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How I Learned to Stop Hating My Mother

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My mom returns to this story repeatedly as if it explains everything. If her own mother could not meet her needs, spoken or not, what was the point in acknowledging them, even to herself? Burying who she was and what she wanted, losing herself to whatever role she was asked to play — such as when my father demanded that she quit working to tend house — lit the fuse on her future self-destruction. "Life just didn't meet my expectations," she says with a laugh.

Still, she hadn't always been a drunk. Back when we lived in New Hope, PA, a funky, artsy town where she had real friends and access to like-minded, kooky creative types, she was happy. But then we moved to a competitive suburb in New Jersey. There, she was expected to do the coffee-klatch thing with the local June Cleaver wannabes, as she calls them, to dull her sharp intellect in order to play the dutiful role of stay-at-home wife to a workaholic husband and mother to a bunch of ungrateful kids. "There was nothing for me," she explains. "I thought, What am I doing here, taking up space on this earth? So I said, OK, I can have a drink, and I can deal with this. Dinners were on the table, the house was kept up, and I met my obligations. Drinking was my little hobby. I don't know how else to put it — drinking was mine."

And so what I was seeing on my nightly recon mission, as she sat gesticulating furiously if silently in her chair, was all that corked-up pressure and pain exploding. At first, she restricted her drinking to the nightly blackout. She even went back to school for a master's degree in social work, thinking that a job would help pull her out of her black hole. But soon her mother died, my brother was in a serious motorcycle accident, and my father was diagnosed with cancer, then worked around the clock to save his company from bankruptcy. She was expected to deal with all of it, and her plans to do something for herself vanished. That's when she started chasing vodka during the day and when our whole family turned our backs on her.

She spent the next six years in and out of rehab. "When I was in rehab, I'd run the place. I was a perfect student," she says. Every time she left, she hoped it would be different. But she didn't have a plan. There wasn't anything for her at home but loneliness and emptiness. So she opened the bottle again. And again.

I have no memories of my mother before she was an alcoholic, so I ask her what our relationship was like when I was a kid. This is the story she tells: Every evening, before bed — even though she wasn't comfortable doing what she calls the coochy-coo thing — she would ask me for a good-night kiss. And every evening, I would stand at a safe distance, turn my head, and offer her a bit of cheek. It was like I was daring her to jump over a huge wall and wrap me up in a great big bear hug. She never did it, and I never asked her to; she thought I didn't love her, and I thought she didn't love me. It was, she says, unmet needs and expectations, never given a voice, just like with her and her mother and the damned ice cream.

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