Getting the better of the bottle

In the small room that she now calls home, 20-year-old Kayleigh Smith* travels back to relive the most horrific and life changing moment of her past. A memory that she actively tries to forget. It was her little sisters second birthday.

“I was eight years old and it was my sisters second birthday, you would have expected it to be a pleasant family occasion. But I had come to learn the signs that told me my mum had been drinking and she was showing them that day. Her and her boyfriend, my little sisters father, were being particularly violent towards each other,” said Kayleigh. Her first instinct was to protect her sister and to prevent her seeing this behaviour. “Before I knew it, I was witnessing my own mother stab her boyfriend in the neck. When I think back, it was as if it happened in slow motion. I recall it happening really slowly and all surrounding sounds muted for what felt like an eternity. It was incredibly traumatic,” she said. She immediately phoned the police.

“As a consequence of this, my mum was sent to prison for four years. I have always felt that I was partly responsible for this, particularly when I was younger, but now I can see that it would have happened soon or later, regardless who made the phone call,” she added.

Whilst revisiting what she said was the darkest moment of her life, the girl I had just been introduced to disappeared, replaced by a scared girl who stuttered when she spoke.

Kayleigh wasn’t dealt the best hand in life when it came to her upbringing. Her father left before she was born and, until the age of eight, she lived with her mother and grandparents, who all struggled to control their relationship with alcohol. The terrible incident attracted attention from the social services and led to Kayleigh being taken into care.

She recalled: “It was very difficult growing up with alcoholics, it isn’t a healthy environment for a child and because of this experience I feel as though I have grown up a lot sooner than I should have. It was unpredictable what was going to happen from one day to the next.” Kayleigh described the atmosphere of her childhood as unsettling and said that she thinks this is where her anxiety stemmed from originally. “I remember constantly begging them not to drink and I even did not like them putting the music on because I knew that was how it always started. It happened so often that I knew what signs to look for,” said Kayleigh.

The incident left her needing to seek counselling. “I physically felt as though I couldn’t get the blood off my hands,” she said.

The anxiety she developed within her childhood still affects her today whilst carrying out everyday tasks. Over the years, Kayleigh claims that she has discovered ways to control it, such as breathing techniques. Although, sometimes she struggles to regain control and occasionally her anxiety prevents her leaving the house.

Julie Smith*, 47, is a contributor to Al Anon – a charity that offers support to the family and friends of alcoholics.

She said: “People who have suffered from contact with alcoholics are affected in many ways. Physically and emotionally, they can suffer from anxiety, get migraines, or stress as a consequence. Everyone is different.”

After being taken into care, Kayleigh was passed around from one temporary foster home to the next. This continued until she was 12-years-old and she arrived at the home where she lived for the next seven and a half years. This home belonged to Veronica and Nicolas Vernon and their family. Upon meeting her, they were eager to look after Kayleigh and consequently switched to being long-term foster carers.

Nicolas Vernon, 51, said: “We just got on so well with Kayleigh from the moment she arrived and she and our own three children got along also.

“Kayleigh was very nervous when she first arrived and was very eager to please. For example, I remember saying that I was making Spaghetti Bolognese and asking if she liked it, to which she said yes. Years later, Kayleigh finally admitted that she didn’t actually like that dish at all. Little things like this concerned me because she would say what she thought you wanted to hear, rather than the truth.”

Kayleigh’s memories of her permanent foster family are very positive. She said: “They got me going to church, and had me baptised. They really put me on the right path. Living in a loving environment really stabilised me.” Kayleigh feels as though moving in with her foster family at a crucial time in her life, when she was starting high school, really benefitted her. “I think the normality I had at home then really helped me to excel in my education and to get the grades I needed to go to college,” she added.

During the years she lived in her foster home, Kayleigh slowly built up contact with her biological family through supervised visits at family contact centres.

On reflection Kayleigh stated: “My mum never showed much interest throughout these contacts, however my grandparents made a real effort to not let me down, which of course they did, but I could see that they were trying.”

When she was sixteen, Kayleigh was allowed to spend Christmas day with her family for the first time since she was taken into care and she was overjoyed. However, unfortunately the occasion did not go how she had anticipated. Kayleigh recalls this day: “I was staying with my grandparents and my mum for the first time in years. We got drunk and got into a fight with the next-door neighbours. Because of this incident, I now have a spent sentence for an Affray on my record. The whole thing was terrible.”

Nick also commented on this incident by saying: “This was obviously not what we wanted for Kayleigh. I think she got some really good help from the sessions she attended to spend her conviction and she did have problems, they helped her identify what she did and why she did it. It was a bit of a wake up call for herself and for her family.”

With regards to her spent sentence Kayleigh admitted: “I am glad that it happened so early on because it has made me more determined to stay away from that environment and make sure that it never happens again.”

From that moment on, Kayleigh dedicated her time to education and she was determined that she was going to make a life for herself, a stable life, a life that she has never had before and a life that she craved so badly.

According to Al Anon there has been a lot of research conducted about the children of people who suffer from alcohol addiction in relation to higher education.

Julie said: “Research has shown that some children are high achievers and become perfectionists. But another world of research says that they can get kicked out of school and be rebels. They can land in both camps.”

Getting into university was a huge accomplishment for Kayleigh. “Nobody in my family has been to university or college so I feel as though this is my opportunity to change my future, make something of myself and to break the pattern of generations in doing so,” she said.

When talking about her experience, Kayleigh said that she thinks that alcohol is too easily accessible and that there are not enough warnings about the risks of alcohol.

According to statistics from Alcohol Concern, in 2012 it was found that 43 per cent of school pupils (aged 11-15) said they had consumed alcohol at least once.

Kayleigh continued passionately: “I think they should teach it more in schools and there should be a lot more awareness. As you are constantly being warned about drugs and the damage they can cause but I am living proof of the damage alcohol can cause and I think it should be taught more frequently and if it was, less people may suffer like I have.”

This is also supported by statistics from Alcohol Concern that show an estimated 7.5 million people are unaware of the damage their drinking could be causing.

Since getting into University, Kayleigh has had limited contact with her family. She feels as though now she rents her own apartment, she can distance herself more easily and because of this she has gained a sense of control. Her family continues to let her down from time to time, and she says that it is “still too much for my liking.”

Now she lives independently in Bolton and is in her third year of University studying English and creative writing. The girl that she allowed me to see during our meeting has disappeared and has been replaced with a confident young woman with her whole life ahead of her, the one I had introduced myself to when we first met. She continues to put her past behind her, insisting that it has made her who she is today.

* Surname has been changed to disguise identity.

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