I have a secret to share with you.
My mother was an alcoholic with a proclivity for methamphetamines.
But that isn’t the point of this story, or what I’d like to tell you. After all, I speak about her addictions freely and truthfully—here on my blog, in my memoir in progress, with friends and family members and mothers of my daughter’s friends. I’ve spoken about her alcoholism to counselors, priests, store clerks, and strangers next to me on the stationary bike.
What I rarely share with others is this: I’m grateful she was an alcoholic. I’m indebted to her for this.
Many people recoil when I admit this. Some, I imagine, must have to refrain from slapping me across the face, while others might wrestle with ever speaking to me again. Those who were raised by an alcoholic are particularly sensitive to the notion. Your mother must not have been a real drunk, they say. You have no idea what it was like in my house.
Oh, she was. And I do.
I know the anger and confusion and terror that comes with having an alcoholic parent. I know the special brand of angst that only children or spouses of an addict are privy to: The unremitting worry that arrives every morning and persists throughout the day in wondering not if your mother will be intoxicated but at what time, and to what degree, and will she be happy or sloppy or cruel or maudlin or violent or dangerously close to an overdose? I’m well-acquainted with the self-doubt life with an alcoholic spawns; the ceaseless speculation of what have I done wrong? I’m painfully familiar with the grief that comes with watching someone you love descend, and the bright bloom of hope that arrives when they get clean, just as I know all about the resignation that surfaces when they prove to be powerless in the face of their addiction. I know the helplessness, resentment, and fury as intimately as I know the sounds: The stomps and slurs and swears and sobs and dry heaves. Four decades later, and I can recall the smell of propane of a burner lit and forgotten simply by closing my eyes.
I lived alone with my mother between the ages of twelve and fifteen. She’d been abandoned by my father shortly after I was born, and again when her Greek boyfriend left our Northern Italian city for three years of mandatory military service. She seemed capable of functioning only in the presence of a man; in their absence, she fell into depressive states that were gradual and then sudden, giving into her addictions at an alarming rate along the way until she was left with nothing. She lost her job, her friends, her health. Her posture became rattled; her teeth decayed and fell out. She had no means to sustain us, and yet she somehow managed to have enough money and gumption to fund her compulsions.
I was incomprehensible to myself during those years. I catapulted between reckless behavior of my own and a sense of duty towards my mother that required me to be strong and stable—an adult before my time. We often had neither food nor heat, and I was left for days on end by myself.
When I surrendered to the knowledge that I would either die in her presence or follow in her footsteps—a smaller, dark-haired replica of my red-headed, poker-playing, booze-swilling mother—I made the difficult decision to move to Milan and in with the father who had deserted me. I wasn’t livid with my mother when I landed on his doorstep. I was determined to banish her from my life entirely.
With time comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness comes clarity. I did not arrive at either without effort: Like most children with an alcoholic parent, I tripped often during my teenage years and walked into adulthood on unsteady feet. I had a loose grasp on what normal might be, and operated under the assumption that a catastrophe was always bound to happen. I was mistrustful—of men and love and promises and fortune and happiness. I swerved between seeking pleasure at any cost and depriving myself of it completely. What was the point? I often asked myself. It was all so damn fleeting. Sooner or later, the metaphorical bottle would run dry, and I would be left with a miserable hangover and confetti to pick up off the floor.
It’s my mother’s fault, dammit, I once said to a well-meaning friend who expressed her concern over my habit of abandoning relationships the moment they started to feel more than temporary.
So what can you do about it? Another asked me.
It was the first time someone had asked how I might approach my mother’s addictions pragmatically.
And it was a brilliant question.
Studies have shown that some adult children of alcoholics become highly competitive and ambitious. This is derived, of course, from the enduring need for approval from the parent who, due to their illness, could not offer it. I wasn’t aware of these studies when I began to see the beauty of being able to carve out my own destiny. My past didn’t have to define me; it was, ultimately, up to me to create the life I wanted.
I unknowingly became an overachiever. I learned English. I became a top sales executive for two of the most respected companies in the world. I obtained a degree in Women’s Studies before going back for my Masters. I put my all—and then some—into everything I did. And perhaps I did this for my mother’s approval—as a way to say, look at my success; will you put down the bottle now?—but in the end, was that so terrible? If her wish to die—for substance abuse is a form of slow suicide—could inspire in me the desire to live, fully and exuberantly, and without apology, hadn’t she in somehow succeeded as a mother?
The clarity I gained proved that while my past didn’t define me, it certainly colored my treatment of others. I gravitate towards people who suffer, and possess a degree of empathy that I steadfastly believe can only be found when one comes from a place that’s marked by despair. Within this I’ve gleaned that it is often only through bleak circumstances that we can discover true resilience, and the capability—and wish—to bring about change on a personal and universal level. We aim for higher goals. We learn to love without reservation. We’re grateful for what others take for granted, because it is all so fleeting. We live hard and well and utterly, because we’ve survived something. We’ve earned this beautiful chance to be alive.
I didn’t banish my mother from my life. I grew to understand that her errors and character flaws were rooted in an insidious illness that had nothing to do with me. Now, I speak the language of heartache and loss and frustration that children of addicts are fluent in, and use it to assist others in my coaching practice and beyond. I do not judge, and I neither abstain from alcohol nor overindulge, reveling when a celebration calls for it but on the whole preferring the lucidity that sobriety offers. Had I had a different childhood—one with a mother who was present, a home that was stable, and my basic needs always met—would I have been able to make an impact in the lives of others? Would I have been able to instill the values I’ve imparted to my daughter? Would I have possessed the ability to recognize the desperation in others, and hold out my hand to lift them up and point the way towards the bright-lit home within themselves?
What could I do about it?
Plenty, it turns out.