Guest post by @SarahCantSmell
This is an essay about my experience with my mother’s alcoholism. If reading about addiction is a trigger for you, then you may want to stop here. I also want to say before I get started, that both before and after getting sober, my mom is/was one of the best people I know. She is one of the hardest working, most selfless, most generous people I have ever met. So much of my work ethic, my passion for volunteering and for supporting good causes, and my willingness to put others before myself came directly from her. Those aspects of her are things that never changed. But this, too, is part of our story.
Growing up, my mom was my best friend. I told her everything. We fought a lot, but we would be screaming at each other one minute and laughing together the next. Of all my close friends, she was the only parent who knew the truth about where we were going when we went to parties. She would come into my room while we all got ready, sigh and reluctantly ask, “How many of your parents think you’re sleeping here tonight?” That’s not to say I got away with whatever I want. I was the first of my friends to have a job. I was the only one who had to pay for half of my first car (and also the friend who got the worst first car, a $2,500 1995 POS that I dubbed “the boat”). My parents were fairly strict up to a certain age and instilled a strong work ethic in me, but at a certain point, my mom took the “I’d rather know the truth than be lied to” approach to raising me. I know some people have really strong opinions about the “friend vs. parent” role, and I can see both sides of the argument, but I think every parent does what feels right to them as it’s happening, and all things considered I think I turned out pretty well.
Looking back on these years, there were a few signs. There always are. It’s where the cliche, “Hindsight is 20/20” phrase comes from.
There was the occasional cutting comment that appeared in stark contrast to our close relationship — like the time she told someone I dated in high school, “She is a bitch, you should really break up with her.” (That was one of our biggest fights of my teens.)
There was the time I mentioned as a teenager that the doctor had asked me how much alcohol I drank and I told them the truth and she freaked out. “Why would you tell them the truth?! ,” she exclaimed. “Ummm..because they’re doctors and they need to know?” I responded, casually, not seeing that maybe I should be concerned by her response.
But for the most part, there were no issues. I knew my mom liked to drink, but most people do. I went away to college, about three hours from home, and we kept in touch frequently.
The summer after freshman year, when I was 19, is probably when I first started noticing that she seemed less healthy. She was bruising really easily and she just looked a little weaker. I told myself she was getting older…she was only 49. This was part denial, part 19-year-old naiveté.
That October, we visited family in New York, and one day she went to bed first (which was very unlike her) and my Aunt and Uncle sat me down. “We’re concerned. Your mom is sick. Look at her skin. Look at the way she walks. Look at how early she went to bed. We have to make her go to the doctor.” I agreed to start trying to get her to see a doctor, but none of us said anything about alcoholism, because none of us could ever have imagined that was the problem.
The next couple of months, I am preparing to study abroad through Semester at Sea, where I will live and take classes on a ship and sail to 12 different countries over the course of a semester. My mom helps me with my paperwork, dealing with my school’s financial aid and scholarship office, convincing my dad to pay for the portion of the trip that my scholarships don’t cover. She is her regular, efficient, on-top-of-it self; although deep down I know there is a problem, I figure she can’t be that sick.
In January, 2009, I embark on my trip around the world. I’m still 19 when I leave; I turn 20 on the ship. The ship leaves from The Bahamas, but I tell my mom not to worry about spending the money to come see me off. I had also told her not to worry about coming to Florida in May when we arrived back in the USA. But, this is the first time I go an entire semester without coming home for some kind of holiday or break. As we get closer to the end of the semester and people start talking about arriving back home and their parents meeting them at the ship, I change my mind about her meeting me in Florida. I call her from a payphone in Shanghai, China, and ask her to come; she agrees without hesitation.
The end of Semester at Sea was emotional. It was a life-changing semester in every sense of the word, and I made new friends, some of whom are still my best friends today. As I stepped off the gangway in Fort Lauderdale, filled with mixed emotions, and turned a corner and saw my mom, I gasped. She looked horrible. I can’t really explain it, but her shape had changed. I don’t mean her weight, more like her silhouette. The way she stood was different. My first thought upon laying eyes on her was, “Something is very, very wrong.” It was the first time in my life I had gone over four months straight without seeing her, so the changes were even more pronounced to me.
The next few months are honestly a blur. I have blocked a lot of them out. I remember things in snippets and flashes. I have no idea what order most of these things happened in. I just know that they happened.
I finally convince her to go to the doctor. I ask her if she’s going to be honest when they ask her how much she drinks. She gets extremely defensive and asks why I would ask her that. I remind her of the time she got mad at me for telling the doctor the truth. She doesn’t answer the question.
I tell her I think I need to see a therapist. Trying to re-acclimate back home after such extensive travel, feeling like no one from my old life really understands me or my new world view, combined with the constant nagging feeling that she is really sick (I leave that part out when I tell her) has me feeling weird. I have one visit with the therapist, and I can’t stand her. I never go back. I should find it telling that my mom doesn’t force me to see another one; if a 20 year old has the self-awareness to say they need therapy, parents would usually make them see it through. The fact that she didn’t should be a sign that something is wrong, but I ignore it. I tell myself I tried therapy and it’s “just not for me.”
One of her friends of about 10 years messages me on Facebook to tell me they think she is an alcoholic. She tells me several of her brothers are alcoholics and she names all the signs that she sees in my mom. I sit on the floor in our living room on my laptop having this conversation, while my mom is behind me on the couch, none the wiser. I feel like I am betraying her, right from the same room. This is the first time someone has named alcoholism as a possibility.
I visit a long-time family friend, who was also my fourth-grade teacher. She tells me she’s concerned about my mom. She said last time she came over, she looked like she was struggling to walk up the driveway. I assure her I am making her go to the doctor. I feel both comforted that I am not making this all up in my mind, and also extremely concerned that so many people who have known her so long are noticing it too.
Two of my mom’s friends, a husband and wife couple, ask me to come over to talk. They, too, tell me they think it is alcoholism. They are people my mom likes to party with, so I am a little annoyed because I feel like they are being hypocrites. But then they tell me some stuff that allegedly happened while I was abroad that, to this day, I don’t know if it is true or gossip and I don’t think I ever want to know, but it makes me start to take them more seriously. I come back from this visit and talk to my dad. I tell him three people now have approached me about alcoholism, and several others about her health in general. He tells me he thinks the drinking has gotten to be a bit much, but he’s already talked to her about it and she is going to cut back. I believe him because I want to, and because I am only 20 and I don’t know what to do and I don’t know why all these people are even talking to me and not him about this in the first place.
Sometimes, when people talk to me about this, I want to throw my hands up and scream WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT ME TO DO, I’M JUST A KID?!?! Even though 20 is arguably not “just a kid,” I still felt young and unprepared to deal with this.
The doctor wants her to have a colonoscopy, but that’s normal at her age; she’s 50 now. They remove some polyps for biopsy. I’m told that is also normal. The next few days are the most blocked out, but I know something happened around this procedure and the test results that made me feel like my parents were hiding information from me. I am at work, and I get a call from one of them saying they are going to the hospital because she is “bleeding.” I am standing outside my job now, yelling on the phone, mad about the lying and the lack of information, though I don’t really remember any of the details anymore.
I leave work early that day, and go home. My dad meets me there. He tells me she wants me to go see her in the hospital because she needs to talk to me. I say something to the effect of, “Whatever she has to say to me, she can tell me over the phone, I’m not driving all the way there just so she can lie to me some more.” My dad, who had quite possibly never in my life raised his voice to me prior to this (my mom was the yeller, he was the talk-it-out-er), stood in the middle of our hallway and screamed at me. “She is asking you to go see her, and you need to stop being selfish, SHE IS VERY SICK!” I don’t know what was more startling — the yelling, or the fact that he finally said out loud what so many of the rest of us had been saying for almost a year now: that she was sick.
My drive to the hospital is a blur. I go into her room. She is laying in the hospital bed. It’s startling to see. I have no idea what is about to come out of her mouth. To my knowledge, she was admitted because of some kind of bleeding. There could be any number of things wrong with her. She says, “I have something to tell you…and you might hate me…but I’m an alcoholic. And I’m going to stop drinking. I’ve already gone four days without having a drink.” Even though multiple people had raised their suspicions to me about alcoholism, I still didn’t really believe it until she said it. I remember saying, “Hate you? I don’t hate you. I just want you to be healthy.” I don’t know if we spoke more than that or not. I could have been there for five minutes or two hours. I have no other memories of the hospital. But I got in the car and called that same former teacher who had expressed concern and told her I was leaving the hospital and asked if I could come over.
I sat on the front step of this woman who had known me for over 10 years, and cried. I told her about the alcoholism. She looks at me and said, “I know this is hard, but it could be worse, and now you at least know what the problem is.” I suddenly become acutely aware that I am talking to someone whose husband died before the age of 30, while she was pregnant with their first child. I realize she is right, it could be worse. Plus, my mom already said she had stopped. (Knowing nothing about addiction, I believed this.) Things would be okay.
I left her house feeling better. I go home, take a giant tupperware container, and I clear out the entire bar in my parents house. I put everything in the tupperware to take with me back to college (no sense letting good alcohol go to waste just because she couldn’t have it). At some point after she gets home, I asked her when she thinks she became dependent on alcohol. I was terrified she would say it had been awhile and I would feel like a horrible person for never noticing, but she insisted it had been fairly recent, around the time I went away to college. I feel better for not having missed something; the implications that this could be empty-nest-related didn’t hit me at the time but would later resurface in a way I did not expect. A week or two later I go back to college, still under the impression my mom had stopped drinking. The following few months, like the previous ones, are a blur. Again, I blocked a lot out. What I do remember is all jumbled and out of order.
I speak to her on the phone and can tell she is slurring. I wonder how many other times she was like this and I never noticed.
Somehow, I found out that my dad found alcohol hidden in her closet. I don’t remember at this point how I learned this.
My sorority holds one of those required “risk management” programs that I always thought were stupid. They have a recovering drug addict come speak with us. The point is supposed to be to warn us about the dangers of drugs, but I get a different lesson from her speech. At one point, she says that an addict will not seek help until they have truly hit rock bottom. I have a hard time thinking of what it would take for my mom to reach “rock bottom.” She was still with my dad. He was still the primary income of the family. Even if he ever divorced her, he would never let her suffer financially, because of me. It would be impossible for her to really lose everything the way this speaker had. And then it dawned on me — “rock bottom,” for the mother of an only child, a child that she had been so close with for my entire life, would be to lose me.
She keeps saying she stopped drinking again.
I feel like her and my dad are trying to hide information from me, as I feel they have done in the past.
One day, I am driving to campus, and we are on the phone. She tells me she tried to go to a few AA meetings but they talk a lot about a “higher power” and she isn’t religious so she struggles with that. Something in me snaps. I tell her I don’t give a shit if she’s not religious — neither am I, but I still know she needs to stop drinking. “Think of something else aside from “god,” — think of ME if you have to, but think of SOMETHING because this is not acceptable anymore.” I end the conversation with, “And until you stop drinking for real, you and I will no longer have a relationship” and I hang up the phone. I throw it on the floor in my car. I cry the rest of the way to campus.
This was a mostly empty threat, and I knew it. I was in college. My parents paid part of my tuition. I couldn’t completely cut off contact. But thankfully, the tactic worked. She didn’t call my bluff. A couple weeks later, in November, 2009 she went to rehab and has been sober since.
I go through the next few months acting like everything is fine and over with since she has finally made it a few months without drinking. I mention briefly in this post that during this time, I rely more on my friends that are faraway than my friends on campus. On campus, I throw myself into jobs and activities to keep my mind off of everything. I maintain my on-campus friendships, but I give them very little information about this aspect of my life.
In the spring semester of 2010 I start having issues sleeping — something that has NEVER been a problem for me. I go see the campus doctor. They ask me about potential stressors. I mention my mom and they ask me if that has been stressing me out and I quickly say, “No! Maybe last semester but she is sober now, everything is great! Way less stressful!” The doctor gives me a weird look but recommends an over-the-counter sleep aid and gives me some tips about sleeping. Looking back on this, I find it shocking he did not recommend therapy.
In March, 2010, I turn 21, and I happen to be home on spring break. I am secretly a little sad that my mom can’t come have my first legal drink with me, the way her mother did for her when she turned 18 (before the drinking age had changed). She still takes me to lunch and buys me a drink, but I feel weird having it around her. I go to a nearby college to go out with a few of my friends from high school. My friend and I are on our way back to his apartment-style dorm and we run into people in the elevator who are carrying alcohol. They invite us into their apartment for a drink. I remember going to their apartment and having a drink or two. I do not remember taking all the pictures together that I later found on my digital camera (pre-iPhone days). The next thing I know, I am waking up in a hospital bed. My parents are there, and they look horrified. I ask where I am, and the doctor tells me I’m in the hospital and for some reason I feel like he is mocking me and I yell at him, “Wipe that god damn smirk off your face!” My dad looks like he might actually melt into the ground and/or disown me right then and there.
I later find out that someone found my friend and I in the stairwell of his dorm (why we chose to take the stairs and not the elevator is beyond me.) I was asleep and my friend was sitting with me. The stranger tried to wake me up and couldn’t, so they called 911. By the time I got to the hospital, since I was breathing fine and wasn’t getting sick, and was evidently speaking at some points, they decided to just give me an IV full of fluids and let me sleep it off. Now I will say this — was I drinking irresponsibly that night? Yes. Was it the first time I had drank irresponsibly in my life? No. Had I blacked out before? Yes. Had I ever passed out in a stairwell? No. I hadn’t really done anything different on this night than any other night of drinking in college. I don’t say this to make an excuse, but I think there is a slight chance that someone in that apartment drugged me that night. Some of the photos we took looked a little too friendly. I don’t think it is out of the realm of possibility that someone wanted me to pass out at their apartment so I wouldn’t be able to go home with my friend. I can picture my friend noticing that I was starting to pass out and trying to get me out of there, and the stairs seeming like a closer or faster choice than the elevator in his intoxicated state. We will never really know for sure.
However, none of these details were as horrific as what I learned I said in the hospital. Apparently when the doctors were trying to ask me questions, I told them that none of this was that big of a deal because my mom was an alcoholic and acting this way for one night still would never make me as bad as her. (Again, the fact that this doctor didn’t discharge me with a recommendation for therapy is mind-blowing).
I know they say a drunk mind speaks a sober heart, but the thing is, I didn’t even know those feelings were in my heart. I had put up a wall around my feelings and told myself everything was fine because she had stopped drinking. I felt horrible for having said that stuff in front of her, but I also felt confused as to why I would even say that. I didn’t feel angry at her; I was glad she had finally stopped drinking. The next day, she forced me to sit down and talk to her about it. She asked me what was going on, if I was angry with her for being an alcoholic. All of the sudden, it hit me, something I wasn’t even aware of up until that point. I was scheduled to do an internship in China that summer. I told her I was afraid to go to China because it seemed that every time I left the area she got worse. I told her she said the alcoholism started when I went to college, and I had seen a noticeable difference in her when I got back from Semester at Sea. I was afraid that I’d go to China and she’d start drinking again. She told me she would never allow herself to be the reason I didn’t experience things, and that I had to go to China and she would be fine. And thankfully, she was.
Over the years, she and I repaired our relationship, and we are close again today. I lived at home for a few months after graduating, and we were able to form a new kind of friendship, a sober kind of friendship. She started to read more, watch movies, have a life outside of partying, so while we lost one thing we had in common, by her developing new interests, we gained so many other things we had in common. Nights we used to spend watching TV and drinking wine together are now spent drinking tea. I still drink around her at family gatherings but when it is just her and I, I don’t, as it is just not necessary. I can talk to her about most things again, and her ridiculous and humorous texts are sometimes featured on my Twitter.
But, despite the fact that she is healthy and that is great, this is still always going to be an issue under the surface for the rest of her life. And with that in mind…
Sometimes I feel like a bad daughter because I don’t really like to participate in or hear a ton about AA. I have gone to two meetings with her. Once, just a few months after she got sober, I was told I had to attend an AA meeting for a heath psychology course I was taking. I figured if I had to go anyway, I might as well go with her. I felt very uncomfortable. At one point, when they ask all new people to introduce themselves, and I stayed quiet as I was just trying to be an observer, the woman next to me punched me in the leg and hissed, “Introduce yourself!.” I wanted to punch her back, right in the face. The second time, my mom asked me to present her with her two year sobriety chip. This is an AA ritual and I agreed because it seemed important to her, but I did not enjoy it. I had to get up and speak about her. (Although I will say, the story I told was pretty hilarious and everyone laughed and I was happy about that.) Honestly, it made it all too real. I didn’t want to think about that time in our lives, I wanted to look ahead and focus on our new, repaired relationship. After that, I haven’t gone back, and if I could avoid ever going back again I would do so. I feel guilty that I only want to experience the new, better version of her and don’t want to acknowledge in or be part of all the works it takes to maintain this version of her.
I feel like a horrible person because I have a strong fear she will ask me to present her 10 year chip as well, and I feel like this is something I should be excited to do, not something I should dread.
I feel selfish because when one of the 12 steps was to make amends and she tried to apologize to me, I tried to get it over with as soon as possible. I told her we had already moved past it and there was no point in digging it all back up. And if I am being honest, I think that is true. But, it was one of her steps, and I feel like I didn’t let her do it justice.
I feel self-centered because sometimes I avoid telling people in my life that she is an alcoholic because I don’t want them to judge me for drinking. I enjoy drinking, and while I know it is in no way a dependency issue for me, I sometimes avoid sharing this aspect of my life with people because I don’t want them to look at me and think “Mmmm..I think she inherited that gene.”
I feel ridiculous that every now and then I think about how, if I ever get married (which admittedly is not looking too likely these days!), it will be a little sad to not be able to have a glass of champagne with my mom. I recognize this is an absolutely ridiculous thing to be concerned with. First of all, it highlights the weird role alcohol plays in our social gatherings. But secondly, I should be happy that she is healthy (and I am). The idea of never having another drink with her should be of no concern to me. But once in awhile, that feeling creeps in.
I feel dishonest because a few months ago she mentioned that she met a young guy at AA that she thought I should meet. I told her I wasn’t going to date someone in AA, not thinking about how it was going to sound coming out of my mouth. “Why not?!” she asked defensively. I don’t even remember what I said, I think I just changed the subject. But the reality is, there is a reason that addicts are referred to as “Recovering” and not “recovered.” It is a constant process, and they could return to substance abuse at any time. My mom has repeatedly told me about people she knows from AA who have been sober for YEARS who have “gone back out,” as they apparently refer to it. I already live with the constant underlying fear that my mom will one day start drinking again. I can’t sign up to worry about a second person in that same way, right from the start. I don’t want to tell her the real reason because I don’t want her to feel guilty. No parent wants to be the cause of their child’s worry, so while I love how close my mom and I are, for now this will remain the one thing I choose to keep to myself.
First off, I want to say that I am well aware that compared to most addiction stories, this one is fairly mild. There were only visible signs of the addiction for about 2 years before she got sober, and things only got REALLY bad for about six months before she went to rehab. Even at her worst, she was what people call a “high functioning” alcoholic. I also know that, for many people, giving an addict the type of ultimatum that I did — telling people to choose between their loved one and the substance they are addicted to — doesn’t go as well as it did for me, especially if the person is addicted to hard drugs. I know that, as far as addiction stories go, I am lucky.
Secondly, as I mention several times throughout this post, I am WELL AWARE that I should have gone to therapy during this time. I feel that the fact that various doctors never recommended it is a sign of the low value our society places on mental health as a whole. I somehow managed to make it through okay without it, but not only would that not necessarily be the case for everyone, but I sometimes wonder how much better I would have handled (or would still be handling) the situation if I had been seeing a therapist. I’ve recently started experimenting with online therapy for other reasons unrelated to this, but I definitely needed it back then and never got it, in part because I kept a lot of what I was feeling to myself, but in part because in my opinion the doctors I saw were not adequately trained in recognizing issues that may have been mental and not just physical. I think it’s very bizarre that a junior in college who has never had sleep problems in her life comes to you with a sleeping issue and casually mentions a major family problem that went on a few months ago and your response is to recommend an OTC sleep aid. Likewise, I think it is a little concerning that someone shows up in the hospital for drinking too much, and says their behavior is fine because it’s not as bad as their alcoholic mother, and no one in the hospital blinks an eye. I know doctors have a lot to deal with, but I think it is a major issue in Western society that we often don’t try to treat the “whole patient,” and we are often reluctant to believe in the importance of taking care of one’s mental health just as much as physical health. I can not emphasize this enough — if someone you know is going through this with a family member PLEASE encourage them to go to therapy. I had some other issues going on at the time that probably compounded my need for it, but regardless, it would have been a useful tool in a very tough time. Please please please please please make your friends go (and if they don’t like their first therapist, make them try again).
The best thing my mom did for me in this time was make sure I still went to China for my internship. When she said, “I can’t be the reason that you don’t experience new things,” that really stayed with me. I know that sometimes family members of addicts feel like we have to care for our loved ones, but at a certain point, you need to take care of yourself and live your own life. If you are dealing with this situation and the person you are trying to help isn’t coherent or self-aware enough to acknowledge this in the way my mom (thankfully) did at the time, please take it from me. Yes, it is important to try to help those we care about. But we can not do so at the expense of living our own life. Please, make sure you live yours to the fullest.
Lastly, I just want to say, that I know everyone’s story with addiction is different, and as I mentioned I also understand mine is nowhere near as harrowing or painful as some other stories out there, especially those involving hard drugs. However, these things can be difficult to talk to with people who haven’t experienced it for themselves. So, if you are reading this and this reminds you of a friend or family member or even yourself, feel free to reach out to me if you’d like to talk. (Twitter handle: SarahCantSmell) Don’t make the same mistake I did and keep everything to yourself for way too long.