I had a conversation with my alcoholic aunt yesterday which illustrated so beautifully the damaging falsehood of society’s perspective on those living with addiction. The belief that addiction is a moral failing and a personal weakness is woven tight into our understanding of the mechanisms of addiction, and it hurts all of us. So often we hear, whether the words are spoken out loud or not, that addicts are not worth listening to.
Those of us who are addicts internalise these false truths at a deep and often unconscious level, which perpetuates the negative feedback loop of low self esteem. We hide our thoughts and behaviours. And what is allowed to ferment in the darkness, like so much homebrewed wine, will always grow.
My aunt plays a role in the cast of my family drama, as all of us do. She is ‘othered’ and shit-talked, and generally not taken seriously as a human being. My Mother in particular finds her behaviour intensely frustrating and irritating. This response is valid, when considered in this context of these false beliefs about the process of addiction. She too suffers, therefore, by proxy, as a result of misunderstanding and social stigma.
My aunt is in her 70s and lives alone in Wales. I’m not sure exactly how much she drinks but as a far as I know she starts on a four pack at around 4pm, moves on to several cartons of budget red wine, and then rounds it off with what she calls her ‘voddy.’ She stays up until 5am, and then does it all again the next day. A tremendous amount of alcohol. And a miracle really that she is still with us.
She’s had an incredible life, growing up in extreme poverty with two alcoholic parents. When she was five years old her Mother was taken into a sanitarium because she was suffering with tuberculosis. Her Father was around, but it that time it was inconceivable that a Father would take care of children alone. So she and my Father were placed in foster care for five years. They were separated, and moved from place to place constantly. My Father is also an alcoholic, but temperament and circumstance have been so much kinder to him. My Aunt was abused whilst in care and never really recovered from her experiences.
She has survived two abusive marriages and a 27 year Valium addiction. She tells me there are whole decades which she barely remembers.
For the last 10 years of my Grandmother’s life my Aunt was her sole carer. My Grandmother passed away some years ago and my Aunt is still grieving. Her daughter lives nearby and visits often, but for the most part she is alone, and very lonely.
When we speak on the phone she is often drunk, but always bright, warm, and wonderfully convivial. We share secrets and truths, in a wonderful warming bubble of female solidarity. Oftentimes she will digress into nonsense, which is often hilarious. There are sudden random interjections in which she offers to give me her panini maker, and circular, repeated anecdotes from her past that need voicing every time.
I phoned her yesterday to wish her a happy 71st birthday. She was drunk, at 1pm, but present, caring and kind in her ineffable way. I shared with her some of my current struggles, and she said something which truly shined a light upon my tangled darkness.
My marriage is falling to pieces, my mental health is following suit and I want to go home. I moved out of the UK five years ago to live with a Spanish man in a Scandinavian country. I live with his son from a previous marriage, and our son who is three years old. I have tried and tried in vain to make it work but we’ve reached a wall. I told him that I want to leave and he refused to give his permission, which is necessary according to the law if I am to remove our child from the country. It is illegal for me to take my son ‘home.’ Turns out we are home, whether I like it or not.
So, I said to my aunt, I am trapped. I am trapped and I don’t know what to do. And she said to me,
No one can trap you Eve. Nobody can ever trap anybody else, because when you go outside you are free. Take off, go for a walk, sit somewhere quiet and just think. Because you are free out there and nobody can take that away from you.
And I heard her. Her words resonated for me so deeply, and I felt the truth of what she was saying. Her words are so steeped in ancient wisdom and truth. They reminded me of this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry. I have turned to and shared this poem so many times. It is so relevant to all of us, and especially those of us who are tortured by the demons of mental illness and addiction.
The Peace of Wild Things
by Wendell Berry
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
Thank you, my dear Aunt, for offering your sacred wisdom and truth. You are addicted but not addled, and I value your contribution to my life and to this world most highly. You are precious.