Joe is waiting on the front doorstep when you get home from work.
“Good day?” he asks, a glint in his eye.
“I guess so, nothing special,” you reply. You begin to fumble in your rucksack for your keys, but a hand stops you. It’s Joe’s. You look up and he’s smiling wickedly.
“No, allow me,” he says, proudly, before opening the front door to reveal a bombsite. There’s food on the carpet, upturned furniture all over the place and graffiti on the walls. He gestures around the room as you’re left speechless. This is your home. All you want is to sit and relax after a long day.
“What the hell has happened here?” you ask, but Joe is already making work of setting fire to the settee and emptying the kitchen bin all over the floor.
“Deal with it,” he says, definitively. “You’re clearing all this up.” A cushion goes up in flames. “This is all on you.”
* * *
Nobody is really sure when Joe moved in. He just sort of appeared one day, baggage in hand, and made himself comfortable. Bizarrely, your family accommodated him with little fuss – fed whenever he needed it, given all the attention he desired. As obnoxious as you find him, and as much as you hate his presence in your home, he’s just sort of slotted into your life.
Annoyingly, he seems to be wherever you’re going whenever you go out, too. He’s in the supermarket, hiding in the next aisle over ready to jump out when you bump into an old friend.
“Did you hear Emma won the lottery? It’s true! She’s taking all the family on holiday!” His eyes meet yours over the fruit and veg, and he’s got that same infuriating smirk on his face that you see every day. Your friend turns to you, eyes wide with shock, and she’s very excited.
“The lottery? Oh Em, that’s fantastic news!”
You haven’t won the lottery, but now everyone thinks you did. You didn’t even buy a ticket.
* * *
The media’s portrayal of alcoholism and alcoholics, I’ve found, is hideously inaccurate. We tend to see either the extreme cases – Louis Theroux’s doc ‘Drinking To Oblivion’ springs to mind – or the just plain stupid (did anyone else catch that episode of Eastenders where a drunk Phil Mitchell got behind the wheel a construction crane and smashed in his offices?), and that’s it. What we’re not shown is the ordinary, everyday life of a functioning alcoholic, and how it feels to live with one.
My own experience of living with an alcoholic is like living with a Joe. Here’s a few things you may not realise.
1) There’s no on and off switch. When you live with an alcoholic, it’s always at the forefront of your mind – you’re never quite sure what you’re coming home to, and even when things seem okay you can’t relax because you’re wondering how many seconds are left on that ticking time bomb.
2) Alcoholism is entirely separate from the alcoholic themselves. It’s just an illness, an add-on, in the same way a broken leg (or a Joe) is. It can be frustrating, sometimes, to see an alcoholic who falls apart at home put on a positive face out and about when you know that’s not the full story – but that’s why they do it. An alcoholic is not their alcoholism and if they can hide it, then why wouldn’t they?
Finally, and maybe most importantly,
3) if you live with a functioning alcoholic, or are close to somebody who is a functioning alcoholic, your concern is just as valid as it would be if they were pouring vodka on their cornflakes and sleeping rough. It’s okay to feel angry, upset and hopeless, that your efforts simply aren’t enough. It’s okay to seek help, for them AND for you.
It’s Alcohol Awareness Week, and I didn’t feel I could let it pass without sharing my own experience. If you know of anyone struggling with alcoholism, to any extent, I urge you to reach out and offer your support however you can. Even just lending an ear can go such a long way.