I often mention pubs in my posts about living with autism. Perhaps I should clarify: Dylan’s drink is a pint of blackcurrant cordial made with tap water and served with ice and a straw. Dylan won’t touch anything with bubbles, or even a barely perceptible fizz, nor will he drink anything which is warm or tastes bitter. This leaves only water and non-carbonated soft drinks. As there are also rules about juice (no bits, cloudiness or tropical fruits) Dylan is limited to apple juice at home and blackcurrant when he’s out. There is no danger that he will ever be drunk or addicted to coca cola.
Dylan’s interest in pubs is, I think, primarily social. He enjoys the ambience of a pub garden in summer and an open fire in winter. He likes the quiet hum of voices and the sudden bursts of laughter, the activity at the bar and background music. He might not want to take part in conversation but he likes listening in. While my daughter lived with us Dylan witnessed language as a backdrop to family life but since she moved away Dylan and I often fall to companionable silence; going to the pub satisfies the need we both have to be exposed to language.
When we go to the pub I usually order a lime & soda for myself. It’s taken time for me to appreciate – six years in fact – but it tastes good. Although these days I enjoy our pub visits it wasn’t always the case. In fact for a while I avoided them. In England the one thing you can bank on, town or country, is a pub (sometimes several in quick succession). Imagine the effort, then, to cross the road or look away. But I couldn’t trust myself. Not at first.
My 18 year old daughter is due to go to University this year. A gifted linguist, she plans to study Spanish in France. I spent a year abroad as an undergraduate but I was older than she is, it was an English-speaking country and I had the support of a UK institution. I understand that my daughter wants to challenge herself by not just learning a language, but learning through it: still, part of me is anxious about her leaving.
She telephoned recently (she lives with her dad) to tell me she had found herself a summer job using her languages. Great I replied, remembering how I had spent the summer between school and university working in a hotel. My enthusiasm waned, however, when she revealed more; the job, it transpired, was in Morocco. Haven’t you got enough to look forward to? I asked her. Isn’t going to live in France adventure enough? In the event she decided not to take the job: right opportunity, wrong time she concluded.
Afterwards I asked myself why I had felt so anxious about the proposal. I had been a bit off-the-page with my own life after all. She’ll fall in love! a colleague had exclaimed when I mentioned my daughter’s plan. She’ll not get to France! I suspect it was this which led me to reflect on how life-changing the summer after leaving school can be.
My memory of the time is vivid 35 years on. Plunged into double shifts at a city hotel I discovered there were new rules to follow (and break). I was on the bottom rung covering leave: I had to be chambermaid, chef’s assistant, waitress and barmaid. Nothing had prepared me for this; without structure or sense I needed a role model. My older sister – the hotel manager – had employed me and that summer she mesmerised me; feared but fair, she commanded loyalty and respect.
My sister was also hardly ever without a drink and cigarette. She smoked Dunhill and drank vodka; in her hands these tricks of the trade became impossibly glamorous. At the end of my first week I queued outside her office for my pay packet. As I signed her ledger she asked whether I’d like to join her for a drink in the bar: by the time I left for university I was a regular drinker with a pack a day habit.
Arriving at university I discovered that my newly-acquired habits eased the anxiety of making friends. When I started writing I found they helped with that too; drafts of a poem became associated with endless drinks and cigarettes. As a poet I was able to embrace smoking and drinking as writerly adornment. This was also useful as smokescreen; alcohol can be an effective way of controlling nerves and in some professions (among classical musicians for example) is commonly used to enhance performance. A drink before a poetry reading, I found, calmed me.
I didn’t reflect, at the time, on my use of alcohol. I certainly didn’t think of it as unusual or consider it a problem. Drinking and smoking were part of an identity I had constructed; this was about being young, free and creative. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I might be using it to assuage anxiety or relieve stress. Now, having lived alongside Dylan, I would say that he is at the extreme end of a spectrum of anxiety from which many of us suffer. I have never been diagnosed with autism or anxiety but perhaps a proneness to using alcohol is a risk for those with such traits. Maybe Dylan’s anxiety appears so great because he doesn’t control it with the methods which others habitually use.
While my relationship with alcohol at university was playful it would quickly become serious. My professional and creative life often brought me into contact with other addictions. It goes with the territory, I told myself. One boyfriend (let’s call him Hans) was diagnosed with alcoholism in his early 30s. With a respectable job it was possible to think that Hans lived clean – at least on 19 days out of every 21. The remaining 48 hours would see Hans bingeing in one of the pubs from which he had not yet been barred. The difficulty for me was accepting those 24 hours as reality not aberration; because they were such a small proportion of our overall time together, it took me a while to realise that the binge was as much a part of Hans as the other 19 days.
Hans tried to stop drinking one summer. I wasn’t sure whether I should stop too, to support him, but my GP observed: you don’t have the drink problem, your boyfriend does. Hans was doing well so we decided to take a holiday in Germany where he had relatives. One day I suggested we visit Dachau.
Der Mass Weizen
Today, we take the lime green S2 line
in the direction of Petershause.
I have chosen, without thinking,
a green cotton blouse embroidered with yellow stars.
Our stop is the one after Karlsfeld,
just past the Ford factory and the big houses
with swimming pools. I hadn’t expected
people to be living here – am surprised
by their laughing gardens as the train rolls by.
You have been dry now for ten weeks.
We are on holiday, making our slow way
past mountains, cathedrals, sliding rivers.
You have unpacked your pills, nightly, at each hotel.
You sweat and tremble, pointing to places
you remember. This is your country –
but unfamiliar, in the heat, to walk so quickly
past the kiosks and bars.
For the last bit of this journey we take a bus.
It is full of American voices, Japanese cameras,
a few people wearing headscarves.
It was my idea to come here.
We climb off and stand aside, let others
tramp in lines along a narrow track, the gravel
underfoot unbearable against the silence.
There is no shelter here from the high sun; it burns
through the thin fabric on my shoulders.
The crowd troops to the sheds to see for itself
while we walk the perimeter, looking for a gate.
I stare upwards at the barbs along four lines
of wire above our heads, a white concrete tower
with four small windows in its roof.
I stumble; slip as the gravel skitters away
under my smooth-worn soles. Out of water,
our lips begin to crack.
Beside me you are walking, as always,
with a stoop; trying not to be so tall,
as if you have no right to be here.
You lift your anxious eyes to mine and I turn
away, thinking how ragged you look today
with your sunken cheeks. And I wonder, then,
if this is your country; if perhaps you live
with these walls and watchtowers and the gravel
crunching and sliding underfoot.
Later, arriving back in Munich too late
to leave by the early evening train,
you head for a Biergarten –
order ein viertal liter und mass weizen.
I didn’t understand at the time why Hans ‘slipped up’ (as he put it) that day. Later, though, I realised that in the face of horror he had needed to anaesthetise himself. The incident made me realise how difficult the road to recovery is. Soon after I would meet a recovering gambler (let’s call him Ash). Two things he told me stay with me. The first is that a gambler needs to place larger and larger bets as the risk involved in losing (or winning) smaller amounts no longer produces an adrenaline rush. This is the other side of the anaesthetic coin; addictive behaviour because you feel too little rather than too much. The second is of Ash’s grandfather (who also liked a flutter) at the kitchen table one day, palms turned up, fingers spread wide: All gone, he said. It’s all gone. That sense of loss is something Ash would often refer to: the emptiness of losing everything (money, job, relationship) to addiction.
What impressed me about Ash was his strength; we would go regularly to the races but he never placed a bet himself. Lots of people start gambling, he observed, but few are able to stop. Recovery was the point, not the addiction. Later, one of my landlords would make the same claim (in relation to mental illness): he had been sectioned and spent time in an institution. In order to get out, he told me, a doctor had certified him sane. Has anyone ever certified you sane? he asked.
Recovering (from alcohol, gambling or mental illness) was increasingly attractive. I had quit smoking and drinking while I was pregnant in 1985 but after the baby died I, like Hans, had discovered alcohol as anaesthetic and resumed old habits. In the 90s I had another chance to quit when I was pregnant again. Within months of my daughter being born, however, Dylan was diagnosed autistic. Again I resumed drinking and smoking, this time heavier than before. The summer I left school I had used alcohol to belong. At university I used it as mask. Later I used it to numb myself. Now I would discover the most insidious use of all.
Organising child care is difficult for parents of small children. In the early years life can feel like a never ending night feed. If you have family or willing friends then evenings out can be arranged, though they tend to become planned rather than spontaneous happenings (which, when the time comes, parents may be too tired to enjoy). If your child is autistic, however, all of these challenges are greater; it is more difficult to find someone to babysit and considerably less likely that you will have the energy for a night out. Furthermore, these difficulties can increase rather than lessen as your child gets older; while my mum was prepared to look after Dylan when he was little, she was less confident as he got older.
I remember feeling hard done by, when Dylan was younger, if my husband and I couldn’t get to an event or had to decline a social invitation. In time, however, staying home became easier and less stressful. While this began as a practical response to circumstance, declining social events presented itself as preferable once we’d established a routine of relaxing at home. Alcohol – a flexible and reliable reward – quite naturally became part of this routine.
The need to spend more than usual amounts of time at home can encourage a gradual increase in the routine use of alcohol. While this was never dramatic, given the context of caring responsibilities, the cumulative effect was significant. Reference is often made to the ‘invisibility’ of alcoholism among steady users in white collar professions; those people who never appear drunk or incapacitated by alcohol because they have become accustomed to consuming excessive units each week as part of their working life. I suspect that some carers may find themselves in a similar position, albeit via rather different routines.
Perhaps I am painting it darker than it really was. I never poured a drink before 6pm in the evening. I rarely drank more than
three quarters of a bottle of wine. I was never drunk, ill or incapable in the evenings or the next day (though I was frequently tired). I never thought of my relationship with alcohol as problematic and I would certainly never have called myself an alcoholic. In fact my problem, in so far as I admitted one, was not alcohol but nicotine.
I had tried everything I could think of to quit. Patches (zero impact). Chewing gum (my skin broke out). Zyban (four unbearable days without sleep). Hypnotism (I was awake throughout). Self-help books (I was too cynical). The Russian mystic in Brookline, Massachusetts (he was good but I wasn’t).
I never meant to give up alcohol but in the end it seemed the only way to stop the freight train. ‘The freight train’ was my description of a phenomenon I would experience roughly once a month when I would spend the day flaked out on the sofa feeling extraordinarily tired. Only with huge effort and will could I attend to the bare minimum (providing food and ensuring Dylan was safe). It was, I used to say, as if I’ve been hit by a freight train. The impact was comparable to a day off sick. I now think that this was probably the cumulative effect of regular daily alcohol consumption; never having so much as to be incapable, but topping up and topping up until I was just dog tired. In the end I couldn’t bear one more hit; I had to get off those tracks.
19th July 2008. School holidays just beginning. My daughter in Scotland for the summer with her dad. Freight train day. Was this exhaustion at the end of a busy semester? Or me succumbing to the space to relax? I was tired of excuses. I remember my slow walk to the kitchen. I poured a bottle of wine down the sink (I can still visualise the red swirl and hear the glug glug) then threw a packet of Marlborough Lights (18 left) in the bin. Not drinking, I told myself, could be part of stopping smoking. Perhaps my attempts to quit cigarettes were failing because alcohol weakened my resolve. I would drink again, I promised myself, when I’d conquered the nicotine.
And so I embarked on my first summer. It helped that my daughter was away; Dylan couldn’t ask me questions or enquire how I was feeling. I was glad of that: I could only do this in complete silence. Pubs were out of bounds. I declined invitations to events I thought might be tricky. I turned down dates with men who smoked and drank. I didn’t trust myself; I might reach for their packet or say oh go on then if told to have a ‘proper drink’. That summer was hard. A family holiday in Cornwall at the end of it was probably as close as I came to failing. But I did it. I coped. I had discovered the Will Power Road.
Six years later I am comfortable in pubs. I don’t falter or flinch. I trust myself. I haven’t reintroduced alcohol as I thought I would; I tell myself one day I will but I doubt this. What I noticed, a month after my double quit, was that I felt better for not drinking. I’m better for not smoking too but the effects of not drinking are more obvious. No more freight trains. More energy. Clear head.
I still don’t use the term alcoholic. ‘Wine’ Dylan says sometimes, pointing at the vinegar bottles in the fridge or to a display in our local shop. He didn’t have many words when he was young but this was one of them. I might tell myself that I didn’t have a drink problem – wasn’t an alcoholic – but my son’s quirky core vocabulary ought to raise at least one of my eyebrows.
Since I’ve kept this blog I’ve encountered a number of people who write about the impact of alcoholism and recovery on their life; more than any other, these are the blogs which move me. They have also helped me to reflect on my own experience and the possible links between alcohol and autism. In this post I have suggested that some people may use alcohol to manage conditions associated with autistic spectrum condition such as anxiety or the need for control. I have also speculated that parents and carers may be vulnerable to increased routine use of alcohol due to the emotional and practical circumstances of caring. Hopefully I have also, however, managed to convey my admiration for those who confront and defeat an addictive relationship. As Maya Angelou says:
You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.
This post has been a bit different from my usual pieces, glancing only tangentially at autism. Thank you for reading and for supporting my 6th anniversary celebration 🙂
‘Der Mass Weizen’ was published in my first book, Walking On Tiptoe (Staple, 1998) and also included in the re-issued version of that book Walking on Tiptoe and Other Poems (Bluechrome, 2007).