Discovering My Mother’s Alcoholism — And The Great Lessons It Taught Me

6339724671_acce7350a0_mMovies depict alcoholism as something that’s loud, sloppy, and stinky, or scary and physical. That isn’t always reality. Alcoholism may feel the same on the inside, but it can wear many different masks. Some of which look quite nice. My mother had such a mask and it camouflaged her drinking to my young and inexperienced eyes. As the years passed though, the mask lost its color and shine and I came to see what it had hidden beneath…

What I Thought Then

I grew up seeing alcoholics as mean, messy, and careless, but my mother was never anything like that. She was clean, functional, and even fun. In fact, I was more intimidated by my mother when she wasn’t drinking. When she drank she actually relaxed. The anxious, stressed out, high-strung mother I knew was completely transformed by the bottle. Instead of yelling and hyperventilating and hiding in her bedroom under her electric blanket she was laughing and belting out Ray Charles in a sweatshirt and underwear. Sure, I wished she would put some pants on or at least fall asleep under her comforter, but I was ALWAYS happy to hear my mom open up a bottle.

I didn’t see drinking as a problem growing up because it seemed completely normal. Whenever my mother would make her way to the fridge for a beer I would always hear, “I need to unwind,” and “I need to relax.”

I was only in middle school when her drinking began to unfold as she detached from the Mormon community and got into bartending and dating the long-haired “bad boys” she’d always found so alluring. We lived a reclusive lifestyle without any family or friends, I wasn’t around adults that could show me otherwise. I was too young to know anything outside of what I saw and heard, so I connected beer with relaxation and thought nothing more of it.

We lived in a small city in Montana where my mom worked as a bartender at a bar and casino. Drinking seemed like a part of life; a part of life that appeared normal — maybe even necessary. If anything, the idea of not drinking seemed radical.

The Shift

I had subconsciously accepted the notion that alcohol and relaxation were one in the same, so my mother’s behaviors appeared totally normal through my twenties. Tearing into a 12 pack? That was how you got housework done. Stowing a beer in the glovebox? That was to “unwind” on the drive home from work. And cracking open a beer after the morning pot of coffee? That was how you guaranteed yourself a great day. The way I saw it, my mother was just having a good time and washing herself clean of the stresses of everyday life. I had no idea that I was staring straight into the face of alcoholism.

When I was 20 I moved to another state. As the years passed I gained experience and insights that slowly had me seeing my mother from another perspective. Coming into my own, both as an adult and as a mother, had me looking at my ideas and behaviors and questioning their purpose and existence. Each time I would come back home I would leave with thoughts to chew on. Finally, a trip back home at age 27 sent my cracked mirror of notions falling to the ground where it then shattered completely.

This visit home was sparked by a rough breakup with my ex. He turned to alcohol to cope with his anger and insecurities, but alcohol always made them worse. Our relationship was an ugly one and it had opened my eyes to a lot of things — alcohol especially. Our tumultuous nights and my futile efforts to change things for the better had me turning to alcohol myself, but as things came to a dark and bitter end, I questioned everything and set course to make big and meaningful changes. I had experienced enough drama, criticism, and suffering as a result of pains that were not my own. Now I was determined to take charge and cut off all the ties that weighed me down.

When I arrived to my mother’s home I was greeted with enthusiasm and excitement, but something seemed off to me. Once she got up and stumbled to the kitchen it became clear; she was drunk. Yes, it was her “day off” and that always warranted a drink, but it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and she knew I was coming. Not only had she kicked back enough beers to be boozed before happy hour, but she had done it when she had her daughter visiting. I couldn’t believe it.

As this visit proceeded I saw more and more from her that showed that alcohol had a place in virtually every aspect of her life — whether it was eating out, eating in, cleaning, or driving home with a new pack of beer.

I was deeply disappointed to see her lack of personal integrity and responsibility, but it really hit hard my last night in town. I stopped to see her at work on my way home and sipped a beer while we chatted. The night was growing late so I got up to use the bathroom before heading out on the road. When I came back to the bar to say goodbye she had a shot waiting for me. I waved it off and said I couldn’t because I was driving and it was late. I expected her to get this and let it go, but instead she pushed for me to drink it and said I would be fine.

I couldn’t believe it. I expected my mother to want me to drive home safely and to avoid any risk of getting a DUI. My well-being was supposed to be priority one to her because I was her daughter, but instead she thought that drinking should be a normal part of my own life. It was then that I understood how her “functional” lifestyle was very much the life of an alcoholic. There was no punching or yelling necessary. Alcohol’s damage was clear as day.

What I Know Now

I’ll hand it to my mother — her life hasn’t been easy. And for that she receives my compassion and understanding. I get that she is struggling with a painful past that alcohol dulls, and I know change is hard. But I also know that change doesn’t happen as long as we can justify what we do and we don’t have a reason to stop and question ourselves.

The answer to my problem was to no longer accept harmful behaviors as normal or acceptable. I have children and I expect my mother to be a responsible adult and to enjoy her time with her grandchildren. Anything but, simply isn’t an option.

Discussions from the past did little to help this situation, but once I took a step back and created distance she finally began to look within and take responsibility. The lines between tolerating, enabling, and allowing can be fine and they’ll vary from person to person, but once I stopped accepting my mother with all the drama and excuses, she realized that her old story wasn’t going to work with me anymore. Our family depended upon her changing her ways because I was ready to stay away until we could have a new and healthy relationship. Lucky for me, this move was exactly what we both needed.

My mother still has things to learn, but that’s the case for each and every one of us. And she has made great changes through the years. Some changes have been slow, and while that can be frustrating, I can see now that slow progress doesn’t mean she doesn’t care. She herself is slowly coming to realize what she has been doing and why. So her mission to let go of the past and to change her relationship with alcohol is ongoing, but she’s moving forward.

I too am moving forward, and I see now that the more I love and support her, the more we’re able to make changes and take initiatives that help to rebuild our entire family. I’m empowered by forgiveness and infused with the strength of new standards for myself and for my relationships. Yes, the past was hard, but both my mother and I are learning and growing. And as we learn and grow on our own, we’re able to learn and grow together. So even though many would look on our past and say, “I’m so sorry to hear that,” it’s actually something I’m quite grateful for. I have great peace with my past, present, and future. Because I now have the power to make of it whatever I will.

Ash Stevens[About the author: Ash Stevens is a mother, writer, and a wannabe shaman. She loves health, gardening, simplicity, culture, chocolate, and sarcasm. If she isn’t writing or talking family and relationships on her blog, then she’s surely playing badminton with the kids. Find her on Twitter or Facebook and make a new friend!]

Top image: Imagens Evangélicas

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