When the wine tips over – Parental Alcohol use

Late last year we saw the first report of its kind Alcohol Studies (IAS) looking at moderate drinking by parents which warned that

‘parents do not have to regularly drink large amounts of alcohol for their children to notice changes in their behaviour and experience negative impacts’

I know this first hand . As a parent who regularly drank alcohol each night after work, and almost without warning moved into irresponsible, behaviour drinking too much and too often leading to extremely risking parenting . This is my story :

I stopped drinking Alcohol in June 2007.

Back then I had already been working in the substance use field for about 16 years, so I knew all the risks and harms from alcohol and other drugs. I had for many years supported adults and young people in reducing harm from alcohol and other drug use. I coached people to recognise harm that their substance use might be causing. Often, people cannot see the risk for themselves – that great river of DENIAL is, as we know a blooming wide river at times .

I had worked with families affected by their children’s use and worked with parents whose use was affecting their children . I trained other professionals to work with individuals and families , to understand, to support to assess risk and to safeguard.

So yes back in 2007 I was already a skilled practitioner in helping others to improve their own lives and that of their families.

Affects on children from Parental use of alcohol or other drugs was always big on the agenda for me. My teenage years and early 20s brought me into contact with a lot of children affected by parental use of alcohol heroin and other drugs and I saw first hand how children suffer when mum or dad is consumed by their drug of choice. This experience was the main reason why in the early 90s I left a highly paid career in I.T. to follow my passion and begin a career working with those affected by substance use . The foundations of my professional journey were formed on the frontline working in Needle Exchanges and for Mental Health charities until 2 years later I went to University – where I focused my studies on Parental Substance Use.

Its fair to say , through my professional and personal life I learnt a fair bit about the effects of substance and more importantly how best to support people when use becomes a problem .

All this knowledge and insight yet up until June 2007 I had no idea that I was having problems with booze, and what is even more incredible is that despite my perfectionist attitude in terms of motherhood I had no idea what impact my drinking may have on my 8 year old son.

How can someone so clued up about substance use, someone so determined to be the best mum ever, have a problem with booze ?

I look back now and could ask myself

how the hell did I let it get so bad ?”

but I can also look back and say

” Thank God I realised when I did “

You see, to some people my drinking might not have looked problematic. I had a good job, a gorgeous son, a loving husband , a supportive family, a beautiful home, no debt, no real worries. Alcohol did not seem to be a problem – not to me and not to anyone around me .

Yes I drank every day – which we know is not good for you , but it wasn’t huge quantities. I only drank in the home I rarely consumed spirits . Compared to my wild child 20s, I was , I thought a responsible drinker. Life was good right ?

As for affecting my son , I didn’t ever drink in the morning , I never drove when drinking , I didn’t even drink around my son – always getting him off to bed before I even contemplated opening the bottle. But you see that’s the thing – opening the bottle for me , meant finishing the bottle.

Some nights I didn’t get my lad to bed until 9pm , and by then I was so exhausted. I worked full time and came home to a husband who was recovering from an industrial injury – he fell from scaffolding and suffered excruciating pain from nerve and muscle damage. For a long time he was unable to work and was on copious amounts of opiate pain relief that meant he slept most of his days away.

I had a very busy life, our family had been turned upside down by my husband’s accident I was suffering huge amounts of stress and anxiety and I realise now that I was self-medicating on that daily slurp of wine. I was torn between being a responsible mum, a good wife, a successful career woman and the need for this night time dose of quickly supped vino that would finally allow me to ….breathe.

I believed I was OK , I didn’t see my use as risky. The daily drinking , regardless of the fact that it was only 1 bottle a night (maybe 2 at weekend ) was however. really beginning to take its toll. My mental health suffered – I awoke most days not remembering climbing into bed. Stress and tiredness meant that I was always rushing and often forgetting . Full of shame of being a “bad parent” for not getting up on time or forgetting to take the washing out, not helping with my sons homework – all seemingly meaningless stuff except to me this was huge. I believed I was just not good enough. At work I was confident, successful with a good reputation for my professionalism and ability . At home though I could not juggle everything I was a useless wife and mother. I felt such a failure and negative thoughts were constant , I contemplated suicide as a solution to the despair I felt.

My mental health was suffering. I was struggling to manage my life. On the one hand I knew I had a problem coping with life but bizarrely I had no idea that the daily drinking was possibly at the root of my emotional distress . Drinking wine at night now served a purpose it stopped me from feeling the shame of not being able to juggle all the responsibility . A glass of wine allowed me to … breathe

Only it didn’t , The tiredness from alcohol induced sleep and the belief that I was a failure gave me more of a reason to drink – to numb the emotional pain and switch my head off.

Despite my professional background I did not acknowledge the extent to which alcohol was both causing and exacerbating my emotional frailties.

At home I had this unwritten rule about not drinking in front of my son , and looking back I see that this rule actually created more stress for me and more importantly for my son!! You see even though the amount I drank was not huge , it was daily drinking and I craved it every day . It got to 7.30 and I needed the day to end I needed to get my boy to bed so I could open the bottle and relax. Torn between being the perfect sober mum at bedtime , giving chocolate milk, bedtime stories and cuddles, and stressed mum who needed that drink so I could ….. Breathe.

I opened the bottle, and I drank – fast!! Which had become my normal way of drinking . For me most nights went like this: 9pm my son is in bed, open the bottle slurp slurp slurp sleep. I drank so fast it’s no wonder I had no recollection the next day – regardless of the amounts I was drunk as a skunk every night .

It was stressful, my pain was hidden and looking back its no surprise that one night the wheels came off. This was the night there was no hiding from the fact that my drinking directly impacted on my son – whats more it could again . Filled with shame and guilt this night was the last time I drank.

It was a Friday, which meant my son was up a bit later. My husband was in bed his pain and strong medication meant he was in bed most nights by 7.30pm It was a summer’s night and my lad was playing on the front. I felt safe , relaxed and chilled as the house was quiet. I opened the bottle of wine. I could see him out the window he was playing with his little pal – nothing to worry about, my one rule for drinking once my son was in bed got pushed from my mind as I pondered “what normal parent doesn’t like a glass of wine on a Friday night? ” It was my time to …. breathe

I drank as I did every night – fast – not consciously you understand, I had no control over the speed of my drinking . On reflection its clear as daylight that when I drank I literally didn’t stop but to me, a woman drinking alone with no one around to compare with it felt normal . Besides every drama, film and soap on the TV resorted to booze to relax to celebrate to allow the character to raise a glass for whatever life situation was going on … to breathe .

About 40 mins later it was time for his little pal to go home – it was only around the corner but it was a bit dark , so I walked him home, my boy in tow. It took all of 10 minutes. I felt OK when I left the house but on the walk back – I reflect how I was too drunk to walk straight . We came into our road – a quiet suburban street and I had a mad drunken urge to smoke – I had not smoked for years this was a drunken whim. It was a warm summers night , windows were open and I heard music coming from a neighbour’s house . I decided it would be a good idea to go ask them for cigarette – but I didn’t want my boy to see, so I opened the front door, put the TV on gave him a kiss and a hug and told him I would be back in 5. That was my plan, it was a foolish drunken plan !

The request for a cigarette led to a drunken me being invited into the home of our students having a party where I danced and drank some more – This 40 something mum was partying without a care in the world with teenagers and young adults totally oblivious to the fact that I had unintentionally walked out on my son, and with his Dad so medicated he was difficult to rouse , my 8-year-old was effectively alone wondering where his mum was .

I had absolutely no idea of the risk the potential consequences. I am a responsible mum , My son was and is the light of my life, I literally adore him . After a brief period of quick drinking I was so drunk I got myself into the situation that posed huge risk to my young son, and deep shame for a mum who only ever wanted the absolute best for him. Partying away oblivious, it wasn’t until 1. 5 hours later when my husband appeared frantically looking for me. Drunk and incoherent I shouted at him for spoiling my fun, I was only having a laugh don’t be miserable its a party !!! I was totally oblivious to the true extent of my actions until he said

“Deb look at him he’s scared … ”

Holding his hand was our little boy , the little man I idolised sobbing his heart out . I was devastated but drunkenly unrepentant and staggered home.

In the cold light of the next day it hit me…. it hit me bad !!!

It seems my boy had waited for me and got worried when I did not come back , he had already knocked on a couple of doors before forcibly shaking his Daddy awake in a total panic. He was scared , and he was heartbroken. His mummy was missing and he was scared. My drinking , and my drunkenness had put my boy in danger and had frightened him into a real panic.

That was the last time I ever drank.

On that night I could not deny that my drinking had affected my son . For me , that was the turning point , the decider the game changer. I look back at that time in my life now and think of the way I was drinking , craving that glass every night, drinking fast and becoming intoxicated on moderately low amounts and I actually feel gratitude.

Grateful that no additional harm came to my son,

Grateful that this was the end of my drinking,

Grateful for sobriety which has improved my life beyond compare

and most of all

Grateful for the fantastic relationship I have with my son today .

Although I had no physical dependency it was not easy to stop – with the love and care of others who had been in similar position I have thankfully maintained my sobriety since that day . Alcohol affects us all differently depending on our state of mind our physical make up , external factors, as well as amounts, how quick we drink and the strength of the booze.

Effects on our children can be subtle such as a parents losing patience in anticipation of that first glass or disregarding responsibility leaving your child as I did unattended. The point I make is this ; as parents the amount we drink, the level of dependency whether physical or psychology are all factors, but there really is no cut off point of what is 100% safe, its something that as a parent we have to assess for ourselves.

There is only one other night that I can remember where I seriously put my son at risk from my drinking , a few years earlier he woke in the middle of the night with ear ache and I had to take him to the open clinic at our local hospital. It was 1am and although responsible mum did the right thing taking him to the clinic I was still drunk from my late night consumption of wine. Nothing untoward happened , but I was drunk in sole charge of a little boy in the middle of the night and that really makes me think. How many other parents think their drinking is safe, until that is their children become ill in the night and they are too drunk to wake up, to drunk to tend to them responsibly . It happened to me and I am sure it happens to other mums and dads.

Although my son does not remember the trip to the hospital with his sleepy intoxicated mum we do sometimes talk about the last night I drank when he could not find me He tells me this was one of only a handful of occasions where he actually witnessed me being drunk, however he does recognise that I am a much happier calmer and together person in sobriety which tells me that my drinking was impacting in many other more subtle ways back then .

Although he does not express any anger or resentment he has never forgotten those few drunken episodes or the unhappy mummy he compares with me today . Today he talks of how proud he is of my sobriety , he loves his sober mum unconditionally , and he knows full well what part he played in my decision to quit . He is 19 now and he is , as anyone who knows him will tell you, a confident , kind funny intelligent gorgeous guy – I believe my sobriety actually improved life for the pair of us.

I tell my story openly in the hope that it helps another parent to take a moment to pause to reflect on their own drinking and how alcohol use whatever the amount and frequency might subtly be impacting on their children.

Does your need for a drink cause you stress?

Does your drinking lead to you act irresponsibly ?

Whether you drink in the company of your children or wait until they go to bed before you open that bottle, how is your parenting ability affected when you drink in the home.

I decided to give up totally and for me its been the right decision. Other parents may consider their drinking is not harmful or decide that reducing or moderating use is all that is required. Drinkaware has some useful guidelines to help you to check out for yourself.

Today I coach people to make positive changes in their lives . We cover many different aspect and sometimes it can be about their own drinking or other drug use. My own experience provides me with a great insight into how life can and does get better once you take the first steps in recognisign whatever action you need to take . For me the bottom line is be honest with yourself and if necessary make changes . oh yes and you don’t need to wait until a catastrophe happens before you do so Children grow up so quickly our actions today shape their lives tomorrow.

Deb Drinkwater Trainer & Coach

“The best kind of parent you can be is to lead by example”

Drew Barrymore