In late December 2010, I popped to our local newsagent with the intention of getting my kids, then 14 and 16, a sweet called Toxic Waste – a luridly coloured, mouth-dyeing concoction that came in a small plastic waste bin. I write ‘popped,’ but mean ‘staggered’; I write ‘intention’ but mean ‘confabulation’ – for they had last knowingly eaten the stuff aged eight and ten. I couldn’t remember that since I had been under a self-induced chemical cosh of Valium and vodka for many years. The main Toxic Waste in the family was me.
And so that quick trip to the newsagent ended up being anything but: I was leaving my children and their father. Like most addicts, planning was not my strong point – all I really needed to take with me was a bit of money and some drugs, as everything else was surplus to my requirements. I was certain that, to make their lives less chaotic and awful, I had to go, entertaining a vision of my returning after a month or so as a drug-free, fully engaged mum and wife.
I saw an index card advert in the window of the newsagent for a room nearby, and arranged to see it right away – well, right after I had four coffees at the local Wetherspoons to appear sober to the landlord. The place was awful, beyond legal habitation, but I took it, paying a few months’ rent upfront before going back to my family to tell them I was leaving, assuring them I would be back after “I figure a few things out.”
I would love to write here how there were howls of despair, of my children clinging to my ankles and begging me not to go, but I think the sense of relief was palpable, because the drug I had been taking for years to reduce anxiety and panic attacks was by now having the reverse effect. I had been put on Valium during my childhood in New York, following the death of my father: now, the combination of pills and drink, which I had added into the mix after moving to London in the late Eighties, had made me hysterical, shouty and frankly just hellish to be around.
Though it seems a monstrous thing for any mother to leave her children, I knew they would be in more stable, kinder hands with their father. He was, and is, the very best of parents and providers, a pillar of rectitude with a regular job and an enthusiasm for family weekend activities – all of which served as a get-out clause for me, enabled further by the fact I was a freelancer, and always had the excuse of weekend work.
I discovered too late that I was not cut out for motherhood, which required being able to go with the flow: an attitude which had been a mystery my entire life. Who were these able people? How could they take to parenting like ducks to water?
I was making my children’s lives intolerable with my sudden rages and hungover lie ins, which often saw me comatose on the floor outside the loo. My daughter’s 17th birthday party was particularly hideous: I had been drinking and drugging steadily since morning – by the time I was due to bring in the cake, I was plastered. I struggle to remember much else of the episode, but apparently I passed out in the arms of one of her friends.
I think after the initial comfort my exit provided, of no more fighting and door slamming, the children felt abandoned, too. We have talked about it since, and the two of them, now 22 and 24, dance politely around the issue. I don’t push them: it has taken many years to get their trust back, to prove that I can be a mum, without being an awful one.
The hardest part of recovery from addiction was patience. I had made several aborted attempts, early on, to get my children back on friendly terms with me, but I wanted too much, too soon. It has taken years of being clean – my recovery only really began in late 2011 when my friend staged an intervention, and the relapses only stopped in 2016 – to get here.
‘Clean’ goes beyond my sobriety. In my late teens, I tidied houses in Boston as a student – something I returned to here in London five years ago, in my mid-fifties, desperate to pass the time and earn some money. It is also the title of my book, which I didn’t write to defend my actions – for there is no state more selfish than addiction – but to explain that sometimes, mums do have to leave for the emotional health of the family.
Prior to my recovery, my children were both still teenagers, swapping PlayStation games and Grime CDs with their mates – a half-cut mother meeting them in a greasy spoon was not their idea of quality time. Every excursion required a careful balancing act of taking enough sedation to quell the panic, but not being so floored as to be incapable of going in the first place.
What I failed to grasp in the early days of dealing with addiction was that removing the substance was not the only hill to climb. I no longer knew how to have the most basic conversations with people, let alone have fun with them.
I know that I could have tried to address the addiction sooner. My big slap in the face moment was when I did get clean, but was still not really a great mum, or person in general. The realisation that everyone in my life had learned to get on without me just fine was sobering in itself.
When I first started going to 12-step meetings for addicts, about a year after I had left my family, I would gravitate towards the parents, pleading for advice on how to piece back the broken shards of my family. I am exceptionally lucky to have my children back in my life now, though my son rightly views our ugly past as a foreign, hostile country. My daughter is more a reflective, dirty realist. She knows and has moved on from what happened, but I know I must play my cards right to count on their both being here in future.
These days, I live in my own rented flat and have a respectable and responsible job: my children and I speak almost daily. We play each other music we love, or go out for food, or with my daughter, we go to Zumba. We don’t talk about the bad old days. It’s just easier all around. If they are still deeply damaged from what I did, they don’t show it – not to me, anyway. Despite all my worst efforts, I have ended up with the best children in the world, largely down to the fantastic parenting of their father. Every day they are not angry with me is a gift.
Clean: A Story of Addiction, Recovery and the Removal of Stubborn Stains by Michele Kirsch is published on 14 March by Short Books Ltd RRP £12.99. Buy now for £10.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514