The Night My Life Was Shattered


The night Cardinal George Pell came on the 7.30 Report and was interviewed by Leigh Sales my world crashed. It was the announcement of the Royal Commission in Institutional Child Sexual Abuse in Australia. He claimed, “the Catholic Church was not the only cab off the rank”. The words seared through me. Cut me into several pieces. In the safety of my own home,  in my own rumpus room with loved ones around me, all that I held true was dispelled and rendered dysfunctional. The present existed no longer, suddenly previously heard witnesses evidence was recalled in vivid detail except it was happening to me.  

My children’s existence became remote. Were they mine? Who was this man sitting in the room with me? He seemed familiar but transposed onto his face were other men’s faces. Strange, scary faces long since forgotten.  A world that had been filed neatly and completely, thirty-five years ago was erupting. My brain was spilling out vivid images of bile and an invasion of harsh words entered my perfect world. I could not escape. I needed to get out of that room.  Needed o sleep and wake in the morning afresh with this nightmare over. I somehow got up from the seat and said I was going to bed, unable to say anything else. I got into the bed fully dressed, not even sparing the time to undress in an effort to escape the onslaught of imagery.  I spent the night with my eyes open, as each time I closed them I was plunged into a world of confusion and visions I did not understand. My mother’s voice was heard in the room during the night spilling out vile accusations of treachery and betrayal. I had ruined her life. My father would never have come back if it was not for me. She was cursed the day I was given to her.  What did she mean given to her? I was her child, born of her flesh. Who gave me to her? Where was my father that he had to come back when I was born? Questions began to be raised that night that I could not answer. Her face loomed large over me in the bed as Andrew slept oblivious in the bed beside me. A face contorted by hatred, acrimony and animosity. A face so familiar, yet so removed from my current life. How was it that I could see her now as I had when I was nine, eleven and sixteen-years-old? How was it that I could I hear her words as she made me leave Ballyculchie at age eighteen and go to the streets of Dublin ? Three more nights of sleeplessness followed by days through which I operated as an automaton not daring to share my visions and thoughts with Andrew. I could not speak to Andrew as I did not know what was happening. An already escalating drinking problem ran out of control.  Each night and day I drank more. I spoke to my doctor but not of the visions, thinking I was going crazy and she might think so too. We just talked of my alcohol problem. She started to tap into the realisation that there was more to this than just alcoholism and I went to see an emphatic psychologist who worked with me on reducing my alcohol consumption and the hidden world it had taken me to.

I was becoming deceitful, hiding my drinking. It was escalating, just becoming worse and worse.  Buying alcohol in town and then drinking it at the front gate before getting to the house. My one rule was never drinking and driving and that went some way towards saving what was left of my ever dwindling self-esteem.  My tolerance to the legal, local anesthetic grew and the more it did the more I consumed. I discovered it brought sleep and a respite from the torment of a past that was intruding so fiercely on the present. I was being tormented by intrusive thoughts throughout the day and night. I was somehow functioning at work and at home carrying out both duties but at times I was inexplicably transfixed mid-sentence with a flash of a man’s face in a long forgotten room that I could not place. A beach I could not recall but yet I intrinsically knew. I walked through the supermarket just doing the weekly shop and passed a woman who had recently been smoking and the whiff of the tobacco brought me back momentarily to the pub and my father was there. What was going on? I could not sleep properly with dreaming of Ireland and it’s imagery. It was intruding twenty-four/seven. Sleep was becoming more and more elusive and peaceful restorative rest impossible. My drinking was increasing in line with my lack of sleep it gave me some sleep for a short time at least. I experienced these strange muscular and nerve problems when sleeping, I got pins and needles in my hands and arms, cramping in the legs. I know, lots of people get this, but my case was different because it happened pretty much every night. I figured out ways to sleep that helped to prevent this, like sleeping on my stomach and tucking one hand under my head and the other under my chest, and this alternating arm position seemed to reduce the symptoms. But there were other issues. Ever have the strange, involuntary and sudden sensation that you are falling? You get this almost every night, out of nowhere, and it startles you awake, which can contribute to insomnia which inevitably followed once the effects of the days’ consumption wore off in the early hours of the morning. Alcohol withdrawal sucks. Your blood pressure spikes, and if you are me you can actually feel it. Akin to the blood pumping up my carotid artery and into my brain vibrating against my skull so I hear the pulses in my ears and that will not go away. I was consuming Neurone and Panadol like they were sweets to get relief from the headaches. I could have bought shares in them. You get night sweats. You have insomnia because you have relied on alcohol to put yourself to sleep and either voluntarily or not you are now deprived of your “sedative.” You lay awake reading and writing. This is excellent for your productivity, but not so good for getting to work the next day after a sleepless night.

Night terrors: these are not nightmares, as you do not achieve REM sleep. That is because, as previously mentioned, you cannot sleep. But you sometimes do get into a weird half-awake/half-asleep state in which you think you can see everything in the room in which you lie. The details are extraordinary. There is the television, the coffee table, the remote. You feel the fabric of the couch beneath you. But you cannot move. You are paralysed. What’s more discombobulating is that you hear the footsteps (someone’s, but whose?) approaching from behind. Then you feel whoever it is touching your shoulder, pushing against you. You are so terrified and scared because you cannot see who or what this is. The cold reality is, that it is hallucinations but of course, you never admit this to yourself. No, I was not an alcoholic. I could drink only when I wanted to. They drank because they needed to that was not me. I wrote to my GP and drove by the surgery and delivered a  letter to her receptionist. I received a call a few hours later to come in. I was numb. I could not articulate anything. I did not want to live anymore. The deepening sense of doom that was pervading the atmosphere around me was suffocating. I did not know what was real anymore so I could not help anyone least of all myself. I could not be confident that anything that was coming out of my mouth was based in reality or not. Was I having a psychotic breakdown and it was all a figment of my imagination.  I truly could not differentiate between two worlds. I trusted myself no longer and wished only to kill myself. My every thought revolved around the best way to do this. I truly believed my family was better off without me. The children were better off with their father. Yes, my psychologist and GP coaxed it is alcoholism. Until you admit it is, you will not stop. I do not want to stop. I do not need to I told myself. They were exaggerating. Slowly, slowly it began to dawn I did have a problem and so began the long road to recovery. The lapses and relapses. The times I visited my psychologist and he took one look at me and knew I had been drinking.  To this day it is a problem. I do not drink now but not because I do not want to but because I have no access to bank accounts, money, credit cards or am not allowed to drive so cannot get to the shops to get alcohol.

At first when these restrictions were placed on me I got around them by surreptitiously taking Andrews’ credit card out of his wallet and ordering alcohol online and getting it delivered to a tree down the paddock, where I skulked at night to drink in silence with the kangaroos, under the pretence of feeding the horses or taking the dogs for their evening walk. Then I got braver and cycled my bike to the paddocks with a backpack on my back and hide a bottle of Vodka in it, which I would then secrete in a hidden cupboard and drink secretly.  I got away with this for months until eventually caught. Then I took a photograph of Andrew’s credit card on my phone secretly and conned friends into buying it and hiding it in the house when we weren’t there pretending it was a surprise birthday present. I eventually got caught doing that too and had to endure the embarrassment of him ringing our friends telling them not to order alcohol for me. You see you can always stoop that one rung lower, tell that one lie more for one more drink and justify it.

For months I could not sleep in a bed as I felt unsafe and it also meant that I could drink during the night and keep the demons at bay. If my supplies were running low, it was also a good time to get the credit card and order more.  Many nights I would walk down to the paddock at three am and replenish my stock. One drunken night I fell and woke Andrew up and he realised what had been going on. I told him everything. Showed him my hiding places. My dignity was at an all-time low. There was not much lower I could go.

Empty bottles were cleared out of cupboards and laundry baskets, behind bookshelves, under beds, behind saucepans.  They were everywhere. I got a shock, even I had not realised it had reached such a level. Credit card statements were checked and the horror of the deceit revealed.  It was not even shocking to me really if the truth were known, it was only devastating. My lifeblood had been stopped. I needed that alcohol. What did I have without it? How would I sleep?  I had been lying to everyone, my therapists, GP, children and partner about my drinking. I had sworn I had stopped but I had only reached the bottom of the pit. Passwords were changed on bank accounts and credit cards changed and I was given access to none. It was humiliating but still, I faced anger at my legal rights being taken away.  It is hard to help those who do not want to help themselves. I was terrified of being left with my mind raw, exposed, open to memories, undulated, acutely aware of what was happening in my brain. If I had a choice now I would still drink. I still get overwhelming cravings. I recently watched the English Series House of Cards and they drink constantly throughout it. The cravings were unbearable watching them drink.  It is how I coped as a child and teenager and I wanted to cope now. It is denied me, however. I know I can never drink again. I am an alcoholic and one drink is too dangerous.

Each day that had gone by that I drank stole another bit of my dignity as I deceived my family with my drinking and the ever-increasing shame that came with the floodgates of the past that had been opened up like the sluice gates of a huge dam.  I was losing a grip on all that was near and dear to me. I could no longer study, no longer work. I saw the psychologist and he kept me going. Small stories protruded out of my mind at sessions but very sanitised versions, as I did not believe such a story as was unfolding. Still not a word to Andrew on to what had happened to me and why I had been drinking and why it was growing worse and worse.   I was picking arguments. The sudden lack of alcohol made me recalcitrant, truculent and opinionated. Not me. He probed but was quickly rebuffed.

Just when I thought I was at rock bottom the psychologist and GP agreed I needed to be hospitalised. I had become a danger to myself. I was suicidal. No self-regard was left. The vestiges of my personality were gone down the neck of a bottle of Vodka. It ruled my life. It got me through the day, dulled the nightmares and tasted, oh so good.  No medication could provide the same solace.

My first admission into the mental health system was extremely traumatic. It is not a system for the faint-hearted. You are totally removed from the functioning world and closeted in a closed ward with categories denoting your level of safety and checked by a nurse at regular intervals according to your category.  No longer do you have privacy. You can be checked on at any time day or night. I was in a low maintenance ward being fortunate to be admitted at this time to the private system. Most of the staff were caring, nurturing and seemed to have a genuine interest in my welfare. If I became upset or unsettled, attempts were made to settle me through talking to me first and failing that medications, as prescribed by my psychiatrist, would be offered.  Being none the wiser I just fell into line and followed the system. I was assigned a very experienced and skilled psychiatrist who on reading the case notes wasted no time in pursuing the child sexual abuse angle. I revealed nothing, not out of dogged stubbornness but rather fear of the truth. As my time there passed into the second week my suicidality grew worse and the dreaded flashbacks started dragging me back to the 1970’s and 80’s in Ireland. Long forgotten events flooded back and my behaviour became out of control. Stories came flooding out that made no sense. I started opening up to the psychiatrist. She gently broached the subject of sexual abuse which I vehemently denied and then mentioned Complex PTSD of which I knew nothing about.

I entered into the mental health system in all innocence of a cure.  I entered the double doors that Thursday afternoon at what I thought was my lowest point, little did I know. I was relieved hopeful that finally, I was going to get help to fight these demons.   Suicidal ideation was looming and real and occupying more of my thoughts with each increasing and waking hour. It seemed the only answer.


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