Stronger In The Broken Places
Blogger: Mark A
Nearly two years on, the memories come back faltering and heavy – and out of place. Ghosts still swirl in my head, but they don’t have the power they did. I can’t remember when we really came to understand that my brother’s drink problem was indeed alcoholism, and severe. It was a sort of ever-encroaching thing, the pattern repeating itself over and over again.
The thing was: we didn’t really know what to do, or what was really going on. Who does in a situation like that?
We made the same mistakes over and over again – the cajoling, the threats, the fighting, the clearing up of any problems, his flat, the giving him money etcetera. Getting caught up in that dire maelstrom of drama and fear, and all that came with it. And many times the thought and the thinking were much worse than what was actually going on. And sometimes they weren’t.
….. And, in retrospect, this is what we should not have been doing. We were, in fact , enabling him, unbeknowingly to us. But it is a hard call. He was his mother’s son, me and my sister’s brother, of our blood. There were just us. Friends helped. And in the same turn didn’t. Neighbours thought they were helping but weren’t (falling victim to his requests for money).
A young man, without a father since he was14, in a young man’s world of pubs and clubs and work. Some of his friends found his behaviour funny, some drank with him, took various drugs with him. In two out of his three proper relationships, the then-girlfriend actively drank with him.
His drinking really started when he went out to Spain to comfort a recently bereaved ‘friend’ of my mother. We all thought it a good idea at the time. But her being left with a large bank account, already with a hidden drink problem, and the laissez faire attitude of sunny ex-pat Spain was a recipe for disaster. She once said, some time before, ‘My mother used to put whiskey in my milk when I was a child’. It’s not so different to addicts today putting methadone or what have you into their children’s drinks as sedation. Situations need to be looked at closely and from all different angles. I believe now she was somewhat pressurised into embarking on this self destructive relationship of theirs. She was much older and should have known better.
I remember once looking from the balcony of the apartment one night, watching the antics of the drunken British, mindless with drink. One middle-aged man had lost a shoe. I remember the locals being sickened at the behaviour, my small Spanish vocabulary picking up snippets of their conversations. If only we knew how much they despised us.
I always knew in the back of my mind why my brother was like he was. It stemmed from the suicide of my father when he was 14 and I was 19. My sister was much younger. My father initially had a very strong attachment to this funny little boy who was my brother, cute as a button – he had even been a child model. But something was wrong, in my father’s childhood, the sexual abuse he suffered when evacuated in the Second World War, his mother dying early, his tyrannical step-mum (who was originally the help). The sexual abuse of the evacuees in this war is another as-yet undocumented horror committed against the children of this country. The rates of young addicts and alcoholics who were abused as youngsters are phenomenal. And they in turn end up in our overcrowded prisons.
My father, a journalist, had a drink problem, too. Fleet street was known for that then. So on my brother’s 14th birthday, five days before Christmas, he left. What was he doing leaving on that day of all days? Who was he trying to repay? I say left, it was a mutual thing; my mum had given up on his infidelity for the very last time. He regretted that parting till the day he died. They had grown irrevocably apart, as people sadly do. Eddy always said his father had died on a building site. Much more macho than gassing yourself to death in front of the fire with a carrier bag on your head and a length of shower tubing. When the young policeman at Notting Hill Gate station passed the shower tubing back to me, I hadn’t a clue what it was or what it meant. That day I realised the work that’s involved in being in the police, and saw them as much more human.
In my late 20s, unhappy in myself, I went to live in Wales among some animator friends. I’d gotten involved with weed in my teens, which never did me any good at all. I was a bit of a wreck, out of myself with fear, delusion and hatred. Many of the members of my streetwise and fashionable peer group got heavily involved in the drug of the time, heroin. I thank them now for not involving me. There were three related deaths, prison for some, physical disintegration, violence and paranoia for those involved. Another close friend has been a junkie for over 20 years, and she is picking up the pieces. Last year we buried a charismatic, highly intelligent friend from back then as a direct result of his heroin addiction. He left a 13-year old daughter behind who wept at his funeral. The flowers spelled out Whoosh.
My brother’s alcoholism came in waves. The change between the jovial character that many people loved into this snot-covered monster became more and more different. But he could just not totally knock it on the head – and when he was bad he was diabolical, violent and aggressive, totally self negating.
When I was away in Wales and then at University in Bournemouth, I had a feeling that his behaviour got worse. My mother and sister kept it from me so I could ‘get on’. When I was home, the threat of a bigger, stronger and even grumpier brother might have been a small deterrent (perhaps). I do remember happy times. In many ways, my sister and his childhoods were idyllic, with country holidays and our mother’s strong and caring presence. I was told that we were a charming family. In many ways, we were.
Later on, there were the constant arguments about his drinking, and I look back ashamed at the way I dealt with it all. Personal abuse and aggression against somebody suffering from whatever addiction it might be is ugly – and it doesn’t work in any way whatsoever.
He largely forgot about the threats and abuse and intimidation I piled upon him. And I wasn’t always like that; I was just trying to get him to stop from destroying himself and those around him. I looked out for him more than most people would. At the end of his life, I went the rounds of hospitals, doctors and police with him. Even at that dire stage, I filled his cupboards with food from Waitrose and was constantly checking on him in his drunken states.
It is amazing what families in these situations regard as normal. I sat with him for hours, watching his DVDs of Star Trek that seemed to go on forever. Him comatose on his sofa, me chatting to him as if he understood anything I was saying. I didn’t know how to change the channel, and he was too out of it to do so. At the start of his final binge, I said to him ‘I hope this is not going to end disastrously’. He said it wouldn’t, of course it wouldn’t. But it did. It wasn’t as if he just drank peaceably at home. His whole demeanour changed, things started to get dark and strange. We started to set boundaries eventually and when he drank at the house one further time he was asked to leave the family home. I remember the pensive, sad look on his face the day we helped him move down the road. I think he’d probably had a drink then.
With drink you get drugs and pubs, desperately out-of-control people, people who take advantage, fights and accidents, sexual misconduct, tears, fires and misery, the breakdown of physical and mental health, and the total disintegration of family and social life. I remember him drunkenly driving both his motorbike and car to buy more drink, driving high as a kite to get more rocks. He once knocked someone down and drove off, soon to be stopped by someone making a citizen’s arrest. He wasn’t in any state to put up a struggle. He once came off his bike and smashed up his leg, spending weeks in hospital and nearly dying. The huge wound on his leg used to fill with the most evil-smelling God knows what. He looked afterwards like he’d been chomped on by a shark.
Drunk, he was beaten up. Threatened by everyone from the pub nutter to people outside AA meetings with dogs on a string. His mobile phone was stolen or lost, money as well. When he was drunk, he took a pile of tablets, the ambulance men who came to pick him up treating him like a sack of potatoes, disdain emanating from them. I went up to his flat once and his sofa was smouldering around him where he slept. He stole money from everywhere and goods from allover, and had all sorts of manipulative tricks to get what he wanted, which he normally did. The fact that you can take out several different credit cards ai
ded him in all this. He died owing tens of thousand of pounds and not a penny in his pocket. And all fool them, I say.
He attended a psychiatrist at school; probably after my father had left; something he was ashamed abou. He was ashamed about many things, many things in his life jarred against him. Small meannesses, other people’s popularity, other people, all seem to mount against him. People earning more than him, my grumpiness, being made to sing at primary school in front of people. All stuck in his craw. If only he could see the good that was in his world, the good person that he basically was, the good people that we are and were. If only. Eventually he was diagnosed with OD, or obsessive disorder. Amongst his symptoms were the anxieties, his need to be sure the taps were off, the door was shut properly and on and on. He was scared of the thought of sober sex – and barred from all four pubs on the top of Richmond Hill (nearly causing a riot in one).
He tried many rehabs from a shocking one far away to the Priory Roehampton where he got thrown out, from the Charterhouse Clinic (where he could see the pub from the window) to the final one in Brighton that really seemed to work. This was a take-no-prisoners, not messing around type of deal, fortunately paid for by a wealthy musician friend of my mother’s – we would in no way have been able to afford it otherwise. Few can.
At first I hated myself for hating him, hated the way he made me feel when I looked at him incoherent and deranged with drink, with a two-day growth and his joggers on back to front. The incontinence, the smell, the ever-incurring physical ailments, the involuntary tremors. And then he could get over it, his resolve strengthened, ashamed at what he could remember.
Mum used to go to Al-Anon (for families of alcoholics), which I hope she garnered strength from. I can not bear to think what she had gone through, and hope at the end I had showed her that I really did love her.
She had worked in the domestic-violence field in the very early days of its inception, an exciting and pioneering time and had given a lot of herself to many people, and was always happy and positive with it. I go to Al-Anon now and highly recommend it. There are also groups for methadone users, cocaine users, teens and the rest. I go now to come to terms with the ghost of my brother. There is comfort in the fact that I am not the only one with the memories and feelings, that it is an ongoing problem for so many (23 million people affected by alcohol/substance abuse in this country).
Where is my brother now? What’s he doing? Is he drunk? Is he OK? Is he dead? What sort of mood is he in? Is there alcohol in the stew? Wine gums? Aftershave? Has his sores cleared up? Is he wearing shoes?
My mother’s death from cancer was the final straw for him; he just could not cope with it. A friend of mine from the refuge days told me that she could not believe it: Anne A couldn’t die. She was the one that rallied us through the darkest of days with her mischievous sense of humour and good, good heart. None of our plotting and planning, our throwing away of drink, our not talking, of calling the police, of searching his room and hiding his keys, none of it had worked. And we eventually learned, from my mum’s trips to Al-Anon, a path that we could follow. We did not cause the addiction, we cannot control it and we can not cure it. There was something useful in all of that in my mother’s final illness.
With Eddy, the benign stepping away, the looking after oneself, all sounded good to me. The not causing any dramas nor preventing them. The just letting things be. We had permission to settle our own troubled psyches (long overdue), there was no problem that could not be solved. There was a resounding positivism in this world of ours, though it might be difficult at some times to see. Eddy had gone away with a couple of close friends dating back to his school days, to sample the delights of Thailand. For some reason, they parted company at some point through the holiday. He was offered a drink on the return journey home by the air stewardess. You can fill in the blanks.
After a bit of a binge, he calmed down a bit, his neighbour and his girlfriend keeping tabs on him as I and my sister were now at this point run ragged. His last few weeks were full of mystery, but we eventually managed to trace his steps. He had planned to go back out to Thailand to see his girlfriend out there. His luggage went but he never did. His luggage returned – a holdall with some crumpled clothes – after he died. A large amount of money went missing: £1,000 in Thai money, which must have meant it was a huge wad.
He’d come with me to the doctor’s (“I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do if your brother is drunk” Hello? An alcoholic showing a symptom of his disease and there’s nothing you can do?). Eddy always wanted to leave, have a coffee, have a roll up. So we went to hospital and back again. He couldn’t keep still, and at times it was like he was on autopilot with the motive to get a drink. He drank it neat from the bottle, an enormous amount of whatever it might be daily, smoking copiously, not eating. Pubs and off licenses still served him in whatever state he may be in, though many told him to sling his hook. I found the local DIP wanting in its inaccessibility and ineffectualness. Its people saw him (after weeks of me complaining) three days before his death, plucked the skin on his face and said he wasn’t dehydrated. My mantra at the time was: If he doesn’t get help, he’s going to Die. If he doesn’t get help, he’s going to Die. If he doesn’t get help, he’s going to Die. And he didn’t really get help, not what he needed. And he died.
So many people in the support services saw him in the weeks before he died, and none of them could save him. He wasn’t arrested as a threat to himself and others when he should have been. He wasn’t sectioned, when I think he should have been. It was like an out-of-control train and the outcome was inevitable, however much I fought against it. And I still believe that much more could have been done. He went to Kingston hospital to get himself sorted out finally. And when he was there, he had a massive heart attack. They worked on him for an hour but he died, aged 37. His two closest friends turned up with some Kentucky Fried Chicken for him, the still-full packet now sat on the side.
When we got there I could tell by their faces that something was horribly wrong. “He’s not dead is he?” I asked as soon as I got there. The rest disappears for me. I remember the doctor telling me that they had done what they could, but he had died. My temperature rising, I told them that they could not tell me that, and not to come near me. They nearly called security. And there he was dead on the bed, his lips blue and his arm hanging by his side. When I grasped his head I could hear the mucus move. He looked so at peace, no more tension any more. My mental state was not good, I couldn’t, wouldn’t believe it (surely we’d gone through enough already?) and I became slightly berserk (in a manly kind of way, of course). And I sat and wailed like many have wailed throughout time at the tragic loss of a loved family member, and it echoed across the grounds of that hospital. It was the day before my mother had died a year earlier. It would have been unbearable if it had happened while she was alive.
His death certificate stated that he died from cardiac arrest, cirrhosis of the liver and bronchial pneumonia. And where there once were five, there now were two (we made jokes that we needed a wheelbarrow for the ashes).
I suppose also the full implication of the effect of my father’s death on him, and to some extent on me, had never really been addressed properly. You do what you can, live the day and the next. It is only now that I really understand why I was and am like I am. My self esteem was next to nothing, at times I was quite chronically depressed – as you would be.
Having a counsellor, and a Cruise grief counsellor for a short while before that, and EDR treatment which shifted some of the trauma, has meant that I can almost see the wood from the trees. There is no more need to feel so alone, no need to get into negative personal relationships. I am more than the sum of my past. The future seems brighter and full of achievable goals, at long, long last.
Seismic changes have occurred in the aftermath of all of this for my sister and me. My direction is clearer than it has ever been. I’ve learned a lot over these years, though some lessons have to be taught me time and time again before I really cotton on. Time has much greater meaning to me now, as do many things in life, things that I might have taken for granted before. And out of all this experience, I hope eventually to be able to enable others to get out of their own prison with whatever means I can.