What it was like for us - Janet's story
How a hill farmer’s daughter went to Hell and lived to tell the tale
I was born on a 200 acre hill farm in South Wales on the 6th May 1965, the third of four daughters. I remember it being very cold and windy there. My mum and dad seemed to work all the time. I think I was a quiet child – very driven, ambitious. My parents would sometimes say that I was “very deep”. Funny, I used to think that was a compliment. My life then was in my schoolwork, my piano, eisteddfodau and anything else that offered the opportunity of winning something – I said I was driven. I read a lot of novels too – mostly fiction. In my early teens I became very hooked on jigsaws. I can certainly remember being told to leave it and go to bed at 2pm in the morning, pleading “I…. just…. want to find this one piece first”…. in a 2500 piece jigsaw. I practiced the piano until my back ached before exams. I sometimes studied before school exams until the early hours in the morning. I did nothing in half measures -an addictive personality, maybe?
It was a really bad day was when I ate more than 600 calories
I also developed some kind of eating disorder in my early teens. I didn’t acknowledge it until fairly recently, although today, it’s not a big issue in my life. I suddenly decided I was too big and clumsy. I cut out chocolates, crisps, chips, fried foods overnight. I knew how many calories there were in most things, and if I didn’t know, I checked before I ate it. A really bad day was a day when I ate more than 600 calories. There weren’t many of them! I was constantly thinking about food – planning my calorie intake, avoiding meals, that type of thing. I look very thin and drawn in photos of those days. I can remember feeling very lethargic, and cold too, at times. I was totally obsessed by this idea of being small and delicate.
I had my first drink at my elder sister’s 18th birthday party. I was 12. It was a Blue Moon – cointreau, blue curacao - strong stuff. I’d started obviously as I meant to go on. I remember being a bit woozy but not much more than that. My next drink was around the age of 17, I think. I drank socially then – I went out Wednesdays and Saturdays. Even then, when I think about it, I drank to excess. I went out to have a good time and get plastered. I was outgoing and confident in my drink - I didn’t care, I loved that feeling of not caring about anything. My friends thought I was comical in my drink. I thought I was popular. The warning signs were there!
My mum had always kept a small tray of shorts on the sideboard - gin, mostly. I can remember having some swigs of that too, after my parents had gone to bed during my A levels – to help me sleep, sometimes to forget.
I was always trying to prove myself
I emerged from school in 1983 with 11 O levels, A levels in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics. I’d also gained a certificate for winning the national eisteddfod for recitation, a diploma for piano playing. I’d chosen to study the sciences because I’d thought there was more of a future for me in them, although I also liked the arts. At no time did I stop to think about what I enjoyed doing. I was always trying to prove myself – to be something, someone more than I was. I was never good enough for me.
University- they were good years. I made some cracking friends at University. They were fun years. I worked hard, and played hard. So did many others, or so I thought. I drank every night. Sometimes I didn’t have money for food, but I always had money for drink. Studying on hangovers was a common occurrence, although I seemed to get the work to my tutors on time.
In my third year I picked up a brochure in the careers office about the Actuarial Profession. I remember the key words now. A well-respected profession in the finance world, difficult exams with high dropout rates, high earnings potential - yet another challenge. I was ready to sign the dotted line.
I lived in a room above a carpet shop
I ended up working in Holborn Circus, working amongst highly intellectual people, mostly mathematicians, many with very privileged backgrounds. I lived in a room above a carpet shop in Penge, South London, close to an aunt and uncle. I was completely lost at the start – knew hardly anyone. London was so very different from Cardiff. I started to get to know my colleagues socially. Booze was starting to “help”. Life and Soul I was with a few drinks inside me. Little did they know that I was already starting to feel ashamed of my behaviour when I drank. In retrospect I was very unhappy, and struggling to cope – particularly with the studying, which I would do after I returned from work in the evening, although I would never have admitted it, to myself or anyone else.
Soon it started getting easier and I settled down in London. I changed my employer. I got married. In 1993 I qualified as an actuary. My responsibilities at work grew, I was doing well. We bought a house, travelled to various places on annual holidays and sometimes long weekends. I should have been satisfied with my life. Strangely, though I wasn’t. Once the studying in the evening stopped, I started drinking every night. Not vast quantities, but the habit was setting in.
Both my husband and I were embarrassed about my drinking
Then recession hit the finance world. The imminent threat of redundancy was hanging over our heads. People were looking over their shoulders. The working environment had become a strain. My husband was facing similar issues. We stopped talking. I was beginning to feel lonely, anxious and depressed. We’d stopped going out to see friends or inviting them round – both my husband and I were embarrassed about my drinking.
In 1995 I changed employer again. My drinking receded a bit. It was the honeymoon period at work. I was getting new opportunities, lots of encouragement. I liked the people I worked with. It was a temporary reprieve, as the pattern re-emerged. The honeymoon period ended, the pressure increased, my marriage deteriorated, the drinking came back. It was much worse this time. I had now begun to drink during the day, sometimes in the morning. I was drinking to function – thinking it was helping me to cope. I had had by now two warnings at work- people were noticing. Yet still I couldn’t admit to having a problem. My husband was becoming increasingly frustrated and angry when he saw me with a drink in my hand.
My life was beginning to fall apart
Occasionally I would stop drinking for a few days, sometimes weeks, but, sooner or later, I would return to it. I could not talk about it to anyone. The shame of it was eating into me. I was hiding my drinking – drinking on my own at lunchtimes in pubs where I wouldn’t be found, hiding bottles of wine at home. I was living in fear – fear of my drink being found and the shouting that followed, fear of more repercussions at work. I was on the slippery slope. My life was beginning to fall apart. I was losing everything.
I changed employer again. Four weeks after joining my new employer I went out with the staff, got very drunk; fell down the escalator at St Paul’s underground, almost from top to bottom. I broke my collarbone, lucky not to have broken my neck. I was off work for six weeks. My alcoholism had followed me. Questions were again being asked. After that I managed to stop drinking during the day for a couple of years or so and became an Associate Partner of the firm. Eventually though the drinking returned and I lost my job. I could no longer be relied upon to do the work I needed to do, not even to be there when needed. I had to go.
I didn’t know who or what I was
I’d now lost my identity. No longer able to work, no friends, a failed marriage – I was drowning my self-pity in drink. My husband was telling me he didn’t care. Left to my own devices throughout the day, I was drinking almost constantly. Occasionally I’d visit a doctor, talk a little, but nothing was working. I was very depressed and anxious and increasingly dependent on alcohol. I was deteriorating fast, no longer eating properly, not looking after myself properly at all. I didn’t know who I was or what I was.
One morning, in my drink, I left my home. I had no plans, I did not care. I just did not want to stay in my home. I went to stay in a hotel – me and my dog. I did nothing for the best part of a week but drink, eat a little and occasionally walk my dog. I told no-one where I was. That was August 2005.
My family knew very little about my state of mind
Somehow during that week my younger sister found me and took me back to my mother’s. They knew very little of my state of mind. They told me later they were in shock for a long while after I’d got there. It must have been so incredibly hard for them. I was isolating myself, not talking, hiding vodka in my mum’s house. I was drunk a lot of the time. I lied a lot of the time. Strangely, though, I think my recovery started, albeit very slowly, from the day I went back to my parents. They cared, and I needed to see that so much. I started to see that I had a problem and I was prepared to try.
I was on the merry-go round of starting and stopping for two and a half years after that. I went into treatment first of all in February 2006. I did not listen to what I was told. I left after for 6 weeks. I joined AA and then left that after 6 weeks. A year and a quarter later I was back in AA, having been arrested after writing off my car whilst driving drunk. Luckily no-one got hurt. This time I could admit that I was an alcoholic. I started listening to those around me. I saw understanding, kindness, gentle people who had had similar experiences and got better.
Slowly I began to speak about what was happening in my life
At first I did not understand much of what was said. I had seen the first step during my time in treatment and I had some understanding of “unmanageability” and “powerlessness”. I wrote AA phrases like “Easy does it”, “first things first”, “think, think, think” on my fridge door. Slowly I began to speak a little about what was happening in my life, and some of the things that I had done in my drink. I wasn’t judged for it. Such a comfort that was to me, and a relief too to tell someone about some of the things I’d gone to such lengths to hide for such a long period of time. I was told that I had an illness –that it wasn’t my fault. It helped to at least start to lift some of the shame I carried with me which had kept me in silence for so long.
Accepting my alcoholism took a lot longer. I started going for longer periods without drinking. Each time I stopped, I thought I’d stopped for good. In reality though, I had become a binge drinker, although I could not see it at the time. I would return to drink after a period of 6-8 weeks of abstinence. Each time I returned to drink the physical and emotional pain got worse. Yet I still seemed to forget that pain when I returned to drink. I was living in fear, not coping when I wasn’t drinking, locking myself away from the outside world. I hated myself during those short periods I was “corpus mentis” when I returned to drink. I was becoming suicidal when I was drying myself out, and I believe now that I was in physical danger every time I returned to drink.
Even through all this, I believed that I had some “control” over my drinking- the insanity of it. Each time I returned to drink I would convince myself “……that it was only for a short time. My life would not be affected by my “little holiday” and nobody would know. After a short while I would lift myself out of it and everything would return to normal.“ I was completely deluded.
I thought by then that I had tried everything
That last time I drank I had no intentions to stop. I thought by then that I had tried everything. The hope which I had found in AA had left me. I was truly desperate. It was then, in that drinking spree, that a member of AA came to visit me and convinced me that I should go into treatment for some time. I went.
That time was very intense. I must have spoken and/or written of hundreds of drinking incidences during those eight weeks. I slept little, my mind seemed to be desperately trying to disentangle itself with every waking moment. I was told that I had been white-knuckling it – that I had been a dry drunk. I learnt more of the illness. I started visiting an evangelist church every Sunday. I cried there, I sang there, I prayed there, I found comfort there, I found God there.
What freedom! I was beginning to make some plans!
It was whilst I was there that I accepted that I am an alcoholic At some point too, I realised that I wasn’t thinking about drinking, or not drinking anymore. What freedom! .I was starting to make some plans! At long last I began to see that I could live with the illness, with God’s help, and the help and support of my friends in AA along the way.
Today I’m learning to appreciate life for what it is. I am no longer plagued by unrealistic expectations – I don’t take myself so seriously now. Life is good, and I believe it will get better. I know that I am never alone. Hard though it is, sometimes, I know that I’m never sent anything that I cannot deal with. Little by little, I am getting stronger.
I believe there is a purpose to my life
My life has turned a corner. I have had a chance to start again. This time I believe I will be happy. I’ve been given the tools, and I hope I’ve learnt a little at least from my past. I care again – about myself, and others around me. I believe there is a purpose to my life and that purpose will become clearer as time emerges. I don’t know what’s in front of me nor where I’ll end up as there are so many new things I would like to do – but then, that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it? I’m learning to find myself again.