You don't have to understand the world. You just have to find your own way around in it. - Albert Einstein

Saturday, 22 March 2014

on my Mother the Pisshead; with thanks to Dionysus

One of the best things about my childhood was that my mother was a functional alcoholic.

I realise what an unusual statement this is, and I want to start with a kind of disclaimer and apology to anyone who might find it upsetting or offensive. I do realise that an enormous number of people have suffered terribly due to their parents' alcohol abuse. I know that the cost of alcohol abuse and related issues like drink driving is tragic and bitter and huge for our society as a whole, and I wouldn't want anyone to think that I was being disrespectful or flippant about the issue. But my story was different.

I never even realised that my mother would, under current conventional terminology, be considered an alcoholic until I was in my late 20's. I happened to be visiting with her on the day of the weekly shopping trip. At this time she was living in a remote area, and had to stock up on all her supplies, alcoholic and otherwise, for the whole week. Her weekly budget of alcohol came to six bottles of wine and two bottles of bourbon. There was more for her husband. By now I knew the current definitions. I did the maths, and a light bulb went off in my head. "My mother is an alcoholic."

A generation ago, my mother would have been a 'heavy drinker.' Now the term is 'functional alcoholic,' because my mother's alcohol intake has never had a negative impact on her life, or none that I can see. In fact, it made our lives better. There was never once a single evening during my childhood when there was not dinner on the table, not a single morning without her up before us and a clean uniform to wear, not a single occasion when she didn't turn up whenever I was expecting her to pick me up. She never started drinking before dinner on a school night or lunch on a weekend, except for Christmas and the Mother's Day barbeques. She never fucked anything up because she was pissed. She was completely functional as a caregiver. She just happened to drink a lot, as well. Even at the time I had my lightbulb realisation, long after her children had grown up and left home, my mother was caring for newborn orphaned lambs, which necessitated going out in the freezing winter night every four hours to feed them with a bottle. That's hardly the actions of a person sick with an addiction.

My mother is naturally a very friendly, sociable, likable person. She's fun, and she's funny. She has a great sense of humour and can always get people laughing. She's quite dismayed that her children have not inherited her easy sense of humour. Regular readers will know that I take things way too seriously. Some people get mean and nasty or violent when they get drunk. But my mum just gets more fun and more funny the more she drinks. It was absolutely wonderful to hang out with her like this when I was a kid. Some of my best memories from my later childhood years were the weekend evenings when we would just sit at the kitchen table, my mother and I, and chat, listening to cassette tapes. She would drink triple bourbon-and-Diet Cokes and I drank the Coke straight. As the evening wore on, and she got drunker, she would get funnier and funnier until I would end up literally rolling on the floor in helpless laughter, clutching my stomach and yelling for mum to please stop being so funny, because it was hurting my stomach to laugh so hard. She would earnestly try to comply with my request, and the sight of her trying to pull her expression into composure was so hilarious that I would go off again, tears streaming down my face.

Other weekends she would go out nightclubbing with her best friend, who was 15 years younger than herself, and into that kind of thing. My sister and I adored our regular babysitter, Miss N. She would come and stay the night and we would make popcorn and stay up late watching Nightmare On Elm Street or The Terminator. Miss N would let us do whatever we wanted with her hair. She would sit placidly, munching popcorn and watching the screen, while I sat on one side of her and my sister on the other, and we would each style half of her hair in our own way. We got out the sprays and mousses and gels, the crimper and the blowdryer, from the bathroom. We plaited and teased and combed and sprayed. This was the 80's, remember. Miss N's boyfriend often came to spend the night as well. We just adored him too. He was a drummer in a band, and would often turn up with big, sore knots in his shoulders after the previous night's gig. He taught me how find the knots with my fingers and work them out. Basically, I learned the skills of a professional massage therapist. (Again, I realise how this might sound off in the current climate, so I will stress that there was never anything inappropriate about it. All above the waist and above board.) This has turned out to be one of the most significant practical skills I ever learned during my childhood, much to the great benefit of those whom I have had an opportunity to be able to help. Even now, I'm using these skills almost every day, which is very important for Mr CJ with his chronic pain condition. He gets terribly painful knots in his neck and shoulders, and I can work them out, and ease his pain. This is real-life practical magic.

The morning after a night out, Mum would have a Hangover, and would stay in bed late. We loved this, because we got to take a pile of coins from the jar under the kitchen sink and go the shop to get her green icy poles and hot chips and sour cream, the official Hangover Food. We were also allowed to get whatever lolly or ice cream we wanted while we were there.

And so I never noticed that my mum was an alcoholic. We just knew the word 'pisshead'. That's what a lot of her friends and family would say - "Ah, you're just a pisshead, love." They meant it with affection and admiration. Most of them were pissheads, too.

Australians generally drink quite a lot of alcohol. The average, blue singlet-wearing, Aussie working man will think nothing of knocking back half a dozen stubbies (375mL bottles) of beer after a day's work. And I should point out that Australian beer has a much higher alcohol content than common American beers. I didn't turn out to be an alcoholic myself. In fact, by Australian standards, I'm not much of a drinker at all. On a hot day, I might have one cider rather than six beers, and I usually still stick to the Coke, straight. I did have a few periods in my 20's when I engaged in what would be defined as regular binge drinking, but they each only lasted a few months and then faded away without me having to make a concious effort to reduce my alcohol intake. But like a true Australian, I can really put it away on a special occasion. And like my mother, I'm a highly functional and pleasant drunk. Like the Italians, I really enjoy cooking while drunk. I can polish off two bottles of sparkling wine and still produce a damn fine roast chicken dinner with all the trimmings and gravy from scratch. Last week was such a special occasion, my birthday. I'm pleased to note that at thirty-six years of age, I can still put away two bottles of wine and wake up without a hangover. That's doing well.

My mother cut down her drinking significantly when she got into her fifties and our doctor told her she was at risk of diabetes. She didn't develop diabetes, and of all the health problems she does experience, none of them are related to her alcohol consumption. Of all the curses that the gift of Dionysus has lain upon the burden of humankind, we were granted with a blessing. It made the hard times better and easier, and I am so thankful.

Blessed be, Dionysus, Lord of the Vine.

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