Accident and emergency

Ben was admitted to hospital. It wasn’t planned.

He woke up shaking, but determined to get to his regular psychology appointment at our local NHS drug and alcohol service. I stayed home from work to make sure he got there without injury. Today was also going to be the day he would finally be assessed for rehab. I was going to accompany him to that appointment, too.

While Ben was with his psychologist, he took ill; he was in acute withdrawal. They called an ambulance. His psychologist, Jane, came to get me (I was waiting outside). I found him sitting on the floor of one of the consulting rooms, his face grey, his body trembling. We ended up in A&E at a hospital an hour away from us.

There was a lot of waiting. We waited an hour before a nurse showed Ben to his own little curtained cell. About 30 minutes later, they wheeled a bed with a filthy mattress into the cell (Ben was sitting on a plastic chair until then). Another 20 minutes went by before they disinfected the mattress and bed frame (with a disposable wipe), dried it and put a sheet on it. The fitted sheet kept springing off at the top, bunching up behind Ben’s head. The bedding looked grey and dirty, even though it had been cleaned.

About 20 minutes later, an A&E doctor came in to speak to Ben and me. She asked us all the same questions the ambulance staff asked us:

  1. how are you feeling?
  2. what brought you here today?
  3. when was your last drink?
  4. is it normal for you to vomit if you haven’t had a drink?
  5. how long have you been drinking for?
  6. blah,blah,blah.

This doctor ordered several bloods, two x-rays and said she was admitting him to hospital for a couple of days. While she was taking his history, Ben vomited. A nurse, who seemed to have been beamed in from a planet far far away, took several vials of blood and put a line in. She pumped some medicine into a vein in his forearm, then attached two drips. Ben was also given four colourful capsules, with no water. The water took another 10 minutes to arrive.

Once the doctor left, we sat in silence. I read through a 4000-word document on my mini smart phone. I listened to the doctors’ and nurses’ banter. ‘Are you normally constipated?’ asked the doctor in the cell next to us. The patient had severe abdominal pains, which the consultant declared were either:

  • appendicitis, or
  • constipation.

Ben was wheeled away briefly for his x-rays, then wheeled back. He wanted to take out the line so he could go and smoke. I told a nurse he needed the toilet… and that he might need a cigarette. The nurse brought him a pulp-paper cardboard gourd to pee into. And said ‘too bad’ when Ben said he wanted a cigarette. Inside, I was cheering.

A few hours later, a consultant from the medical team, where Ben was destined, came to speak to him. She asked him questions 1-5 several times, and each time, Ben answered slightly differently, before I corrected him. It wasn’t until I was on a bus going home that I realised the consultant was testing his memory.

I stayed with Ben for nearly four hours. He still hadn’t been given a bed when I left to pick up Rosie. I think it was probably around 8pm when they finally sent him upstairs.

Our local NHS drug and alcohol service rang up Ben several times while he was in the ambulance and once in the hospital. It was more times than they have rung him about anything before.



Maybe withdrawal will kill him

This is what I’m thinking now. I’ve tried everything. I’ve tried speaking to Ben’s new alcohol key worker. I’ve tried ringing the GP to tell him that Ben is bedridden and hasn’t eaten anything for days. I keep telling all of them that he hasn’t got more than a few days before he collapses from organ failure or whatever else alcoholics in withdrawal are levelled by. He is acutely malnourished. He is drinking to ward off the more serious manifestations of withdrawal, but he is still throwing up anything he tries to eat – which is very little.

I made him two tablespoons of porridge and begged him to eat it. He ate some of it earlier this evening. I heard him retching outside just now (his illness has no discretion – not only does he drink by the side of the building, but he vomits out there, too – it’s only a matter of time before one of the neighbours knocks on the door).

I am unable to concentrate at work. I worry that he will go into convulsions while I’m out and I’ll return with Rosie to find his body contorted and stiff on the futon.

I don’t understand how the people at the drug and alcohol service can’t see the danger he is in. I don’t understand why they can’t simply do whatever it takes to get him into treatment urgently. I don’t understand why no one – no one – ┬áis listening to me.


Another weekend, another round of withdrawal. Ben is going into withdrawal more and more frequently. The futon mattress is exposed, the urine stain announcing itself in sepia. Bloodstains are smudged along the outer ring of the patch: fingerprints.

Rosie and I are sitting together, colouring in a Gruffalo when I hear Ben dry-heaving in the living room. It’s so loud, I jump off the stool I’m sitting on. He needs the basin. I put it down next to him – on top of the futon – and flee the room. Out on the landing, I can hear him throwing up again and again. I press my palms to my ears to block out the sound, and feel pathetic. For a moment, I think I’m going to cry.

I go back into the bedroom, and close the door behind me. ‘Look mummy!’ says Rosie. ‘I’m colouring it all in.’ And she is. She keeps going, brown crayon streaking across the body of the Gruffalo, staying impressively within the lines. Ben is still throwing up. ‘We have to keep the door closed,’ she says. ‘So we don’t hear him making those sounds.’

Later, I’m emptying out the basin, dry-heaving at the stink. I tell Ben he has to go into private treatment, that neither he nor I can manage this any more. He tells me to be quiet and just let him sleep. He’s been on his back for weeks now. All I do is let him sleep.

‘Oh great,’ I say at full voice, ‘Just leave me to clean up your mess. Arsehole.’

When I walk back into the bedroom, I find Rosie playing on her own, learning how to write the letter ‘T’. Her little face is swollen with sadness. Her mouth is drawn down at the corners. ‘Stupid mummy,’ she says.

I apologise. I know that every time I say things like this, she blames me for making her daddy sad. She’s right. As Ben has always maintained, it takes two.

Day 1

This is not day 1. It isn’t day 10 or day 385. It is another day like all the days that came before it, because every day feels like this one now.

8 things I did today:

  1. Took early morning walk in the rain with Rosie, aged 3.75. Splashed in puddles.
  2. Watched Rosie complete 48-piece jigsaw puzzle.
  3. Coloured in jungle scene from colouring book with Rosie.
  4. Baked banana muffins with Rosie.
  5. Emptied out basin filled with husband’s vomit.
  6. Prepared one mug of Ribena with straw for couch bound husband.
  7. Read Wind in the Willows and Winnie the Pooh to Rosie until she fell asleep.
  8. Emptied out basin filled with husband’s vomit.

Ben is in withdrawal again. He shakes like a man with rickets. We are used to the sound of him relinquishing the contents of his stomach – a low guttural sound – like the slow-motion croaking of a bullfrog.

He has spent the last week on his back, on the couch, in the living room of our one bedroom flat. The couch is his bed and his study. The TV is on all night and much of the day. He does not move, unless it is to use the toilet or smoke and sneak a drink outside. His stash is hidden in the loft and on the shed roof outside.

The basin in the background

Half-eaten apples, peanuts, water and juice litter the floor by the couch… with the notorious basin in the background.

When he gets like this (he hasn’t eaten for two – maybe three – days, aside from some fig roll cookies and the occasional apple), I wonder whether he will die in the night. I imagine waking up and finding his cold body, making sure Rosie doesn’t go into the living room, calling the ambulance or the police (I’m not sure which). Then I think about how I will tell Rosie.

He has been sick all her life. She thinks he is ill from drinking too much coffee. To her, coffee comes in a can. When she finishes a drawing or colouring in or writing her name, she takes it to him, saying, ‘Daddy, look. Look what I’ve done.’ And he says, ‘Oh, that’s lovely, darling,’ with his eyes closed and his face turned away.

When will it end for her and for me? The prospect of treatment is still weeks away. It can be accessed through the NHS (the only route we can afford), but there are hoops to dive through, and nothing is certain. Still, the fact that treatment is on the cards – that an application for detox has been completed (finally) and that the option of rehab is being considered – is the crutch I lean on now.

Because without it, there is nothing.

Today is not day 1.

It’s just another day in the life of someone married to an alcoholic.