It always seems to go back to childhood. I read a report just yesterday suggesting that things such as stress in childhood can be linked to shortened life expectancy and susceptibility to a range of health conditions in later life. Not a surprise then if our drinking habits can sometimes find their origins in our childhood. For me the patterns of harmful, excessive drinking as well as the incredible pleasure I have had in my drinking career are rooted in three main themes of my childhood:
1 The early socialization into drinking culture and culture via the German side of my family
2 My father- both my reaction and kicking against his anti alcohol message as well as the void left by his inability to show warmth and love
3 Childhood illness that left me feeling different and lacking confidence
Number 1- The Germans! My mum was German. She was loving, generous, sociable and was a constant but moderate drinker. Even in her final dementia ridden years she loved to share a glass or two of red wine with me. A few sips and the old German folk songs came out. Maybe moments like that explain the love side of my love hate relationship with alcohol.
Then there was the rest of the Germans.Wow! A drinking culture of a different order. My first recollection of drinking alcohol was as a 5 year old at a wedding in Germany. My uncles playfully offering me a sip of champagne and also a puff of a cigar. No doubt this would now be considered child abuse but this was Germany in the 1960s- let the boy enjoy himself. I loved the champagne but the cigar made me feel sick. My German uncles were great. Working men who had fought in the war, been prisoners of war (two of them) in Russia, worked in factories and sung in the local choir. Coursing through this proud, interconnected world was beer and schnapps. To me these men were gods. They sang, told great stories, were warm and affectionate, made things with their hands and drank. When I went there as a twelve year old I was encouraged to have a beer, try a schnapps. Constant drink but no-one ever getting drunk, in public anyway, as I had often seen back in England.
I can see that my early positive associations to alcohol were forged in those encounters with my German family. One uncle subsequently died after falling down the stairs after a drinking session and a cousin died after having remortgaged his family home and squandering the money on gambling and drinking. He was found dead in his vomit. These were less positive associations but I was shielded from these and only found out the darker side of the drinking culture when I was in my 20s. Even then I saw their deaths as a result of deeper problems; alcohol was the means by which they died I said to myself, not the reason.
Number 2- My Father
Where the Germans represented life, fun,singing and sociability lubricated with beer, wine and schnapps, my father represented criticism, judgement, isolation lubricated with tea and scowls. Who wouldn’t, given that choice, choose alcohol?
I’m being hard on my poor old dad and I feel mean but he had been ill and for reasons I will probably never know, I was on the receiving end of much of his anger, frustration and disappointment. When he died I had no tears. I felt regret that I could not remember one single occasion when he held, cuddled or made me feel loved. But no tears. He could sometimes take it out on my mum too and I would always take her side, gang up with her against my dad. He would lecture all and sundry about why eating meat and smoking and drinking alcohol were all bad failings, weaknesses. Lovely. Now I knew how to annoy my dad. I started smoking at 13, knocked back the occasional beer from 15 and ate meat, refusing meals that only contained vegetables. I also delighted in telling my dad who fought on the beaches of Normandy that Hitler was a vegetarian teetotaler. What a little shit I must have been. As I grew up I always felt a gap where my father should have been and the self doubt caused by the constant criticism is, I am sure, part of the reason I sometimes drank to cover up difficult feelings. Part of reclaiming a healthy relationship to alcohol will be doing what I am doing now; facing the problematic feelings and emotions head on.
My illness. At 10 I became very ill and was hospitalised. My brother had pushed my face into a chest of drawers (he was 17 and also tended to run me down). The complications from the dentistry led to rheumatic fever. The treatment on cortisone led to a significant deteriation in my eyesight, a huge weight gain and a love of blue cheese which persists to this day. I was then a “sickly child,” only able to do half days at school, constantly chubby with thick glasses and told not to do much exercise (this turned out to be exactly the wrong advice I later discovered). The doctor said my heart valves would be weakened. Do not ever smoke or drink he said. He sounded like my father. Right- another reason to smoke and drink.
As I grew up in my teenage years I felt very different to my peers. No confidence with girls, chubby, glasses, I think looking back I was depressed. I started to inhabit a dark inner world. No confidence, no girls, no fun. Then at 17 I discovered pubs and beer. My Damascus moment had arrived. I drank beer and I would start chatting to people. I had developed a “funny” persona to survive school years and that combined with the relaxed confidence meant I suddenly got the interest of girls. Without alcohol I not even be here; it got me through some difficult times. Not surprising that I’m not ready to abandon such a life saving friend.
Interesting setting it out like this. Yeh no wonder I want to keep alcohol in my life- and yet, and yet… It is harmful, it is getting in the way. I’m sure there must be others out there like me, it just seems so hard to wrest back control once a dependent relationship with alcohol has been built up. Setting some limits, increasing to three my non alcohol days in a week and really looking at my internal world when I do drink will all hopefully work.
It felt quite emotional writing about my lovely mum. She had it cracked. A glass of wine at night. Occasional sherry.Occasionally tipsy in a sweet way. I think I would like to be able to drink like she did. And thanks London Wainwright for writing the song: White winos; makes me think of my mum.