Let me be frank.
Once upon a time there was a little blond girl called Frank. Her father was a doctor, he spent a lot of time away from home making people better. Her mother was beautiful and very funny but worried a lot about a lot of things. So much so that the little girl ended up being more of a Mum to her Mummy. But she didn’t realise that until much, much later.
Frank and her Mummy and Daddy lived a good life. Often Frank and her mum would while away the school holidays at the golf club pool where lots of other mummies whiled away the school holidays. With wine. And then gin. But there was nothing unusual about that. Then Frank’s daddy bought a beautiful little farm with another doctor and there were many happy idyllic years of horses and BBQs beside the stream. And more wine and more gin. And more worry. But no-one talked about that.
Frank grew up and went to boarding school. Her mother didn’t like it at all. So there was more wine and little white pills to take the edge of the worry which was growing into something bigger and scarier. And still no-one talked about it.
Frank grew up some more and went further afield. Her father became very sick. Her mother couldn’t cope and the wine began to make an appearance earlier in the day. The dosage of the little white pills was increased, the ‘do not take with alcohol’ label ignored and people began to talk about it. The wine, that is, not the worry.
Frank’s beautiful but by now not nearly so funny mother spent a week in the drug & alcohol unit at Kenepuru Hospital. It stopped the drinking but traumatised her. Not the best way of dealing with chronic anxiety. Another time she was prescribed a medication to stop her drinking, one that intentionally made her as sick as a dog when she drank (in fact even sicker than any of Frank’s family’s dogs). But Frank’s dying father while dying was still very much a doctor, he couldn’t stand seeing her so violently sick and had her taken off it.
Frank’s father died. And her mother spiralled, disconcertingly elegantly, out of control.
Frank tried to talk about it. Although often she wanted more than anything not to talk about it. But she felt that someone had to. Except that most people didn’t want to hear.
And they still don’t really want to.
Particularly now that my mother has alcohol induced dementia.
At this point let me say, I’ve thought long and very, very hard about whether I could, and should, publicly write about my mother’s journey and my part of her story. Not just thought, I’ve searched my soul. But there are two things which lead me to hit the ‘publish’ button. The first is that I am now at peace with where we both are, in relationship to each other and her history. That’s not to say I don’t feel profound sadness, sometimes acutely so, for her condition. However the frustration, anger, grief and confusion have passed and replacing these feelings, for the most part, is deep compassion.
The second reason I choose now, not only to write about this but do so publicly, is that it would have helped me enormously to read similar stories and understand that I was not alone. One of the consequences of people not being willing to talk about it, particularly for an only child, was that I felt hugely alone. Often the unwillingness to talk was prefaced by a few brief comments about my mother’s condition not being my responsibility. And while I understood the reasons for such comments, this in fact only amplified the feeling of isolation.
I don’t believe in regrets. But I do wish we’d talked about it. I’ve no doubt that the reason for not doing so was to protect me, but I was a smart kid. I may not have realised there was anything odd about the level of wine consumption – it was normalised – but I did on some level, unconsciously and energetically, register the anxiety and the extraordinary lack of communication in my family. And instead of ripping of the bandaid and confronting the dysfunction in the family and allowing the wound to heal, under the bandaid of middle class civility, it was left to fester and become something much more diseased.
I could go on. It is said that you should write about what you know. And heavens knows, I know something about having a relative suffering from mental illness and substance abuse. I suspect I will go on, there is a great deal more I would like to share, hoping it may be of help to people in similar situations. And I suspect there are many… This morning in fact, I came across an article stating that eight million prescriptions for pills to treat anxiety and depression were dispensed in New Zealand 2011-12 (current population 4.4 million). I would say it’s a fairly safe bet that for a significant number of people taking this medication, alcohol is part of the mix.
I began this post by attempting to summarise forty years of experience, forty years of this story, my story as part of my mother’s. Somehow, telling it in the same way I would tell a children’s story intuitively felt like the most simple way of beginning.
Of course this is not a simple story, but my message in this post is simple. I wish we’d talked. It took me a very long time to do so, with family or close friends. Because we didn’t talk about it as a family, I didn’t even realise it was a problem for ages. Talking with family might have caused something to crack, but as Rumi (and Leonard Cohen) have said, it’s the crack that lets the light in. Reaching out to friends, having friends brave enough to talk about it with me and listen, helped let light in for me and consequently allow some of my own, long suppressed light, to get out.
For those of you in similar situations, of course I don’t know how it is for you and your family. Clearly I’m not a health practitioner, but I do have decades of life experience in health. I grew up in a medical family, within the last ten years, my father, grandfather, grandmother and two uncles have died. My father had Lewy Body dementia, my grandmother Alzheimer’s, both Uncles died far too young of cancer. I have a profound interest in health and take a holistic approach. I work in communications. With stories. I believe in the healing power of storytelling.
So, my message in this first post, part 1 of the Story of Frank, is ultimately simple. Please talk. If there’s even the tiniest window try, if not, see if you can make one. It might be, probably will be, scary, it may well be uncomfortable, you could well feel as if you’re not getting anywhere, but if I were you – and in many respects I have been – I would try. It’s never too late.
To be continued…