Illustration: Esme Alice Mackay

LIFE HONESTLY

The worst thing about living with an alcoholic is the not knowing

Alcoholism isn’t a racy lifestyle choice – it’s a killer, says novelist Louisa Young. She has written about life with and without her love, Robert Lockhart

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By Cathy Rentzenbrink on

Perhaps the worst thing about living with an alcoholic, says Louisa Young, is the not knowing: “Robert would swear that he was sober, and one half of me kind of knew he wasn’t but the other half of me desperately hoped he was. I ended up doubting myself and my sanity. I didn't know then, but he always kept a toothbrush and toothpaste in his pocket. His bottle of Lucozade had vodka in. He was very good at the lying. And then you think, how could I have been so blind? But everybody is. That’s why they call it a family condition. Some diseases are too big for one body; they involve an entire family.”

Young was, she says, half in love with Robert Lockhart for most of her adult life and totally in love with him for the rest of it. They first met on a staircase at Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1976.

“I’d never met a Northerner before and here was this scrappy lad from Wigan. He was gorgeous, incandescent; mesmerising when he played the piano. He had an astonishing talent, ferocious energy and a massive appetite for absolutely everything.”

Lockhart was beautiful “like an off-duty Bowie”, and women loved him. Though madly attracted, Young was “too proud” to join the throng of his admirers, to moon over him like other people did. They became friends.

“The first time we slept together was in 1983 and we didn’t get together as a couple until 2002. He was always going out with somebody, and when he wasn’t he would come and cry on my shoulder. He was often not a nice boyfriend, unfaithful and badly behaved a lot of the time. His girlfriends were really lovely – clever, attractive and kind – and they’d usually kick him out in the end. Then he married and I didn’t really see him. He pitched up a couple of years later, and said the marriage had broken down, and he was lost and upset and sad that he’d fucked it all up.”

By then, Lockhart’s friends were increasingly concerned about his drinking. He hadn’t been a huge drinker at Oxford – he’d been working hard getting a double first, and teaching and performing – but as he got older, he got drunker.

“He drank twice his share in half the time. He liked to make things more extreme. Anything good had to be made better by drink. But if anything was bad, if he was miserable or anxious about a performance, then he needed drink to make himself feel better.”

Lockhart would go out for the morning papers and drink quarter bottles of vodka in the telephone box on the way home. He fell down the stairs and broke his nose

Lockhart was a different person when very drunk, like his own Evil Twin. But his Sweet Twin was, Young says, her true love. “I didn’t really want to be his girlfriend except I really did want to be his girlfriend. He would sit on my bed and say, ‘You don’t want to go out with me because I’m a chain-smoking alcoholic’, and I’d think, ‘Yeah, but if you weren’t . . .’. We came to an understanding. If he genuinely wanted to sober up, I would let myself love him.”

They didn’t expect it to be easy, but Young did think Lockhart was both serious in his intention not to drink and capable of delivering on it. She knew next to nothing about addiction then, and was full of the hope inexperience allows. Lockhart was charming, kind and generous, would play the piano for her and find out where she was having lunch and send flowers addressed to “the most beautiful woman in the room”. As time went by, it became clear he was also still drinking.

Lockhart would go out for the morning papers and drink quarter bottles of vodka in the telephone box on the way home. He fell down the stairs and broke his nose. As aggression took over from wit, he got into fights and got himself arrested. He broke his foot so badly the bone was sticking right out of it. Young gave him a year and then another. She loved him and wrote him letters full of kind but firm reality checks. She begged him to see a doctor. He was like “a bucket with a hole in it”. She poured in love and love poured straight out: “I never knew which twin would turn up at the house; Evil Twin or Sweet Twin.”

There were stints in rehab, but Lockhart’s periods of sobriety were fragile and didn’t endure, leading to more ultimatums, ruptures, hospitalisations and reconciliations. Young details Lockhart’s painful slide from “designated wunderkind to world-class fuckup.” Her friends thought she should leave him for ever, but she loved him. 

Louisa Young with her late partner, composer Richard Lockhart
 

Eventually, after Lockhart was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome and told by doctors that to continue to drink would be a death sentence, there was a long-term residential rehab programme that worked. Recovery was slow and cautious and hard-earned.

Young and Lockhart had two happy years, before a persistent sore throat led Lockhart to the ear nose and throat hospital and a diagnosis of cancer. They entered a new hell, of maxillofacial surgery, chemotherapy and feeding tubes, but she notes in her memoir how there is far less stigma in caring for a someone with cancer than for an alcoholic: “With cancer, Robert and I were both united against the illness. With addiction, for a long time, the illness and Robert were united against Robert. He said later that he’d rather go through his cancer treatment again than return to life as an active alcoholic.” 

The first year after Robert died was completely bonkers. When something like this happens, when grief gets you, it’s like being thrown into a river

They still laughed and loved each other. Fourteen months after the end of his treatment Lockhart, who had had a tube direct into his stomach since surgery, decided to go out and eat. He choked, and died in hospital the next day with Young by his side. She has no idea why he took the disastrous decision to try to eat. When he died, there was no alcohol in his body and there was no cancer in his body.

At his memorial concert, Young opened her speech by saying, “He was the best of men; he was the worst of men.” And ended it with, “I never expect – nor indeed want – to meet anyone like him again.”

The grief was like nothing she had ever experienced: “The first year after Robert died was completely bonkers. When something like this happens, when grief gets you, it’s like being thrown into a river. You haven’t a clue what’s going on. And then, after a while, you notice there are various hands held out to you, and if you can take one of those hands they will haul you up – but they haul you up on the other side of the river. They are people who have made that crossing themselves and you can sit with them, they know what to say and they know when to say it, and then you live on the other side of the river with a great many people, some of whom you didn’t know were on that side of the river, because you didn’t know the river existed, because you were leading a normal, cheerful, life. And then, you find that you settle in on that bank, and then you help other people who get thrown in and that’s the only silver lining; that you can be emotionally informed when somebody else is in trouble.”

Young didn’t make a decision to write about Robert, it was inevitable: “Writing about stuff that matters to them is what writers do. It would be impossible for any writer to live with Robert and what he went through and not write about it.” 

Louisa Young and Richard Lockhart
 

The memoir is beautiful and full of love, and unflinching in its depiction of the squalor and desperation of alcoholism. It is full of things Young wishes she’d known earlier. She hopes it will be helpful, and also wants to shine a light on our societal problems with alcohol: “We are not grown-up in our attitude to addiction and alcohol. I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but it’s not good that we still don’t really talk about addiction. That conversation has got to be had, more realistically, without shame. Alcoholism isn’t a racy lifestyle choice. It’s a killer. For some people, it’s absolutely vital that they don’t drink, so let’s acknowledge that. Like you would stand up for a pregnant lady on the Tube or open a door for someone with a load of shopping, let’s just be nice and straightforward about the fact that some people must not drink.”

Robert’s rehab papers are included in the book: “I wanted to include his words because it’s something you don’t hear. We get addiction memoirs generally from well-known people who are well into their recovery. I wanted to include the rawness of the first stage. That’s not a voice we often hear, because AA is anonymous and that’s how it should be.” 

Young is keen to credit Alcoholics Anonymous for Lockhart’s recovery: “It does work. It’s miraculous. People are often reluctant to do AA, but if you are serious about wanting to get sober then you should park your ego, park your superior intelligence and get in line. Shame and fear are at the core of all addictions. I have such admiration for people who can get off the terrible shame carousel, because they all help each other and by helping each other they are also helping all of us. Alcoholics need so much help before they can hear the people who love them.”

We are not grown-up in our attitude to addiction and alcohol. I don’t have the answers, I wish I did, but it’s not good that we still don’t really talk about addiction

Life does move on. Young has – to her great surprise – fallen in love again, with the writer Michel Faber. They first met at a literary festival where he was reading poems about his wife, Eva, who had recently died from cancer. 

“We were both still in love with our dead partners. It was a bit like double dating at first. I knew him for a year before we actually got together. And now we’ve made ‘his and hers’ grief memoirs.”

Young has also written an album of songs about Robert, with her band Birds of Britain, which has been described as “alternative singer/songwriter folk-inflected bedsit gin’n’razorblade cabaret jazz electronica blues for grown-ups”. “I think I’m the oldest woman in the UK to have released a debut album,” she says. “It’s a claim to fame, of sorts.”

The grief is still there, and jumps up when she doesn’t expect it: “Love and grief are intertwined, like roses. I miss Robert and I love my lovely boyfriend. He’s an unbelievable late-life bonus and in many ways a much better boyfriend than Robert was.

“I can’t regret meeting Robert on the stairs. He made me who I am; I would have been a different woman without him. I’ll love him forever. I wish he’d had a happier life, with all the gifts that he had. I wish he could have been a little bit different for his sake, and for the sake of all the people who loved him.”

You Left Early; A True Story of Love and Alcohol (Borough Press) £14.99 June 28 2018

You Left Early by Birds of Britain on Download, CD and Vinyl, from 79p-£17.99; June 28 2018

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Illustration: Esme Alice Mackay
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