Her life had never been easy but, then, who’s was? Recently, though, it felt as though it was becoming increasingly difficult when, at fifty, it should have been starting to settle down a little.
Throughout her childhood she had been surrounded by school friends and much time was spent playing on the streets and at parks with the local kids. Sunday trips to visit older family members entailed getting dressed up in pretty dresses and woolly tights and eating homemade lemon cake by a roaring fire while the adults put the world to rights. Christmases and birthdays had always been filled with treats, gifts piled high and she had enjoyed birthday parties and days out the same as any other child of the seventies. In short, she’d had a normal and fun childhood.
High school brought its own problems to the party with the beginning of four years of name-calling and what was considered back then to be minor bullying. Her confidence was knocked for six and she retreated into an invisible protective shell, with an externally visible loud and outspoken attitude among her close friends.
As a teenager she ran into the usual angst with boys and relationships, but it passed by normally with no more ups and downs than any other teenager. Her relationship with her parents was fraught with arguments and moods, the relationship with her mother a particularly contentious one. Often, minor disputes led to days of non-communication between the two of them after tempers had boiled over. The lock-down from the bullying had left her unable to put into words how she was feeling, and she struggled to communicate with her mum at times of high emotion. During one such episode, she took the first of many overdoses, resulting in being rushed into hospital to have her stomach pumped. An unpleasant experience indeed.
More ups and downs and failed relationships later, she met and married the man she thought was her soulmate. Children soon followed and, although he spent a lot of the time at the pub, life chugged along and was mostly ok. Until the drinking at the pub started to spill over into her husband’s home life. He had been a heavy drinker when they first met but, despite having a good job and a loving family, his drinking habits worsened over the years until he was coming home every evening with cans of strong lager, drinking them all and then acting bizarrely and often violently.
From finding him peeing in the kid’s wardrobes and discovering similar puddles on the kitchen floor in the morning to, worse still, punching her and locking her in the cupboard under the stairs, especially if she suggested he might have drunk too much, the drinking was fast becoming quite scary. She knew the problem was out of control when he punched her full in the stomach when she was carrying their twin babies.
Life became unbelievably unbearable and with the children growing fast, she was fearful for their safety. Working at weekends she often returned to find them playing in the garden with the back gate unlocked and him sprawled comatose on the sofa surrounded by empty cans. She feared for their safety and, indeed, her own, the violence increasing week by week. She tried talking to his mother, herself a semi-recovered alcoholic but was pushed away and told she was fussing over nothing. He was so pleasant and friendly around others that even her closest friends would not believe her so, after a few failed attempts at cries for help, she gave up trying.
Eventually, after a particularly nasty argument, she knew she could take no more and she grabbed what she could, packed the car up and left with their young children.
The divorce became messy but for the wrong reasons. He wasn’t bothered about custody or arranging to see his children, he was more concerned about material things, insisting he get custody of the new Dyson vacuum cleaner, for example. If it wasn’t so sad it would have truly been laughable.
The split had left her with debts totaling over £15,000 because somehow, even though her husband had been in a good job as a Financial Adviser, he had not been meeting targets, resulting in debts to his company while, all the while, he had been spending on lavish items for his top of the range sound system, for example. Unbeknownst to her, and in her young naivety she had allowed him to control their finances, they had missed payments on their mortgage and had all kinds of money troubles, all of which had to be addressed when the house eventually sold, leaving a huge deficit. He never had time for the children and didn’t pay one penny towards their upkeep, wonderful as the newly-instated Child Support Agency were in the nineties.
Life moved on and with two more failed relationships, including one with a woman, she eventually met and married the man who turned out to be her true soulmate. They had to move into rented accommodation because money was tight and with five teenage children between them they knew the purse strings would need firm control. Debts from her former marriage were spiralling and she eventually had to declare herself bankrupt. A dreadfully worrying time, coming from a family who only borrowed on mortgages and saved hard for every other purchase they had ever made.
Slowly, over the years that followed, the children left school and started on the path to college and employment and life plodded along, with a semblance of normality on the horizon.
One of the children was starting to go off the rails, experimenting with drugs and hanging out with the wrong crowd. Her husband and she spent hours trying to talk sense into him, refusing to drive him anywhere and helping him to find work when he suddenly quit college. However she and her husband tried, they could not get him to see sense and he continued to argue, take drugs and a spiral of messing up jobs had begun.
Eventually, she could take no more and, after a huge argument, her son packed his bags and left home. This closely followed the sad loss of her father, who died very soon after discovering he was riddled with cancer and her son made wild claims on social media, accusing her publicly of stealing his Grandad’s savings while he was on his deathbed. This was far from the truth when, in fact, the money had been a loan from her parents to again help with the debts from their former life which she had (and eventually did) fully intended to pay back, not knowing at the time her father was so ill.
Life took a very downward turn and much nastiness and accusation ensued, resulting in some dark years. Somehow, she and the rest of the family coped and managed to remain strong. The adage ‘life goes on’ took precedence but her heart was torn in two, not knowing where one of her sons was living and unable to help him, coupled with anger at the accusations publicly thrown her way and the discovery of more thefts from family members he was still in contact with. She feared her youngest son had truly hit rock bottom but worse was yet to come.
Two years passed, and her wandering son made contact. He had been ‘sofa surfing’ – a term she unfamiliar with until that time – and the drug taking had spiralled but now he was in dreadful trouble. He had been sacked for stealing from an employer and the courts had ordered him to pay the money back to avoid a prison sentence. He had no money. She and her husband helped him out, convinced he was ready to make a new start and, along with huge rent arrears which they paid too, they helped him to find alternative accommodation which, again, cost them even more.
This was just the beginning of a bail-help-recover-repeat cycle which continued over the next few years. Life carried on around them – her other son underwent surgery on his brain, three surgeries in fact – the second two being emergency to sort issues brought about by the first. Her mother’s health deteriorated due to a debilitating and horrendous lung condition, resulting in time in and out of hospital, life becoming more of an existence for her with each passing day.
Her youngest would go AWOL and then return with debt collectors on his tail and even the police at one stage. She refused to believe he could not turn this around and continued to feel in her heart that the blame lay with her. Fearful he would end up on the streets or worse, she continued to ‘help’ and spent thousands of pounds on payment of the latest debts, never believing that she was, in fact, funding his drug habit in a roundabout way. Stories of thefts from friends and other family members filtered back to her and her hopes for his recovery began to fade. In her heart she knew there was little more she could do to help – he had sought counselling for his drug abuse, spending time at a group suggested by the courts and every time they met he appeared to be moving forwards, spurred on by hitting rock bottom and the fear of returning to the same. He would secure a job and, almost always started to work towards a promotion to supervisor or similar as he worked hard and his attitude was just right. Each time, he would either meet someone and get back into taking drugs or the money he was earning would draw him back towards the same and the next she would hear was he had walked out of yet another good job, never to return. He would go AWOL again and she would try not to worry herself stupid but, as a mother, her heart was heavy with the knowledge he was out there somewhere, slowly killing himself.
Her own mother, by this stage, was terminally ill and, it seemed, was living on borrowed time with more and more time spent in hospital and with much less of a life than ever. Visiting her poorly mother was difficult with work commitments, although work was more than flexible and understanding. She was, at this stage, a manager and she was proud of her role. Somehow, she managed to keep it together and balanced visits to the hospital with working out of hours to keep up, often accruing time off in lieu. That part of her life was not good, but she muddled through, keeping a semblance of normality with the rest of the family.
She next heard from her youngest son when he sent a message to ask how his grandmother was doing. A conversation was had where she tactfully had to tell him he could not visit, her mother’s fearful request, each of his sorrowful replies tearing at her heartstrings. But worse was yet to come. As always, she asked him what he was doing – she had heard he had given up another decent job recently – and was devastated to discover he had been staying in a shelter but would be living, quite literally, on the streets for the next two nights as he had to prove himself homeless before he could secure a place at a hostel. This was, to her knowledge, the worst-case scenario he had endured thus far. She knew she couldn’t ask him to stay with her – she would awaken to find him gone, along with who knew what else from her home. His messages suggested he had to do this as he needed to turn his life around and stop hiding behind his lies and stealing and drug-taking. He spoke of appointments with the Job Centre, a doctor to help with depression and anxiety, and a housing officer to help with the latest crisis. With each message, her heart became heavier, and she lay in bed listening to the gusting wind and feeling the temperature dropping to below bearable and cried herself to sleep. She didn’t even link the timing of his latest demise with his message asking about her mother, thinking it a pure coincidence.
Still unable to cope with the realisation that her own son, now an adult, had thrown away his twenties for some badly-chosen friends and drugs, and he was out there, on the streets, sleeping rough with nothing to his name, she felt she couldn’t live with herself and something needed to be done. Her husband, seeing her pain, offered to help by meeting her son the following day to ensure he had warm clothes and a supermarket voucher to buy additional food. She gratefully agreed, unable to face her own son in this state, but knowing in that deepest of places in her heart they shouldn’t be doing it, they were once again, on a smaller scale, helping. But what could she do? She must be the only mother walking this earth who had a good job, a wonderful family life, great friends and the most caring and kind husband, who was sitting by and allowing her youngest son to sleep rough on the cold, scary streets.
She didn’t think she could get through this, couldn’t live with herself knowing he was suffering through this, and despite her family and friends constantly telling her he was an adult and had made his choices, the pain was almost too much to bear. She still felt she had failed him and she could have done more in the past to change his path.
The pain deepened as she held the pills in her hand. Turning them over and over, she tried to imagine how her other children would feel, and her husband – would he cope without her? She knew then that she would only ruin more lives, would maybe send others down a path of self-destruction. She knew she couldn’t do it. Her own pain did not equal the pain she would leave behind. She alone had to bear this heartbreak, had to endure this debilitating crush to her heart. There was nobody else who would share in the blame, her children’s own father having drunk himself into oblivion and died many years before. She had a duty to her family to remain strong. Silently, she poured the pills back into their bottle, screwed on the cap and picked up the phone. Painting the usual smile on her face, she messaged her daughter and son-in-law to see whether they felt like a night out.