Alcohol played many roles in the life of Bente Karlsen Røstad. But an alcoholic? Surely not. And so she didn’t need to ask for help.
On her 25th birthday, Bente goes downtown with a bunch of girlfriends, and a giddy mood seizes her. Yes! she says when the men come over and ask her to dance. Wine and beer stand on the table.
An evening on the town – it’s something most young women know well. But Bente is savouring it for the first time. She’s a novice when it comes to drinking alcohol and flirting. The mother of three small children, she’s only recently broken free from a difficult marriage. Tonight she feels how, when she’s in a group, a gentle buzz can elevate her. She becomes a Bente who dares to speak with others, a Bente who’s no longer shy. “I thought: Why haven’t I done this before?” she says today of that birthday evening in 1992.
A reliable sleeping aid
Things kept getting better: she started seeing a childhood friend who was affectionate to her and the kids. Bente considers John the first adult she seriously bonded with. But after they had been together for five years, he died of cancer at the age of 30.
Red wine now assumed a role in Bente’s life as a reliable sleeping aid. “It was then I began to drink,” she explains. “To avoid crying, and to be able to sleep.” She never spoke of her grief. Her efforts were directed toward suppressing emotions so that she could be strong.
In time, it worked for her. Bente was a certified cosmetologist, took care of her children, and after a few years fell in love again. Her new boyfriend’s drinking habits fascinated her. “He drank openly every day! I envied him his freedom to be up front about it. Right on! I thought. And so I began to drink like him.” He enjoyed drinking a couple of beers while he made dinner; Bente would sit and watch him, and it felt very cosy.
Some things were not so cosy. “We thought of ourselves as an ordinary couple,” Bente relates. “But in Norway, alcohol is expensive, and we did whatever we could to be able to drink. We stopped doing things with the children, didn’t go on holiday, didn’t buy new things.” And she continued to drink secretly – though now she had switched over to 120-proof liquor.
She was diagnosed with depression in 2001, but that didn’t change her drinking habits. Instead, she used the diagnosis to justify her use. “I’d had a tough life and was having a hard time psychologically – and so perhaps I drank a bit much.”
Not an alcoholic
Today, Bente estimates that she abused alcohol from 1996 to 2003. At the end of this period, she could consume up to an entire litre of liquor a day. If a social worker had made an unannounced visit, he or she would have found a spotless home, food in the fridge and the children’s clean clothes folded neatly. Bente’s bottles were well hidden, one in the laundry basket and another on the top shelf behind her woollen jerseys. “So during the course of a day, I’d walk back and forth between the bottles 8 or 10 times. No one would give it a second thought if Mom went out to the laundry room.”
The children might not have seen her drinking from the concealed bottles, but they did see a mother with tears sliding down her face while she vacuumed. They tried to cheer her up the best they could. They never bugged her for more pocket money. They kept their rooms perfectly tidy. And they begged, again and again, to put on “shows” for her, to try and entertain her by singing and dancing. Sometimes she told them that she didn’t have time. Other times, she would it down and play audience – and stare right through them. “I was completely elsewhere,” she says now. “They couldn’t get me to be present.”
In all these years, Bente didn’t consider herself an alcoholic. Alcoholics? They lived on the street, they stank, they drank without shame. No one could point a finger at her home; she smelled good, and the subject of “Mom’s drinking” wasn’t a subject at all. Her children and her boyfriend didn’t mention it, and she certainly didn’t either. And that’s the way it had to go on being. Bente remembers that once in a while, someone around her would make a comment that she would pointedly ignore. And when on one occasion a teacher reported the family to the child protection agency, saying there must be something wrong at home, she managed to get herself out of that scrape as well.
A lovely evening
The front she put up would hold. Yet everything else was in pieces. “I had promised myself that I’d be a mother who put her children first,” Bente says. “Now I was failing them, and I didn’t even think of asking for help. I thought: How long can I keep it up?”
One September day in 2002, she felt her spirits lift. That evening they would enjoy themselves, she decided; the kids’ favourite food was shrimp, and that’s what they would have. That day, she didn’t drink, and it did turn into a lovely evening – and in their eyes too, they later told her.
When everyone had gone to bed, she poured a splash of liquor in her coffee and began to write the letters she’d planned, one addressed to each child. As she did, she drank coffee and swallowed the drugs she had set aside: some sleeping pills and John’s cancer medications, which she’d saved without quite knowing what she would use them for. But she knew for what now.
Outside it was drizzling. She had on her nicest pants, and she walked down to Svarttjønn, a small lake a 10-minute walk away. Her plan was to be just boozed up and drugged enough to execute the deed. When her legs began to buckle beneath her, Bente was able to glimpse the water through the darkness, and she broke into a trot to reach it in time.
Joining the drunks
A few weeks later, Bente sat knitting in the day room of a psychiatric ward. Her suicide attempt had failed. She couldn’t remember a thing, but had been told that she’d been found unconscious just by the water. One thighbone was broken. Otherwise, she’d come to no harm. Bente was dumbfounded: “I couldn’t even manage to do that! How could that be?”
While she was hospitalized on the closed ward, she pleaded for extra drugs. And as soon as she’d been transferred to the open one, she went out to buy liquor. The bottle she kept hidden in her knitting. “How did you dare? people asked me later. But what could they do to me there? Throw me out? I couldn’t care less.”
The staff didn’t confront her about the bottle in her knitting. But they must not have been deaf and blind. One caseworker began to prod her about her drinking habits; would she consider a transfer to a detox clinic? Bente’s temper flared – there was no reason for that whatsoever. Not in the least! Didn’t her daughter agree that the suggestion was ridiculous? But the girl merely said, “Mom, you do need help.”
So Bente relented – reluctantly. Good thing no one can see me now, she thought. For now I’m joining the drunks. But there wasn’t anything revolting about the other patients: housewives, young women, a banker. One group in particular caught Bente’s attention. They all sat together at meals, and they looked completely ordinary. She could often hear them laughing. Who were they? They turned out to be the alcoholics in the long-term treatment group.
On her last day in clinic, Bente turned over a leaf as a new woman – a woman who wished to ask for help. When the doctor made her rounds, Bente was ready with a question. “I asked her if I could start group treatment with the others. I had no idea what I was getting into, yet I asked if I could anyway.” The doctor gazed at her. “You surprise me,” she told Bente. “But I really think you should.”
How would people living with alcohol dependency like other people to deal with them?
"Speak up if you get the sense that something is wrong. Try to say it gently without accusing. Risk saying what you actually are afraid to! Risk that the person you talk to will get upset! I only wish that people had dared to be more direct with me. I wish they had thought more about my kids than about me."
– Bente Karlsen Røstad
More about Bente Karlsen Røstad
Three grown children, three grandchildren.
Bente worked previously as a cosmetologist, among other things. Today she is a project manager for a drug-abuse organization and a night duty officer at a shelter for people with substance abuse problems. She’s also trained as a gestalt therapist.
Between 1996 and 2003, Bente slid into a pattern of growing alcohol abuse. In 2001, she was diagnosed with depression, an illness that she has subsequently recovered from. In 2002, she was diagnosed with alcohol dependency. She hasn’t drunk alcohol since 2003.
In 2002, Bente was admitted to the drug and addiction clinic at her local hospital and entered group therapy in connection with her hospitalization. She remains active in Narcotics Anonymous and meditates regularly.