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How I Learned to Stop Hating My Mother


WebMD Feature from "Marie Claire" Magazine

By Gretchen Voss
Marie Claire magazine logo
"What about me?" I spat at my mother as she sat frail and broken in a wheelchair, her legs too wasted to carry her emaciated body.

It was Christmas of 1999, and my father, two brothers, and I were at a family-counseling session during my mother's second — though not her last — stint in rehab in Florida. My father had found her a few weeks earlier, lying half-dead on the couch, her once-pristine condo looking like a homeless person's final filthy squat, splattered with puke and diarrhea. I guess our tough-love tactic — booting her out of the house in New Jersey to go "deal with herself" near her sister in Florida, plus my father's recent visit on their anniversary to announce that he didn't love her anymore and wanted a separation — was too much for a woman who had always defined tough. When my father scooped her off the couch and rushed her to the hospital that day, the doctor glared at him and asked my mother, "Who did this to you?"

What a stupid question, I would have said to the doctor, had I been there. She did this to herself.

So there we sat, on uncomfortable seats under the blinding sun on that suffocatingly humid day, as the counselor prattled on about what my mother needed from us to get her healthy. My mother explained that she was feeling physically better and mentally optimistic — hell, she was even making jokes. And I just unloaded. I told her that I had always hated her, that she was a lousy drunk, that she deserved everything she was getting. I wanted her to feel my pain. I wanted her to cry. I had never seen her cry, and she didn't that day, either.

Was I being selfish? Maybe. But that's how we are with our mothers, judging them by how well, or how poorly, they looked out for us and how they prepared us for life. It's a role that we see strictly from our point of view, stripped of all backstory, all emotional narrative — except for how it pertains to us.

So the question of what made my mother such a catastrophically bad one never occurred to me until the other night, when I was dining with some girlfriends and talking about the uniquely feminine compromises and frustrations we were tussling with while working and raising kids. And it got me wondering what my mother's were and how they drove her to lose herself nightly in a bottle of Stoli.

After three failed rehabs, a couple of DUIs, and at least one serious flirtation with death, my mother quietly quit drinking for good about five years ago. Since then, we slipped into a peaceful détente and, terrified of testing it, never, ever talked about our 30-year war. But suddenly, I realized I needed to. Now that her mind was clear, now that I was in a place where understanding could take the place of judgment, I wanted to hear from her what the hell had happened. After all, we are mirror images of each other — blonde hair and blue eyes, high cheekbones and small builds — and I'm at that same age and stage of life that she was when everything fell apart for her.

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