“You are the glue”

Taken in isolation, hardly a compliment. But this is what Ben wrote in my birthday card a few weeks back. You are the glue that keeps this family together. I can’t remember everything he wrote – I think I skimmed the card because I was too embarrassed to read it properly.

Why embarrassed? Probably because we say so little of substance to one another these days. We’re very good at managing domestic and parenting issues. It’s just us that draws a ringing silence, followed by embarrassment should one of us dare to break it.

So, I sort of scanned the card, saw all the words, but managed to forget most of them, apart from the first sentence. And rather than feeling happy to read these words of – admit it – appreciation; I find myself becoming irritated at the thought of them.

What do they mean, really? Why am I the glue? I never asked to be in this place, holding everything and everyone together. I don’t mind being that person from time to time. I don’t even mind being that person often. But why must it always be me?

Instead of appreciating Ben’s appreciation, I find myself second-guessing it. Is he saying this because he admires this quality in me, or because he feels sorry for himself? Is he passing the buck by saying, you’re so much better at this than I could ever be. In other words, is he somehow absolving himself of responsibility?

Perhaps I am being uncharitable. He’s been through a lot, and as my therapist said today, he’s actually doing pretty well, all things considered. She reminds me, time and again, that it is still very early in the process, that it has only been a few months since he came out of rehab.

Easy to forget

It’s easy to forget sometimes. True, I find myself back in the panic room when he adopts a familiar pose or walks with a certain gait. Sometimes, I can’t see him as he is now, because the memory of what he was (a sad, shuffling drunk) rears up and superimposes itself over him. As for what he was before all of that – that is the archival Ben, the Ben in wedding photos and photos of us as graduate students. And that person is unrecognisable. He has become someone other.

But the panic and the shadows are gradually withering. Ben is responsible and loving with Rosie. He’s helping more and more around the flat, when he comes. He does some of what he says he plans to do (like calling in the council to check on a potential rat infestation in the garden – yech). He doesn’t do things the way I would do them, but that doesn’t matter. All in all, Rosie is safe and happy, and I’m not carrying quite as heavy a burden as I have been of late.

So, it’s easy to forget. But just scrolling through a list of my posts clears my mind, much as my weekly visits to my therapist do. She is based at the local drug and alcohol service, and I often sit in the waiting room with several addicts.

I hate it. It smells of beer and body odour. It reminds me so acutely of my recent past, that I can feel last year rising at the back of my throat. As I sit there, I tell myself to listen, observe, find the humour in the situation. But all I can do is narrow my nostrils and bury myself in my smart phone, aimlessly swiping the screen just to distinguish myself from them. 

And then I’m back home, in my familiar life, and things have improved in ways I hadn’t anticipated, and yet, I’m still the lynch pin, still the glue binding our small family together. I should feel proud of this, but really, I’m just tired.


Actually, it’s him… and me

A couple of days ago, I wrote that I might have been imagining Ben’s drinking. It’s safe to say that I probably was, here and there. But the truth is, he is drinking again.

Yesterday, he rang me sounding miserable. Apparently, he’d decided to come clean to the rehab centre and admit that he’d relapsed more than the two times he’d told them about. The programme is abstinence based, and the fact that he carried on lying for so long meant that he had broken their trust, so they had an ‘ending’ for him, and that was that.

He left the centre and drank much of the afternoon away. He has been drunk since then. But he has been telling me the truth about when and how much he is drinking. I see this as a positive step – for him, at least.

As for me, I’m back to zero. Rosie and I are leaving on Wednesday for a month. So, now I’m in panic mode. Am I really going to change the locks? Should I? He has to go. I don’t want him to stay here on his own. He is unreliable, incapable of doing anything for himself. Left to his own devices, he will drink himself into oblivion. He may even burn the flat down.

He has to go.

During sober moments, he has been looking for a residential alcohol rehab centre that will take him. If he had accepted this was the right option a month ago, we would have had a programme in place for him. But he left it right until the last minute. We now have two days left and he has nowhere to go. I can’t believe it. I deliberately didn’t organize it because it was up to him, but in the end, I am the one more put out by this than he is.

I am angry. So angry. At fate, at him, at the day rehab programme (because they did nothing to prepare him for this month besides convincing him he had to test his willpower).

We found one residential rehab centre that Ben liked, but they have no availability for another two weeks. Ben doesn’t have two weeks. If he carries on as he is doing, he will end up in hospital. I told him, whatever happens, he is not staying at the flat. If he wants to go to that rehab programme, then he will have to find somewhere else to stay in the interim. Otherwise, he will be a homeless, penniless alcoholic. He’ll have to squat with the other drunk in the pedestrian subway near the tube station.

It’s been more than a year now since he lurched onto this path. Rosie and I seem to be stumbling along behind him. But I’m tired of all this. It’s a road I have no interest in travelling any more.



Has he relapsed?

This is the question I ask myself daily.

Back-track to a month ago. We were scoping out day rehab programmes. The one in Brixton wasn’t right for Ben, so he opted for one in central London instead. They have been around for decades. The days are consistent and structured. The family counsellor is sympathetic and experienced.

Two days into his treatment and I’m almost positive he relapsed. He came home late from some freelance work that night. He smelled of beer, but he told me he’d been eating chips with vinegar – a familiar excuse. About a week later, he came home blitzed out of his mind. Again, after doing some freelance work. I told the rehab centre. He told the rehab centre. They kept him on. About two weeks later, he relapsed again. He had a gig in the southeast and came home at nearly 1am, having lost his phone and unable to stand up straight. His hand was bleeding. He wet the futon – AGAIN. This time, neither of us told the centre.

I guess the obvious question is, why didn’t I take Rosie and go. Why am I still here? He claims he isn’t drinking, yet I keep smelling alcohol on him. It is a madness with me now – I smell alcohol on everything, all the time. I am hyper-sensitive to the odour in lotions, deodorants, mouthwash, aftershave – everything. His antiperspirant spray is strong and scrambles my olfactory sense so I can’t tell what I’m smelling. When I come home from work, I find him so out of it, I don’t know what to think. As always, he tells me he is just tired and needs to sleep. The mad thing is, there is no smell.

Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic, I guess. But, I have to ask myself, what is my line. What is the line? When is enough, enough?

He is lying on the sofa, moaning to himself. He does this often. He also talks to himself. He says it’s a comfort mechanism. I don’t know whether it’s the Prozac (he’s on 40mg now). I don’t know whether he’s abusing his meds. My instinct tells me there is something he isn’t telling me. My instinct is telling me he’s lying.

Surely that is the line?

Assessing his rehab needs

Ben is out of hospital. He came out last Friday evening, groggy and irritable. I spent the whole weekend plus the last few days in a state of acute anxiety.

I watched Ben every time he went outside for a cigarette, and refused to let him go anywhere without a chaperone. On Monday, he had his community care assessment – his assessment for rehab – at our local NHS drug and alcohol service.

This was our make-or-break appointment. It was our opportunity to work with the community care assessor, Hanife, to build a case supporting Ben’s request for rehab. His case would then go before a funding panel which would approve or reject Ben’s application.

From the beginning, it was clear that Hanife was on our side. She had already been in regular contact with me. She tried to get the hospital to postpone Ben’s discharge to Monday, advised me on how to keep Ben busy post-detox, warned me it was(is) a dangerous time – where the likelihood of relapse is very high.

Hanife’s default position was that Ben needed residential rehab. We talked about why Ben felt he needed rehab, what his motivation was, what his objectives were. The complexities of his illness and treatment were unpacked. There was the urgent need to address his depression, anxiety and severe sleep deprivation. He needed space to explore his broken family relationships, and the time to rebuild his confidence and self-esteem.

There were questions about Ben’s ‘human capital‘ and ‘social capital‘ – government speak – all of which only reminded us that the funding panel’s decision to approve or not approve Ben’s application was governed entirely by financial concerns.  But Hanife seemed positive and ready to do battle with the panel in order to get what we needed. We felt we were in good hands.

The assessment took just over two hours. We came out feeling hopeful. Ben seemed less anxious. Nevertheless, I had set up a rota to cover the days when I couldn’t be at home with Ben. One of my friends came up from South London to spend the day with him on Tuesday. Another travelled from Cambridge to be with him yesterday, despite Ben’s protestations. ‘A bit unnecessary,’ he kept saying, acquiescing only to humour me.

We were preparing ourselves for a decision, which was due either this or next Wednesday. When it came, it unhinged us all.

Hospital detox

Ben is still in hospital. They are doing a quick and cheerful detox (not sure he’d describe it as cheerful). He’s lying in an acute medical ward, sharing a room with five other men – all of whom are fragile and elderly. He’s got one line going into his hand, is given two injections (one of which is in the stomach), and is on a round of tablets.

Hospital detox is boring. Ben is still shaking and not allowed to walk very far on his own. The drip is what keeps him tethered to his bed, otherwise he’d be roaming the corridors, looking for a place to smoke.

One of the other patients – also an alcoholic – has already broken the rules and had a cheeky cigarette in the ward toilet. He denies it. ‘So, who did?’ presses the nurse. ‘A spirit?’ I can’t stop laughing. Even Ben smiles. The culprit (as the nurse calls him) says, ‘No, no, I didn’t, no.’ He is smirking (although, to be fair, he has looked this way since he was transferred to this ward room). His face is lined, he wears a tuque and his legs are bloated.

When the other nurse arrives, the culprit is upbraided again. Nurse 2 brings a can of something and sprays it here and there, leaving a synthetic sweet vapour surfing on top of the noxious cigarette odour. The windows are promptly opened to let the fumes out.

‘You’re lucky,’ I tell Ben. ‘You’ve got some ready-made entertainment here.’ He nods. ‘At least I got a small hit, eh nurse?’ he jokes. She’d earlier told him he couldn’t go out for a cigarette because he was shaking too much, and because wheelchairs are like ‘gold dust’ at the hospital, and if anything happened to Ben, it would be on her head.

I have little sympathy for Ben’s need in this case. I can’t see why precious resources should be diverted – even temporarily – to satisfy his nicotine addiction. So, I’m with the nurse. Poor Ben looks defeated.

His request for a cigarette break was prompted by a visit from the consultant. Over the course of 4.5 hours, Ben is visited by three people: two from the local drug and alcohol liaison service (they are there to liaise with Ben’s drug and alcohol service) and the consultant. The consultant is firm but honest, dispelling any hope we might have of getting Ben straight into rehab. But before I am destroyed by this news, I realise that he knows little of Ben’s case and does not know that we have already made significant inroads on our journey towards treatment.

In my desperate state of mind, I prefer to hang on to the words of the first specialist. He seems to know a few people at Ben’s local drug and alcohol service and seems willing to endorse his request for quick admission into rehab. It’s a long-shot, but not impossible. I want to believe it is possible.

So tomorrow, I am back to work, but also, back on the phone to all these various pieces in the treatment puzzle: Ben’s key worker, his community care assessor, the two people from the local alcohol liaison service. I’m fed up of being fed a line. I’m going to keep badgering until the wall crumbles and the lines are reeled back in.




Managing my anger

Today, I had my first psychology session at our local NHS drug and alcohol service. Sara, Ben’s previous key worker, had managed to do a few constructive things before she left. I’d asked her several times whether it would be possible for me to get some support from the service, and after checking with management, my request was accepted. It took about four months of waiting, but I got it in the end.

My psychologist, Elisa, is young, probably half my age. I feel vaguely ridiculous blurting out my problems to this demi-child. She has a rose ring and black lace-up army boots. She reminds me of me when I was that age (minus the nose ring). She looks like she should be pulling pints in a grunge bar, rather than sitting across from me, listening to me complain about having to clean up Ben’s vomit.

After five minutes of inchoate rambling, I finally tell her what I’ve rehearsed for so long – that my objectives in accessing this treatment are:

  1. having a safe place to unload my stress
  2. diffusing my perpetual state of rage
  3. accepting that alcoholism is a disease and not a choice (my rational mind knows this, but my heart won’t accept it).

I tell her that just before my session, Ben rang me to say that I should be open ‘about us’. He meant that I should accept partial blame for his condition – that if I didn’t recognise this, then there was no point. I tell her that I do accept partial blame – that I recognise how damaging it can be to live with someone who is hyper-critical (that’s me – hyper-critical – of myself and everyone and everything around me).

But I also say that he was drinking before he met me. That he has always been alcohol dependent, and that it is unfair to lay the blame entirely on me. I tell her a lot of other things I didn’t expect to tell her – a tale of neglect and intense loneliness (mine). And darting below all this, like a ravenous shark, my anger.

It is always there, ready to burst and consume us all. Sometimes, I think my temper will set me alight. I imagine immolating myself on the pyre of my own rage. This is the image I carry around with me every day. The thing that makes me tremble when I’m trying to get everything organised and ready in the morning. The thing that drives me up that hill again and again when I’m running (sprint up, jog down backwards, again and again and again). The thing that sends my pressure along with my volume to the top of the scale.

It is a long hour. Just 35 minutes into the session, I think I’ve already exceeded my time. By the end, I’m exhausted, but a little lighter. I make another promise to myself, to Rosie, even to Ben, that I will find a way to check my anger, find a way to  manage and channel it, regardless of its causes.

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 –  is listening to me.