The triumph and tragedy of three daughters and their alcoholic mothers
Brittany Ricketts is rarely seen without her dog, Lily.
Lily accompanies Brit to her yoga practice, her business meetings, her desert adventures and mountain retreats. When I picture Brit, I see her in a Toyota truck sporting a wide-brimmed hat, Lily’s head sticking out the passenger side window, a huge dog smile on her face as the two head out to whatever’s next.
Lily used to belong to Brit’s mom, Jen. A post-rehab gift, Lily stayed loyal to Jen through some of the darkest days of Jen’s life, when no one, including Brit, wanted to be around her. While Jen was slowly poisoning herself with vodka, she still managed to feed and care for Lily, long after she’d stopped caring for herself or her three children.
In the weeks between Jen’s death and when her body was discovered facedown on the guest bed in her mansion in Malibu, still, Lily was fed.
The more we get together
My mom is a recovering alcoholic, though I prefer the term “total badass.” After decades of drinking she somehow beat this disease by herself in her bedroom with a 12-step book and CD set she’d heard about from a radio ad, along with some self-guided meditation. At the time, I had no idea how hard that must have been or how rare it was that she was actually successful at getting off the sauce. I just remember laughing with my siblings at the “Do not disturb: Meditation in Process” sticky notes she would stick to her door around 5 p.m. — the exact hour her Costco-sized cold wine bottle would usually get uncorked, and remain so for the rest of the evening.
I don’t think anyone could read the list of traits of adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) and not identify with at least half of them. Do you try to avoid conflict? Do you have trouble understanding your emotions or feelings? Do you desire more intimate relationships? Well, I certainly hope so. The issues themselves with this large and growing population of children raised by people addicted to alcohol are not what makes them unique. What is unique is the degree to which they struggle with these very universal human problems, as well as their particular cocktail of symptoms, that first caused ACAs to come together in the 1980s and demand a little attention.
“Most things that involve mental health move from the professionals to the consumer,” said Dr. Robert Ackerman, co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and author of numerous books on the subject. “This was very different. People were uniting with each other, sharing their experiences, and overcoming their hesitancy to talk about them.The professionals knew nothing about it until the ACAs brought the issues to them. So it actually went backwards.”
After nicotine addiction, more people are addicted to alcohol than any other substance in the U.S. Much of the trauma suffered by families of alcoholics is due to the cyclical, unpredictable nature of the addiction. Unlike with nicotine, which is increasingly stigmatized socially and which is rather binary — you either smoke cigarettes or you don’t (though strictly social puffers can usually still dodge the label of “smoker”) — alcohol is consumed along a continuum. There’s the teetotaler to the daily drunk, but most people are in the middle. It’s much harder to spot when someone has crossed over into unhealthy territory when you only see them drink occasionally, socially, along with most everyone else. It can even be harder to spot when that person is your mom.
I hadn’t given my mom’s drinking much thought at all until recently, when I found myself in a counselor’s home office talking through some of the patterns that keep surfacing in my own life. Carolyn Anna, my sweet, sweet angel of a counselor, suggested some of my “quirks” might be rooted in being raised in a home with alcoholism.
I was doubtful. Having been more of a “they’re just feelings” kind of woman, I’m a recovering skeptic when it comes to using distant childhood experiences as an “excuse” for a personality flaw. I also have a hard time identifying myself as “an adult child of an alcoholic” as to me it implies something much more traumatic than what I dealt with growing up. Like I don’t want to be that person who says they snowboard and looks like they snowboard but what they really mean is they have snowboarded but most of their time was spent in the lodge with $10 Blue Moons.
My mom rarely drank hard liquor, and for the most part kept her drinking to evenings and nights. She never physically hurt me (though there were a few times I thought she might) and after particularly brutal nights, she’d come into my room early in the morning while I’d be getting ready for school and apologize. Her tears would sting more than anything she’d done or said the night before.
However, through the research and conversations leading up to this article (“when uncomfortable with therapy, research instead” says the voice in my brain) I’ve come around to believe three things:
1. There are a heck of a lot of ways to be an alcoholic.
2. When you have a parent for an alcoholic, regardless of what kind of alcoholic they are, it changes you.
3. If one or both of your parents is an alcoholic, you are in some great company.
Ackerman said to me on the phone, “If you told all adult children of alcoholics not to show up to work tomorrow, our schools, hospitals and government would all shut down.”
Turns out, I wouldn’t see many of the people that are near and dear to me, either. Skeptic or not, there are millions of us out there, and we’ve all seen or heard or carried things we probably shouldn’t have. While our peers were learning they were unconditionally loved and taken care of, we were learning how to take care of ourselves. While our friends were learning to be vulnerable in their relationships, we were learning how to protect and guard and keep secrets. While our classmates were being parented, we were parenting.
The stories I’m going to share are the result of countless hours of conversation with the two women I know whose lives have been most deeply impacted by their mothers’ addictions to alcohol. These are their stories told from their experience and my own retelling.
A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down
I met Brit through a mutual friend while we were both studying at CSU. We worked at the same pizza restaurant and as far as I could tell, she was a beautiful hippie princess from SoCal whose inner peace probably came from never having to worry about anything. I liked her, but me coming from Conifer, CO and having every dollar I had any sort of access to rolled up under my mattress, I assumed we had next to nothing in common.
I remet Brit a year ago when she hired me for some marketing help for WYLDER, a health and wellness company she had started. It was in this time of working together that I came to know and love Brit, and I learned two major things: 1. The categories I put people into when I first meet them are always wrong and 2. Every bit of peace and well-being Brit has, she has come to against all odds. Her unshakable spirit isn’t a result of a privileged upbringing but a of daily, conscious work to make peace with a broken world she knows intimately.
Brit’s mom was not a lifelong alcoholic. The way Brit describes it, she went from hardly drinking to being an alcoholic to being dead in 5 years.
Jen didn’t talk too much about her past with Brit. She was born into an uber-religious family in rural Arizona. She got married at 20, immediately had three kids, divorced, and later remarried into extreme wealth. With her new husband, Jen had finally achieved the social status she’d sought out — and dressed for — her whole life.
Brit and her siblings lived with their father in California — “My mom didn’t even bother to show up to fight for custody,” Brit said in the tone of someone who has fought hard to believe this was not her fault. They would visit their mother on weekends and holidays, where she would thrust them into her new life of galas and charity balls and country club events. It was during these visits that Brit first noticed the drinking.
“I don’t think it started as a way to hide her demons,” Brit said. “I think it started as a way to let loose a little bit, have fun, release her inhibitions during all these events. It was very gradual.”
Brit saw her mom as trying unsuccessfully to match her children to her new social class, wanting them to dress and act in ways they weren’t really comfortable with. Brit, strong-willed, opinionated and newly passionate about the environment, refused to play dress up for her mom’s friends. Their visits became more stressful and in turn, Jen became more volatile towards Brit and her siblings. Some days she would be “cool Jen,” buying them gifts, paying for travel, being generally excited they were around. But the next day she’d change her mind, cancel a plan, take back a gift or just tell them they were going home and book a flight for them.
“You never knew what kind of Jen you were going to get, cool or crazy mean. She could never solidify an idea or a promise, ” said Brit. “So when the drinking started, it wasn’t as transparent to us, because she’d never really been a supportive mother anywhere in our childhood.”
A whole new world
By the time Brit entered university, she was seeing less and less of her mom. Their relationship had grown increasingly distant and strained, which is why she was surprised and somewhat hopeful when her mom invited her on a trip to Europe over the summer. They were going to take three weeks, travel to France, Switzerland and Italy, and her mom seemed genuinely excited about the time they would have together, something Brit hadn’t felt in years or maybe ever.
When Brit got to Europe, she found her mom — who had arrived in Europe a few weeks earlier — drinking. A lot. At first it was the fun-loving, excited kind of “we’re in Paris! Let’s have wine!” drinking, but quickly escalated, becoming something different.
After a week of traveling, excessive drinking and the cruel remarks that inevitably followed — typically saved just for her daughter — Brit expressed her frustration with her mom’s behavior and Jen exploded.
“She started yelling and screaming at me, I don’t even remember about what, and I just kept asking her ‘Why? Why are you doing this?’” Brit said. “And then I said , ‘You’re crazy,’ and that just flipped the switch.”
Jen kicked 19-year-old Brit out of the apartment she had rented, without any money, any idea where she was or where to go.
One of Jen’s friends who had also been staying with them gave Brit a few dollars, which she used to get ahold of her father, who found Brit a place to stay at a friend’s place in Paris. Brit spent the remainder of her France vacation solo, walking through the city and thinking about what had happened, who she was, where she wanted to go. She’d come back in the evenings for her yoga and meditation practice, and it was during one of these nights alone in her mind that she saw her mom in a different light.
“She was like four years old and she was crying, and I was the one hugging her and comforting her, and it was as if she’d never been held before, never been nurtured,” Brit said.
Jen called Brit a few weeks later to check in, and didn’t mention the Paris house incident or the ruined European vacation together. She never apologized. Brit never expected her to.
Words will never hurt me
Something about the way Brit recounts her childhood experiences is almost like she is telling the story from a third perspective. Like she sees things from the camera mounted on the wall above, rather than through her own eyes, and can therefore tell her stories, even the traumatic ones, from some more objective angle, where she is not young a woman being continually hurt by the one person on earth who is never, ever supposed to hurt you.
There’s something familiar about it.
When Carolyn Anna first started asking me about my mom’s drinking and other past traumatic experiences, she would gently ask, “how did that make you feel?”
My answer was always “I don’t know.” I can remember what happened, what I did, how I responded, things I would say, but not how I felt.
“Understanding our emotions is a habit we learn at a very young age,” Carolyn said. “If a child learns that when they express emotion they are met with indifference — like when a parent is distracted or passed out on the couch — or intensity or anger — like the angry drunk — they learn that feeling doesn’t help. So they begin to try and dissociate from their feelings. They cocoon or they numb.”
By the time we’re adults these strategies are so well practiced, they become completely subconscious.
Ring around the rosie
Brit watched her mom’s drinking progress, and the family eventually decided together with Jen that something needed to change. Brit wanted to get her mom out to Colorado, where she was living and attending classes at Colorado State University. She thought that the hikes and yoga and time outdoors that so nurture Brit could help her mom heal. But Jen wanted to be in Malibu, where she ended up in Passages, a bougie addiction treatment center that cost her husband somewhere in the ballpark of $80k a month.
“I don’t think it ever really dealt with her real issues,” Brit said. “She was with all these rock stars and celebrities and the super wealthy, which I think actually accelerated it for her. I mean if all those beautiful, wealthy people were struggling with this too, maybe it was okay?”
While in rehab, Jen took Brit on as a sort of therapist daughter. Brit’s phone would go off at all hours, and regardless of whether it was finals week or she had a test the next day, she always tried to answer, to listen to her mom talk about the latest crisis or a rare moment of regret. It took a severe toll on her studies, but Brit had decided it was more important to be there for Jen.
“When I’d try to talk about my own issues, like the things you’d talk about with your mom, she’d find a way turn it back to what she was going through,” Brit said. “She’d just tell me everything was fine and I could get through whatever. But sometimes I needed to be broken too and for that to be okay.”
My older sister and I are intimately familiar with this kind of role reversal. My mom was never okay with her own drinking, which led to a whole lot of guilt-filled mornings, where she would come into our rooms while we were getting ready for school and apologize, crying, asking for forgiveness. We knew she needed to be comforted, and would tell her things like we all make mistakes, nobody’s perfect, she can change if she wants to, I still love you, etc. etc. — whatever verbal affirmations a 13-year-old could come up with.
What’s clear to me now that I couldn’t see at the time, is that while we were mothering our mom, we were missing out on the maternal support and nurturing we all deeply desired. Like Brit, we were mothers without mothers.
After a few months at Passages, Jen called to share the good news: she was graduating from rehab and wanted to take Brit to a celebratory spa weekend on the beach. Brit, ecstatic, dropped everything and flew out to meet her at a luxurious hotel in Santa Barbara.
Less than a few hours after arriving at the hotel, she found her mom at the mini bar.
Jen insisted she was just checking it out, but then Brit found two half-drunk bottles of chardonnay hiding behind the toilet in the bathroom.
“I was just like, ‘What are you doing? You just got out of rehab!’ and she kicked me out again,” Brit said. Brit found out soon after that her mom had lied to her. She hadn’t graduated out of rehab — she’d been kicked out for drinking.
The second time her mom “got out” of rehab things were visibly worse.
Brit had landed an internship in landscape architecture in Coronado, California. Brit’s mom and stepfather had rented a home there for the summer, and Brit was surprised but thankful for their support and eagerness to be there for her during her internship. Jen even helped Brit pick out professional clothing and jewelry, and was acting “like a mom.” Brit was ecstatic.
The night before her first day on the job Brit was woken up abruptly by the supposedly sober Jen shouting senselessly at her and accusing her of being a drug addict because she was “too pale.”
Brit asked to be left alone and went to sleep on the couch, but her mother followed her around the house, continuing to yell absurdities.
In the kitchen, Brit discovered an empty fifth of vodka hidden in a cabinet.
The next morning, while Brit’s step father was out on a walk, Jen woke up and went to the wine cooler. Brit, groggily attempting to prepare for her first day on the job, saw what was happening and decided to physically block her mom from the cabinet.
If you’ve ever gotten between an alcoholic and the sweet relief of a drink, you probably know it can get dangerous, physically and emotionally. Jen began to beat at Brit’s chest, at which point Brit picked her up — Jen was a petite woman — and physically moved her away from the cooler.
Jen, now in an animal-like state of pursuit, grabbed Brit’s new internship-ready shirt and ripped it. Brit, panicking, called the cops. By the time John returned from his walk, patrol cars filled the driveway.
Later that morning, Brit called the company she was supposed to start working for and apologized for not showing up. She told them she no longer had a place to stay in Coronado and wouldn’t be able to afford living there on her own.
“It was so hard because it was so important for my own career,” she said, “but I didn’t have a choice. I wasn’t safe there.”
During one of Jen’s periods of sobriety, she shared a shameful family secret with Brit, involving a pregnancy and forced adoption. Brit, at this point familiar with the ways shame and childhood trauma can influence a person, thought this was easily identifiable as the root of her mom’s struggle with addiction. But that didn’t seem to be something Jen was willing to admit nor something rehab was helping her address, despite the hundreds of thousands of dollars being spent on treatment.
Back in school and trying to complete her degree, Brit eventually decided that she couldn’t be her mom’s therapist. She needed space from the phone calls to focus on her academics and her own relationships.
“There’s a point where you realize you can’t fix them, so you have to ask yourself what you need,” she said. “I gave it a big ol’ girl scout try, but I couldn’t fix it for her. I needed to make sure I didn’t surrender my whole life to her alcoholism.”
We all fall down
When Brit found out her mom was dead, they hadn’t spoken in two months.
The news came via a phone call from her dad, while she was at work waiting tables at a restaurant in Telluride. Memories came flooding over Brit — all the good times she’d had with her mom, swimming and playing in the ocean, how she’d tell stories that could captivate an entire room, how she could be so funny she’d make people cry laughing. Things that, upon retrospect, Brit realized she’d actually lost years ago.
“I kind of did the mourning before she died — that’s when I really lost her. When I knew she would never be a mom to me,” Brit said. “It was more the feeling of “Man, I wish I had a mom who was actually a mom.’”
What people always say — but apparently no one really gets it because people still need to say it — is that when someone dies, logistically, there is actually a lot to do. Brit’s case was no exception.
Jen and her husband had been separated, and she was living alone in a large home in a gated community in Arizona. She’d been found on a wellness check by the security guard, after a friend reported that she hadn’t been able to get a hold of Jen for several days.
Jen’s body was too far decayed to know exactly how long it had been, but the coroner’s best guess was around two weeks.
If you’ve never smelled a rotting corpse before, there is no way to adequately express what it’s like. It’s by far the worst thing I’ve ever smelled, and I’ve yet to hear an apt metaphor for it. Decaying human smells like decaying human and I hope you never have to know what that means.
When Brit and her siblings arrived to go through her mom’s belongings, despite the body having been removed and carpet ripped out, the smell was so powerful it stuck to everything, her clothing, jewelry, furniture and the inside of her brother and sister’s noses as they sorted through it all.
“Dealing with her stuff was almost harder than the emotional part,” Brit said. Which doesn’t surprise me, because even at this point in the conversation, Brit has revealed almost no emotion. “You’re just like, ‘burn all this shit. And then you’d just start bawling because no one even cared enough to come see her for weeks. The last time she tried to call me was two weeks before she died and I looked at my phone and thought ‘No. I’m not going to do this again.’”
Then there was Lily. Trapped in the house with no one to feed her, she’d done what animals do. To Brit, who’d always loved animals and understands them at a level that seems to surpass her understanding of humans, it didn’t matter. Knowing full well about the “gnaw marks” they found on her mom’s corpse, she picked up Lily from the pound where they’d taken her and immediately took her in as her own.
“Lily had been so supportive and loving to my mom, and I’m grateful she had her,” Brit said. “I mean she was with her when I couldn’t stand being around her. When no one could. And my mom kept her alive, so I’m thankful for that.”
Row, row, row your boat
If you look up common traits of ACAs, you almost always find “controlling” is one of them. But Ackerman says it’s not actually control most ACAs are after, but what he calls counter control. As a child or young adult living with inconsistency, unpredictability and potential neglect or volatility — the norm for most children of alcoholics — you already know you can’t control things.
“If you could, your mom would be sober,” Ackerman said.
Counter controlling looks a lot more like trying not to be controlled, and reacting to anything that looks like control by escaping, attacking, or passively resisting. Surprisingly enough, it can also manifest as people pleasing.
“You learn you can’t keep mom sober, so you may try to do everything you can to keep her from getting upset, or mom and dad from getting in a fight, or just keeping the situation under control,” said Ackerman. “It’s like the child is running around trying to be the family’s social worker.”
I hated the conflict in my home that would regularly end in yelling matches, throwing things against walls, and sometimes my mom or dad taking off. I would do or say whatever I needed to try and keep things from escalating, whether that was cleaning the kitchen or helping with dinner or just trying to say the magic words that would make everyone feel okay.
So I learned to make decisions about what I wanted based on what would be least likely to rock the boat, because what I really wanted was a stable boat. Or at least a less insane one. When I came to Carolyn and asked her why, when I have to choose what I want on my sandwich or pick out a pair of shoes or decide what grocery store to go to without a second opinion, I am completely paralyzed, she said “Honey, you need to relax.”
It was the truest thing I’d heard about myself in weeks.
One of my best friends Kassey and I share this habit of not knowing what to do. Or knowing what to do, but then letting someone else’s thoughts (or what we perceive to be their thoughts) sway us in a different direction, or if not sway us, obsess us. Some people call it “people pleasing” but it’s not quite that altruistic.
I don’t think this trait specifically is why I’ve always felt that Kassey “gets” me — we share a lot of common interests and values — but she was one of my first friends at my new found church in college who didn’t come from a “perfect” family, and I found something comforting in that. I didn’t really know how not perfect her family was though until a few years ago, when her brother found her mom dead in a pool of her own blood.
How I wonder what you are
Kassey’s parents, Peggy and Kevin, were married young and had two children, Kassey and her brother Derek. Even as a very young child, Kassey picked up on her mother’s discontentment with her life, and withdrawnness from the family.
“It’s so strange to see my mom in the old family videos,” Kassey said. “You see my dad, and he was just laughing, picking us up, and my mom was just this “I’ve got it together” kind of mom. There is just no emotion on her face. She just seemed annoyed a lot, which maybe is just the tired mom and that’s normal, but there was obviously some sort of inner turmoil that she didn’t know how to handle.”
Kassey would watch her mom getting ready sometimes, putting on makeup or doing her hair, and remembers feeling the desire to be closer with her. To have a mother.
While Kassey would describe her mom as “private” “organized” and “put together,” she wasn’t always like that. She remembers her mom buying cassette tapes of Amy Grant and Whitney Houston and just belting out the lyrics from the kitchen, her voice like an angel. She loved that version of her mom.
“It was strange because she was so self conscious, but then she’d just let it all out and sing,” Kassey said. “We would just sit at the top of the stairs and peek down at her and it was like a different person.”
Kassey’s mom had been adopted at a young age by a family Kassey describes as “very religious and strict,” and grew up feeling inadequate. Peggy stopped talking with her adoptive parents as an adult, but when Kassey was in high school, her mom tracked down her biological father, and they exchanged several amicable letters. Eventually he asked if he could meet her kids, at which point she decided, for a reason unknown to Kassey, to cut him off again, entirely.
“It was like she was like, ‘No, no, no I have control of this situation now. And you left me, and you’ll never see my kids.”
The wheels on the bus go round and round
Peggy and Kevin had a troubled marriage, and she ended up leaving him when Kassey was in middle school — something at the time, Kassey felt incredibly betrayed by. Like Brit, alcohol was not really a part of Kassey’s family life until after her parents’ divorce, when Kassey and Derek split time between their mother and father’s homes, who both remained in the Denver area.
Her dad would drop them off at her mom’s place, where they would arrive to Peggy on the phone with a man she’d met on a business trip (she tended to date long-distance) or watching TV, always with a glass of wine by her side. Never the warmth or excitement they got from dad.
Kassey, resentful of the divorce and the way her mom had treated her dad throughout the marriage and desperate for normalcy, spent the majority of her time at her mom’s place in her basement room or at youth group. Derek, more accepting of the situation, seemed to grow closer to Peggy.
“I was just still so mad at her,” she said. “I felt like I was living the right way and she was really screwing it all up. I probably made her feel that way in the way I treated her, too.”
It wasn’t until Kassey came back to live with her mom after a year of college that she started noticing the booze itself as a problem. She’d wake up to hear her mom getting out of bed extremely early, like 4:30 in the morning, to go to the kitchen for something. Peggy would also “pass out” regularly on the couch. Kassey thought she was just depressed after a break up with a boyfriend of five years, but never really knew for sure what was going on with her mom internally.
When her mom got a job working from home, she had the privacy and flexibility to drink more heavily.
“I would go sit on the top of the hill behind our house, and you could see into the house, and she would just be sitting there, always always always, all day, and always with the drinks,” Kassey said. “Finally my heart was sort of shifting to like ‘I’ve been so judgemental all this time, but now I’m seeing this really hurt woman who cannot function in life, who is deeply depressed.’”
Kassey remembers asking her mom for a sip from the water bottle she carried everywhere, and her mom giving her some reason why she couldn’t share that didn’t make sense.
Kassey took a swig when her mom wasn’t looking and realized why: it wasn’t water.
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo
As skeptical as I want to be of the “behavioral roles” identified by various researchers that children and adult children of alcoholics take on, when I first read them, it sounded like they knew my family.
The “scapegoat” or problem child is extremely independent, acts out, abuses substances themselves and therefore accepts displaced blame for family problems. Which would be a great subtitle for my biography of my sister Anna’s teenage years. The title would be “The Story of The Brave Sister I want to Be But Am Also Scared Of.” If my mom was acting up, Anna was the first one to angrily pour out the wine, slam doors, or tell my mom to her face that she knew she was drunk.
The “mascot” or “clown” uses humor to minimize the alcoholism. They are usually attention seeking, make friends easily and can diffuse a situation, but inwardly they struggle with feelings of unworthiness, reality denial, and superficiality. This is my sister Colleen, though most of you, even those who know her really well, wouldn’t know it. She is expert at winning over people with her intelligence, wit and humor, and really terrible at trusting that people actually like her.
I identify more with the “hero” role, which sounds a heck of a lot better than it is. I often took over family responsibilities like chores and childcare but I struggled with perfectionism, low self-worth, a fear of just about everyone and a hard time being vulnerable enough to actually connect to other people. This stew of issues has reared its head in many ways in my life, most drastically perhaps in my 10-year long affair with disordered eating.
I don’t blame any of this on my mom—every one of us struggles, even those that grew up in relative normalcy. But addiction in a home does take a toll, perhaps exacerbating our own natural shortcomings.
“Addiction of any kind is sitting in the middle of the family living room,” said Sis Wenger, president and CEO of the National Association for Children of Addiction. “Everyone gets sick from what happens in some way or another. Everyone lives in some level of fear and uncertainty and has attachment problems. You do what you need to do to survive in that kind of environment.”
There was an old lady who swallowed a fly
There is no single point at which someone goes from normal drinker to alcoholic. It’s much more insidious than that. According to Ackerman, because it tends to be less socially acceptable for a middle-aged woman to “go out and party,” their drinking often happens in isolation or secret, sometimes to the point where their own families don’t recognize its severity or that it’s an issue at all. When they do, many daughters and sons of alcoholic mothers share in the shame, and struggle to admit or acknowledge the problem.
“It was embarrassing,” Kassey said. “I think I felt ashamed by it, so I never talked to anyone about it.”
The shame/embarrassment the daughter often feels around her mother’s alcoholism, according to Ackerman, often causes them to isolate themselves as well. These women struggle to know how to relate to their mothers, or when things get worse, with no longer wanting to relate to them.
Kassey did try talking to her mom about her concerns one time while the two of them were out to lunch. Despite the high value Kassey places on depth and intimacy in her relationships, with her mom, it was always difficult to discuss personal things, and the thought of bringing up the drinking terrified Kassey. Eventually, she just came out and asked her about it.
“Mom, do you think drinking has become a problem for you?”
“My mom reacted like “Can you just let me off the hook, just once?! You’re always so judgemental, I’ve never been a good enough mom for you’,” Kassey said. “I was hurt and felt guilty. She was angry. I tried calling her later that day but she ignored it, and I just felt like the worst child.”
Kassey also shared her concerns with her brother but he had more of a “we all have our vices” mentality about it, and didn’t think it was as noteworthy a problem at the time. Kassey’s mom almost never acted drunk — perhaps out of sorts, but not the angry, incoherent, falling down stairs kind of behavior that most people associate with heavy drinking. She was still, by many standards, high functioning.
Derek changed his mind when the physical symptoms started to pop up: They both noticed her skin changing into a more yellowy color, a gut protruding from her otherwise very thin frame, and the more frequent slurring of her words. When Derek learned in his EMT training that the discoloration of her eyes he’d noticed could be related to jaundice, he knew her liver was failing.
Kassey asked her doctor friend, Leah, about the symptoms they’d been noticing, and when she described the veins visible below the thin skin on her mom’s chest, Leah’s response was sobering.
“She’s got maybe six months.’”
Kassey and Derek knew they needed help, but didn’t know where or how to get it. They tried going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and talking to an interventionist, but AA couldn’t really do anything for her mom unless her mom wanted it, and a professional interventionist cost thousands of dollars.
“AA was maybe helpful for relating to her, but at this point we really didn’t need to relate better, we needed her to be forced to get help,” Kassey said. “There was the threat of her dying, but we also didn’t know how seriously to take it all.”
As Peggy’s disease progressed, visits became more uncomfortable for Kassey, who felt a mixture of fear, helplessness and annoyance around her mom. It was hard to know how to love someone who seemed to be consciously making the decision to destroy themselves.
London bridge is falling down
On Mother’s Day 2012, Kassey, Derek and Peggy got together for a lunch at her place. Kassey remembers her mom acting strangely emotional, bringing up her own death and requesting to be cremated instead of buried. She asked that her funeral be “a celebration” of her children.
At some point during the lunch, her mom got up to get something and passed out. She had hit her head and it was bleeding, so they called 911. When the paramedics arrived and took a look at her, one of them pulled Kassey aside and said that he thought Peggy would be fine from the fall, but she should really go to the hospital to follow up with a doctor about the now very visible signs of alcoholism.
They chose to take her themselves, to avoid the cost of the ambulance. They carried her into the front seat and buckled her in like a small child.
“It felt like, this cannot be my mom,” Kassey said. “I mean, you’re taking care of a parent who is supposed to be taking care of you. She had a really hard time receiving help.”
At the hospital, the doctor who received the toxicology report told Kass that most people with her mom’s blood alcohol level would be dead. Kassey thought with such an obvious medical red flag, finally someone would be able to help them. But that’s not how the ER works with addicts.
“They just gave her an info packet and told her she needed to watch it,” Kassey said. “They treated it like they had a lot of beds that needed to be filled with people with ‘real problems’ that weren’t doing it to themselves.” Once again, Kassey felt stuck.
Her mom refused rehab, but did say she was willing to make a change. So they researched at-home detox methods, and with the help of a few resources, decided to take turns staying with her mom (who at this point had been living alone for a number of years) to monitor the detox and keep her company as she stopped drinking.
Kassey had just been laid off from a job, which gave her the flexibility to spend more time with her mom during the self-regulated detox. While she constantly worried for her mom’s life, she still didn’t like staying the night.
“I was afraid I would wake up and she’d be dead,” Kassey said. “I got so panicky. I was always nervous to be there.”
Towards the end of the first week, Kassey found brown bags with booze her mom had been hiding. She said it was to help her “ease off,” but then Kassey found more in the garage. As Peggy’s body was shutting down, she continued to drink.
A dream is a wish your heart makes
My mom tried to cut down the drinking several times before she realized she needed to quit entirely. I remember her and my dad several times attempting to “give up alcohol” for lent. Typically, they’d make it to the Friday after lent started, and then change it to giving up alcohol on the weekdays, and then by Monday my dad would be sent to the liquor store after work for a bottle of white as if Lent had never existed.
At the time, I did not understand addiction, nor had I considered it something outside of the addict’s area of control. I could not understand why my mom couldn’t just cut back, stop after a glass or two like most of her friends.
The thing was, most of her wealthy, mountain-town friends did not grow up as the youngest of six in a fatherless family (her dad died of heart failure when she was only 3) with a chronically depressed mother. Most of her friends did not know what it meant to be one of the only Polish girls in a predominantly Italian neighborhood in a suburb of Cleveland with four brothers who, also having lost their father, were too busy taking care of themselves or in some cases, doing a lot of drugs, to “protect” my mom from the things a pretty young girl might want protection from. Most of her friends were drinking to have fun, not to hide or forget or just feel okay.
Sometimes, I’d pour out half her glass when she wasn’t looking, or when I was older, take a huge swig myself. These were my tiny protests. Unsuccessful though they were in getting her to quit, I was doing something, and some small part of me felt better for it.
Not drinking may have seemed impossible for my mom at the time, though now we know that it wasn’t impossible — it was just the most difficult thing she would ever do. Kassey’s mom, much further along into alcoholism than my mom ever got, had already passed the point where “trying harder” was an option.
“Unlike what a lot of people might have thought, she didn’t die of something she chose,” Kassey said. “It started as a choice but it got so far beyond her. It took her over.”
During the “detox” period, Kassey did notice changes in her mom. She was reaching out more, attempting to connect with Kassey and opening up in ways she hadn’t before. Kassey had gotten a temporary job pulling weeds for a church in Littleton, and one afternoon her mom stopped by with lunch.
“I felt sort of embarrassed by her,” Kassey said. “Her hair wasn’t done and she looked disheveled and sort of a mess. But she was acting like she used to, like a mom.”
In June of that year, Kassey was invited to go to Norway with her boyfriend (now husband) Josh. She had some trepidation over leaving her mom, but trusted Derek would be able to cover check ins for a few weeks and eventually decided to go for it.
“When I was leaving for the airport, my mom gave me this huge hug, and she was crying, and that was weird because I’d traveled a lot and that hadn’t happened before,” Kassey said. “But she just kept saying she was going to miss me. I felt real love from her and wanted to love on her more than I had in the past, and not even just out of obligation.”
The last time Kassey heard from her mom was an email on the 29th of June. She was responding to some photos Kass had sent her, and said she was cleaning the kitchen. It was late her time, past midnight. But the email read like a sober person wrote it, short and sweet, no grammatical errors.
A few days later, Kassey went out for an early morning jog. She’d gone out a few miles when she noticed the van from the camp where’d they been staying approaching her. Josh got out of the van, approached Kassey, and told her her mom was dead.
“I dropped my phone, fell on the ground, and just cried there with Josh, alone in this beautiful valley,” said Kassey.
Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Derek had been in an argument with his girlfriend at the time and didn’t want to visit his mom when he was upset, so he took a few days without stopping by. By Sunday afternoon, the fight had been resolved, and he knew he needed to check in with Peggy. He called on his way over but she didn’t answer. Derek didn’t think much of it.
It wasn’t until he walked in — through the garage like he always did — and saw that she wasn’t in “her spot” — far left side of the couch, laptop open on the side table, one neatly-made drink on the coaster, court TV on — that he felt uneasy.
He called out for her but there was just silence. He started up the stairs and noticed what he thought were new wine stains on the carpet.
Derek found Peggy lying on the floor between the foot of her bed and the master bathroom, blood pooled around her, blood in her bed, blood in her bathroom sink. Her eyes were open and her head was on a pillow. Derek is a former Marine and has seen some things but had never seen that much blood. He was nearly certain that Peggy was dead, but still performed a “sternal rub” — a painful stimulus designed to register a response from an unconscious person. No response. He grabbed her wrist and to check for a pulse, and knew from the rigor mortis that she was gone. Still confused about all the blood, he turned her over to check for an injury or penetration wound, but there wasn’t one. He did see, out of the corner of his eye, an empty plastic bottle of vodka in the master bathroom.
“Super weird,” he thought. “She only makes drinks at the kitchen counter.”
He then sat at the top of the stairs and called 911.
“No, not an emergency.” “Yes, I can hold.”
While he waited for the police and fire trucks to show up, he screamed obscenities in the quiet house.
The autopsy revealed she’d died the day before from a GI tract bleed. The organ lining had gotten so thin from the alcohol, it eventually tore, causing a huge bleed out and likely a speedy death.Their best guess is she was downstairs when it happened, and then may have gone upstairs to lay down or use the bathroom, and died shortly thereafter. Most troubling to Derek and Kassey though was the pillow. If she could get herself a pillow, why couldn’t she have called someone?
As they took his mom away, Derek hugged the body bag and whispered “I love you mom.”
Derek and Kassey helped coordinate the funeral, which was easy to keep small. Their mother had isolated herself in her later years, and didn’t have a lot of close friends. Her adopted mom and brother weren’t able to make it.
The siblings split the $300 dollars their mom had left in her bank account and the price of her car, then got rid of almost all of her mom’s belongings.
What Kassey did keep, was every card and letter she could find.
“I liked to see her handwriting and read her words. Even in those last emails, I like having those. Something to feel her, like the way she’d say “hey hon” or “love ya babe,” Kassey said. “I wanted to feel her anyway I could, to try to define her the best I could.”
This little light of mine
They say more than 80 percent of alcoholics never get treatment, and more than 50 percent of those who do, don’t stay sober. But even if an addict never seeks treatment (whether or not this is a decision addicts are capable of making for themselves is debated), the family can still get treatment.
“The real deep problem is how you feel, and you cannot deal with that if you do not take ownership of your own life,” Carolyn Anna said. “That is the absolute polar opposite of co-dependence. And that’s a process.”
Just like AA, there are ACA group meetings all over the world. I’ve been to a few and from my brief experience, they’re definitely just as awkward as they sound. But sitting in that room and listening to all these people willing to speak about their own family mess out loud, offering each other nothing more and nothing less than a holy “me too” — it was powerful.
Carolyn Anna, an ACA herself, believes fully and deeply that the negative consequences that result from having an addict for a parent are very real, and the possible implications on a life are profound. She also believes, with everything in her, that the healing is just as real, and is offered to anyone and everyone willing to look their past or present in the eye, and see it for what it is.
“The process of ‘waking up’ is not fun,” she said. “It’s painful and full of loss and a desire to blame everyone else. Which is why it’s important to live lives based on truth. People pleasers are lost lovers. Oscillators are lost lovers. Controlling people are lost lovers. Codependence doesn’t allow us to love well — just to be needy or to meet other people’s needs. That’s not love.”
I believe Kassey, Brittany and I are all still very much in the process of waking up. In the conversations leading up to this article, both women shared things they hadn’t considered or said out loud before. In an attempt to not be defined by our mothers and their struggles, I think all three of us have done some dissociating from our past, rather than look at it head on, name it, and know we have grown not just in spite of it but because of it.
Kassey still lacks the confidence someone who grew up with a mother who championed them might have. She prefers her workout class to happy hours and routine to surprise. She will get stuck in job ruts because of some toxic combo of not wanting to let down the people who hired her and also being afraid of not finding something better — or finding it, but not being good enough for it. But she also is a woman of deeply rooted faith, of loyalty to her friends and family and what she believes to be right, who knows the difference one relatively stable person can make in the life of a child and has been that difference in the life of a young woman she’s mentored for the last four years.
In our culture, Brit’s ACA symptoms may on the surface, look more like skills. She’s a go-getter, overachiever, manifest your own reality kind of person. But, like me, she is also prone to addiction, to extremes (i.e. 8 day fasts or 12 hour workdays), to perfectionism.
We all share something that I’ve had a hard time naming. The closest thing to a description I‘ve heard for this is my husband’s: he says I can be “hard to get to know.” Like that thing I’ve seen when two women meet for the first time and can look each other in the eyes and just seem to connect in this deep way where they just really get each other — I don’t think any of us have that thing. I don’t think we feel safe enough yet.
I know that on this journey I’m on to becoming who I want to be, I have a guide that neither of my friends have: my mom. Maybe it’s only the contrast with who she is now — loving, present, selfless — that has brought into such clear focus the profound difference from the person we grew up with, the proof that people can change, and keep changing. This is something I never could have seen nor learned from had I not taken the time to look back and name what was.
But I also know that what I’ve experienced over the last eight years is something rare, a unicorn in the ACA world — a relationship with a parent who is not an alcoholic, but a recovered and recovering alcoholic. My heart breaks and also swells when I realize my friends will never have that. But the gravity of their experience did give them something that the majority of ACAs also won’t have — a life event that they cannot ignore. Something that at very least, has caused a major shift in both of their lives and in some dark way, relief.
To all the grown and growing children of alcoholics in the thick of it: This story is dedicated to you. I know you’re all around us, caring for the person who was supposed to be caring for you, being abused, let down, ridiculed, or perhaps worse, ignored. Some of you will see your parents overcome alcoholism, others of you will watch them die, but most of you will see your parents struggle into old age. There are many, many, people who intimately understand what you’re going through. You’re not alone.