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Saturday, 27 May 2017
When mum or dad is an alcoholic
One in five children in the UK are said to be negatively affected by their parents' drinking, and the effects can last well into adulthood. Four women - Karen, Liz, Hilary and Lynne - spoke to Jo Morris about growing up with a parent dependent on alcohol.
"Some people talk about what books they've read, or films they've been to see, but instead we talk about how drunk our parents were," says Karen.
Karen and her friend Liz met at work in their late 20s and quickly bonded when they realised they had a shared history.
"It's not the same talking to somebody who doesn't know what it's like," says Liz.
Gallows humour helps to deal with the horrible memories. Like the time Liz's mum sold her toys to get money for alcohol. Or the time Karen's alcoholic dad went to the pub instead of collecting her from after-school club.
"It's a bit like Top Trumps - alcoholic-parent Top Trumps," Karen laughs.
They both remember dreading the walk home from school.
"It's so disheartening," says Karen. "You think: 'OK, I've had a nice break at school, but here we go again. I'm going to be really polite and be really nice, make sure that I don't say anything out of turn or give you any reason to have a go at me.'"
It was only when Liz was eight or nine that she noticed her friends did not have any such concerns and lived very different lives.
"I thought: 'Oh, you have your dinner cooked for you? I don't even have dinner.'
"That's when you realise it's horrendous and you feel very alone going through it."
Once, her mum spent all her benefit money on alcohol, and all she could afford was a sack of potatoes.
"Potato weekend!" Liz laughs. "We literally had potatoes to live on for the weekend. So we had mashed potato, potato cakes, chips wrapped up in newspaper - she was very resourceful."
Food - or the lack of it - is a common theme.
Hilary, 55, grew up in an upper-middle class family in Sunderland, with a respected surgeon as a father. The family kept up appearances - but her mother drank.
"I can remember being at school, and a girl in my form opening up her lunch and saying: 'Oh my sandwiches haven't been buttered to the edge.' It was like Planet Zorg compared to my life," she remembers.
No-one was making sandwiches for Hilary. In fact it was left to her to look after her younger brother - putting him to bed, getting him ready for school, making sure he was fed.
Her mum's drinking started out with a glass of wine "while cooking" but soon escalated to a bottle of vodka a day.
"She was hiding bottles, they were all over the place - in her shoeboxes, you'd find glasses of neat vodka behind curtains and if you put the oven on you checked there wasn't a bottle hidden in there.
Watching her elegant and educated mother fade away was very painful.
"You couldn't hold a conversation with her because she was drunk," Hilary says. "It was like she wasn't there really - she went from being very present to becoming a ghost."
Liz's mother had been a model, but after she began to drink she never quite knew where to put on her make-up. "She looked like Aunt Sally from Worzel Gummidge," she says.
Liz's own life began to spin out of control, as a result of neglect. By the age of 15, Liz had become involved in an abusive relationship, and was put into foster care. It was thanks to her friends that she survived, she says.
"I've been good at choosing good friends who helped me through it, friends who weren't into drugs and drinking."
Then, when she saw her friends go to university she decided she would, too - the only child in Surrey social services at the time who did. "I definitely deserve a prize for that," she says.