The news this morning that Charles Kennedy has died has made me very sad and I would like to share my response.
Of course, we hear daily of deaths around the world due to war, famine, and disease so why should this one sadden me in particular? Should I not care more about the deaths of millions than one person? When you’re talking about emotions, though, ‘shoulds’ don’t come into it. When I ask myself what aspect bothers me most about Charles, it is that he died at 55. But of course there is much more to it than that. As yet cause of death hasn’t been made public but it is relevant to what I want to say. What I’ve read just said it was ‘sudden’.
I met Charles briefly about nine years ago. I had co-accompanied a school trip to Paris for an economics conference and he was one of the speakers. To everyone’s sort-of-amusement, one of the speakers hadn’t turned up and had sent his father in his place (yes, really) and my students persuaded me to go over and ask Charles for the gossip. He was absolutely lovely. Friendly, warm, funny and completely un-phased by the gaggle of giggling girlies standing behind me. Then when we left for the airport we discovered that he had been staying at the same hotel as us and was on the same Eurostar going home. At the conference his intelligence and understanding of world politics and economics outshone everyone’s. And the audience loved his dry humour.
I almost called this post ‘Thoughts on Charles Kennedy and alcoholism’. I decided against it for a number of reasons. But actually I do want to talk about him and I do want to talk about alcoholism. His struggle with alcohol hasn’t been a secret. Alastair Campbell refers to this in his very moving tribute (here). Whatever he died of, it is – and I am no medical expert – very likely that alcohol will have contributed to it in some way. I don’t want to refer to Charles as ‘an alcoholic’ as I don’t know if this was how he saw himself and I don’t want to be disrespectful. If I say ‘struggle with alcohol’ or ‘drink problems’, is that better? It’s very delicate. Whatever the term and the reality, I am always very sad when someone struggles with alcohol. It is so easy to be dismissive and judgemental but all addictions make me very sad.
You see, my father was an alcoholic. Ultimately he died of a respiratory infection but before this he had numerous strokes, the last few of which devastated much of his body and brain. The doctors told me, and I have looked it up, that because my father smoked and drank, the likelihood of his having a stroke was significantly increased. Alcohol changed my father and it resulted, day by day, in my losing him and him losing himself. Once it gets you in its grip, it’s very difficult to shake off. But this post isn’t about my dad. It is about Charles Kennedy and it is about alcohol.
There are so many reasons why people become alcoholics. I had to teach Addictions on the A-level Psychology curriculum. My parents (they are both dead) used to do ‘drinkies’ at midday and at 6 p.m. It was time for an aperitif. A little (large) G&T. A Martini. My father was a food chemist. He brewed his own beer, and made various other lethal concoctions: sloe gin, elderflower gin, wine, vermouth, and many others. I understand what it was about for my father. And while alcohol may have been his ‘friend’ for a while, ultimately it ruined his life.
Alastair Campbell’s piece refers to Charles standing in the recent election and to his defeat. And to Charles not drinking. He says that Charles claimed not to be too dispirited after the election, that he had plans. He also says that people were worried about him. I see that there are already references to a number of factors being potentially involved eg. the fact he was a Scot, drink subsidies, cultural factors, some of which strike me as either a bit vague or not particularly helpful. I think there are a lot of questions which can usefully be asked around alcohol and alcoholism, and many of these are as psychological as they are cultural. For my father there was a slide from ‘social drinking’ into self-medication and addiction. And there was denial. We know that genetic relatedness can play a role, but so can personality, coping style, socio-economic status, social support, stress, mental health issues, observational learning and role models, gender and geography. So, how on earth do we unpick those?
What I think is wonderful about Alastair Campbell’s piece is that he emphasises, and makes central, what a lovely person Charles Kennedy was and how incredibly gifted he was as a politician. When Charles resigned from the Lib Dems in 2006 I felt sad. It seemed that he had been ganged up on, cornered and basically ousted. When I met him it was six months or so after this. He was trying to give up smoking and was finding it difficult, also something which my father tried and failed to do. There are so many reasons why people develop alcohol problems when others don’t, just as there are numerous factors contributing to why some are able to overcome them and some aren’t. I hope that people will be kind about Charles. I hope that in talking about him and alcohol, I am not somehow – and inadvertently – diminishing him.
Something else which is relevant for me is that it makes me sad, as mentioned at the start, when people die young. When Peaches Geldof died, and Amy Winehouse, it upset me greatly. I didn’t know them but I wish that more could be done to help people who are suffering. When Robin Williams died, I felt the same. I wish it could me made easier for people to be open about their struggles and seek help. Yet there is still – despite some progress – such a stigma about saying that you suffer from depression or anxiety or an addiction. No-one has a perfect life. We all have issues we struggle with. But I am hugely sympathetic towards anyone who suffers long term with anything, especially if it significantly interferes with their ability to go about their life. Life can be very hard. It isn’t always possible to just ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘stop feeling sorry for yourself’ and ‘focus on the positive’.
So, if I have a plea, it would be what I’ve said above: I hope that people will be kind about Charles. But it would also be …
Please can we talk about alcohol?
Vicky Newham © 2015