fires starting is my biggest fear, that keeps me awake at night and strikes terror in my heart nearly every time I turn the corner on my way home, and my house comes into view. One day I’m going to be greeted by fire engines and ambulances.
David has progressed into a sort of binge drinker. Since the new year he has been pretty much sober – only drinking cans of beer, which I will buy him (maximum 4) along with his cigarettes and paper, as I know he needs to have some alcohol in his system. He struggles to walk far and going out is a huge effort for him, so rightly or wrongly, I help him. During this time he has had two periods of severe drunkenness when he has obviously forced himself to go out, and has bought vodka/wine, whatever it takes to get him very drunk and in a kind of stupor, where he rambles on and on about stuff in the past, and is very aggressive and threatening to me if I try and do or say something he doesn’t agree with. This is when my fear of him falling over all the rubbish and hurting himself badly, and, of course, starting a fire – is at its worst. He sits in a half-lying, half-sitting position appearing to be falling asleep, with a burning down cigarette in his hand. I look at him and I think it really is only a matter of time before something terrible happens. Over the last couple of days, when he has been very drunk, he has taken to lighting his cigarettes with a kitchen blow torch. He obviously cannot find any lighters under all the debris beside him. I managed to get the blow torch away from him this morning, and also took all candle lighters, matches etc. I could find, out of the house. A knee-jerk reaction, I know – but I am now getting to the end of my rope I think. I offered to go out, there and then, and buy him a cigarette lighter, but he is impossible to reason with when he is as drunk as that, and he refused. I was leaving for work and didn’t have time to argue with him.
The above is just a fraction of my feelings, worries and fears – for myself, and also for David. He needs help, although he doesn’t think he does – and I need help, to try and get him to see and take notice of the fact that he cannot go on living like this. His alcohol addiction has, sadly, become something only he can address – and if he lived on his own, then it may be a different matter and only his business, although the dangers would all still be there of course. But he doesn’t live on his own – he shares a house with me, and in that respect I surely have a right to not live in constant fear of the danger his behaviour is causing. I am absolutely NOT moving out. It is my home; I have done nothing wrong and it should never be presented as an option – or the only option. There must be something that can be done or said in an official capacity, by some body or organisation or other, that will mean David has to start living like a normal human being and not in a way that causes great danger, stress and anxiety to me, danger to our neighbours and, not least, danger to himself. Vulnerable person or not – HE should be the one that the onus is on to change, or take the consequences – of which there surely has to be some.
(B) JENNY’S STORY
‘Jenny’ has been supported by Scottish Families (SFAD) in relation to her partner. Gill is the staff member who has been working with her.
The SFAD service has been a life changer for me. Before I engaged with you Gill, I thought the best way forward for us as a family was for me to deny my needs until the kids were old enough to leave school and then I could get out of the relationship. I knew that staying I’d just be putting up with the relationship, the co-dependency, the failings, the arguments, the cycle of him drinking and us arguing and not speaking and then finding a way through but none of us happy. And the impact on the kids. And my just sinking each time, unhappy, just having dreams of being free from this man and his family. After the last holiday, where he completely stopped trying to hide his drinking issue and just went ahead without any thought or care for me or the kids, I knew I had to do something, get some support. I asked at the Carers Centre for advice on where to go. They pointed me to you.
Your support, gentle encouragement, listening, helping me realise that actually his drinking wasn’t my issue, wasn’t me being ‘bad’ and all my problem for not accepting it. That I needed to stop coming from a point of ignoring and minimising my needs, but to come to a point of putting my needs on equal footing to others in the family. I didn’t think it would be possible. He took away my belief that I could survive with the children without him, he took away my belief that I could manage even with my challenging special needs child. Of course, I can do anything I know that. But that had slowly been eroded. Over time, he disempowered me and you helped me realise I just needed to take back the power, take back the control and that there was support around me to be able to put my needs back on track. The SFAD service readdressed the balance I had needed. He had coerced me into thinking I was faulty for not accepting his need to drink. I can see all that now. You helped me with all the confusion I had. I’m no longer confused.
I miss him, part of him, or is it being in a couple. But I don’t miss his drinking, or his wanting to be drunk. I don’t miss the fear I had of going out with him, and eventually the not going out because the anxiety of going out with him was greater than the desire to go out. I’ve been out lots of times since. The support and friendship all around is amazing, I realised I have been missing out on life, on friendships, on living, on happiness. Some wobbles like when booking the holiday to Lanzarote. I so want him to come and have the happy family time. But it can’t be because the stress and temptation of cheap beer is all around. And if not for my anxiety of him just turning to drink, it’ll be a stressful time for [Daughter] as she’d be so anxious too about him turning to drink. So we’re going without him! Friends are travelling the same time and booked the hotel next door. We’re so looking forward to the break. It’ll be a year since I realised things had to change. It’ll be hard the first holiday to Lanzarote without him as that was always our main holiday as a family, that we’ve (usually) loved for over 6 years. It’s what we look forward to every year. And this year, it’s about doing it differently and the kids are now seeing mum having fun, happy, smiling, being herself again, playing. I’ve never seen the kids bond like they have as well since we made the move. They are more caring, more kind, we are like a family unit – a loving caring family unit. The three amigos. And we are so happy for much of the time. [Son] is learning to accept the move but I think we have a long way to go. He misses not his dad, but the old house. He doesn’t like change. He wants to be back at the old house and he tries to make our life difficult because of it at times. But over time, hopefully, he’ll accept the change.
I dared not dream of being in this place. I didn’t want to be a single mum – but that doesn’t mean to say I will be forever. But I dared not dream that we could be actually this sorted, this happy, this content and without all the pressure of living with a man who’s life revolves around his own selfish need to drink. I’m hoping one day he will wake up and smell the coffee. But if he doesn’t then it’s not my problem anymore. I can’t keep holding back my needs so he can drink himself to an early grave, or wait for him to have the desire to explore with professionals his drinking relationship.
You helped me realise this. You gently and kindly helped me see it wasn’t my fault. That I was actually being too reasonable, not unreasonable as he had always suggested. The support from friends more so has been immense. And many many new trips to reacquaint myself with long friends I’ve barely seen continues. I’ve just reconnected, for example, with my friend [from overseas] after 35 years! Me and some friends are hoping to travel there at some point in the future.
Thank you Gill and SFAD for getting me out of the toxic relationship fuelled by alcohol. Thank you Gill for helping me see. Thank you Gill for giving me myself back, my laughter and smile back. And my children back. We have so much fun and laughter, and feel a bond now like no other. My skewed sense of loyalty, my sense of commitment and wanting so much to not allow my kids be from a broken home was driving my needs down, my own self-care and self-belief down.
(C) CATHERINE’S STORY
‘Catherine’ is being supported by Scottish Families in relation to her partner ‘Michael’.
At the start of 2019, I knew I was in a crisis but I was doing what a lot of people do, putting on a brave face and making all the right noises that everything was ‘fine’. However as the year started to unfold I wasn’t able to hide behind this mask for very long.
I will never be quite sure when it started but 2018 wasn’t a really a good year either, as the cracks were really beginning to show. My first memory of things not being quite right were after I had been away on a work trip. They were only small and ever so subtle, a shard of broken glass in an unusual place, a slight smear of blood on the bathroom wall. Just enough to catch my attention but small enough to ignore. I was forging ahead with my work plans so I didn’t really want to ‘see’ it. My husband had lost his mum to cancer 3/4 years previous – as I said the timeline of this is hazy because sometimes things were just so normal.
Michael, when I think back started to dwell on things that most of us are sad about, or upset about, or mad about for a shorter time. Deaths of people we knew, or of animals on the farm, hung with him for weeks. He was reclusive and looking back, like a slowed down version of himself at times.
2018 I started aiming higher than I had ever done before, taking more and more risks work-wise in what initially felt like an attempt to get both of us to a new space and time and then, as I began to watch with horror what was unfolding, I knew I would need a plan for me to make it on my own.
I became more frenzied in my approach as my days and nights became more confused – ‘had he been drinking?’ ‘Was he drunk’ I could never figure it out and began to doubt my instincts when he repeatedly made me feel that it was me that had it all wrong and that I was worrying without reason. We started to keep a distance from each other. We both worked long hours so that was neither unusual or a problem until it was.
On the very last days of 2018, we lost our dog, and I think when looking back this was grief on top of unresolved grief for Michael and anger on top of anger for me. By now, living together but in parallel universes of distrust, shame, fear and despair.
I again can’t remember the exact dates or even months but I realised that my instincts were more than correct and my husband was an alcoholic. So I began to really hunt for the clues and confront him. Which shamed him more. He ended up in hospital having very narrowly avoided death and I took him to the doctor shortly after this.
We were both putting on the brave face for the public, although I realised I had pretty much been in hiding and excluded myself from everything and anything social for about a year or more already.
Promises and plans were made at hospital and appointments. But by this stage, it was so serious and out of control that it was a little too late. The NHS service was at best poor. The doctors and nurses, everyone we spoke to and worked, with were great but the actual support and consistency of appointments were not there, along with Michael’s inability to cope with what was happening to him and the family around him.
He was very resistant to change as he had work and commitments to keep up. He was worked up about me financially (the impact on my business was very telling) and his dad’s health. Which, again, was part of the vicious cycle.
At one of the hospital appointments I took him to, to try to force some progress (I spent two years of trying to force things to be better, force things to come right – it was exhausting) I told the doctor that we desperately needed help and now, right now as Michael was consistently drink driving.
She looked at me and told me that under no circumstance was he to be allowed to do this. I have never felt more alone in my whole life. I had taken this car keys away on numerous occasions. I had kept his wallet so he had no access to money for an entire month. Nothing worked. It was like child-minding an adult size toddler with no understanding of the seriousness of his actions. My brain was frazzled and the burden kept being passed back by the professionals who I had turned to help for.
In short, what followed was –
- Doctors’ appointments
- I left to stay at home with my parents – in a bid to get him to ‘see’ and to ‘help himself’
- Further drink driving
- I told him it was over and that I wanted a divorce – in a last-ditch attempt to get him to ‘see’ and help himself’
- Further hospital admittance
- Caught drink driving and taken into custody
- Banned from driving, car seized. His lawyer got him a lighter sentence by assuring the court that his client had the problem under control and it was due to grief and personal circumstance – not alcohol addiction.
Every day for the first 9 months of the year I would get up and think of ways I could fix it, ways that I could help even when I didn’t live with Michael. I switched between this and waiting for a call to say that Michael had died or that he had accidentally killed someone else. This constant worrying ate away at me.
I would endlessly go through the reasons of why this happened. Could I have stopped it sooner? Endlessly berating myself for the things I had done wrong. Being sure I was a bad wife. And sure that the local community were also blaming me.
It was at this point I realised I had to start helping myself. I was pretty much broken by October – all my plans to fix Michael and to fix my ailing business were not working because I was mentally and physically exhausted. This point was proven when I collapsed while helping out at a local fireworks night and then, two days after, I spun my van and very narrowly avoided an accident. I realised I needed to start seeking help for myself. I was, at best, exhausted and I can only talk about this now, but I was very close to suicidal.
I went to the doctor and explained my circumstances. She was so kind but her words smarted —‘we see this all the time with families affected by addiction’.
(D) BEVERLY’S STORY
Beverly is a media volunteer with Scottish Families.
I was pleased when I read through the report [It’s everywhere] to see there was such a strong focus on the harm that alcohol can do to families and loved ones. As someone who grew up with an alcoholic parent, many of the personal stories included in the report were familiar to me.
I grew up in a small village in the 80s and in those days, people didn’t really talk about alcoholism or mental health issues. This was before you could search on Google for support services and before celebrities were sharing their stories of addiction on Instagram. My family didn’t talk about my dad’s drinking and I spent a lot of time worrying that my friends would find out. I would avoid inviting friends home because I was never sure what to expect. There was and still is a great sense of shame around this topic. Even though drinking is such a major part of our culture in the UK, with getting falling down drunk almost treated as a rite of passage or a badge of honour, people who can’t control their drinking are seen as bad or weak. The stigma around harmful drinking was so great for me that I didn’t actually talk to anyone outside my family about my dad’s drinking until I was in my 30s. That’s a long time to keep a secret and it’s obviously quite damaging psychologically.
My dad’s drinking impacted us financially – he was self-employed and sometimes wasn’t able to work. It also made family life unpredictable and unstable, we were constantly checking my dad for signs that he had been drinking. The harm done to families doesn’t stop magically when the drinking stops – my dad only stopped drinking following a medical and mental health crisis which led to him being hospitalised. But even after he stopped, I would constantly be on guard, checking for signs that he had started again. That anxiety and hyper vigilance is hard to shake off and it’s hard to build back the trust once its lost. When I was growing up, I never understood why my dad was drinking. I thought he could just stop if he really wanted to, take the hint when he discovered we’d poured away the vodka he hid in the washing machine. It wasn’t until I was older and started doing volunteer work with people who had a history of harmful drinking that I began to understand my dad was probably drinking to self-medicate for depression. One reason I feel it’s important for families to be involved in the recovery process is so they can understand why their loved one is drinking. Once I had that understanding, I was able to forgive my dad and let go a lot of anger that I had.
Looking back now at my experience I think addressing the stigma around harmful drinking is really important so that people, including families, feel more comfortable seeking help as early as possible to avoid the long term impact harmful drinking can have. Educating the public on the reasons why people might be drinking too much is also vital. When I was growing up, I thought my family was an exception, but now I realise that there are thousands of other families out there like mine and they can and should be a valuable part of any policy to address the harm that alcohol can cause.
Justina Murray, CEO, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs
Tel 0141 465 7523
Mob 0790 428 0669