A Behan much more famous than I am (although I am alive and working on it) … the late great Irish Playwright and social commentator Brendan Behan once described himself as “a drinker with a writing problem“.
Brendan Behan was such a talented man, a first class writer with a finely honed ability to commentate on matters social and political with a raw and razor-sharp wit. For anyone unfamiliar with the great man, you can wikipedia him here – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brendan_Behan. In his short 41 years on Earth, Brendan wrote prolifically – short stories, plays, poetry, novels … in both English and his native Irish tongue.
The statement was an apt one, sadly Brendan died prematurely from disease brought on by his primary disease – alcoholism. He developed diabetes and towards the end of his life, suffered from horrible seizures, eventually collapsing at the Harbour Lights bar, where he was transferred to the Meath Hospital in central Dublin, where he died. The world lost a great literary talent on that day.
My own battles with alcohol over-consumption (I am not quite ready to use the word “alcoholic” with the words “I am an” in front of it) have been waged for longer than most wars. I had my first “proper” alcoholic drink when I was in grade 7 and by the time I was in year 9 was taking vodka and orange juice to school with my lunch and binge drinking most weekends if I could. Alcohol became a way to numb the pain of life, which at that stage was lived with an abusive step-father (who drank Jack Daniel’s with a mean look in his eye which got meaner just before he was about to hit you), a mother who although still functioning then, was starting to drink in the morning before work to cope with the pain of choosing to subject herself and us to such abuse. <a
I have wanted to write about this subject for a long time, but as it is personal and painful I have been reluctant to, for fear that my friends will discover something dark and shameful about me and not like me anymore. Let alone what potential employers might think – especially in the legal world, which up until recently I was trying to carve out a career (and that is a whole story in itself – don't get me wrong, I love the law, and am grateful for the skills I have acquired, but not actually "being" a lawyer, but lacked the courage until now to change that).
Anyway, I am digressing, dodging the issue, dawdling … fighting the urge to trash this post before I get to the dark and dirty nitty gritty. My alcoholic tendencies (yes, that I will accept), were inherited from both of my parents. As I sat down to write this tonight, as another way of avoiding writing this post, I flicked over to Mamamia and read this amazing piece by Alice Nicholls: http://www.mamamia.com.au/social/alcoholic-legacy-of-alcoholism/. By the time I read it, and then re-read I had tears streaming down my face. the characters and setting were different, but the experiences and patterns that were set up by Alice’s alcoholic parents were the same as mine. Sadly, both of my parents died from their addictions – after my brother was killed at age 22, my Mum spent the last twenty plus years of her life as a virtual recluse in a haze of drugs and alcohol. As such, she missed out on a life with me, and my children, and they missed out on having an active engaged Grandma. Instead, she would call up at all hours of the day and night, in a rambling slurring mess saying all sorts of crazy shit. It made it very hard for me to love her, but I did. She chose to overdose in July last year on a toxic combination of goon wine, morphine and other pills. For those of you who don’t know “goon” is wine that comes in 5 litre boxes or casks, and it is truly terrible stuff. Mum would harangue her carers to bring it for her, or have it delivered. On the morning she was found dead in her bed, surrounded by empty pill bottles, by a carer, the house was littered with mugs (wine glasses were not ever big enough) of half drunk wine – there was even one on the toilet cistern. My heart broke some on that day, but I had long ago come to terms with the fact I could not save my Mum. For her, and me if I am truthful, her death was a release.
My beloved father was a high functioning alcoholic. He served over thirty years in the army, where he was regarded as a leader of men and women. It was only at his funeral that I actually found out just how well-regarded he was by his veteran colleagues. When he got out, him and my Step-mum bought a pub … and he was a very good publican. My Dad was a beer and rum man. I have had many blacked out nights drinking good old Bundaberg rum.
From both of my parents I got other gifts – from my Mum the love of reading (although sadly Mum’s brain atrophied to the point where she could not read novels as her short-term memory would not allow her to remember what she had read the night before) I have some lovely memories of lying in bed beside Mum, both of us reading our latest treasures from the library. I have loved libraries ever since I used to go to the old Toowoomba library and meander through the dark wooded shelves. For me, in the chaos that was my childhood, with a gravely ill with a kidney condition Autistic brother who was often hospitalised or attending medical appointments, my books were my sanity savers.
From my Dad, I received the gift of communication. My Dad was always MC-ing at functions and dining in nights while in the army, and in any social occasion, my Dad could command the floor with his wit, humour and knowledge about an enormous variety of topics. Nobody knew history and geography better than my Dad. That love he passed to me, and I have passed that gift onto all of my children. It is only recently that I am starting to really own that gift. I was always the girl who wanted to be a better singer, or dancer, or taller, or thinner or a better painter. I never realised what an amazing gift being able to communicate is. It is an amazing thing to be able to move people with words.
It was in March this year, on my 40th birthday of all days, my Dad passed away. He had been sick for a while, but as I had moved interstate a few years ago, I had not realised how sick he was as although we talked regularly on the phone, I had not seen him for a while. I had actually organised to take my kids back home in May to surprise him on his birthday. Instead, he surprised me on mine by dying. “Cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol abuse” was what the coroner put on his death certificate. On Mum’s it was “asphyxiation due to mixed drug toxicity”. Not nice things to read about your parents.
Anyway, the topic of this post is MY struggle with alcohol. Like Alice, I too come from a long line of successful alcoholics. Most of my friends who read this blog can tell a story about me being a drunky monkey at a party and having to be poured into a cab. Like me Dad, I am generally a hilarious, social and entertaining drunk, but I can also get mean, bitter and violent like my Mum. It is not something I am proud of, but in the enormous growing up I have done this past year, I also know that not owning it out of shame is not healthy either. And, it is mostly under control – I do manage to keep myself nice on most social occasions, although when I am bad, I am diabolically so. Thanks to my inability to drink wisely, I have sabotaged relationships, made terrible choices, been sexually assaulted and caused injury to myself. I have battled with depression and used alcohol (and other substances in my younger days) as a selfish self medication. Which of course, perpetuates the cycle of remorse, and ego driven depression. I have a friend who says his ego is a dream stealer. Well, mine is a nasty drunken bitch.
I did for many years, convince myself that I was not like my mother, because I would NEVER drink goon. Instead my poison would be much classier, and I would drink it out of a glass, with a stem, not a mug. But a drink is a drink and for some us, too many comes too often.
Some friends I don’t spend as much time with as they drink a lot, and even though I like them, I have learnt that I need to spend the majority of my time with people who have a healthy relationship with alcohol, or even no relationship at all. I have a beautiful friend who writes a great blog on here
http://myegoandme.com/2013/09/26/the-understanding-dishwasher-man/ who virtually does not drink, and I always have a blast hanging out with her. I have other friends with whom I love nothing more than to share a meal and a few glasses of nice wine. In wine glasses. With stems. From a bottle. In moderation.
In any event, the passing of both of my parents in the manner they did has without a doubt caused me to pause and reflect on the legacy they left me. And the legacy I will leave for my kids. I have raised three amazing kids – my son Harley is nearly 21 and lives in Japan following his dream of become a champion MMA fighter, my 17-year-old daughter Lily-Bliss has just about finished year 12 and is tossing up whether to be an electrician, graphic designer or anthropologist. She is smart enough to do all three if she wants, and she is only just starting to get that. My baby, the delightful forthright Miss Eden is 11 and already writes to politicians on issues which trouble her, like animal cruelty. Having raised them mostly as a single mother, with the help of the village of amazing friends I have, and certainly in the early years, my Dad – who was an awesome Granddad, I reckon I have given them gifts-a-plenty. They all have my courage, love of learning (ok perhaps sometimes not in the conventional school way), and they are all turning out to be kind and compassionate world citizens.
But I also need to acknowledge that I have, like my parents gave me, given them the darker gift of coming from to quote Alice Nicholls “a long line of successful alcoholics”. They have seen me in states, like I saw my parents in states. Thankfully, nowhere near as often, but still they have. They have forgiven me, and because we are open and honest in our family – we have a saying “We are the Behans”, which is kind of code for “we talk about things, we square up to them and own them” – they know that I am a work in progress and am still struggling to vanquish demons of my childhood. Thankfully, the older two are not drinkers, and my son has told me that this is because of what he has seen in our family. At 11, my youngest is yet to be exposed to it by peers, although I was only 12 when I had my first serious drink.
I guess by finally writing this piece, I am at a point where I am together enough and brave enough and willing enough to want to change a pre-ordained legacy. I have dealt with a lot of the grief and anger from my childhood, but each day I deal with just a little bit more. Every day, I learn to exercise more control over the nasty drunken bitch that is my ego. Every positive step I take towards self-belief and as such honouring myself by nurturing myself in more healthy ways is a brave step towards freedom. When I read Alice’s article, I got a little bit braver, and I had to tweet her to say thanks. Every day that I am braver with this struggle, I know that I create room in my world for other, better things, and opportunities to do what I am passionate about, which is communicate and write. I am creating a world where I am a writer … with a writing problem.