Twelve months ago the world was shocked by the death of Amy Winehouse, but alcohol abuse doesn’t just wreak havoc in the world of the rich and famous, as one Northern Ireland mum tells Karen Ireland
A year ago today millions of fans were mourning Amy Winehouse, who was found dead at her London home aged just 27 after a long and very public battle with drug and alcohol addiction.
But for one Lisburn mum her death was especially poignant. For Anita Johnston knew that it could so easily have been her.
For more than five years Anita could barely get through a single day without a drink.
At her lowest ebb, she would pour herself a glass of wine while getting her children their breakfast.
Her relationship ended and as her life spiralled out of control, her children — Jasmine (17), Jemma (14), Jade (11) and Jessica (5) — went to live with their father.
Like Amy, she found that one drink always seemed to lead to another.
Like Amy, even though she’d been repeatedly told by those who loved her that she would have to stop, she just couldn’t do so.
Unlike Amy, however, a spell in a specialist treatment centre eventually proved the turning point.
Happily, Anita has now been sober for more than five years. She now works as an administrator for the charity, Via Wings, in Dromore, and is part of its new business, the Hope & Soul shop.
Here, on the anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s death and as a timely warning to others, Anita gives a searingly honest and brave account of her decent into chronic addiction — and her recovery.
Last year when Amy Winehouse died I remember saying to friends ‘That could have been me’. In fact, any time I hear of any death due to addiction I think ‘There but for the grace of God go I’.
I know I am lucky to be alive and I thank God every day that I wake up and am able to get out of bed. Amy wasn’t so lucky. She didn’t win the battle with her demons.
Looking back, I think my life changed one day in 1981 when my dad, who was a policeman, was injured in a bomb explosion.
Up until then I’d had a relatively normal childhood but when dad recovered and went back to work my mum couldn’t cope and lived in fear all the time until she made herself mentally ill.
From then on she was always ill and she made several attempts to take her own life.
Finally we all moved to England but when mum and my younger sister and I came home for a family wedding a few years later dad rang her and told her not to come back, that the marriage was over and that he couldn’t cope any longer.
It was then that mum first started drinking. I was about 12 at the time and would come home from school and find her drunk in the middle of the day I’d have to put her to bed and make the tea.
She frequently ended up in the alcohol dependency unit in Downpatrick and my sister and I would have to go and stay with relatives.
I vowed then that I would never be like my mum and that if I ever had children I would never treat them the way we were treated. Little did I know about the illness which was taking over her life.
At 17, I met my partner, James, and we hit it off straight away. We moved in together after a couple of years and I had Jasmine.
I was young and had low self-esteem; I was still carrying a lot of baggage from my childhood but it wasn’t until James and I split up that I started drinking heavier than a normal social drinker would do.Our third child was only one-year-old and I got really drunk — I wanted to blot out the world. It felt good as I had started to feel lonely and worthless and this gave me confidence at a time when I was really struggling.
I began another relationship but once more things didn’t work out. By the time my youngest was three-years-old, I was having a few glasses of wine at night to help me sleep.
My drinking didn’t so much creep up on me gradually but galloped. Within a few months I was gulping a glass of wine in the morning while I poured the kids their cereal and when I got them out to school I’d often drink the day away.
I knew every trick in the book. I put them to bed early at night pretending it was later than it was just so I could start drinking.
Of course, friends and family had mentioned to me that I was drinking a lot but I didn’t want to know. I thought it was normal. I’d simply change friends and distance myself from family — anything to continue the lifestyle.
Things reached a climax when the older girls came home from school one day and found me passed out on the sofa. They couldn’t wake me and, fearing that I was dead, they phoned their dad.
When he arrived and saw the state I was in, he took the kids and kept them until I had sobered up.
Sadly, that started to become a regular occurrence. Friends disappeared and drink became my best friend. It was the medicine I needed more than anything else — or so I thought.
I used to waken up in places and not know where I was or how I had got there, often with people I didn’t even know. It is petrifying to think of now. That’s why I consider myself so lucky to be alive.
Finally, there was an incident in August, 2005, and my children’s father, James, decided enough was enough and that the girls would be better with him in a stable environment.
He felt they couldn’t go on seeing me like that, and that I needed to sort myself out.
My dad came over from England for a week and I really tried to get help but I was depressed and the drink helped and I needed it. Instead, I lied. I’d go to addiction services, but buy three bottles of wine on the way home and drink them all in one night.
And then I became pregnant with Jessica during a short relationship that didn’t work out. I tried to stop drinking during the pregnancy but fell off the wagon several times. The midwives and social services were keeping a close eye on me. When she was born a month early, weighing just over four pounds, James came to the hospital and said to me over the cot: “This little thing is dependent on you and you need to sort yourself out for her.”
I cried all night as I knew he was right. I tried so hard for a few months to stay sober and then one night I left her sleeping in her cot to go to the off-licence. The next morning I dropped her at a friend’s house as I always remembered being told that if I had an urge to drink I should get the baby out of the house first.
Driving away, I crashed the car — obviously I was hungover from the night before. My friend called James and he rang social services who up until this point had worked with me. Now, I had ran out of chances. My time was up and I was told to pack a bag for my baby, who would be leaving in an hour.
Thank God, social services agreed to let James have her so she could be with her sisters. Nevertheless, I didn’t even stay that hour with her — I couldn’t bear to watch them leave.
I disappeared for a week and my family were frantic. They feared that I was dead, and the truth is that at the time I wished I was. I felt so ashamed and guilty for what I had put them all through.
In fact, a so-called friend from Alcoholics Anonymous had arrived with a bottle of vodka and |taken me to oblivion for a week.
When I sobered up I called my addiction counsellor and begged to go to the clinic in Downpatrick — the place I had previously sworn I would never go because of all the memories of my mum being there.
The kids wrote me letters when I was in there, telling me what I was really like. I cried for days as I didn’t even know or remember some of things I had done. It was like this whole other person had emerged every time I took a drink.
They tore me apart on that programme so that they could put me back together again. And for the first time in my life I started to pray to, and have conversations with, God. The next year was one of the hardest I’d ever come
through. I had to go home to an empty house and initially all I was allowed was a one-hour visit with my kids each week, supervised by James.
Everyone ended up in tears at the end of these sessions. It was heartbreaking, but I knew that it was my own fault. I also knew that I had to find a new life without alcohol as a crutch and work towards getting my family back. I attended ourses during the day and went to up to nine AA meetings a week at night — sometimes just to get out of the house. Slowly, I started to regain peoples’ trust. I remember the first night I got Jessica to stay overnight and she woke up crying and I cried, too, as it was like a whole new experience for me. It was a joy and a high which alcohol had never given me. When she was aged two, she was taken off the social services register and James and I now share custody of all four girls, which works out really well. James has adopted Jessica.
He is now one of my best friends and I will never be able to repay him for how much he has done for me and helped me through this journey.
I also work for the Hope & Soul shop in Dromore, which sells vintage furniture and arts and crafts. There’s a coffee shop on the premises too, and all money raised goes to help those in need.
I am still on a journey. Every day I wake up and I am thankful for another day, and another day without drink. As an alcoholic, I will always have to live one day at a time. AA is my medicine now and always will be. Today, when I look back, I don’t recognise the person that I was, the stranger that drink turned me into, but I do accept that it is a disease and I was ill — very ill. But I beat it.
I have been sober for five years now — unlike my mum whose death certificate cited ‘20 years of alcohol abuse’. That could have been me, but I have a life to live now for my children.
They have all forgiven me — a long time before I forgave myself. In fact, I’m not sure if and when I will ever be able to do that completely. Because you have to remember where you have been to stop you ever going back there.
For further information on AA including meetings in your area, tel: 0845 769 7555