I learned to be a good mother because my own was a brutal drunk: One woman's account of having an alcoholic parent
08:44 GMT, 17 April 2012
Close bond: Giselle Mannering with her daughter Frederique in 2007
The flames from the chip pan were already ceiling-high when Giselle Mannering stepped into her family’s smoke-filled kitchen.
Despite the danger, Giselle, just 12 years old at the time, had the sense to turn the gas off before racing to a neighbour’s house to ask for help.
Once the fire was out, Giselle set about finding the woman she knew was responsible — her alcoholic mother.
She eventually found her stumbling drunkenly along the road in search of the family dog, which she had taken for a walk and then lost. She was totally oblivious to the mayhem she had caused.
For Giselle, the elder of two sisters, it was just another episode in what had become a miserable life of shouldering responsibility beyond her years.
‘To my teachers and friends, I was a regular kid, neatly turned out, homework and piano practice done,’ recalls Giselle, now 45. ‘But our front door hid a dreadful secret — Mum’s crippling dependency on alcohol.
‘Perhaps no one suspected because I washed my own uniform, and was diligent enough to make sure my homework was done on time.
‘The girl in me hankered to be normal, to just be concerned with following the latest fashions and singing along to the top 40 — but, in reality, my days and nights were taken up with looking after my mother.
‘I shopped, cooked and cleaned from a young age, and had to defuse her alcohol-fuelled rages. I also did my best to take care of my sister, who was a year younger.’
According to a recent study, up to a quarter of children in Britain are living with a parent whose alcohol or drug consumption can put them in harm’s way.
Researchers for the charity Addaction found that 2.6 million children live with a ‘hazardous’ drinker, 705,000 with a ‘dependent drinker’, and a further 305,000 youngsters have a parent with a drug problem.
Instead of providing expensive and often ineffective treatments at rehabilitation centres, Addaction is campaigning for a change in approach that would see drug or alcohol workers go into homes to support parents, and at the same time ensure their children are fed and sent to school.
Early days: Giselle as a child with her sister and alcoholic mother
Giselle, who now runs a successful interior design practice in Kent, was desperate for an adult to step in to take care of her family. Instead, after her father left when she was 11, she carried the burden of responsibility alone.
‘I was about seven when I first realised something was wrong with my mum,’ recalls Giselle. ‘Dad must have been earning good money at the time as a management consultant, because we lived in a gorgeous detached house in the Buckinghamshire countryside.’
Giselle adds: ‘I remember my parents arguing a lot, but my childhood memories are hazy, probably because my subconscious has blocked things out. Then, when I was eight or nine, we lost the house. I don’t know why it happened, but we would have ended up homeless had a family friend not offered us a farm cottage on her land.’
Within a few months, the family moved into a council house in Amersham, Bucks, where her mother’s drinking spiralled out of control.
Startling statistics: Up to a quarter of children in Britain are living with a parent whose alcohol or drug consumption can put them in harm's way
‘Quite why Mum descended into
drunkenness, it’s difficult to know for sure,’ she says. ‘There’s some
evidence to suggest alcoholism is genetic, and other research points to
it being the result of untreated depression.
I found her diary from the year I was born, and it certainly seemed
that she was drunk while writing, even back then. She was clearly very
unhappy, and wrote a lot about crying and feeling depressed.’
Sadly, Giselle’s mother couldn’t find the strength to pull herself out of her alcoholism.
‘Days would start quite normally, but by the afternoon Mum would become more argumentative and lash out at us in rages,’ recalls Giselle. ‘We’d make daily trips to the off-licence on the High Street, so that she could buy gin and strong lager. She was on first-name terms with staff there.
‘/04/17/article-2130809-005BE58D00000258-828_306x423.jpg” width=”306″ height=”423″ alt=”Researchers found that 2.6million children live with a 'hazardous' drinker” class=”blkBorder” />
Researchers found that 2.6million children live with a 'hazardous' drinker
‘I’d even called our GP, hoping that he might make her go into rehab. That night, I opened our front door and found my mother slumped at the foot of the staircase. I knew instantly that she was dead, but picked up the phone and called an ambulance.’
Giselle admits that in those moments she felt a whole gamut of emotions: guilt that she had failed in her role as carer by not being there, desperate sadness that the sorry affair had ended this way, but also relief that the nightmare was finally over for all of them.
While Giselle can’t recall a single happy memory of her own childhood, she insists something good has come of it.
‘I became expert in lots of things from a very young age, such as how to nurture and empathise with people, as well as negotiate over things like rent and bills,’ she says. ‘And I believe these qualities have helped make me a great mum to my own daughter, Frederique, who’s now 12.
‘I’ve worked hard to create the loving, secure family home for her that I never had, as well as making sure she has everything she needs. I want to be the best role model I can for my daughter. I want her to feel as proud of me as I do of her.’
Giselle met her husband, Robert, who works in the car industry and is 18 years her senior, when she was 22. She admits she was looking for someone to depend upon at last, and part of Robert’s appeal was his age. And his happy-go-lucky outlook — which their daughter has inherited — proved an added bonus after so many bleak years.
Giselle takes great pleasure in indulging her daughter with the sort of gifts she missed out on, including a well-stocked wardrobe packed with Jack Wills, Hollister and Superdry, which would be the envy of any teenager.
‘She’s certainly not spoilt, and is grateful for everything that she receives,’ says Giselle. ‘And Frederique is well aware there are a lot of youngsters, who, like me as a child, are a lot less fortunate than her.
‘But the most important thing to me is that she is allowed to be a child, without having to shoulder adult responsibilities.’
'My mother's drinking forced me to grow up long before I was ready'
She adds: ‘To this day, the smell of gin and vodka evokes such dreadful memories of a time I would rather forget.
‘I enjoy a glass of wine, and occasionally I’ll have two or three, but I would never get even a little bit tipsy in front of my daughter.
‘I know from experience how damaging it is for children to see their parents out of control.’
Giselle now volunteers with the charity COAP — Children of Addicted Parents and People — going into schools to talk to youngsters about her experience in the hope of reaching out to others who may be going through something similar. The charity was set up by 29-year-old Emma Spiegler, whose mother struggled with alcoholism and addiction to painkillers for many years, finally getting sober seven years ago after a spell in rehab.
‘Being the child of a mother who abuses substances isn’t much of a childhood,’ says Emma.
‘One of my earliest memories is of Mum reaching for a wine bottle, and I was just ten when she first went into rehab.
‘I set up the charity to help other children in the same situation I was once in, to share their experiences.
‘Some of the stories children post on our website are heartbreaking. I just wish I’d had access to something similar when my mum was drinking.’
Giselle feels it’s also important for those children to realise that they are not their parents’ keepers.
‘I was a little girl tormented by the very person I was meant to trust, admire, look up to and confide in,’ says Giselle.
‘My mother’s drinking forced me to grow up long before I was ready. However, finally, I’m beginning to grieve for two things: my mother’s death and my lost childhood.’
And with a daughter the same age she was when she took on the role of carer to an alcoholic mother, Giselle is determined to finally enjoy, at least vicariously, a carefree youth.