Fighting spirit

6th February 1998 at 00:00
'My name is Deborah. I'm a working teacher and an alcoholic.' It took one Belfast woman the best part of two decades to make that shattering admission. Deborah has now been sober for two years and wants to help other secret drinkers in the staffroom. Wendy Wallace talked to her

From her shiny black shoes to her tidy blonde-streaked hair, Deborah Langton looks like someone who takes care of herself. Looking at her, you would never guess that for two decades she obliterated the world with vodka, carrying on teaching all the while.

She drives down the narrow streets of the Shankhill and Falls Road area of Belfast, pointing out the roughest sectarian bars with an intensity which seems odd from a native of the city. Later it emerges that she has drunk and fought in these bars, spending the money she earned teaching.

When the bars chucked her out, she drank on the pavements. "I did want to die. There was no question in my mind," she says. "I was losing my mind. Inside, I was dying."

But outside she was working, first with children in a private prep school then with teenagers in a mental health unit. After that she got a job in a school where she had responsibility for special educational needs. "Few of my colleagues knew," she says. "And the question has never appeared on an application form."

How did Deborah Langton (not her real name) continue teaching for two decades while heads and colleagues either did not notice her alcoholism, did not comment on it or did not act on their observations?

"People don't see what they're not looking for," she says. "They would no more have thought I was drinking than that I was flying to the moon.'' It is hard to reconcile the picture she paints of an embittered, brawling drunk with the reflective, sentient woman sitting across the table. Born into a professional Protestant family in a suburb of Belfast, she was the elder of two children. Her parents were churchy, and she and her brother attended three services on Sundays (he is a minister now), a day on which they were not allowed to play or watch television. Alcohol was frowned on and wreathed in hypocrisy; when her mother gave her whisky and lemon for period pain she called it "magic medicine".

"I wasn't aware it was a very strict upbringing," she says. "It was normal for the area."

She knew at 13 that she wanted to be a teacher and went to teacher training college straight from school, living with her parents and having the occasional illicit glass of wine with friends from church. "It was very little. I was frightened of what my parents would say. But I liked the feeling it gave me. It made me feel not like me."

At 22 Deborah took a job outside Belfast in a preparatory school. She moved out of her parents' home for the first time and began drinking heavily one or two nights per week. "I always started with cider. I was scared to drink vodka straight off because it had an immediate effect. I knew even then that I had a problem with it."

Drinking at this point didn't affect her teaching. "I was young enough to soldier on. I didn't drink with colleagues or at leaving parties. It was always important to me to be seen to be doing the right thing."

Conditioned by her upbringing to view alcohol as shameful, and not to talk about emotional problems, she hid her drinking from colleagues she remembers as friendly and caring. But by her mid-twenties her reliance on drink was deepening. "I drank alone in my digs, or with people I didn't really know, in bars. The sort of people I'd always thought I was better than."

It began to affect her work. "I was yellow, jaundiced-looking. The principal called me into his office one day and asked if anything was wrong. I was so ashamed I nearly died. I'd been brought up not to let the side down. I denied everything, said I was fine."

Deborah married in her late 20s and managed to stay away from drink for several years. She had a big wedding, a nice house and a husband slightly younger than herself. "As far as he was concerned, I was a girl who took half a cider at lunch.'' She is dressed today in cherry red wool, a robin in winter, determinedly bright against drab Belfast. The husband has gone now. The house went with him. She lives in an inner-city terrace, where professionals like her are viewed with suspicion. She sits with her back to the bar, eating a pork chop, spilling the story of her past unhappiness, at times as if it had happened to someone else.

In a way, it did. She is sober now, and has been for two years . She approached The TES because she thinks there must be others like her - others who are dying inside.

She wants her story to offer hope. "I believe many teachers drink very heavily, not all of them alcoholics. There are a lot of people who are like me, or were like me, who don't know what to do to get help.'' A few years into her marriage, Deborah got a job teaching children in a psychiatric unit. The drinking, which had been under control, increased. "The job was demanding, " she says. "I enjoyed it, but I began drinking at weekends." She hid the empties in the boot of her car, trying to conceal her drinking from her husband. She made secret trips to the bottle bank to dump the bottles one by one into the plastic bins. After lost weekends, she was often away from work on Mondays. But it didn't cause undue attention.

"Eventually one colleague said I seemed to be drinking rather a lot," she recalls. "He was concerned. But it frightened the wits out of me. I handed in my resignation after two years there, and I didn't have another job to go to."

She began supply teaching - called subbing in Northern Ireland - and found a routine which accommodated the drinking all too well. "On the days I didn't sub, I drank. I am a good teacher. I was scared to drink in the mornings in case I got a phone call. I'd wait till 10 o'clock to go to the off-licence. "

On the drinking days, when the phone didn't ring in the morning, she sat in her living room with the blinds drawn, getting through a couple of large bottles of cider and a bottle of vodka while watching old videos. She stopped at two, to try and sober up before her husband returned from work. But the drinking was getting harder to conceal. "I was very good at covering my tracks, but people noticed. I bloated out. My husband challenged me."

Professionally, things were falling apart too. "I was terrified of somebody smelling it on me. My discipline was going badly - I was losing control. My nerves were shattered, I needed a drink and I really didn't want to be in school."

Deborah began doing home tuition. She went to pupils' homes with a couple of vodkas inside her for Dutch courage. "I was panic-stricken. I had a lousy marriage, no children and my teaching was going down the drain.'' Many times she tried to wrest control of her life from the alcoholism and succeeded for days, weeks, sometimes years. But the underlying problems - her susceptibility to addiction, bad relationships with her family and her husband, misery over infertility and an obsession with appearances - remained. The stress of teaching also contributed. She fell by the wayside again and again.

After Christmas 1992, full of resolve, she began a new job as head of special needs in a school outside Belfast. "I had no intention of drinking," she remembers. "I felt I'd got my life back on track." She had gone through a self-imposed detoxification at home. After seeing snakes crawling up the walls, she felt she could cope with anything.

But the alcoholism had really taken hold. "I started drinking again, and instead of being better it was worse." The new job was 35 miles away. She began swigging vodka in the car on the way home. Soon she couldn't even wait until school was over for the day: she kept a bottle in the glove compartment of her car and would drive at lunchtime to have a drink, claiming to be at the supermarket. She describes 1993 as "hell". "I was more often off school than I was there. I couldn't give a toot about the teaching, but I still cared about what people thought about me."

Whatever they thought, nobody commented, at least to her face. "I was always the life and soul of the staffroom. On the surface, relations with my colleagues were very good, but I don't know what they were saying behind my back. I would come in hung over and very quiet. Then in the afternoon I'd be high as a kite. There were times I could have hit a child, although, thank God, I never did. As far as I can remember."

It is alarming for the children Deborah taught that nobody spotted her alcoholism and kept her out of the classroom. But for her it was no bad thing. In her lucid moments, work was the source of a slender self-respect. So when the school principal didn't renew her contract at the end of the year, Deborah's despair deepened. Now unemployed, she began drinking every day, with frequent blackouts.

She left her house to drink, first to avoid visits from her concerned parents then because her husband threw her out. She fell down drunk in bars, stalked a woman she wished to befriend, accosted people, picked fights, drank in public lavatories and on park benches. "I was so ashamed," she says quietly. "It drove me even deeper."

Incredibly, at this lowest of points, she got another job in special needs. She attended two interviews, drunk both times, and was offered the post. She resigned after nine days, totally unable to cope. Her husband told the head she had "nervous problems". She was barred from most of the pubs in Belfast by this time, so angry and pugnacious was she. But not from any schools. Occasionally, even after this, she still "subbed", going into schools like a fugitive.

"I had the odd moment of sobriety and the odd day teaching," she remembers. "Because I needed the money I would go in, sobered up, in a few clean clothes. I'd go for a walk at lunchtime. I was scared to open my mouth because I didn't want them to know anything about me. I'd pick schools I hadn't been to - that made it easier."

Deborah Langton's climb up the rockface of sobriety began in earnest in 1994 after her sister-in-law found her, insensible after a bar fight, on a Belfast pavement. She spent the next six weeks in a hospital detoxification unit. "It was murder. I didn't have a drink. I had to talk about myself. I had to go to AA meetings. I've never been so frightened in my life.'' From that point, she began going to Alcoholics Anonymous, the organisation she credits with helping her wean herself off drink. First, she went cynically with bottles hidden up her sleeves and in her waistband. "Then I started listening to people. I took it an hour at a time."

The process of recovery had begun. It also had a spiritual dimension. "I used to consider myself a Christian," she says dryly, "but I do have a faith now."

Two years ago, Deborah Langton stopped drinking. She left her husband, bought a tiny house and re-took her driving test. A permanent post came up in a school where she was a supply teacher, and she got the job. Before applying, she told the head that she went to AA, and that the police check might reveal her drink driving conviction. Colleagues in school do not know her history.

"It's not easy," she admits. "Some colleagues probably know something about me. I haven't tried to conceal my past, but I don't see why I should wear it like a placard around my neck."

Deborah now has two jobs - one is teaching, the other sobriety. "It is not just a case of not taking a drink - I had to change my whole way of thinking. I used to think the world owed me a living, that people ought to be my friends. Now I have a mortgage, and I rely on nobody. My life is wonderful. But I have to be single-minded about my sobriety. I do not put myself at risk. There's a general inspection coming up in school, so I've tried to get a bit more rest, not get too hungry or tired. And I still need AA. I couldn't do it on my own.

"I'm very grateful to be back in a job. I love my job. I throw my heart and soul into it and I don't take anything for granted any more. I feel I'm a better teacher because of it."

Local helplines for Alcoholics Anonymous are listed in telephone directories. AA's London helpline number is 0171 352 3001

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