Calling time on taboo subject of women and booze

Fun times: Hilary (left) and Frances (right) catching up on the good times
Fun times: Hilary (left) and Frances (right) catching up on the good times

Throughout her teens and into her 20s Belfast woman Hilary Martin Campbell watched as her mother journeyed through alcohol dependence and into alcoholism.

Frances Campbell was a force to be reckoned with, a strong career woman who taught her children to live life to the full and question everything around them.

A senior domestic services manager in the health service, Frances led a successful work life and family life juggling her responsibilities in the office with her busy home.

From the outside looking in, Frances, now 70, had it all under control, little did Hilary and her family know, what started as “casual” drinks in the evening would eventually descend into secretive alcoholism.

“I was around primary school leaving age when I realised my mum had issues with alcohol,” said Hilary, 41, “She didn’t really drink until she was in her late 30s/early 40s. My earliest memory is her drinking a glass of sherry after work.”

But as the years progressed Frances’ glass of sherry after work eventually became harsh spirits.

“Mum and dad both liked a drink, especially red wine. There was always wine at the weekends and then more frequently during the week.

“I suppose you could say my parents were the classic ‘middle class drinkers’, by that I mean they were stereotypical professionals, had a nice house, car, were educated and had holidays abroad every year.”

Still quite the taboo subject Frances’ drinking became the elephant in the room, the problem gradually escalated over Hilary’s teenage years, although it wasn’t until she turned 21 that she had the first conversation with her father, Maths lecturer at BIFHE, Patrick.

She explained: “The first time I realised my mum had a problem with alcohol was when I went through adolescence. Everyone’s parents embarrass them at that age, but my dad didn’t. He liked a drink but it was never problematic, or wasn’t as far as I perceived it.

“Mum on the other hand, would get loud, embarrassing, get up and dance in public and it was excruciating. I remember feeling embarrassment and shame. I was ashamed of my mum. I would be a typical teenager and be rude to her. Sulk. Be cheeky. I was not the easiest to live with either. We had the usual mother/daughter friction but with an added layer of ‘oh please don’t get drunk and embarrass me in public’.”

As time went on Frances’ dependence on alcohol became stronger and stronger and for the first time in nearly a decade Hilary and her father finally spoke about it.

“Increasingly her drinking became more problematic” revealed Hilary, adding: “My dad was a big, gentle giant. The only time I ever remember us talking about her drinking was when we were doing the dishes together one evening. I was 21. He confessed that he was really worried about her. I asked him if he had tried talking to her about her drinking.

“He just replied ‘you know what your mother’s like’.”

Just when Hilary finally thought she’d someone to talk to, someone who really understood how she felt about her mother’s drinking, worse news would send shockwaves through the family.

Shortly after their brief but poignant discussion Patrick began showing strange health symptoms and was eventually diagnosed with a rare brain tumour.

Despite her dependency on alcohol to get her through the day, Frances stepped up to the plate, her trademark strength shined through as the alcohol masked the emotional and mental trauma of looking after her dying husband.

Hilary said: “My dad died 12 months after his symptoms first presented. My mum was a champ. She worked full time, cared for him right to the end and didn’t sleep for the last few months of his life.

“She dedicated everything to him at the end. She continued to drink during this period, but was a high functioning alcoholic.

“After dad died, her reason for functioning was gone. She began behaving erratically, having falls, not eating properly and driving under the influence. A number of times I enabled her behaviour by calling in sick to work and taking her to her business meetings. Eventually she was forced to resign rather than be sacked. She lived for her work. Thrived on it. It defined her. Suddenly that was gone too.”

Hilary’s relationship with her mother over the years was at best fractured and strained. Their encounters became fraught as Hilary went on “high alert” waiting for the next “episode”.

“I could tell if mum had been drinking by one look,” she said.

“One word on the phone, anything. You develop a sixth sense for detecting when a loved one is using a substance.

“You become hyper alert, always looking for signs that they are using. Slight changes in speech and tone. A certain look. I would know simply by her answering the phone.”

With her brother living in England it was down to Hilary to keep a watchful eye over her mother. But eventually without her father to mediate she left home following yet another argument with Frances.

At 21-years-old Hilary was technically homeless, although she was able to bed-hop between friends and work colleagues, she was struggling with her own physical and mental health whilst trying to grieve for her father.

“At the time I left home/was told to leave I had some issues around food and was very underweight. I was about 40lbs lighter than I am now. I was diagnosed with depression around that time and received excellent care from my GP in the form of medication and counselling.”

Frances’ drinking continued to spiral out of control and shortly after she lost her beloved husband Patrick she was diagnosed with epilepsy. Her health was failing.

Eventually Hilary and her brother got “that call”. Hilary was in England visiting her brother when they found out Frances had had a fall and wasn’t expected to survive.

On life support and in a coma the prognosis from the doctors was simple, her brother should “bring a dark suit” and return home immediately. Fearing the worst they rushed to Frances’ side. A day etched into Hilary’s mind forever.

She said: “The doctor told us that if mum survived the brain haemorrhage she sustained after a fall outside the house she would most certainly be unresponsive and a quadriplegic.”

It was the worst possible news for the siblings.

“But mum being mum she defied all expectations and survived,” Hilary revealed with a beautiful sense of pride in her mum.

Once embarrassed and ashamed of Frances, today Hilary is immensely proud of what her mum has battled and survived. It’s hard not to want to meet this formidable woman.

She said: “Mum came through it. And it hasn’t been an easy journey to recovery.

“She is not a quadriplegic though she has broken both hips in separate incidences due to alcohol. She signed herself out of hospital against medical advice. The last time she ended up in hospital, it took the medics four weeks to detox her.

“There was such a level of alcohol dependency that she was effectively put into a medically induced coma on tranquillisers to enable her to handle the detox.

“Mum’s drinking was overt to begin with, then secret - hidden bottles in handbags on the way to work meetings. Towards the end she would easily drink 3/4 of a litre bottle of gin daily. Or vodka. She stopped drinking wine or gin and tonic and eventually it was pure vodka drunk neat.

“Over the years there has been several self-funded trips to a private detox facility in Dublin. She always signed herself out before finishing the programme.

“I remember when I began working for a local charity helping people with substance misuse issues being terrified if she didn’t answer the phone believing each time that she might be dead.

“My employers at the time were extremely understanding and would let me nip over to her house to settle my concerns. I’ve never forgotten that kindness.”

Today, Frances is in recovery, having been living in a local nursing home for 11 years, not only is she much healthier but Hilary’s relationship with her mum is better than it’s ever been.

“I had no mother for several years. Other people’s parents became substitute parents. Now it’s a different story. Now we’re fiends for the first time. She’s the funniest, sharpest woman I’ve ever met.”

Bringing a personal experience into her professional life

Hilary Martin Campbell’s experiences with her mother Frances’ alcoholism eventually shaped her own career.

Having struggled with the issue at home herself working with others helped her to understand how she could best support her mum’s descent from casual drinker to alcoholic.

Now a combined therapist with her own company Lyra Combined Therapies, Hilary is an EMMETT Technique Instructor for Ireland and uses her skills in auricular acupuncture and guided meditations to help people struggling with addictions.

As part of her work she delivers a twice monthly relaxation workshop at Carlisle House, a residential substance misuse treatment centre situated near the centre of Belfast.

She said: “I spent 11 years working as Senior Complementary therapist for FASA, the Forum for Action on Substance Abuse. I hadn’t planned to work in this field, but that’s where I ended up.

“I set up the first regular auricular acupuncture clinic for detox and relapse prevention for people with substance misuse and mental health issues.”

Now, with Hilary’s experience and expertise and the support of her nursing home, Frances’ is beginning to enjoy life again.

“More recently mum has been getting more independent. She goes into town by herself, did an Open University access course last year and is writing a book. My hope is that eventually we could look at mum living on her own again but with the right level of support to ensure she stays well.”

Carlisle House 028 9032 8308

Addiction NI 028 9066 4434

Samaritans - call 116 123

Drinkline 0800 917 8282

Hilary at Lyra Combined