Back Where We Started

Have you ever noticed how well birds sing in the rain? It is almost as if the raindrops provide the perfect acoustic for warbling.

On the weekend Daylight Saving ended and it is dark at 6PM. For the first week of early darkness I encounter little pangs of loss for the speed with which the seasons pass. Sometimes it is as if they are on fast forward. But the birds calling to their brothers in the rain helps.

I am standing in the kitchen watching inkblot clouds roll on a sky that looks like it’s made of grey felt. If my arms could reach far enough I would be able to pull off bits of that sky and make it into a winter coat.

The clouds roll in procession, quickly, as if being pulled on a string. I wonder who is pulling them. I am deliberately trying to distract myself by focussing on the natural world.

I am julienning carrots for a salad. This is something I never do. I lack the patience to be so meticulous, although I do like the effect of the long, thin strips of orange against the cool green lettuce leaves. It makes me feel like a proper cook, instead of someone who just throws things together.

As I said, I’m trying to distract myself. I’ve had a rough day. My sister’s husband has started drinking again (after 75 days sober) and has gone on a bender. She has retaliated by placing all of his clothes in a Weber Barbecue (in batches) and setting them alight.

For the past month things have been good between them. They have been fixing up the house he lived in before they got married so they can rent it out. It’s in a good area and promised them an income of almost five hundred dollars a week. During his binge (which has lasted for the past five days) he met a couple in the pub who needed a place to live. He is renting them his house for a hundred dollars a week.

When my sister heard this she hit the roof, telling him he had to get rid of them. He responded by moving in with them, claiming they were the only people in the world who understood him.

She is disconsolate, aggrieved, bereaved. He is too drunk to care. My parents have retreated, unable to cope. My sister in America has her phone permanently on the answering machine.

Aunt Jo and I have been holding the fort, drinking three pots of tea in a row as my sister wailed and gnashed her teeth at the world. Aunt Jo was rattled, although she didn’t say so, but I could tell by the way the teaspout banged against the side of the cup as she poured.

Millie has four stitches in her right arm. Her husband was running with scissors, just like Augusten Burroughs did in his book, playing heroes and villains after drinking an entire bottle of bourbon. I always wondered if it was possible to run with scissors without causing an accident. Well, now I know.

‘He loves Jack Daniels more than me,’ Millie shouted, her voice strange, discordant.

‘You can’t quantify love when dealing with anyone, let alone an addict.’ Aunt Jo is always the voice of reason. She knows what she’s talking about. She used to be married to an alcoholic. ‘It does you no good to look at it like that. In the end it just causes you more anguish. The fact is, he is an alcoholic who is having trouble staying sober. It has nothing to do with how much he loves you or how much he loves the booze but everything to do with whether or not he can keep his demons at bay. What you have to decide, my dear, is how long you’re going to put up with him hurting you.’

I felt my stomach begin to spasm as I watched my sister tear a newspaper into strips, each about an inch in width. Their symmetry was astounding, chilling. It is not pleasant to see someone falling apart, especially when you know how far they’re capable of falling.

‘We don’t need to think about that now,’ I said. ‘We just need to get through the next few days. Then we’ll make a plan. Isn’t that right, Aunt Jo?’

When we backed off, Millie began to relax. She took some sleeping pills and went to bed. Aunt Jo decided to stay the night with her just in case anything happened. I told her to keep me posted.

As the night fills the windows I wonder how long I can keep up the role of supportive sister, and whether, in fact, my support is of any benefit. I wish there was a manual for such things because I am at a loss as to what to do next. He’s hit her, he’s stabbed her with scissors, and he’s threatened to kill her, but still she stays. It is agonising to watch. How did my little sister who made tents out of tablecloths for her Barbie dolls and dressed up like Boy George from Culture Club, end up in this place? How did the story of her life become encrypted with thick, volatile brushstrokes?

I can wait when it’s warranted for things to get better but right now I feel I am standing unclothed on a windy hilltop without any way of tethering myself; as useless as a signpost pointing the wrong way. I look to the sky for a sign. Something, anything, but the dark remains inscrutable as stone.

There is nothing for it but to continue. To watch the morning light turn the stars translucent. And hope that in subsequent days we will find the shelter we seek.

27 thoughts on “Back Where We Started

  1. i have never been on your side of any of these incidents.. when i was in a situation similar to your sister i always hid from my family and friends,, i didn’t want anyone to know let alone tell me to do things (ire leave him) that i knew i could only offer lip service to… i do not know how to advise you,, but i will tell you,, the outcome will be the same whether you are supportive or not.. the only difference is how many lives will be dragged thru the mire in the interim….


  2. Knowing that you have been through a similar situation, Paisley, and have come out the other side is a comfort to me. You are completely right when you say that no matter what we do the outcome will be the same. It is her life and her choice. The hard part though is when she asks for help. I can’t refuse her that but it does prevent me from remaining detached. I appreciate you listening.


  3. Selma, Your words, ‘It is her life and her choice’ is the key to maintaining your sanity. If not sanity, your peace of mind. If your sister cannot bring herself to leave her husband, and you cannot distance yourself from her troubles, neither of you will come out of this “whole”. Until your sister’s husband comes to the realization that he is an alcoholic and truly wants to remain sober, nothing is going to change him. Your sister has but one reasonable choice: leave him and make certain he never finds her.


  4. I feel for you…and your sister. My brother is an alcoholic. He is 44 years old and still lives with my parents. It kills me to see what they go through. They have had to pick him up from other states (I’m in the USA) after a bender. But they enable him to do this. As much as I try to tell my mom to be strong and tell him he’ll have to leave if he doesn’t stay sober, it doesn’t help. It is up to them to stand their ground. Now I have a sympathetic ear, but that’s all. I can’t tell my mom what to do because it just stresses her out more.

    On a lighter note, I just found out this morning that Augusten Burroughs has a new memoir coming out on April 29th titled ” A Wolf at the Table” about his father.

    Take care,



  5. Your support means everything. But I do know how hard it is to give – especially when it feels like it’s not “doing any good”.

    The best thing you can do for her is disconnect from the result, if at all possible – so that you can have the mental strength to be supportive. Remember that these are still her choices to make, and your job is NOT to convince her to make the “right” one. What she does is not a reflection on you or the support you offer.


  6. “Have you ever noticed how well birds sing in the rain? It is almost as if the raindrops provide the perfect acoustic for warbling.”

    no i haven’t. but now I am going to pay attention for that sound…..

    going back to read the rest of your post!!


  7. Oh my selma, This is going to be a difficult time for you, it’s always worse to watch someone we love deal with pain, more than for ourselves. I will pray for you. Don’t give up hope.


  8. Sending a big hug your way Selma. This is such a hard situation to be in, for all of your family. I have been through years of family problems, different scenarios and various times. One thing I have learned, just when things don’t seem to be able to get any worse, when it’s just unbearable, something does change to help a resolution come about. Usually not in a way we expect or perhaps want it too, but there will be light at the end of this tunnel. Hang in there. I hope the answers come sooner than later.


  9. It may not feel like it Selma but in a strange way it is good that Milly feels she can reach out to you and vent. Like Paisley said most people hide from their family and friends and suffer in silence. I know I did when I was in a very destructive relationship that I very nearly didn’t survive. It’s unbelievable that someone can damn near kill you and yet the person who’s life is threatened can pull off a totally different picture to the world at large. That is a very lonely, desolate and dark place so thank God your sister has you and Aunt Jo.

    In your shoes I think the only thing you can do is be there for her when she needs you and don’t try to advise her because it won’t do any good and will only add to your frustration. She will know when it’s time to get the hell out of there, I promise you she will. Lets hope it’s sooner rather than later for all of your sakes. Big hugs to you and I’m thinking of you.


  10. Did you ever say if there are any children involved?

    If so, she MUST make the break … if not, it’s up to her. You’ve done everything you can. I’m not suggesting you distance yourself from it completely but (I know!!) there’s always the feeling you could have done more, and it does leave you feeling guilty no matter how much you try to convince yourself otherwise.

    But, short of calling the police … who, I suspect, can’t do much unless SHE complains … I don’t see what else you can do, apart from be there and listen.


  11. Ah my dearest and most lovely friend, I can honestly feel you here.

    I have been Millie.

    It’s so damn hard to give up on those dreams. It’s so damn hard to step away from the merry go round, especially when the damn thing keeps whirring faster and faster and faster.

    And listening, for you, is a heartbreak and a soul-stealer.

    I wish I could whisk you away for a shot of tequila and a merry duet – then we could face the mess together!


  12. Selma, hang in there…there is a person in my family who has had years of alcoholism, yet this individual–after getting sober– married someone very addicted to alcohol as well!Both are now drinking on a regular basis. sigh….
    Your hope is YOU.
    Keep YOU sane–doing all the things that help you be YOU–writing, cooking, whatever exercise you enjoy–the healthier YOU are, the easier it will be for you to cope with the dis-ease of your sister(and she very much is ill also, to be so invested in such an ill person as her husband).
    Your sis is very fortunate to have you, and your Aunt to help her/you. I will keep all of you(including her husband) in my meditations and prayers. You sound like a loving, strong family.
    Oh–and tHANK YOU for your insights–your words are lovely to read, even when there is tough subject matter discussed……


  13. “How did the story of her life become encrypted with thick, volatile brushstrokes?”

    Artist Without A Brush

    He paints her
    like Van Gogh
    sometimes in blue,
    always in red,
    yellow swirls and swirls.
    Psychologists call it a love-map:
    destined to a certain mate.

    Red lines,
    purple lines,
    chart her progress.

    She wears his insults
    You’re still a whore
    Always been a whore
    an actress
    a stripper
    makes no difference
    At least half those men think you’re a whore.

    She’s cast:
    biggest role she’ll ever play
    loving girlfriend
    dutiful wife
    joyous mother
    the house is grand
    but the kitchen’s never clean enough
    the dinner hour is silent
    except for cries of Omma? Oppa?

    At night, he’s ready to create
    Her eyes no longer see him
    but she knows when he is close,
    Tell me, she says
    Let me know when,
    like a lover preparing for the cum.
    He pulls her hair,
    brings the gentle, small oval face towards his
    You did not let me know, she says
    and he draws his fist back again.
    You know better, he says.
    A hand traces her pale cheek
    it grows dark, swollen like him
    reddened, near-purple
    ripe, ready to pluck
    he takes one, then the other.

    She explains
    to the children
    her colleagues
    the neighbors
    anyone who will listen
    It’s the new dog
    the cat
    the door

    There is no sun
    the curtains are drawn
    it’s quiet as he readies to paint

    The quotes “You’re still a whore, always been a whore”
    “At least half those men think you’re a whore”
    and “Omma? Oppa?”
    and “youknowicantseetoowell
    itsanasianthingyouwouldntunderstand” should be italicized for clarity.
    I wrote this poem way back in 1997, as I envisioned a verbally abusive beau becoming physically abusive, As I wrote the poem, I “saw” a large house, and children in my mind’s eye, and that’s what I put on the page.
    Although my vision was imaginary, your description (“…brushstrokes?”) of your sister’s story resonated with me, so I decided to post this…
    with much love,


  14. I have no words. With the job I do I see people in your sister’s position every week. It breaks my heart to know the struggle both she, and your family, have ahead of you still.


  15. Selma, the part about Millie’s husband meeting people at the pub and letting them rent the house gave me chills. My father met some guys at a pub and decided to start a business with them. For logical (to him) reasons, he signed guarantor on all the equipment and supplies they had to pay off, so when the business went under it was my father who had to try and pay off all the debts for the entire business. I only found out a few years ago that the only reason I was able to finish my education at the time was that one of my teachers pulled some serious strings to get the school to waive my school fees.

    I hope so deeply that Millie can find the strength to say enough. My heart breaks for you and your entire family.

    Lisa, that is a very powerful poem.



    MARY – I agree. That is the key phrase. Your advice is excellent. I certainly don’t want to end up a wreck over this so I have to remember that it is her life. You are also right about her having only one reasonable choice. I hope that at some stage she has the strength to make it.

    LINDA – thank you for sharing your story. I’m going to take a leaf out of your book and lend a sympathetic ear, nothing more. Offering advice/ solutions just leads to more frustration. I will be very intrigue to read Augusten’s new book. He is a gifted writer.

    BRITT – you are such a wise person. I’m going to take ALL your advice on board. It is the only way to go. You are awesome!

    MELEAH – Aunt Jo is a rock. I feel better today, I don’t know why, but I feel on the brink of something good. I hope you are better -I’ve been really worried.

    VEGGIES – you are absolutely right. I’ve been in several situations where I thought things were never going to get better and then all of a sudden the sun breaks through the clouds. It’s only a matter of time.

    GYPSY – Aww, my dear, what would I do without you? I am so sorry you had to go through what you did but it comforts me to know you knew when it was time to leave. I’m just going to be there for my sister, nothing more. Any decision that has to be made she will have to make on her own. Thank you.

    TRAVELRAT – there are no kids involved, thank God! You’re right, I have done everything I can. The rest is now up to her.

    NANNA – one of these days I’m going to take you up on that duet. It would be a hoot! Knowing you’re there means so much to me. You are the best!

    LISA – that poem is incredible. You are incredible. It has made my day that you have shared that. WOW. I am a little overcome. What brilliant advice you give – I must continue to do the things that make me ME. You are wonderful!

    BEC – I’m determined to get through it. Thank you so much for your support.

    CHRIS – I’m not giving up yet. Thank you, my friend!

    DAOINE – I had no idea you had gone through that. How stressful for everyone concerned. So glad you got to finish school. Isn’t Lisa’s poem brilliant? She is awesome. Thank you, as always, for your support.


  17. You can hope, and you can be there when it counts. Really, there’s nothing more you can do.
    A terrible situation to be in, but ‘hope’ is a big word.


  18. Horrible. I feel just as sorry for you as a do for her. It’s hard to be the one who sees things clearly. I hope she doesn’t let love cloud her vision of what she really deserves.


  19. Hi Selma, I tried leaving a comment earlier, but my internet has gone wonky. I’ll try again – your memories of the Barbie tents and your sister dressing like Boy George is what makes it so difficult – I remember my brother with his trucks and his beautiful blonde curls. Our love is strong, but there is nothing one can do really. Your sister needs help to take that step and leave – she must decide that on her own though. You can only tell her that you love her. Thankfully you have your Aunt Jo as your rock. Big hug, Kate ox


  20. LISA – please, the pleasure was all mine. It’s not often that I get left a poem in the comments, especially one as brilliant as yours. I am still delighted about it!

    MOMO – I’m hoping she won’t let love cloud her vision but I don’t think there’s much clarity at the moment. Perhaps with a bit of time things will change.

    KATE – you always cheer me up. You have a knack for it. You are the best!


  21. NECTARFIZZ _ sorry about my late reply to your comment. Your comment popped up late for some reason ( I think it was my fault.) I really appreciate your kind words. I remain hopeful that things will improve. (((((Hugs))))


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