I have a hard time with people who say, "you can't understand because you've never experienced it". But, how I came to live with an alcoholic remains a mystery and until you've been there, up close, trust me, you can't understand. I had no point of reference for it because alcoholism is a conversation killer and it's often the elephant in the room. In my case, she was a close friend, but I had absolutely no idea that's who she was until I moved in with her.
She held down a successful job as a freelance TV producer. We enjoyed socializing at the pub, ordering a bottle of wine with dinner. I didn't see it. But, after a few months I found a half bottle of vodka in the shoe basket. I brushed it off, until I found another under the sink, and one in her bedroom. Worried, I decided to confront her about what was clearly becoming a problem. At first, she denied anything was wrong and angrily accused me of over over-reacting.
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She said that an old back injury was responsible. She "drank to numb the pain" "to help her sleep". But it was a matter of days before her story changed.
She later said she'd put them there to be discovered - a cry for help - which she probably meant at the time, but it's more likely she'd stashed them in a drunken haze. She admitted to feeling depressed and said she'd been bingeing for years, drinking alone at home for days. So, as any responsible friend would, I turned to Google and searched "how to talk to someone with depression".
Armed with the right words I suggested that perhaps she was suffering from a condition she had inherited, that it wasn't her fault. I asked her to seek medical advice because it would be a shame for this to take over her life. She regularly forgot to pay the bills, which manifested in debt collectors chasing her for a spiralling amount.
She missed out on many social engagements with friends. Once, her colleagues reported her missing after she disappeared leaving her phone on the table in the pub – the police turned up at the flat the next day to ensure she was okay. She promised to get help and told her family about the depression. They lived in another city, which had allowed her to hide what was going on for so long. They immediately drove to London and pledged their emotional support.
The bottles began to appear again
I felt like I'd made a real breakthrough, helped a close friend in need. But then the bottles began to appear again and sure enough she'd stay in bed watching television for days while her parents bailed her out financially. I contacted her family about the drinking, hoping to get the same response as she did about the depression, and initially it was positive until one day I told them she was so drunk I'd found her in the park unable to tie her shoelaces.
They were too busy to drop everything again. Looking back, I think, they'd probably seen this pattern before. Now that her addiction had been exposed it got worse. She blamed me as a source of her anxiety because I wouldn't let it go. I desperately wanted to help my friend get on top of her life, because it was affecting mine. You may wonder why I didn't just tell her to leave, or even leave myself and find another flat? But to me that wouldn't be being a good friend.
It turned my reality upside down
When Sara* was sober she was the funniest, brightest person I knew. How could I enable a friend I cared about deeply to slowly kill herself? It turned my reality upside down. I was so stressed out that I started seeing a therapist myself who told me in no uncertain terms that I was "enabling an alcoholic". She said that by constantly cushioning her fall; paying the bills, making excuses for her to her friends and her job, that I was preventing her from reaching rock bottom, which is where she needed to go. I went to stay with family to consider my options.
I liked the flat and I didn't want to leave my friend who was in such a bad way. By now her family were living in denial because she was convincing when telling them she was seeking help. When I got back she hadn't left the flat for the week. She blamed me for running away when she needed me most. I took a hardline and issued an ultimatum. I told her I was going out and if she hadn't called alcoholics anonymous by the time I got back our friendship was over, and she did.
"Living with an alcoholic is sheer madness"
That's the day I thought I'd saved my friend, but then came yet another conversation with her family. They couldn't take the same hardline and before I knew it another binge came around. I reached out to mutual friends, some contacted her directly, but eventually that support fell silent. Desperate to talk to someone, I called a helpline and the man I spoke to said, "living with an alcoholic is sheer madness. The web of lies they create to protect their number one love, the booze, is utterly plausible."
He advised me to go to Al Anon, not to be confused with AA - its to help those living with alcoholics. So I went to a meeting. It was my last attempt to help her, to gain some insight and that's when I learned just how many lives are impacted by alcoholism. It was daunting. Al Anon, a support group that doesn't offer advice rather understanding, was where I came to accept that I couldn't save her. It's there that I listened to others in my situation and came to accept this.
My friend was a high-functioning alcoholic with plenty of enablers around her. In the end, I left the flat, telling her that unless she was willing to seek professional help I could no longer be around her. Since then, I have received a few irrational texts that didn't make sense, drunken texts most likely, so I can only assume she is still drinking. There is a pressing need to have a positive conversation about alcoholism in this country.
In New Zealand the Law Commission's 2010 review of alcohol laws found that "New Zealanders have been too tolerant of the risks associated with drinking to excess".
Generations have failed, creating a collective shame. It's either a bit of a laugh, or if someone's drinking turns into alcoholism it becomes a dirty stain on a family, instead of being something to educate children about. The front-line in this fight is young adults. Drinking and buying booze is a right of passage. Many don't know what constitutes alcoholism and by adulthood many of us we will have a friend who we think drinks too much. But how many know how to bring it up with them?
Whether it's a disease or a family habit passed on, it's only when younger generations become aware and are able to self-regulate their relationship with booze we will have made gains. Ask your friend is there a history in the family or how much they drink. It might prevent millions of habitual dependencies, which later in life, are much harder to break.
*some names and details have been changed
What can you do if you think your friend is drinking too much
If you think your friend has a problem, broach it by asking if there's a history in the family and how much they drink. They could write a drinking diary over a month to assess how much they drink.
Alternatively,you can also speak to your local GP or attend community-based groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. The important point is to reach out and ask for help because it is there.