Not all women find a solution to their problems with alcohol misuse before they hit the age of forty. In fact, the vast majority of women I see are older, by no means past it and certainly still contributing to family and working demands.
The courtship that we enjoy in our younger years with the forever present but (increasingly so as we age) guilt-laden pleasures of alcohol, has a tendency to morph into dependence for many, causing despair and an awful lot of pain by the time we reach our middle years. Making it worse, of course, is the fact that we recognise that excessive drinking has the effect of making us look far crazier than it did when we were young and fancy-free. The logic does not escape us, but the execution of dealing with it does. We are still, for the most part, sailing down the river of denial. This lover and keeper of secrets and dreams long since betrayed us, but how do we extricate ourselves from it, and who will comfort us if and when we do?
Glenda had known for years that she had a problem with alcohol. A mild flirtation had developed into a full blown love affair, and the half-hearted attempts to deal with it over the years had been futile. She lost count of the number of her previous efforts at sobriety, and so keen was her sense of doom with regards to her ability to shun alcohol for good, that she was aware of the possible outcomes right from the start of her relationship with the demon drink.
The first taste, as Glenda so acutely remembers, really hit the spot. She recalls confiding in her then husband way back in the 1970s that she thought perhaps she liked this still fairly occasional affair a little too much. He was an internationally known toxicologist and simply laughed which appeased her for surely he would have been the first to see a problem should there have been one. Another deceitful part of this illness is its almost chameleon-like qualities; it fools us and lulls us and of course, it always wants us to reflect on the ups rather than the downs. Any confirmation of this view, from those we love especially, reinforces the idea that the harm is nothing to really worry about. After all, alcohol consumption is all very acceptable and normal.
Glenda, cemented as she now was in the belief that her taste for alcohol was quite normal, drank when the mood dictated but still with an underlying anxiety that something was seriously off kilter in relation to her true feelings with regards to drinking and her particular style of doing it.
As the problem escalated, she guarded her loins and went to the Alcohol Problems Advisory Service. Appointment was made, boxes were ticked, and on that basis, the advice was given that as Glenda did not have an addictive personality, she was therefore unlikely to become a full-blown alcoholic. More shallow advice of the generic variety settled her mind once more, and so the dance continued.
As she progressed through her forties, Glenda passed along the alcohol plateau and began the steep descent down the other side of the booze mountain. In her early fifties, feeling more than a little paranoid and at worst an alarmist, she contacted Drinkline. There were many family issues running in the background at the time, and the people she spoke to over the phone reassured her saying that once things were all back on an even keel, so her drinking would be. Kind and soothing but still no-one was putting the brakes on, no matter how hard Glenda was crying for help and asking somebody, anybody, to do just that.
In and amongst these failed attempts she also was brave enough to confide in her GP. Blood tests had shown that she was drinking too much, but at this stage the liver function tests were normal. This differential was a pre-cursor to abnormal tests. Glenda took immediate action, and for six weeks abstained.
On the second visit to the doctor, her eyes focused on a bottle of red wine on the desk, a present from a grateful patient, whilst the GP told her that her bloods were now completely normal.
Originally telling her that abstinence was the way to go, and now relieved at the result, the doctor said to her horrified ‘I didn’t tell you to stop drinking, just to stick to government guidelines!’ So with the mind now focused on that bottle of Merlot on the desk, Glenda went out with a pass to drink but was fully aware in her heart that the guidelines would soon become quite meaningless. Yet again, normalisation played its part in Glenda’s continuing alcohol dependency.
Glenda made many attempts to red flag her heavy drinking to other GPs, and all resulted in similar platitudes; once her stresses were resolved she would drink less, her ability to give up for a few weeks at a time proved that she had control, and a liver function test was most definitely not on the cards. Outwardly this was a very highly functioning woman who was coping admirably with major events, and therefore was bound (and entitled) to have a few drinks to relax.
Four years ago another attempt to obtain help in resolving her alcohol dependency was made through psychotherapy which Glenda sought after suffering a double bereavement. She mentioned her concern again about her heavy alcohol consumption and especially the amount she had drunk whilst visiting close family members – the advice? Have regular alcohol-free days, and just let your hair down with the people you enjoy drinking with. Ticket to binge issued to a lady with a badly wired mind, and the merry-go-round went on spinning.
With still amazing fortitude and following a complete breakdown, Glenda then found what she thought would be, as the name suggested, her Last Orders.
This organization was affiliated to the NHS and was brought to her attention via the GP surgery. Glenda, fully assured of discretion and anonymity, arrived for her appointment which was held at the GP’s surgery on a pre-arranged day. Nervous and anxious yet still determined, she was approached in front of the others sitting patiently in the waiting room by an officious nurse who, in loud tones, asked her why she was there and who she was. Glenda nodded meekly towards the poster referring to Last Orders on the wall, and whispered to her that she thought there were appointments that day, but the woman persisted in her line of loud and blatant questioning, and Glenda fled.
As mortifying as this experience had been, Glenda tried to rationalise it by deciding that one person was not representative of the service, and so she made an appointment at the city centre office. Once there, she was ‘marked’ on answers she gave on a form. Two counsellors attended to her and noted that (because she had dutifully but atypically been abstinent for a week prior to this meeting) her blood pressure was completely normal. They wanted to know what she expected from this service. Her hope, she informed them, was for support over a reasonable amount of time to ensure that she had a fighting chance of long-term sobriety. Their response was to advise Glenda that she should simply keep a record of her daily alcohol intake, giving her the distinct impression that she really did not have any serious problems.
Alcoholics Anonymous also featured in her failed attempts to seek help; throughout her later drinking years Glenda tried to connect with the 12 Step programme and to attend the (inconvenient for her) group meetings. Eventually, feeling battered and bruised, exhausted by the effort to attend meetings, and feeling that her interpretation of her alcohol misuse was just not the same as the mainstream view, her only desire (or so she felt) was to come to terms with her ‘alcohol problem’ in her own way. The answer to her drinking habit was not committing to a lifetime of attending meetings with people who never seemed to move on, and neither could she shake her view of the AA being a club of shame.
Glenda had known all along that she needed to completely stop drinking. She was looking for the kind of diagnostic procedure to be expected on a visit to the doctor for any other kind of life-threatening illness. She wanted tests to be run, specialist referral and the subsequent expert advice, support, and any appropriate medication to help her recover. She had never expected patronising attitudes and a deepening of her already well-developed sense of guilt and shame.
Below are Glenda’s words about how she came to view the helping hand we offered her at the Harrogate Sanctuary;
‘When I saw the article in The Sunday Times mentioning Sarah’s work I grasped the opportunity to consult her as the last chance to save my life. There is no hyperbole in this; no attempt at over-dramatizing my situation. Too many years and too much effort to quit had gone by and the fight had all but gone out of me. I knew from first contact that I had at last found someone who could support me towards full recovery. Sarah knew exactly where I was coming from and what I had been through; she treated me with respect and caring and I felt real hope. As the days and weeks went by my daily diary entries gradually evolved from weathering the cravings for alcohol, to finding my mood lift and my physical health improve, to being surprised at finding immense pleasure in simple things and a novel sense of enthusiasm for life. Finally I was beginning to find the real me.’
Yet again we can witness in Glenda’s story the common themes of commitment and fidelity. There is no question that Glenda was totally smitten with her Mr Unsuitable but at the same time, she saw right through him. The sadness is that she had to go through so much agony and a maelstrom of heartache to find Mr Right who she knew was lurking all along but who remained just slightly out of her reach.
Now in her sixties, life for Glenda is good, clear and honest. Forty years of confusion and frustration has been replaced with an intricate knowledge of her unique problem, and exactly how to deal with it. None of us are meant to be the subject of a one-size-fits-all solution, and none of us can do this alone. No matter how firm the resolve, there always has to be a totally honest rapport between you and sobriety. The decision to be faithful and true initially seems so easy and manageable that you want to share the first glow of enlightenment with anyone who will listen. Just as with any solid relationship, however, a lifestyle choice of sobriety needs to be protected and nurtured if it is to last. Too many times I have witnessed a sterling start, only to watch things fall into sad and painful pieces because the expectation had been too high and the groundwork not put in.
Entering into a relationship which will hopefully last a lifetime takes great courage and plenty of soul-searching. Alcohol, our particular breed of unsuitable partner, never hides in the shadows for long; it is easy to obtain and everywhere you look, ready to seduce when you least expect it. There is no discernment, but a completely classless, ageless magnetism that although can be tempered, will never totally disappear. Only with the best of care can the necessary solid foundations be laid, upon which to lay a long-term commitment to wellness.