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.