It's a moment all parents remember. The instant the penny drops and you realise, finally, terrifyingly … "I'm in charge" and family life proper begins. For some it's sudden and instinctive – for others it's gradual. For Judy Sims, that moment came last year. She has three children, the eldest of whom was then 13. The reason it took so long is that Judy is an alcoholic. And the reason it clicked at all was because she found out that Michelle, her 13-year-old daughter, was taking drugs.
Judy knew that to help Michelle, she would have to look at – and change – her own behaviour, and break the cycle of addiction and domestic chaos the family had lived with for years.
Now, with the help of a pioneering substance-abuse project, Judy is rebuilding her family – she also has two sons, Noel, 12, and Peter, five – and reflecting on how sharing the most terrible of experiences has helped herself and her daughter to mend and grow.
"I'm 34, with three kids," she says, "but in a lot of ways I feel like parts of my real family life have only just started. Addiction has taken away chunks of our time and I'm still working hard to get things back to normal – to be a better parent and to help Michelle be a teenager again.
"It isn't something you ever think you'll share with your daughter – abusing substances, seeing counsellors – but that's what we've had to do together. "
Today, in their cosy living room, putting names to the faces in the family photographs on their walls, the bond between mother and daughter is clear. But as Judy explains, in a quiet voice heavy with guilt, it wasn't always like this. Michelle often had to shoulder the parenting burden in their turbulent family life.
In the days when she drank eight cans of strong lager on the sofa every night, motherhood often came second to alcohol for Judy: "I was OK in the afternoon but once it got to nighttime, forget it. That was my drinking time and I wasn't really in charge. I didn't care. I'd tell Michelle that if the house was on fire to get herself and the boys out and leave me behind."
As a consequence, her youngest child, Peter, often missed school – sometimes only going in for a few days a term. Noel used to fall asleep in class after night after night of broken sleep.
For Michelle, struggling to look after the family took a toll: "If she was awake, she'd fall over or talk rubbish. If she wasn't, I'd be trying to do everything. I'd be sitting on the stairs crying at 11.30pm, trying to get Peter to go to bed. I just didn't know what to do."
Then, during last year's long summer school holiday, things took a turn for the worse when Michelle fell in with a group who used aerosols to get high. Lost and lonely, she joined in – and soon found she couldn't stop.
It seemed that history was repeating itself in the bleakest possible way. But it was actually the catalyst for something positive in all their lives. When Judy found a stash of empty aerosols under Michelle's bed last August, she knew what it meant. She confronted her there and then. Her quiet, painfully shy daughter, who had previously spent any free time she had at the cinema or browsing through clothes shops admitted how stressed she was by the way they lived and that aerosols helped her "forget everything".
Now 14, Michelle looks at the floor and whispers: "You feel weird, then you get taken out of yourself. You can be free for a bit."
Judy says: "I went mad. Part of me was furious with her and part of me felt really gutted. Because of my drinking I had that guilt – maybe this was my fault, but I wasn't going to have her dragged down."
Desperate to find help for her daughter, Judy made her an appointment with the addiction recovery charity Addaction. Michelle went willingly.
Over the next few months, she spent time with a worker from Addaction's Reach Out project. Working with whole families, it provides support with addiction. Michelle was helped to see the dangers of what she was doing and given counselling. When she confided her worries about her mother's drinking as part of that process, workers suggested that Judy could come in for treatment too. She agreed and that was the start of the family rehab programme that supports them today.
For Judy, a single mother, it was a pivotal moment. "Until Michelle said about the drinking, I hadn't thought about getting help – because I couldn't see what I was doing to us all," she says. "I knew I was alcohol-dependent because I'd had problems before and stopped drinking. Then I'd started again a few years back and it crept up on me. It put a burden on everyone, especially Michelle, but I didn't know how to change. When I saw how well she was doing, I decided to see if they could help me. I thought it would help her too if I could change.
"That's when I realised how hard things had been for her and the boys. My counsellor told me my oldest son, Noel, had said he hated me drinking – he'd told her how there would be cans everywhere and a mess in the morning, that he never knew what he'd find and how much that scared him.
"Peter hadn't been going to school and I was on the verge of being fined for truancy because I'd be too tired to get him up on time." Gesturing around the tiny living room, littered with the messy trappings of family life, she adds, "Peter wouldn't get put to bed, he'd stay up till he wanted to go to bed or crash out when I did." Sighing, Michelle adds: "She'd take him in when she got up – it would be 1pm before he got there. I'd go to school, but I'd always be tired."
To help the family, the project provided a worker to implement crucial parenting strategies. Simple, practical measures – charts and reward schemes and speaking to the children's schools – have made life more manageable.
Several months down the line, there is some sense of order in their semi-detached home. With Peter and Noel in bed at prescribed times every night, neither boy has missed a day of school since. And as they burst through the front door, full of smiles and news from school, it's clear how happy they are to be home, which wasn't always the case.
Michelle is happier too. Free from the burden of caring, she can enjoy nights on the sofa with her mum – arguing over nothing more serious than what channel to watch and whose turn it is to make the next brew.
Looking over at her, smiling, Judy sums it up when she says: "There is nothing worse than thinking you've let your kids down but I didn't realise the state things were in – how much everyone was affected, especially Michelle. It took finding out about Michelle using drugs to sort myself – and my family – out. But we're trying to make things right. If we hadn't got some help, God knows where we'd be."
All names have been changed
• Addaction's Reach Out projects have been running since January in Barnsley, Liverpool and Cornwall, funded by Asda, Addaction.org.uk
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