My mother was an alcoholic. I knew this from the time I was about eight years old, without anyone ever telling me. In fact, we avoided talking about it. And one thing my increasingly drunk mother did really early on was stop showing up. At first, I thought she had just forgotten me. Which, on the one hand, she had. But on the other, she was drunk, which I know now means that the forgetting was a symptom, not the reason: She forgot because she was drunk, not because she disliked me.
This dissonance — that my sober mother loved me very much, that she braided my hair and sang to me, bought me little matching jumpers and sock sets, and made sure I was inoculated and had a lunch packed with little love notes in pen on the napkin tucked inside, but then forgot to even bother picking me up occasionally, with barely a nod in my direction in apology after the fact — this dissonance that I began to experience, where suddenly I wasn’t first on her list but now seemed last, was quite confusing. I was too confused to take it personally. I felt nervous, and it was the nervousness that I would also keep for years to come.
Mostly, my mother drank when I was in bed and my father was working late or wasn’t home. So I didn’t actually experience my drunk mother right off the bat too much. I would experience the very beginning of it, at the end of the school day, when she was just getting rolling, or I would experience the tail end of it, when she seemed groggy or out of sorts the next morning. Those times I woke up and the usual morning routine was absent; no one was making breakfast. Sometimes, I learned, there were no lunches packed for school.
In the night, I would get up to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water, and though it seemed very late, instead of the house being quiet, there were the unmistakable sounds of life: creaking floorboards, a closing cupboard. My mother would be down the hall, in the kitchen, on the phone. Hearing one side of a conversation is so odd to begin with; it’s like eavesdropping, but the picture painted seems much more mysterious than if you could hear the other person. It had to be after 10:00, 11:00 at night. Who was she talking to?
“You’re an alcoholic,” I said to her, not yet nine years old, a little kid in pigtails. I didn’t judge. I crawled beside her and hugged her.
As an adult, I would have one strategy for dealing with my mother: No matter what, under no circumstances would I answer the phone after 5 p.m. Any breaking of this rule always resulted in a horrible conversation that I regretted and she forgot. My husband’s father always said, “Nothing good happens after 1 a.m.” Well, with my mother that was true, except it was 5 p.m. You could hear in her voice the moment she started drinking, and in fact, in later years, I sometimes took a call at a safe time — say 4:30 p.m., right when she was leaving work, only to have the call drift into an unsafe, post–5:00 p.m. drinking time. I’d hear the beer can crack open, and within a few minutes her voice thickened and slowed. Within a half-hour she was argumentative or, worse, sad.
A full-on encounter with my drunk mother late at night was something I instinctively avoided. As a child, I was not yet a worthy adversary or sounding board for her. In fact, from about the age of eight to 13, when my mother drank, I became invisible. I had to graduate to teenagerdom in order to be interesting to her. In some ways, when I think back on it, though my teenage years were more explosive and harder, the childhood ones were so much lonelier, quieter, and sadder. So much more desolate.
I knew that my mother was an alcoholic before I knew the word for it, and I guarded this knowledge as if it were my own secret, not hers. I was, as a sober person, even at the age of eight, better at hiding her alcoholism than she was, anyway. And she was pretty good for a while. This threw off the mother-child dynamic considerably, and I grew up to be a textbook adult child of an alcoholic. But we learned what alcoholism was at school, probably in third grade. This fact, the naming of the problem, worried me because it sounded very serious, but it also simplified my focus. And it was like the last piece in a jigsaw puzzle for me: This made sense. I felt relief as I worked this out, the fact that her personality changed sometimes, that she became less reliable. All of it made sense and helped me to organize my feelings around alcoholism as a disease rather than simply something to hide and be embarrassed about.
Alcoholism teaches you to compartmentalize your relationships, and even though I was very young, I did this quickly. I didn’t talk to my brothers about it very much. I didn’t ask my father many questions. There were no group discussions. Ironically, the only person I could be fully honest with in this situation was my mother.
I think about those early confrontations with my mother now and I cringe, the idea of a small child coming to her and saying, “Here, I found the answer. I know what is wrong with you, and there is a solution.” I felt, once I’d latched onto the concept of alcoholism, a great relief: Here was a plan, with a fix. Just like me later as an adult, I spent a long time paralyzed by inertia and fear and anxiety, and then I latched onto a solution that spurred me to action. The path seemed clear. I only needed to confront my mother carefully and present her with my plan.
What I didn’t know yet was how poorly that would go and how poorly it would always go. For all the lying by omission I learned to do for the outside world, my mother and her alcoholism honed techniques for evasion and lying that I simply would never be able to breach. I was at the beginning, not the end, of trying to mobilize and change her. And though I would feel nothing but defeat over and over, I still know today that it was better than to live with not trying.
I told her that there was even a cure for this! There was help for it; it was simple. “You’re an alcoholic,” I said to her, not yet nine years old, a little kid in pigtails. I didn’t judge. I crawled beside her and hugged her. She assured me that she was fine, she reassured me that I was safe, that she loved me. And she ignored me.
My mother hid her drinking from my father but not from me. She either considered me too stupid or knew that I would never tell on her.
Adult Children of Alcoholics, much like Al-Anon, describes the way that being parented by or loved by an alcoholic changes you. Most commonly, and what I found to be most true for myself, was the fact that I lost my own identity. I was always nervous; I dreaded and handled personal criticism very poorly; and more than anything else, I found it easier to focus on other people than to focus on myself. This part, what I think of as “the killer,” is something I struggle with today: I can always find someone else to focus on rather than take care of myself or my own business. I was, in some ways, erased.
But before I became an adult child of an alcoholic, I was first and foremost the child of one. The only daughter of an alcoholic mother of four. I knew with most of my being what was wrong with her from about the third grade and was certain of it by the fifth. By then, I would have walked through a fire for her, and there was occasionally the sense that such a scenario might actually be necessary. This — the child willing to walk through the fire for the parent — is a classic hallmark of kids with alcoholic parents. Flipped roles, confused emotional responses: Nearly all my feelings for my mother then and even many of them now can be explained by an entry-level rehab counselor as “part of this shit.”
I think I probably knew that my mother drank too much, too often, even years before my father did, but I wasn’t going to let him know it. I have always believed this because my mother eventually stopped drinking around my father at all; she hid her drinking from him but not from me. She either considered me too stupid or knew that I would never tell on her. This is one of the most upsetting and manipulative parts of a relationship with an alcoholic parent: They use you and turn you, inadvertently, into their protector, a liar. I became secretive and guarded, not just around friends but even around my own immediate family. I could have resisted; I could have raised hell and told my father every time that she drank, but I just wanted peace and hoped that each time was the last.
All I wanted was for it to stop, for her to simply cease being what she was. I didn’t have a concept of alcoholism as a disease, and with a child’s sad and frightening simplicity, I figured that she simply could stop if she wanted to. She probably could stop for me. Why would someone do something that they knew was bad for them, that made them different than their ideal self? Only a child would oversimplify this; only a child could see reality so clearly, as this is, honestly, the problem every alcoholic must face eventually: The only solution is the simplest, hardest thing in the world. Stop.
I knew this so well and so fast and so completely. And yet I was so powerless. Little did I know how long I would remain powerless and how it would tear me apart, ruining relationships and holidays and life events, overshadowing, degrading. It added nothing, only taking away.
Years later, I look back at my attempts to reach out to my mother and my attempts to make friends, and I see that they were all in the shadows of my growing sense of my mother’s disease. Her disease crippled my ability, even into adulthood, to be honest and open enough with people to make true connections.
But having my daughter, Zelda, changed all of that.
I know that I have Zelda to thank for my midlife burst of social activity. She, through sheer force of her existence but also through her sunny and able way, showed me that sometimes it’s best to get to know people. Sometimes, it’s best to reach out and share things. Sometimes, it’s best to simply burst into tears when you’re having a bad day. It’s okay to cry in public. It’s okay to tell someone you’re in pain. I’d spent much of my childhood trying to be an adult. Now I get to spend a small piece of my adulthood occasionally being exactly like a baby, my emotions sometimes overwhelming me, calling out to strangers and old friends. Helping random people on the street who’d dropped everything out of their purse or who simply looked lost. Zelda changed the way that I interacted with everyone.
I learned, well into adulthood, that changing my mother was never an option, no matter how I struggled. But that didn’t mean that change wasn’t possible. It was simply that the changes would be in me.