Which way is up?

Source: wild-life-adventures.blogspot.com

I am standing, staring into the sea’s maw, powerless against the wall of water surging breathlessly towards me. Someone says jump, so I do. My eyes are closed. My ears are roaring. My body turns round and round.

When I open my eyes again, I am sitting, legs pressed into sand, wondering where the water is, then realise it’s behind me.

This momentary disorientation plays out in crushing consistency over the weekend. It starts on Friday, when Ben and I attend our first two-to-two. Before we go in, Ben tells me he thinks it’s best he goes into sheltered accommodation – that I’m probably not good for his recovery, nor is he for mine.

He repeats this when we are in the session, towards the end, after we’ve had a chance to talk about the various ways in which we have let each other down. I’m not surprised by this declaration. It’s not so different from my own, made some months back, after I returned from Canada.

In fact, I’m relieved when he says this. I leave the session eager for more sessions, thinking we have much more to say to each other, and happy that we are meeting again on Saturday.


We meet at Rosie’s gymnastics class. It runs for two hours. Normally, we sit and we watch her, taking time out now and again to chat. This Saturday, Ben says little to me. He pulls out a paper and reads. This is not how I imagined our Saturday. I expect him to ask me what I thought of Friday’s session, tell me whether he had any further thoughts about it. Nothing.

Nothing at all.

Cue destructive pattern no. 1: I sulk. I pull out my smart phone and start reading the Guardian. I ignore him. I think, the man has no sense. Who am I kidding? He is never going to bloody change. 

This sets off pattern no. 2: I confront him. I ask him why he’s doing this. Why he’s being so silent. Why he is ignoring me.

He gets pissed off and defensive. He says he is in pain (from last week’s injury) and that he’s just trying to distract himself. He accuses me of not listening to him. I say, hmmph. Which, translated, means: so I’m not enough of a distraction for you? I don’t actually say this. I just think it. Loudly.

Anyway, he decides to leave. He limps off before Rosie’s class ends and I am left trying to explain why her father left without saying goodbye. And yet, something inside me compels me to run after him. Yes run after him, pulling Rosie along, trying to convince her and me that it is a game and that it would be a good thing for her to have a chance to at least say bye to him.

His leg is so bad that we actually catch up with him, overtake him while I decide whether we should just carry on without him, then ask (beg?) him to come to the flat and spend some time with Rosie. But am I really doing this for Rosie? Or me? All the while, I hate myself for doing this – for running after him, for apologising and trying to make things right, when he is ready to walk away thinking he has every right to. And I am pissed off.

We go to the flat and I say nothing. Rosie and Ben play games. I stare out the window, at the leaves splaying in the wind. I roast a chicken. Ben makes chips. At some point, Ben comes into the kitchen and hugs me, saying: See how much we stress each other out? as if justifying his assertion that it is better that we live apart, that we are no good together, that we are bad for each other’s recovery.

Except, I don’t need justification. And the whole thing feels like he – unconsciously, I’m sure – has engineered the whole altercation just to prove a point.



Lantern festival, Chiang Mai (source: demilked.com)

In the end, it works out ok. We decide to light the paper lantern Ben had brought some weeks back and send it up, with a message, to the Moon Fairy. Rosie draws some flowers and asks me to write down her wish (“a princess dress and shoes”). Ben wishes for a happy Rosie. And I wish for a smile.

We walk to the park in the wind and drizzle and struggle with the crepe lantern, sure it will tear or catch fire before it is even airborne (like my first paper lantern did in Chiang Mai many years before). But by luck, the fuel block finally lights up, the lantern puffs out, hangs at chest height for a moment, then soars up and up and up, until it is a star piercing the clouds overhead.

Our Jack-o-Lantern

On Sunday, Ben comes over again. We go out to buy a small pumpkin which I carve into a Jack-o-Lantern. It’s Rosie’s first, and we are all enthralled by it. We sit in silence, staring at its glowing, grinning mouth. Ben is the most moved by it.

It was a good weekend, he says to Rosie. He hugs me before he goes and asks me if I’m ok. I nod, but really, I’m wondering where the water is, thinking it’s probably behind me, and preparing myself to jump.



Have I lost my sense of humour? Or is that joke just not funny any more?

So, I was watching Mock the Week – a British news comedy panel show – a couple of weeks back. One of the panellists was Katherine Ryan, a young Canadian – a sort of potty-mouthed Anne of Green Gables, if you will.

Yes, she was funny and witty and smart. But raked into her improv were one too many booze jokes. You know, the ones that comics routinely deploy, especially in the UK, because they’re guaranteed a laugh. Here’s one (and apologies if I don’t get it absolutely right – I tried to find it on YouTube, but no luck):

“I’m mixed race. I’m Canadian… but I accept my boyfriend’s drinking like an Irish girl.”

I couldn’t laugh. I can’t laugh at jokes about drinking any more. I’ve always found that kind of humour empty and puerile, but now – now – I find it distressing. My immediate reaction is always: how can people laugh at that? It’s just NOT FUNNY

When people make light of alcoholism, I find myself short-circuiting. There is nothing – nothing at all – about drinking that makes me laugh. I can’t bear to hear people being flippant about the devastation that alcoholism brings, the mayhem it drags into your life, the trauma it leaves behind. 

On Saturday, Rosie and I met Ben, as always. He arrived late because he’d slept in. This irritated me and set the tone for the rest of our day together. I kept wondering why he hadn’t made the effort to wake up on this, the only day he had to spend with us. The reality was that he was ill (a chest infection), but even that wasn’t enough to mollify me. 

By the time we got back to the flat, we were both on edge, and Ben took his usual dip into the propanolol. Later, we went into the garden and Rosie dared him to lift me up. Ben being Ben, he ignored my warnings and hefted me up on his shoulders. About 15 minutes later, he was tucking into the paracetamol to ease a sharp pain in his leg and back. He lay down on the couch, breathing heavily, and all I could see was the Ben of old, crashed out on the sofa, moaning to himself in a drink-fuelled fog. 

He spent a fair bit of the time we had left, supine. I tried to keep the panic down. I knew he hadn’t been drinking. I knew he’d injured himself pretending he was still fit when he clearly isn’t. But the overall effect of seeing him horizontal like that, eyes closed and unresponsive, was too much. I was back there again. 

Years from now I may laugh at this, after all, I often find myself laughing at my situation – at its absurdity. But right now, it’s impossible. Every time I think I’m ok, I see something that sets my heart racing. Like the man clutching a can of Special Brew in the middle of the day today, just outside the office. I looked at him, at his empty, distressed eyes, and I saw Ben. I saw exactly what he must have looked like a few months ago – what he might look like again a few weeks, months or years hence. 

The wounds are still raw. It’s at times like these that I realise how far we are from resolution. This is the only thing that gives me hope. I don’t want a resolution – not yet. I can bear nothing more than this slow shuffle forward. Let the end remain out of sight for now. 


Man (and woman) on wire

The BBC aired this documentary recently – about an audacious act, at once whimsical and surreal – carried out at New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.

Man on Wire is the story of Philippe Petit‘s incredible high-wire walk between the two towers – back then, the tallest buildings in the world. He did it with the aid of accomplices and in defiance of the law.

It didn’t matter that the act was illegal. It was – perhaps like Felix Baumgartner’s dramatic plunge to earth – an attempt at gaining perspective, while creating an exhilarating spectacle for all of us. In reaching out and touching death, these men created profound, life-affirming experiences that we have the privilege of sharing vicariously.

When I look at this picture of Philippe Petit on that thin wire, a mis-step away from certain death, I think of how tiny and fragile he looks. And I think of Ben and me, engaged in our own high-wire act, struggling to overcome Ben’s alcoholism.  We are moving gingerly, deep in concentration, from one end to another of this taut and trembling path. One wrong step and we plunge, taking Rosie with us.

Rosie and I met Ben on Saturday. He was waiting for us when we arrived at the tube station. The first thing I saw was his red face and what I thought was an unsteady gait. A familiar sharp feeling winced through me, threatening to unstitch my stomach. But the redness on his face turned out to be a rash. He was sober, if withdrawn, and eager to watch Rosie at her gymnastics class.

Later, we invited him to the flat. We had an early dinner, made two bouncy balls and  played hide and seek between various chores (me: cooking/laundry; he: checking his emails/packing more stuff).

At one point, he popped a propranolol, which he isn’t supposed to be taking (the rehab centre want him off all but the most essential meds), and I became nervous. He said it was for the journey home, that maybe it was just a placebo, but he wanted to be sure he got back to the rehab centre (over an hour away) safely. I guess he was anxious.

Still, I can’t help wondering. Is it a crutch? Could he start abusing it? Is this just another indication that he is still not ready for recovery?

Despite this, we’ve had a rapprochement. With the booze out of the way, I can suddenly see Ben again – and he is almost recognisable. Still, I don’t want him to come back to the flat yet. He’s not due out until mid-November, and then he is meant to go into sheltered accommodation. He says he wants to do it – so he can access his aftercare easily. This is no bad thing.

I am trying very hard to resist the urge to just let him come back. In fact, the urge isn’t that strong. Although I worry about the standard of housing he will end up in, I am hoping and doing the closest thing to praying to ensure he ends up somewhere decent, so I don’t have to consider letting him back here so soon.

This is our high-wire act.

We slide and step with arms outstretched, slipping towards one another like whispers in the dark. Below us, stand our other selves, mouths gaping, willing us to go on, until we reach each other, and then, the other side.

– Marc Chagall, The Blue Circus

Hollow rooms

credit – Tracy Bollinger

This room where I sit and type, where I eat crisps after Rosie goes to sleep, where I watch iplayer on my computer late at night – this room feels unexpectedly empty now.

My home hollows itself out. The futon – that futon – is a desert populated by lone cushions that sag like wet thoughts on a sunny afternoon. The shelves slowly reveal books that have been hidden for years behind jars of old batteries and abandoned tools.

The floor is honeyed oak, shining still, the varnish stubborn and enduring. No more wine or beer spills, though if you look carefully, you might find red stains along the grooves between the boards by the sofa.

Today, I rang Ben on my way to collect Rosie from the childminder. Although we met on Sunday, we had little time to speak about anything significant. It was Ben’s birthday, and we’d decided to spend the day in South Kensington along with all the other families. We took in the rocket show (re-learning the laws of thermodynamics in the process) at the Science Museum, picnicked in the fountain courtyard at the V&A and observed hedgehogs in the Natural History Museum’s secret garden. A pleasant day, but one remarkably low on conversation.

So, I rang Ben today, chiefly because I knew he was meeting someone about housing, and I wanted to know how it had gone: okay, apparently.

Ben is sanguine about the whole thing. He accepts that this is the right way forward. He almost sounds like he’s looking forward to it. I guess he wants to see whether he can do it. I guess he wants to try to find his feet again – by himself.

I feel rather proud of him for opting to do that. It would have been easy to be bitter and sullen and blame me and anyone else. It would have been easy for him to demand to come home. I asked him whether he preferred to live in sheltered accommodation for a while, and he said yes. He said he wanted to see how it all went, that he was concerned about accessing after care at the rehab centre easily.

It all makes perfect sense.

But when he told me these things, a wave of melancholy slipped over me. Readers will recall an earlier post, in which I lamented the passing of my relationship. It turned out that it hadn’t quite come to that. But I’m wondering whether the end is in sight now, whether, like me, he is too afraid of going back there, and is choosing something else to break the pattern completely.

I think it’s the right thing to do. But it’s so very hard. I am tired – tired of carrying everything every day. My weeks run into one another, an endless cycle of work, cooking, laundry, grocery shopping, child-ferrying, etc etc. I want to just lie down and sleep for 12 hours, but this luxury, like the luxury of long showers, is a thing of the past. What I really want is for Ben to come back and be healthy again so he can help me. So we can finally get on with being a family.

But this is fantasy. We are here, treading a path that takes us further and further away from one another.

We keep telling each other it doesn’t have to be forever. We placate ourselves with suggestions that these arrangements are probably temporary – that we’ll see how it all goes. We leave things open. We are open wounds, searching for space to heal. We are hollow rooms, each without the other, waiting, thinking, searching, reading the shadows that stretch and fade against these empty walls.


Stupid hope

Gene Kelly, credit unknown

Ah, hope. Graceful and charming, hope will grab, pirouette and dip you in one fluid gesture. Hope is a skilful dance partner, a sun-soaked wall, a last slice of vanilla cheesecake offered generously only to you.

Oh yes, hope gets around, while tricking you into thinking you’ve got a premium on it. Irrepressible and sometimes downright annoying, springing eternally like Cato in the Pink Panther: hope, hope, stupid hope.

Rosie and I have seen Ben twice now. I ask myself why I haven’t written about these two visits, and all I get back is a bit of grey noise. Our first visit – the first time I saw Ben since we’d left for Canada, so the first time in almost two months – was tense. We were civil to one another. Ben was abrupt and uninterested. He focused on Rosie. He ignored me. I’m not sure it bothered me.

But then, when we took a walk in the driving rain (yes, Rosie and I braved a two-hour journey through dreadful cold and rain to see him), things somehow relaxed. All it took was a hug. From me.

Our next meeting was last Saturday afternoon. We’d agreed to meet at a central tube station at exactly 2.30. Rosie and I flew up the escalators, imagining Ben waiting for us at the top. We stepped off and looked around, ready to shout out a hello.

He wasn’t there. I wondered whether I’d got the time wrong, or the location. I took Rosie and checked outside, to see whether he was smoking out there. No Ben. We went downstairs to the turnstiles, thinking he might be there instead. No Ben. We went back to our original meeting spot and paced.

‘Where is he, mummy?’ asked Rosie. ‘I don’t know, darling’, I replied, panicking all the while inside. My stomach fell to my knees. My heart did that awful dance it does when things go wrong. And when a man came running towards us, white-faced and apologetic, I didn’t recognise him.

It was Ben. He’d arrived, sober and full of a bad cold.

‘I was panicking, you know,’ I said, ‘You know that, right?’

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Next time I’ll leave even earlier.’

And that was it. No anger or irritation, I just let it go. Within moments, all the anxiety and distress was forgotten.

We went to the British Museum and looked at the horses exhibition until Rosie decided she wanted to go to the Africa galleries instead. Later, we went to a playground nearby, a usual haunt for Rosie and me whenever we visit the museum. For dinner, we decided on a Malaysian place in Chinatown,  and when we arrived, the streets were strung with paper lanterns in celebration of the Moon festival.

It was calm, enjoyable even. Ben, Rosie and I had a pleasant family afternoon out – our first in ages. And this is when the ‘h’ word began to rear its elastic head. Finally, here was proof that we could be a proper family, provided Ben stays sober. This is what it could actually be like, flashed intermittently through my mind, and I found myself imagining a future full of country walks, bike rides, family meals and chilling out on the sofa.

But then, I kept reminding myself, there is the other side of it: the fact that he can’t and won’t give me the assurances I need to maintain my sanity, or the assurances Rosie needs to maintain her equanimity.

So, yes, it could be better, but it could be bad, too. It could be fine for a day, a week, a month, 10 years. But at some point, it could go very very wrong. This is how I militate against stupid hope. I look reality in the face and ask myself whether I can live with that again, whether I’m ready to face the possibility of going back there.

And depending on whether hope is in a dancing mood (or is snoozing in a corner somewhere), my reply can go either way, really.

Stupid, stupid hope…


  • Rosie (marriedtoalcoholic.wordpress.com)
  • Over and out (marriedtoalcoholic.wordpress.com)