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Monday, 8 June 2015

Tethering Lions

People are talking about the sad death of Charles Kennedy and naturally, in the same breath, his chronic drinking problem.

In the days of Margaret Thatcher, we entered an age of restyling, her teeth, hair, clothes and voice all overhauled to improve her public image. But Charles Kennedy retained a 'what you see is what you get' persona, never appearing sanitised or airbrushed. We may have seen him appear sweating and puffy-faced, but he was also intelligent, empathetic and, above all, human.

In Tying Down The Lion, one of the German characters suffers from alcoholism, her dependency the result of her ordeals when the Red Army invaded Berlin. She is fettered by the impossible longing to return to her magical life before the war, unable to separate the past and set it free. But there is not always such a clear-cut reason for alcoholism.

I hesitated before writing a post about this theme because it felt like a betrayal. Someone close to me was an alcoholic. People with addictions can be viewed as self-destructive, weak or selfish and I am reluctant that he should be remembered that way. However, it has to be said, those are apt descriptions of his behaviour sometimes - accurate 'symptoms' of his disease. He was nevertheless a whole person with human faults, failings and also great, shining qualities too, just the same as anyone else.

He possessed a wonderful sense of humour and loved to be surrounded by people so that he could entertain them. He was generous, kind-hearted and keen to help solve the dilemmas of others. However, following the path of many alcoholics, he concocted webs of lies and manipulated situations in order to feed his addiction. Like Charles Kennedy, he frequently denied he had a problem.

When I look at old pictures of him, the need for 'something else' was possibly always there. In adolescence, his confident stance and smile, the hint of swagger, mask an uncertainty within himself. An expression of irritation often seems to have crept in, a lack of ease that seems to be directed at whoever was holding the camera, but is probably a sign of his own diminishing ability to love himself.

As a young man, he was already drinking both in public and in private. His family were often woken by the sounds of him staggering in and struggling to make his way upstairs. He would think nothing of 'borrowing' a motor-bike to roar his way home, covering fifteen miles in ten minutes, then taking a further hour to crawl inside the house.

As the years went by, he became adept at concealing alcohol, even in shampoo bottles under his bed. One hot day, when I asked for a sip from his pint of water, he was not quick enough to stop me, although he tried. The glass was full to the brim with neat vodka.

Every component of his life gradually eroded; three marriages, a promising career, friendships, trust, hope and health. His best relationships were with my young children. In them, he could see the bright potential we all have when life is just beginning. He saw the best of himself, a memory of all that was now disappearing.

In the end, he was trying to piece some of the broken parts of himself back together. He secured a job he enjoyed, with responsibilities he seized like a lifeline. There was a chance he might have a future after all. But after an accident at home, unrelated to alcohol, he let the lifeline go and quietly died.

I think he drank because he never believed he could function without that 'something else'. Some of us are driven and inspired by our family, our work, our interests, or simply by our own selves. Others slide into the belief that they need a different kind of support in order to be happy. Eventually they need it just to function. On the day I sipped his vodka, he watched me and winked. The wink said that he knew he was in the clutches of something deadly, but he didn't know how else to live.

It is tempting to say to someone with alcohol dependency, "Just stop." And that person, with the best of intentions, might give you a faithful promise to do just that. Tomorrow. And everyone, with or without addictions, knows how easy it is to make declarations about tomorrow. Often these vows turn out to be slippery fish, impossible to catch as they slither away and disappear into the deep. But these natural human responses should not diminish the stature of the person, just as the addiction should not define them.

In Tying Down The Lion, just as in real life, no cure for alcohol dependency can be offered. As with many human problems, the attempt to master it is as formidable as tethering a lion. However, readers will discover whether there is any hope for a happier outcome and a release from the ties of the past.

Charles Kennedy should be remembered as a gifted orator who united his party, and above all, as a man who was flawed, yet real. As for the man I knew, I choose to remember his good days, even though they became gifts we were all scared to open, not wanting the promise to be shattered.


  1. A very moving post, and one that should be read! Those who have not coped with alcoholism - family or friends - probably do see it as simply a weakness rather than something much more invasive. I know someone who has tethered the lion, but it was not an easy task! The lion escaped a couple of times first!

    1. Thank you so much, Lindsay, for reading and commenting. I'm always very grateful and I love your extension of the lion analogy. You are so right about the invasiveness of alcoholism and I'm glad the person you know has been succesful with the tethering. That really is a huge

  2. This is a very moving post, Jo. I think there have been times in my life when I've been teetering on the brink. I can't wait to read your novel (as I've said many times before). And yes, Charles Kennedy was one of the few politicians that I liked.

    1. Many thanks for commenting, Jo, and for your kind words about the novel. I think a lot of people teeter and I always imagine there is a mechanism of some kind that teeterers can operate to haul them back from the brink. Alcoholics must have an inherent fault in their mechanism, a cross-wiring, that means they step off that edge and into the abyss, where the lions are prowling. Climbing out must be an almost impossible task - certainly for poor Charles Kennedy. xxx

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  4. My brother-in-law died of alcoholism last year. He had everything: a successful career, a loving wife and three beautiful children who were turning into adults to be proud of. I read every word with a nod of my head - so sad.

    1. Thank you, Wendy, for your comment. I'm so very sorry to hear this. It's heartbreaking for your brother-in-law and his family that his illness brought about his death, especially as such a wonderful life was at stake. I feel sad for them all. As with Charles Kennedy, there was so much for your brother-in-law to live for, but alcoholism penetrates through every layer of the sufferer's life so deeply that it is often impossible to break free. xxx