Aged 46, I am happily married with a beautiful son. He is seven. I learnt I was pregnant on my honeymoon. I am more fortunate than I ever thought I would be; more fortunate than I deserve.
I spent lockdown in the farmhouse in west Cornwall I bought with my husband, Andrew, three years ago. As others struggled with tiny gardens and food shortages, we swam, cycled, did puzzles and read books. Food was plentiful. Neighbours were kindly.
But I could not rest or appreciate my good luck. I felt anxious and trapped. Sometimes I cried with fear at what might happen to everyone I love.
I did this because I am a recovering alcoholic and I could not go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), where I have gone for almost 15 years.
When Covid-19 shuttered the world, it also shuttered AA, which is a lifeline for alcoholics like me.
I have depended on its meetings in church halls and community centres more than I have realised. Four months into the pandemic, I wrote on social media: ‘When will it open?’ I wandered around like a ghost which, in a way, I am.
There is another me, you see, and she is not a fortunate mother. She is a monster: a drunk; an insane person.
I put her away a long time ago — my very own mad woman in the attic of my mind — but she will never really die. How can she, when she is part of me? She waits for me to feel weak and alone. Covid-19 was, for her, just another opportunity.
It is helpful for me to see alcoholism as a voice in my brain: me v. she. It doesn’t matter that they are both me. It makes the enemy explicit; and it is more comforting to imagine only part of you is mad rather than all of you.
When I was young and the alcoholic voice began — I was about 12, but much mental illness begins in adolescence — I thought I was mad. I heard a voice that told me to despair; to trust no one.
How well I am day-to-day depends on my negotiations with the voice that cannot be silenced — essentially, do I believe her or not? And, when I do believe her, the only thing that can rescue me is AA. Because my fellow members are the same as me. They have walked in my shoes and they still love me.
Alcoholism never leaves you; there is no such thing as an ex‑drunk. I am almost 20 years without a drink, but I can taste it when I write about it. It makes me want a drink in my local pub which is, just now, the Star Inn, near my house. It looks like a witch’s cottage in which I could hide and drink and melt away. I pass it every day, and every day I think about going in. So far, I haven’t.
If I have struggled with my alcoholism under Covid-19, I am not alone. Across the country there is an epidemic of drinking, especially among women. More than half of women are drinking more than they did before lockdown; more than 70 per cent of those facing job loss are drinking more.
I am so frightened for them. You really have to put the hours in to become an alcoholic. Usually, by the time you have alcoholism, it is too late to do anything about it: your ability to choose has already been removed. There must be now, with the fear of pandemic or job loss or poverty, so many drinkers who are falling into alcoholism; and so many in early recovery who will have returned to drinking — without the safety net of AA.
There have been no face-to-face AA meetings for months, but there have been ones on Zoom. I went only once to a meeting reconvened in cyberspace. I could have logged on to any AA group in the world, from Alaska to New York, but I chose the town I left three years ago — London.
I saw the heads on the screen, and I heard the voices. But I missed the warmth — and the touch — of real AA. I hadn’t realised how much I depend on it; on the weekly reminder that I could have died from this condition, but I didn’t. That I am lucky.
I can’t tell you why I became an alcoholic and I have learnt not to ask. What’s the point? I can say that I was a loved child, born into an affluent home in Surrey, but I was very emotional and anxious.
After my parents divorced when I was ten, I was very lonely. My father, who remarried, was preoccupied with his new family. My mother worked hard as a historian to support my older sister and I, and was often away. I remember one day, at 13, I came home from school and was given gin by the alcoholic woman who lived below us. (I did not know she was an alcoholic then, of course. I could now spot it easily.) I drank until I passed out and went to school the next day with sick on my shirt.
But I felt a strange sense of homecoming. I wasn’t lonely any more. I had a secret, and, at 13, a secret is as good as a friend.
It took me a long time to develop fully-fledged alcoholism, but I managed it by 19, in my first term at Oxford.
(I could still do schoolwork. Workaholism and alcoholism are similar. They both attempt to fill a void: one with alcohol, the other with praise.)
At 19 I had my first blackout, in which I was apparently hysterical. I came to in my room the next morning, terrified, still in my clothes, not knowing what had happened to me.
A sensible woman would have stopped drinking then, but I was already mad. My response to any alcohol-related crisis was to drink yet more.
There followed eight years of utter chaos — police cells and hospitalisations and my mother’s tears. I developed a habit of overdosing on antidepressants, after which I would fit and be admitted to hospital. Sometimes the police would arrest me for my own safety: they were afraid I would harm myself.
The worst thing was watching my own soul dissolve, and feeling I was unable to do anything about it. Active alcoholism is like standing behind glass, watching yourself be murdered — by yourself.
This is so frightening the only thing to do is to tell yourself — and others — that it isn’t happening. And then to go and have another drink.
I was awful to be around: aggressive when drunk and needy when sober. I couldn’t form romantic relationships. I couldn’t hold on to a job or a friend. I couldn’t hold on to anything. I still fear loss.
I had eight years of this: of brutal, bloody nights looking for trouble and longing for death.
The worst — and so, in the end, best — night was finding myself at dawn, standing in front of a mirror, pointing at myself and saying: ‘I hate you.’
At last I knew what I had denied so far — that I was very ill. How could I hide it any longer, when I found myself wishing death on myself?
So, a few weeks later, when my mother, who still loved me, came to me and said, ‘Do you want to go to rehab?’, I said yes. I was 27. I did ten weeks in The Priory — an overpriced celebrity barn in south-west London — but I didn’t get better. I didn’t believe I could. When they talked about spiritual renewal — or spiritual experience — I did not know what they meant.
I started fights with people and mocked the therapy in which I had to roleplay my childhood family dynamic using small plastic farmyard animals. (I still think it was stupid.) I couldn’t listen; the voice in my head was too loud.
When I left, I drank again, but more sadly and always alone. I sat in a shuttered room drinking beer, because anything stronger would take me too quickly to blackout. One night, as I was passing out, I heard a voice say to me: you have to wake up.
I now know this as the voice of recovery. It was faint but I heard it: you have to wake up.
A few months later I was in rehab again at Clouds House in Wiltshire. They were kinder and stricter, and I met a counsellor who saw through my grandiosity and my fear.
One day, after I had again succeeded in turning everyone against me, he repeated to me: ‘You’re lovely. You’re lovely.’ And I chose to believe him. I do not know where it came from, but I haven’t drunk since that day.
The next day I wrote a list of what I would do to save myself. No alcohol was at the top of the list. That is the triumphal version, but the truth is I said to myself: ‘I’ll do a year without alcohol, and if I feel no better at the end, I’ll drink myself to death.’
It was a start. It was a good start.
I still had no idea about spirit, or love. I was wounded, but I found other things to obsess me: food, which I struggle with always; bad men, especially married men — an alcoholic always looks for love in the wrong places, and who knew there were so many wrong places? — and work.
I found that in writing, I could form myself in ways I never could in life. I am poised and in control. I can write my own story.
Pride kept me sober, too — and fear. I was too scared to drink.
I was sober but unhappy. I had terrible panic attacks and, eventually, in my early 30s I went to AA because I feared I would drink again if I could not say how scared I was.
Now, I don’t get serious cravings — if I do, they are only in passing — but I do get so sad I don’t want to live. It was agony sitting in those meetings, listening to people negotiate with their own inner voices, but I stayed. I learned that the self-destructive voice would never be stilled. I had her for life. I could only try to ignore her or, if feeling very well, soothe her.
In AA I found friendships with women whose courage I find amazing. Inside their love I began to forgive myself; to understand that it wasn’t really my fault.
In many ways the alcoholism of my youth continues to define me, but trauma will do that to you. My greatest problem day-to-day is remembering I’m not sick any more. Or, rather, I could always be worse. Or dead.
And, because I am not sick, I married a wonderful man, almost despite myself.
It was a challenge, being able to accept love. I’m still not quite sure how I did it; I reached out and he was there. To be loved is, for an alcoholic, to fear loss: what if he, knowing me so well, leaves me — what then?
Motherhood, too, was difficult. Am I good enough for my son? Will I break him? What if he is like me? These questions live under my thoughts always.
Alcoholism is a state of mind. Only two things, I have learned, medicate it: abstinence and love, and you won’t keep the first without the second.
I found the love in AA and, when I lost it under lockdown, I appreciated it more than ever. Last week my meetings reopened. Now, finally, I have regained the recognition I both need and fear most.