My Alcoholic Sun: A Daughter Coping with an Alcoholic Parent
Nearly 14 million adults in the United States struggle with alcohol use or suffer from alcoholism. Almost 1 out of every 8 adults. To give perspective—that’s 4 people in one of my staff meetings at work. Someone I know. Someone I care about. Someone I rely on. (Get more facts here NIH)
I actually know alcoholism as a personal friend—frenemy if you will. I grew up the child of an alcoholic. Our relationship followed inconsistent patterns of love and rejection and felt deeply confusing. It all just depended on her migraines and how much alcohol topped off her diet coke. I commenced grieving the loss of my parent when I was 14. At the time, I lacked coping skills or even understanding what was happening. My mom was changing...her role sinking into the silt of the chaos of family.
Before I took notice of my mother’s addiction her presence warmed me like the sun. She was the founding presence of my family’s unique solar system. She raised six of us with my father on a shoe string budget and with little family support. She held her shit together when many people would opt to seek solace elsewhere.
She fostered my passions for writing and the arts. She enjoyed hearing me belt out solos from the bathroom and she giggled with us until we peed our pants from laughing so hard. She stayed constant… (for a while).
Mom lit up people’s lives with her creativity, her willingness to help others, her devotion to Christ, and her hilarious antics with friends. She rocked burgundy hair and created ghoulish haunted houses for Catholic school fundraisers. As my brother describes her a “real sweetheart.”
She took on the responsibility of lugging kids to activities, doctor appointments, school pickups and drop-offs. She chain-smoked but always drank her milk when pregnant. Forever a juxtaposition. And in many ways I preferred her that way. Confusing. Complicated. Interesting.
I recall the pressure my mother sometimes expressed of feeling pulled in 6 different spaces and alone in managing so many tasks. While attending school parties, baking cookies, and staying up all night to wash laundry she slowly unraveled. Perhaps had I been older I may have noticed the quiet trickle into the bottle. Maybe I would not have laughed when she revealed she had Amaretto in her morning coffee. To me, at the time, a tipsy mom was a fun mom. I possessed no ability to gauge the very hurt that kept her in bed for days and reaching for booze to mellow her anguish. I listened in on her phone calls to friends—the ones where she poured her heart out as she added more Amaretto. How did I miss this? How did I fail to understand her? We were so alike. I spent years cycling through memories. I missed key opportunities to intervene. At least that's the blame I assigned myself throughout my twenties. In my thirties I dealt with my own devastation; helping her jumped off my radar.
My father didn’t get it until it was too late as well. He worked long hours and picked up side jobs to pay the immense stack of bills piling up on several shelves of the house and stored in cake pans under their bed. Things were bad. The two of them tried the best they knew how—they just lacked the skills to really manage the financial pressure of raising a six pack of children.
Dad approached mom’s disease in several floundering attempts. He tried calling her out, ignoring, marking the lines on bottles, refusing to drink himself (he never really drank anyway), and he went on missions to locate her hidden bottles. He started taking on her traditional tasks—hauling kids to practices, managing school and rides, and groceries. They struggled to find the roles that worked best; each just separately attempted to cope. He never stopped trying to regain his footing. And she kept losing her sense of self. I can’t imagine that ache.
A gaping wound formed for those two. Each responsible for different hurts and very few coping strategies for managing. I bore witness to a severed familial artery oozing the life force of our family. And this hurt us. The dysfunction overtook all the attempts for normalcy. One by one, for whatever reason or another, each of us became a statistic easily predicted through research on addiction and poverty.
So what do I do with this as an adult? I chug along. I avoid alcohol and I call my damn mother. If my father were alive I’d call him too. I refuse to feel angry and project blame on anyone. It’s just not me. I won’t justify her choices either.
Alcoholism is 100% preventable. But who am I to stop loving someone because they’ve crumbled? And now her thinking patterns lay like the jumbled messes of laundry, toys and trash of my childhood. I refuse to leave her in the mess without knowing a couple hands might move items to clear a path. My faith tells me compassion suits me best here with a heaping helping of boundaries. And she lives a caring, compassionate life. I love her for all the things she is and isn’t. All the things she was and wasn’t. She taught me this kind of love. The hard kind.
The mom that propelled me through the universe as a child is not the one I know today. I love her regardless. Her disease is rooted in complex grief and trauma. Symptoms, I too, carry on a medical record. This rationale does not enable her—it makes meaning of her very complicated disease for me.
The light from my mother has faded. She’s not as fun and her hair certainly isn’t purple. She slurs her speech sometimes and hides in her apartment. She gets terribly sick anytime she tries her hand at sobriety. She still tries baking batches of cookies on holidays. She sends handwritten notes when she remembers and can find a stamp. She still gets stubborn when her kids try telling her what to do. Mom is an alcoholic drowning in memories that aren’t mine to share.
She’s lost bridges. She’s lost support, her home and some of her children. She’s lost almost everything to a disease she inherited and did not thwart with efficacy. I don’t hate her. I never will. I’m just gonna call her and tell her I love her. I hope she feels her value. I will listen to her stories, be fair in my assessment, and be kind as we end our call. And this will happen as often as I can as much as I can.
My mother is an alcoholic. She is mine. She is loved.