“You poor stupid man,” Clarissa Dickson Wright said to the empty chair representing her alcoholic father. “Didn’t you realize all we wanted to do was love you and have you love us?” Nicknamed “Krakatoa” for her volcanic temper, no one was more surprised than Clarissa herself when she said those empathetic words to her Father, rather than hurling furniture and swearing a blue streak.
Then she burst into tears.
If you ever watched the BBC cookery show, Two Fat Ladies, then you already know Clarissa Dickson Wright. She was the blondish one with the “kitchenlia fetish” who rode in the sidecar, driven by her cookery confrère, the dark-haired lovable eccentric, Jennifer Paterson.
I always thought of Clarissa as confident, urbane, extremely intelligent and possibly an atheist.
How wrong could I be!? As it turns out, Clarrisa was the exact opposite. Wounded. Codependent. Devout…but yes! She was incredibly brilliant with an I. Q. of 196.
She was also a recovering alcoholic.
Clarissa made no bones about being an alcoholic. At the end of each show, when the two ladies toasted each other, Jennifer raised a glass of gin and Clarissa clinked it with her glass of lemonade. Not one drop of alcohol crossed her lips because her sobriety was the most important thing to her.
She never expected to become an alcoholic. After all, she’d spent the first twenty-eight years of her life protecting her mother from the drunken attacks and punches of her brilliant but troubled alcoholic, LSD-taking surgeon-to-the-Royal-family father. When her mother died, Clarissa, being a classic codependent, had no outlet for her grief. No skill in processing her emotions. She had lost both her best friend and her inspiration for living. After all, the only reason Clarissa had chosen the Law as her profession was to protect her mother from her father.
The very night the night her mother died, Clarissa hit the bottle. Whisky, to be precise. And she hit it hard. She drowned her emotions in liquor that night and continued drinking to the point of blackout for the next twelve years. Every time an emotion surfaced, she reached for the bottle.
She had the resources to do it in style having inherited her mother’s entire fortune of £2.8 million. Her inheritance allowed Clarissa to enjoy the finest vintages, charter yachts and travel the world in style, luxury and liquor.
But at some point, the money runs out. Friends come, friends go, lovers come, lovers die. And Clarissa, for all her wealth and brilliance, found herself “sleeping rough” with only her gin bottle for comfort.
“I left the hospital,” she writes in her autobiography Spilling the Beans, “and ended up in a small hotel on the Pimlico Road called the Lime Tree, and here I had my dark night of the soul. I had my bottle of gin but it wouldn’t work, the drink had no effect and I was terrified, realising I wasn’t going to die soon and that all the other alcoholics in my family had dragged themselves on to much older ages getting sadder and madder and badder. I didn’t think I could face it. I seriously thought of the Embankment…What stopped me was the thought that if there was a Christian heaven one day I might see my mother again and how could I face her, and if she was looking down on me how could I inflect such shame on her?”
“When an ordinary person has a drink the alcohol just flushes away…,” Clarissa writes on page 184, “I believe, and there is increasing medical evidence to suport this, that…some time in [alcoholic’s] drinking career a trigger will activate an endorphinal gland which is…not in use in other people. Once started, the alcohol will liaise with the dopamine that we all have in our brains and this particular endorphin to produce a substance closely akin to street heroin; the body clamours for more of this and so the alcoholic continues to drink even to jails, institutions and death. This substance, known in its shortened form as THQ, stores itself in the fatty tissues of the brain.”
Clarissa got sober in 1987. Then her autobiography takes a subtle shift. Suddenly in her book, she becomes not Clarissa-the-Alcoholic, but Clarissa-the-Codependent. And that’s when it got really interesting for me, as a self-confessed, DNA-deep codependent-to-narcissists myself. Suddenly this frighteningly-brilliant woman and I had something in common. What follows are quotes from her book that are particularly apropos to us codependents.
“In the middle of my reading [Yeats], I was interrupted by the little sparrow of a man who said, ‘You’re really a very happy person, aren’t you?’ I could have killed him. Years down the line I recognise that he was right and that basically I am and have a huge capacity for happiness.”
That’s true, isn’t it? You and I could be terribly, frighteningly happy. But we need to go No Contact and work hard on our own emotional healing in order to realize and bravely embrace our capacity for joy. Funny, isn’t it, how much courage it takes to be happy.
She found her métier running a book shop entirely devoted to cookery books. (Sounds like Heaven on Earth to me!) The shop had fallen on hard times and “good little adult child of an alcoholic that I am I felt it my duty to fix the situation,” Clarissa says. ” ‘No’ is a very difficult word for recovering alcoholics.”
Contrary to her worldly, confident facade, Clarissa was “too scared to go and complain [about a damaged bed]. Seems unlikely now, doesn’t it, but I was very raw and, as an adult child of an alcoholic knows, on a bad day even the dustman is an authority figure.”
Were truer words ever spoken!? As C. S. Lewis wrote in That Hideous Strength, “he was still at that age when a man would rather be fleeced to his last penny than dispute a bill.” Yes! That describes Codependency to a “T.” Afraid of the dustman and willing to be cheated because we’re terrified of our fellow man and have sunk so low in our own estimation.
Sadly, Clarissa passed away on March 15th, 2014 from pneumonia, twenty-seven years after achieving sobriety. Her funeral was held in her beloved Scotland attended by devoted family, friends and fans who recounted her loyalty, her interest in others and how she was “enormous fun” to be around. Her coffin was adorned with a wreath of red chili peppers and artichokes, her favorite ingredients. Songs were sung, hunting horns blown and a bagpiper played. And there was a poem recited for the long-lost alcoholic and codependent woman who finally came home and found herself.
Home Is the Sailor
Home is the sailor, home from sea:
Her far-borne canvas furled
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.
Home is the hunter from the hill:
Fast in the boundless snare
All flesh lies taken at his will
And every fowl of air.
‘Tis evening on the moorland free,
The starlit wave is still:
Home is the sailor from the sea,
The hunter from the hill.