Addiction Is Not the Opposite of Virtue, and Other Things I Learned During My Mother’s Early Recovery
One February afternoon, when I was not quite twenty-two, my then-boyfriend showed up to my parents’ house as I was getting ready to head to the city with a friend. Daniel* promised he wouldn’t be long, that he just wanted to drop by and say hello, but he was visibly upset.
As we sat on my parents’ porch, I did my best to assure him that whatever was on his mind, I would understand. After several minutes of my gentle prodding, Daniel erupted. “I don’t know if I’m in love with you anymore,” he said quietly, looking down at his feet. Then, “And there’s something else. I’ve been lying to you about some stuff for a while.”
By then, my stomach was churning. I had pretty traditional ideas about what constituted betrayal in a partnership. “Are you cheating on me?” I asked, making no effort to conceal my panic. He looked up at me. “What? Of course not.”
A modicum of relief. “Then what is it?”
“I’ve been popping pills for months.”
The gears in my brain slowed; Daniel’s confession came, to me, as a surprise. When we’d met three years prior, he used drugs recreationally. Having had a culturally moderate-to-conservative upbringing, I grew up with an extremely limited perspective on sex, drugs, and alcohol. That a very specific conception of morality — one that was based entirely on Christian notions of vice versus virtue — had, early on, infiltrated my understanding about such things made for a confusing, years-long battle between my ideas about desire and judgment.
I sat back down. Though I was angry as I processed Daniel’s confession, my sense of relief swelled. His uncertainty about his love for me, I reasoned, couldn’t be trusted. After all, his judgment had been clouded by his drug use. We broke up that day, but our separation didn’t last long.
After a week of not speaking, Daniel and I reunited at our favorite park. There, he pledged to kick his pill-popping for good — and, more to the point, for the good of our relationship. The weeks that followed our reunification were punctuated by the stages of Daniel’s benzodiazepine withdrawal. He was irritable, shaky, and disturbed nightly by fevers.
I felt sorry for him — partly because he was so candid with me about the gory details of his withdrawal, and partly because he’d chosen such a noble course: he’d confessed his addiction, he’d decided to quit, and he’d acted on his decision immediately, ill effects notwithstanding. I was also relieved; I told myself Daniel had to earn my trust back, but that by way of his abstaining from pills, we were creating a clean slate together.
Though there hadn’t been much talk of alcohol and drug use in my household growing up, by my early teens, I’d come to internalize the narrative that substance abuse was the refuge of the weak. My father in particular helped usher this conception into our household.
When my brother and I were teenagers, we asked him if he’d ever tried weed. “Once,” he replied. “I took one hit and said, ‘Not for me.’” When it came to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, my dad seemed to think the proper approach was obvious: just don’t do it. I can’t remember ever having seen him so much as hold a beer.
Then, there’s my mother. I was twenty-six by the time she told me she had a drinking problem. “I’m an alcoholic,” she said, shoving several rumpled papers at me. She’d just come from her doctor. On her way to work that morning, she’d decided she couldn’t go on with her life the way she had been and that she needed professional help.
As her words set in, I was surprised by how steady I felt — I certainly was more thrown when Daniel told me he’d been taking benzos. Maybe it was because for years, I’d known that my mother was depressed and that she drank the occasional glass of wine to take the edge off. Even more occasionally, I’d become concerned over what I’d dubbed her naïve use of over-the-counter medications — sometimes in conjunction with wine. In the past, I’d worried about her reliance on substances to cope with her unhappiness.
However, I had assumed her occasional unsteadiness was merely the result of her being a “lightweight.” Moreover, I’d always considered my mother too innocent to even entertain the possibility that she might have such a deeply destructive outlet. She didn’t drink socially, and though she’d revealed enough about her young adulthood for me to know that she’d had an adventurous streak prior to meeting my dad, she never relayed any stories of even remotely wild exploits to me.
The next several months were a blur of AA and Al-Anon meetings, appointments with addiction counselors, and graceless reactions, on my family’s part, to both my mother’s confession and her early recovery.
Out of all of us, my father was the most blindsided. My mom told him after they’d gone out to dinner one Saturday night. When she asked him to pull the car over on the way home, he became alarmed. When she told him what it was, he was relieved. “I thought you were gonna tell me you had cancer,” he’d said.
Lots of folks who know my mother were, like my father, surprised to learn about her alcoholism. But then, the difference lies in the fact that my father is her husband and a person with whom she lives. I suppose, in the context of my parents’ marriage, that was why he was so shocked: he always saw my mother as the perfect wife and mother, never straying out of either role. More importantly, I believe my father was as shocked as he was because he’d convinced himself that nothing could ever possibly compel my mother to stray out of either role.
When I was growing up, my dad sang my mother’s praises. He told me how much he loved her because she was the best mother to my brother and me that he could have ever asked for; that he’d only gotten as far as he had in his career because of my mother’s support; and that our family had only achieved the state of financial success that it had because of my mother’s good sense.
She was the best, he preached, and his sentiments were echoed down every corridor of my mother’s life: by my father’s parents, by family friends, by my friends, and so on. My mother was the best cook; our house was always spotless; she had great relationships with my brother and me; she was beautiful; and she maintained a career. But she was an alcoholic, and my dad was shocked.
As she moved through her early recovery, my mother went down just about every rehabilitation route she could set her sights on. At times, this meant my family and I were invited, for better or (far more often) worse, to participate in family-related meetings. Early on, my mom entered an outpatient rehabilitation program. It offered weekly group therapy sessions for patients’ loved ones.
At our first session, my dad, brother, girlfriend, and I were asked to introduce ourselves. Though my father was never the most demonstrative person when it came to feelings that weren’t anger or joy, he had his moments. On this day in particular, when the counselor facilitating the group asked my dad how he felt about my mother’s alcoholism, he lurched forward in his seat, bursting into tears.
“I feel so guilty,” he said between sobs. “I had no idea.”
In 2002, my parents, brother, and I moved from our tiny house in our tiny, once-beloved town to a much bigger house in a much bigger town. Really, it was a city, but you wouldn’t know it to look out of any of the bedroom windows, because the backyard was teeming with lush foliage and shrouded in perilously towering redwoods.
My father always said we ended up in that particular house because when the realtor showed it to my parents, my mother immediately fell in love with the backyard, even though the interior was a nightmarish funhouse of pink paneling and sea green trim that had been left over from the 1970s.
We moved in late July just after I turned twelve, and I was miserable about it. Our new neighbors were mostly senior — a stark contrast to our old ones, who were families not unlike our own. We’d all been friends, my parents with the other parents and my brother and I with their kids.
I spent the summer after the move sitting at the desk in front of my bedroom window, cursing the way the light danced through the trees in the late July afternoon. Riding bikes and sneaking into the valley that hugged our cul-de-sac with my best friend were suddenly replaced by what felt like sanctioned isolation. It was clear I’d taken the move the hardest. Or so I’d thought.
The months of my mother’s early recovery were chock-full of revelations. When she first told me she had a drinking problem that May, she also told me that she’d had it for about five years. Over time, however, she began sharing little fragments of her journey with me.
Last year, for example, she told me that about five months after we moved into the new house, my father found her sitting in their bedroom closet. She was drinking from a bottle of vodka. My mother said he’d asked her if she needed professional help. “No,” my mother had replied. “I’m just stressed.”
And for the next fourteen years, that was that.
Early on in my mom’s recovery, I vigorously championed all the traditional forms of treatment: counseling, AA meetings, and rehab.
Though I became accustomed to batting away the unabashed condescension of some of the counselors in my mother’s outpatient program, I’d unwittingly subscribed to the belief that once a person had developed a chemical addiction, regimented treatment was the only key to sobriety. Time and time again, my mother expressed agitation with AA’s religious overtones and the unrelatability of the other attendees, many of whom were social drinkers who’d been sober for decades.
While I often began our conversations feeling sympathetic for my mom, they quickly devolved into arguments that revealed a chasm between us. My mother would share that she was struggling, that she was craving alcohol, and soon enough, I would insist that she didn’t have to succumb to her addiction so long as she exercised self-control.
On more than one occasion, I told her that maintaining her sobriety was as easy as not getting into her car and driving to the liquor store. “It’s as simple as not doing this,” I would say, pantomiming the act of drinking from a bottle to illustrate, more cruelly than I ever meant to, that she was in control of her actions.
Soon after she completed the outpatient program, she had a slip. She told my father about it, since he could never tell when she was drunk. He told her he was disappointed in her.
I considered my father’s reaction incredibly callous. Because my mother allowed me to be as involved as I was in her recovery process and opened up to me when she was feeling vulnerable, I perceived my reactions to her slip-ups as antithetical to my father’s. After all, I reasoned, she wouldn’t have confided me in the way she did if I was insensitive to her battle with addiction.
I truly believed that where my father was sanctimonious, I was providing her with much needed tough love. It took me the better part of a year to understand that, although we’d always been close, my mother and I had developed a codependent relationship.
By the following year, my girlfriend and I had moved in together, and my mother had voluntarily entered an inpatient rehabilitation program. I was happy that she was getting round-the-clock help for her addiction, but not being able to check in with her regularly and hear how she was faring produced an overwhelming amount of anxiety within me.
After she returned home from the rehabilitation facility just before Christmas, our relationship was perceptibly different. Although she was still struggling, she ceased relying on me for emotional support. She rarely called me, and often, when I called her, she wouldn’t answer unless I sent her a frantic text message expressing my concern.
When we did speak, I wanted to know if she was still going to meetings, to make sure she was keeping her weekly appointments with her therapist. I wanted her to reassure me that she wasn’t drinking. That I could no longer check in with her and confirm she was on track for her goal of lifelong sobriety made me feel like jumping out of my skin. I had trouble sleeping for months.
In the months before she went to rehab, my mom told me time and time again that she felt like I was her probation officer. Each time, I doubled down, telling her that I was just giving her what she needed, and that if I was soft on her, I’d be enabling her.
Still, I considered myself empathetic: I never regarded her as a bad or negligent mother or wife or person simply because she was addicted to alcohol. To do so would have been disingenuous, anyway; she had been a prime example of the “functioning alcoholic” — as if one can possibly be considered functional when they are in a constant state of misery.
Nonetheless, I believed, and told her as much, that she’d just have to grit her teeth and stop drinking, no matter how badly she was feeling. That her life would improve once she stopped, because her alcoholism, and failure to control it, were compounding her unhappiness.
Not being able to remind of her of this fact on a regular basis drove me up the wall. I was sure she was having a much harder time on her own than she would have been if she’d continued to lean on me. My anxieties were validated when, late that winter, I noted that she was struggling. My girlfriend and I had invited her, my brother, and his girlfriend over for dinner, and I could tell that she was drunk.
I took her into the bedroom away from the others, and she told me how hard of a time she’d been having. Since Thanksgiving, we’d scarcely talked about her progress. I was dismayed that she’d slipped — but relieved that she was opening up to me, and the combination was entirely, grotesquely confusing.
After that evening at my apartment, however, our relationship didn’t return to its pre-rehab state. Though my mother made a consistent effort to maintain our relationship, she was markedly reserved when it came to discussing her own emotional well-being. After much prodding on my end and many arguments wherein my mother told me she felt I was treating her like a child, I became frustrated and gave up.
I began calling her less frequently, and when I did, I did my best to refrain from interrogating her. Initially, my surrender was an act of petulance; I thought my mother would recognize that the quality of our relationship was suffering as a result of her distant behavior, and that eventually, she would come around. She didn’t.
The summer after my mother began her recovery, I read just about every scrap of contemporary secular writing on alcoholism I could find on the internet. On one particularly low afternoon, I sat slumped in an old Ikea chair in my brother’s old bedroom and scrolled through my YouTube recommendations.
I came across a video wherein a man discussed his experience of having come from a family of alcoholics, though he’d never struggled with substance abuse himself. Unlike so much of the scripture on dealing with an alcoholic loved one, he advocated for total acceptance — no ultimatums, no expectations, no compromising.
“If your loved one has relapsed, say to them, ‘I love you, I’m here for you, and I’ll sit with you,’” he said.
When Daniel confessed to me that he had been taking pills, I resolved not to be with him until he promised to stop. In the years after we broke up, I wrestled with a quiet guilt: though I could never quite articulate my reasoning, I understood that I’d dealt with his substance abuse all wrong.
Five years later, when my mom told me she had a drinking problem, my approach was different, and I thought of Daniel. I was convinced I’d come a long way, that for all my open-mindedness in dealing with my mother’s alcoholism early on, I had practically shapeshifted into a different person.
But I never sat with her, either. I faithfully acquiesced to my compulsion to counsel her, to push her, to weigh the correctness of her actions and choices — and I firmly believed that if I didn’t, I was enabling her. My parents didn’t raise me overtly religiously, and I didn’t buy into any of the AA literature about recognizing a higher power, but there it was, despite my best efforts: my steadfast subscription to the notion that abstinence was not only a virtue, but, as far as alcoholism was concerned, the only virtue.
My mom managed to find a path to sobriety all on her own, but sobriety didn’t solve the problems that led her to heavy drinking. It was easy for me to talk about self-control when it came to alcoholism, but all that stuff — the emotional stuff tangled up in it — was far more complicated, and definitely more complicated than I could understand.
Recently, my girlfriend and I dropped by my mom’s house in the middle of the day to visit. It was a Thursday afternoon, and my dad was at work. When I called her and asked if we could stop by, I begged her not to do anything — specifically, not to cook. But my mom’s like that; she’ll say she won’t, and then I’ll show up to the Chopped kitchen.
That evening, she whipped up salmon, rice, and a tomato and cucumber salad with cilantro and kidney beans. We sat together at the kitchen table for hours, my mom and my girlfriend and me, talking about politics and cooking and work.
“This was so nice,” my mom said as she hugged us goodbye on the driveway. “Let’s please do this more often.” My girlfriend and I agreed before giving her several more hugs and leaving. On the car ride home, I asked my girlfriend, “Is it bad that I didn’t ask my mom about her drinking? Like, how it’s been going?”
She paused, then said, “No, I don’t think so. I think it was just nice that we spent time together.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “You’re probably right.” We left the conversation at that, but I could feel the phantom weight of the anxiety I’d been working to rid myself of, piece by piece, for the last year bearing down on my chest.
Maybe it’ll never fully go away, the anxiety that comes from worrying about my mom. I doubt I’ll ever know exactly what’s right for her, or for any of the people I love most.
Maybe, for now, all I can do is sit with them, and maybe, for now, that’s enough.
Thank you for reading! If you’d like to see more of my work or learn about me, visit www.christinayoseph.com.
Notes: I originally pitched this essay elsewhere, but it wasn’t picked up. *Indicates name has been changed to protect individual’s privacy.