I briefly lived in a house with a few questionable characters, dodgy letting agents and a young man in the final stage of alcoholism. This phase seemed to last forever but in actual fact it was a tiny chapter that my mind seems to have blocked. Since this traumatic episode I rarely think about it, let alone speak about it. It really is too sad.
I recently found myself carrying some bottles and from the moment I began walking and the bottles would clang together my stomach flipped and a lot of sad memories flooded over me as I walked. It is only through reluctant reflection that I realise this ordeal shaped how my artwork is today.
It was evident after only the first night of this man moving in that he had a serious problem. It had barely been a couple of days and the house had been burgled, I had found him sprawled outside my bedroom door smelling of stale urine and dirt, and his late night staggerings had broken furniture and fixtures around the house. It appareared from face value that a waste of space man with no job or life had moved into the house, and had chosen to drink away his days in his room and cause a frightening existence for me. I feared he would leave the doors open at night again to let in every neighbourhood opportunist, I worried he might be violent and I would hide in a corner when he would stagger in my direction, I barely slept during this time from concern over him smoking in his bedroom and in his intoxicated state might cause a house fire in the night.
By day 4, I probably couldn’t have been more full of hate and disgust for this man who had chosen to live his life this way and had plunged me into an infinitely petrified existence. It was also around this time that patterns began to form. His bed now seemingly littered with empty bottles would begin to clang when he arose from his alcohol induced coma and my stomach would drop. With clothes hanging off him, smelling stale and filthy he would drag himself out of the door and return minutes later with a bag of litres of vodka, more clanging ensued as he dragged himself on his knees up the stairs and back into his bedroom. That was him for the night, and apart from the eventual clang of him turning over, or finishing his bottle, or reaching for more, he would not leave his room.
It was around a week into this new living arrangement, and as I lived amongst a man hellbent on killing himself I began to realise that before I knew it, I was suffering too. I had heard the saying that alcoholics get under your skin, but the extent didn’t occur to me until you see someone looking so close to death on a daily basis. Someone unable to shower, or use the toilet, or accomplish the basics of generally looking after themselves. His skin was waxy and his movements were almost like he was being puppeteared, sparodic head twitches and the inability to focus made an encounter with him feel like something from a horror film. One afternoon, after his attempted daily stagger to the shop he returned empty handed, seemingly refused service. A few hours passed where I could hear he became restless in his room, his movements slightly faster and more able-bodied than I had heard all week. I felt huge relief to know that he would potentially sober up tonight and maybe this week long binge would be over. A few hours later however I heard a blood curdling cry from his bedroom, a painful, long, drawn out moan that continued to bellow as if he was being tortured, followed by a lot of banging and smashing. He was having a seizure. His door was locked and he didn’t respond as I shouted through, so I called an ambulance.
After the drama of breaking his door down the paramedics decended into his room, expecting to see a resistant or recovering man who I believed to be more sober than I had yet seen him, but was just a non compos mentis shell of a human. He was tested to have had the blood pressure of a 90 year old, and with stats parallel to someone on the verge of a stroke. I laughed heavy heartedly as he tried to convince the paramedics he hadn’t drunk a drop, whilst sprawled amongst empty litre vodka bottles. As they carried him downstairs, and out of the door he slurred his thank you’s to them for their help and my heart went out to him. As I poked my head around his bedroom door to see how he had been living, just feet from my room, I saw he repeatedly fell asleep on his cigarettes and burns and scorches were amongst the urine stains he had been living in. Everything he possesed was broken from endless staggering, but what broke my heart was a teddy that sat on the floor.
I realised that this man did not have a choice. He was consumed by an addiction, an addictive nature and a disease. He was so deep into alcoholism that withdrawal symptoms were severe. A tragic catch 22 which didn’t allow for him to sober up, go cold turkey or appreciate his existence enough to change his lifestyle. Final stage alcoholism is beyond choices, and seeing the state of his bedroom, and the state of him, and hearing his every movement and habitual lifestyle you learn that there is no element of choice involved. However someone got into this mess, wether because they abused their use of alcohol and ignored the signs, or if they are more susceptible to addictive tendencies, nobody would chose to live a life so consistently close to death, where their only hope is to neck that bottle and fall as fast and tight asleep as possible so their existence isn’t conscious.
I was just an onlooker and observer, calling an ambulance nearly every night after this first occurrence, which was by far not the worst. Time went on, and this man continued to decend further into deeper and murkier depths of alcoholism. The smell grew stronger and couldn’t be covered, the house was destroyed, and apart from the times he was taken to hospital (where he would release himself immediately) he had still not eaten a thing, or drank water. It then became a shock to me how nobody would help him. I put my work aside, I put my personal life aside as I spent my time dealing with the unhelpful letting agents, and as many alcoholic groups and organisations as possible. The answer I recieved from every phone call or inquiry was that this man had to take himself to the centres and admit to wanting to change, as well as act on this on his own accord. I cried down the phone begging that someone would come and take him and deal with him, explaining that he was in the end stages and would surely die soon if they didn’t. His breathing was getting shallower by the day as the same paramedics would be called out because of more seizures and nasty falls. My momentary glimpses of happiness came from forcing myself to paint in the brightest colours possible. No subject, no rush, no pressure, just pushing my favourite colours, from the brightest pigment around a canvas to my favourite music. Without realising I myself had spiralled into a sadness and was clambering to get out, using my painting to do this.
The three main things I learnt from living with an alcoholic of such colossal proportions was firstly that things are not always as they seem. Originally I was greeted by a ‘scum of the earth’ waste of space, who made my life an ordeal that nobody should have to deal with. Once I began to listen to his movements out of concern for him, and not out of concern for myself, I began to see it wasn’t his fault, he did not want this, and as my compassion and empathy kicked in I saw that nobody would want this. I also learnt he was a very sweet man, who had himself been worried about scaring me during his time at the house. I learnt that his knowledge of being such a burden on others made him drink further. I learnt that he had grown up with an addictive personality, making it impossible for him to live a happy normal lifestyle. And most heart-warmingly, I learnt that he had interests in the sciences and was an incredibly intelligent man. However his only wish for the future was to live a normal life. Not a single element of this was how it seemed in the beginning, and I now see the amount of prejudice towards alcoholics and very little avenues of care and help for those far-gone of decision making.
Secondly, that you are the only person who can sort your own life out. You can be offered every ounce of guidance you would ever need, more advice than you can take in and more leaflets than trees to make them, but if you are not willing to do the work yourself to get to where you want/need to be, you will get nowhere.
And thirdly, doing what you love to do. After this man was evicted from the house, I did not know much of what happened to him. But I felt eternally grateful for being of sound mind and a healthy able-bodied human that could, unlike him, open doors for myself and my future by working hard and enjoying life. By painting every day in the most spontaneous and colourful way, making a point to have a few lovely, serene moments doing something that I know I would enjoy was what kept me hopeful for myself and able to get through this brief period of time where everything had seemed so sinister and murky.
I was told that what I had witnessed was rare, that end stage alcoholics would struggle to gain accommodation (not with my dodgy letting agents) and to reach the stage he had was lucky, as more unfortunate people would have suffered a medical tragedy or an alcohol induced accidental one. The irony being that he wasn’t lucky at all. For anyone ever in the vicinity of an alcoholic, it is draining and saddening.
I am now long shot of the house and the unnerving company which seems like a lifetime ago, but in considering my work and how I came about the styles and colour palettes used, I owe it to the concept of turning on a light when everything goes dark.
For any information on my artwork, sales or commissions contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to my Facebook page to see the updates of my more colourful work, watching the transformation from where I began to bring more colour and atmosphere into my work – www.katyjadedobson.co.uk