Neither my husband nor my daughter has a choice about the situation in which they find themselves
Recently R had a major relapse, a bender that lasted a couple of days, during which he holed up in his flat, blinds down, mobile phone switched off, intransigent in his belief that alcohol was the only thing that would soothe his dark mood.
He didn’t asked for help, but he told me he loved me when I eventually found him. I replied that I loved him too, and said that I hoped he could find the support he needed.
On the same evening, my daughter had a meltdown about school, which resulted in her saying some very cruel things about me and how I was to blame for her misery. I tried to soothe her, to hug her, but her anger rose and she ended up shouting, and walking out of the house to see her friend.
These two situations, though far from similar, tested my ability to practise new, healthy behaviours. One thing I’ve learned is this: having an alcoholic husband and a teenage daughter might not sound like similar deals, but neither really has a choice about the situation in which they find themselves. Addiction, whether dormant or active, is for life. Teenage-hood, though short in actual years, can bleed into the future, and affect adult life. And although I can’t control my daughter or my husband’s behaviour, I can learn to support them separately, in loving ways.
The past couple of days have proved to be a great test of my stamina: not for climbing up hills, or doing sit-ups, or staying up half the night trying to finish work. It almost seems harder than all of those things, yet it is simply trying to keep my mouth shut.
During a heated moment with my daughter – usually something as innocuous as me not allowing her to use her phone at the dinner table – she has discovered the brilliant effect it can have to say something hurtful, then swiftly leave the room. She is – as my mother reminded me recently – behaving exactly as I did when I was a teenager.
At such times, I could follow her to her bedroom and enter into an argument, and it would become a full-blown row, with her saying things that, although cruel, have more than a modicum of truth. Things like, “You married an alcoholic and you can’t cope with all of this.” If I’m truthful, there is no comeback to that. Of course, I could try to reason, try to say that I’m coping right now, and ask her to be reasonable. But I realise that she – like many a teenager – has a whole sea of shit and hormones swimming around her body. And usually they have just learned that adults are complicated and less than perfect.
With all that in mind, I can see that following my daughter out of the room is not often a sensible idea. It is best to let the heat dissipate, to allow my daughter to brood a little, work through her frustration, call a pal and talk it through, because I am her mother and not her friend. The frustration she feels (especially when her family life has been so tumultuous of late) is sometimes eased a little just by being allowed to get things off her chest.
Keeping my mouth zipped is not easy. There are times when my words are trying to escape like kittens from a cardboard box. I think I have the answers; I sometimes want to prove that I am right; more often, I simply want to fix things with my words. But then I have to remind myself that words alone have never fixed anything.
My daughter sometimes needs to walk away from a difficult situation to the sound of her own voice – rather than mine – reverberating around her head. In the days when I had to have the last word, the temporary sense of triumph was sometimes exhilarating. It might have worn off pretty quickly, but most infuriating was the adult who always wanted to round off the argument with a wise little piece of advice.
I’m learning with R how important and beautiful the power of silence can be. There were times when a million of my words would not have been enough. I would send emails in anger, others with the intention of comforting, though all with an underlying tone of resentment. After a relapse, I would often tell him what his best course of action would be. If he was too sad to talk, I’d tell him to get better at being vocal about his pain. “What would I do?” I used to think – then tell him to do the same.
But he is not me, and I am not an alcoholic. He has to work through this, deal with his own silence, cope with the fact that eventually, if he carries on drinking, the voices of people telling him to stop will finally disappear altogether, and the only voice left will be his own. Hopefully then, he’ll listen.