Inheriting my mother's ruin: A destructive bond forged over alcohol

Inheriting my mother’s ruin: She was a child desperate for love – but grew up in the shadow of alcoholism. The result? A mutually destructive bond forged over the bottle, now laid bare in these darkly eloquent accounts

Dr Arabella Byrne, 37, is a freelance journalist who lives in Oxford. 

Her novelist mother, The Hon Julia Hamilton, 66, also lives in Oxfordshire. 

Here they talk about the alcoholism that has plagued their family.

Arabella:

Picture a scene. It is summer and my mother and I sit opposite one another in a Notting Hill restaurant. We’ve been here for some time but neither of us has ordered food. Wine, yes. Bottles of it.

The arc of our conversation has taken its usual course. After the initial exchanges we turn to the business of resentment: my simmering anger over her latest disastrous marriage; her rage at my inability to hold down a job; all is blame.

At some point, her face softens and we reconnect, laughing about something.

Dr Arabella Byrne, 37, is a freelance journalist who lives in Oxford and her family’s life has been plagued by alcoholism

Soon, neither of us will remember the evening at all and that is the way we like it. Instead of pouring petrol onto a naked flame, we pour Sauvignon Blanc onto our wounds and wince until it doesn’t hurt any more. Except it does hurt. It hurts enormously.

The next day there will be a hangover, and for many days after that, but there will also be the deep, visceral, hurt of addiction that does not go away with a can of Coke and a Nurofen.

This is the story of how my mother and I ended up in Alcoholics Anonymous, nine months apart, more than 12 years ago. It is not an easy story to tell. It is our shared history as a mother and daughter, certainly, but it is also the tale of older, more pronounced wounds in our family that have gone unnamed for decades, centuries, even.

Because if alcoholism is as genetic as eye colour or height, then my mother and I received the same chromosome.

That’s one way of looking at it; my mother gave me alcoholism. She gave me this darkness within myself.

But who passed it on to her? And what do we do to this tangled line of genealogical darkness once we identify the culprits; I have a daughter now — does it burn within her, too?

The first time I felt it I was 14, living at home with my mother in West London, a pupil at Francis Holland School in Central London.

My friend and I were waitressing at a dinner party at a neighbour’s house. We wore aprons and ate the smoked salmon in the kitchen while the sound of the adults drowned out our giggling.

Like all teenagers, we decided to drink the wine. I didn’t vomit or excessively embarrass myself, although I don’t remember how I got back home. More than anything, I fell in love.

Most teenagers would describe their first experiences of alcohol in romantic terms; we live in a society in which the first drink is a cultural rite of passage.

But my love for alcohol was something else, part of a deeper thirst — a thirst for love. How could I have known that this thirst was unquenchable?

I would spend the next 12 years trying to sate it before I gave in. I grew up watching my mother drink to excess. Beautiful, talented and troubled, she was rarely without a drink in her hand.

In early childhood, there were many times when my mother’s alcoholism set me apart from my friends. Pictured: Arabella as a child with her mother

Her life as a single parent was hard, money was tight, and drink became her sanctuary. How can I describe the persistent feeling that, even when she was present, my mother was absent? The nagging belief that something wasn’t quite right in our household?

In early childhood, there were many times when my mother’s alcoholism set me apart from my friends.

Some of these are mundane, the patchwork of any child’s embarrassment towards their parents: sports days when she forgot to bring a picnic, hours spent waiting for her to pick me up, always the last child to be collected from school.

Afternoons spent waiting for her to wake up, watching her stagger up the stairs before collapsing on the landing.

And so I developed a reluctance to have my friends over to my house, afraid of what they might witness.

Like many children of alcoholics, I became hypervigilant, constantly checking the emotional temperature of any situation. To this day, I still battle the urge to control the room, like a sentry never off duty.

For most children, living with an alcoholic parent becomes a terrible and unbearable secret. In adulthood, children of alcoholics often talk about how alone they feel. But they are the victims of a double bind: afraid to talk in case they reveal the secret, they remain alone, inadvertently strengthening the silence that has enshrined their lives for so long.

Most teenagers would describe their first experiences of alcohol in romantic terms; we live in a society in which the first drink is a cultural rite of passage

Did I know that my mother behaved as she did as a consequence of alcohol? It’s hard to say. Children are remarkably perceptive, their instincts not yet blunted by life’s realities.

Certain objects and scenarios became loaded, the frightening triggers to drama.

The sharp smell of cigarette smoke from downstairs after bedtime, the sound of the telephone being slammed down onto the receiver, or the unmistakable smash of a wine glass as it hit the kitchen floor.

Once, emerging from my bedroom late at night, I came down to find my mother standing with a kitchen knife in her hands. Many years later, listening to her in an AA meeting, I discovered she had intended to kill herself that night, and probably would have done so had I not interrupted her.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. As so often happens, the story spools out before me of its own accord, the memories crashing down like waves on a beach. Maybe because of my own alcoholism, the memories are out of order and difficult to arrange.

But there is much about addiction that is predictable and orderly, and my mother and I were no different.

By the time I was 15, the pilot light of addiction had been lit within me. Alcohol was easy to get my hands on and I drank my mother’s wine and gin in increasingly large amounts.

I became an expert at subterfuge — or so I thought — filling the gin bottle with water to hide the shortfall, switching bottles of wine about in the fridge. I needn’t have bothered, because my mother certainly didn’t notice.

Sensing that she would be an ally, not a foe, I decided to keep her company. As it turned out, we made a good team; she would buy the wine and I would keep her company, shielding her from her demons.

Welding pain and alcohol together seemed to work. Soon, my drinking became difficult to hide. Previously a diligent pupil, my studies suffered as I would struggle to stay awake in morning classes.

Kindly teachers gently asked what might be wrong. But the same answer always came back: ‘I’m just tired’.

And life was tiring. I drank with my mother in the evenings, settling into a narrative of life I had seen modelled for me: drinking and depression.

The first time I felt it I was 14, living at home with my mother in West London, a pupil at Francis Holland School (pictured) in Central London

Like weeds, they wreathe themselves around each other until it becomes impossible to tell which is which. Do you drink because you are depressed or the other way around? My mother certainly couldn’t give me any answers.

I could list the instances in my late adolescence and early 20s when alcohol compromised me, but it would take too long.

Amazingly, from a bedrock of domestic dysfunction, I made it to university. As most of my peers were just discovering alcohol, my drinking had moved into a darker dimension, one full of depressive hysteria and paranoia.

Although I partied with the best of them, my nights often ended in my room, alone, with a razor blade and a bottle.

Friends backed away, terrified by what they saw. Desperate for something, anything, else to define me, I threw myself into my work. When I graduated with a First, I saw it as a licence to carry on the way I had been doing.

After university, the consequences of my addiction rained down upon me: job losses, inability to keep relationships, financial insecurity, profound depression that ended in a mental health unit.

By the age of 24 I knew I was suffering, but with what I did not know. I believe some part of this blind spot was due to the environment in which I grew up. Drinking, depression, hysteria — these were all things I had seen from a young age, abnormal situations that had become perversely normalised.

I could list the instances in my late adolescence and early 20s when alcohol compromised me, but it would take too long

Children mimic their parents, their mothers especially; so was my drinking a distorted part of this mimicry?

Yes and no. In AA, I have learnt not to ask too many questions.

Aged 25, I returned home to live with my mother. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, my life took on the shape of permanent convalescence. I slept all day and drank in the evenings. In the body of a young woman lived an old and frightened figure.

As her third marriage was breaking down, my mother and I resumed our old dance: drinking together, both of us afraid. After nearly a year of this peculiar kind of self-sabotage, my mother began to make repeated attempts at sobriety. She needed to, had to, she told me. I watched these episodes with a sense of betrayal.

On the third attempt, aged 53, she managed it. Suddenly, her life was a whirl of AA meetings and phone calls with strange people.

The unfamiliar sound of her laughter drifted downstairs to the kitchen where I was drinking.

I mocked her cruelly. Who was this woman? And why had she left me — again?

A seed had been planted in my head even if I was unaware of it through the fog of my horrific hangovers. As I was heading out of the door on what turned out to be my last night of drinking, I remember her telling me to go slow, to take it easy.

I slammed the door in her face and walked out into the night.

When I woke up, having been escorted home in an ambulance, I went to her. ‘I’m an alcoholic,’ I choked through my tears.

To my surprise, she didn’t greet this confession with joy. She didn’t want me in her new world, it turned out. This new world was hers and she wanted to protect it, not invite in a dangerous figure who might threaten it.

Luckily, the new world wanted me. I went to my first AA meeting that day without telling her.

After the initial shock of sharing recovery with her child had subsided, we went to meetings together often, and became known as a double-act, proof that families can heal.

Occasionally, we met other parent-child duos, our uneven pasts forming a symmetry with people we had never met. If I struggle to articulate this feeling, it’s because there is no other like it.

Picture another scene. My mother and I are sitting in an AA meeting in West London. As a hush descends on the room, I clear my throat and start to tell the story of my addiction. Occasionally, I catch my mother’s eye and see her nodding in encouragement. At some point, I realise I am crying.

My mother does not rush to comfort me, but looks on as a fellow addict — her role as a mother behind this bond that now shapes our life. And that is how it is now. We are alcoholics first, mother and daughter second.

Sometimes we get the roles in the wrong order and slip back into old habits. Most of the time we remember who we are. But our story doesn’t end here; in fact, it’s just beginning.

Julia:

Alcoholism is a family illness, so they say, and this genetically inherited illness has shaped the course of my entire life.

I didn’t know my paternal grandfather had died of alcoholism until I’d stopped drinking myself. There was so much secrecy — and ignorance — about it in previous generations. I drank heavily from my late teens to numb my painful feelings of insecurity and fear during the prolonged and painful collapse of my parents’ marriage.

Although I didn’t drink when I was pregnant with Arabella, I soon took up where I’d left off.

Alcoholism is a progressive illness, and mine was progressing at speed. I was a single mother by the time I was 30, short of cash, forging a difficult career as a writer, and drinking my head off.

Addiction and motherhood are desperate bedfellows. I look back and feel profound guilt for the way I failed my children.

Finally, utterly desperate, I got sober at 53. Nine months later, Arabella said she was an alcoholic.

Fast forward a dozen years: we now form a sober unit within the family and I occasionally wonder if this will alter the curse of booze in our family DNA.

I see Arabella modelling sober motherhood and I sometimes feel a stab of envy. How I wish I could have done it like she does.

Nevertheless, for me, sober motherhood and, now, grandmotherhood, is the pearl beyond price.

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