My Mother’s Lover: Growing Up in the Shadow of Addiction

 

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I’ve heard my mom was beautiful. Intelligent too.

I don’t really remember.

She started drinking when I was in preschool. Over time it makes your hair coarse, your skin paper thin and when you are a mean drunk there is nothing beautiful about you. When you fill your body with alcohol, pills, cough syrup and cooking wine it also seems to slow down those shimmering, firing neurons that never seemed to spark around me. Maybe they did when I was a baby. I can only imagine that she must have loved me before she started a decades-long affair with her demons.

At some point she chose them.

I always wondered what day that was and if I was at school or cowering quietly away from her in the room I shared with my sister. I tried to stay as small and as quiet as possible. Until she came after us. Then I was bigger than a tiger, louder than a lion, puffed up and screaming so she couldn’t see my little sister behind me. If I wasn’t bigger than the house, a raging monster to contend with, then she took it out on others. My sister would crumble into herself as if her heart alone couldn’t withstand the hate and she had to cushion it with her body to deal with the blows. My dad would only listen to so much before he would leave for hours at a time, so it was best that I dig in and grow limbs with claws and breathe fire because I could take it. I could handle the mean words. I knew that I wasn’t the things she said I was and I knew that she was the bad one. I also knew that when she set her sights on me dad would eventually load my sister and I in the car to get us away from her for a while.

There were a lot of long country drives and silent meals at Dairy Queen with red rimmed eyes and unanswered questions about why we let her do this to us.

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My parents got married when they were 19. My dad always said it was her legs he noticed first. They were muscular, strong. I get that a lot too. My hands are the only other reminder that we share DNA. For a very long time I wouldn’t look at my own hands. They looked like hands that hit me. Hands that grabbed me, pinched me, hurt me. I thought that if I got them from her I could have other things too. I didn’t want the other things and promised myself that I would do everything I could to make sure my appendages were all we had in common.

So, I left as soon as I could and I forgot her.

Until I received calls that she’d had another DUI, another accident, been arrested and forced into rehab, as if I would have the answers that would unlock the problem that was her lover. I would find myself feeling for the families that had to post crosses and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers signs on the side of the highway and wonder when it was that I’d have to face one.

My mother was the drunk driver.

Her BAC’s never came in below .18, but thankfully she was always the only person hurt. The highest, .32, was pulled from her veins after she fell down a set of stairs while watching my niece and nephew while my sister was at dinner with her husband. Mom was in the first ever two year stretch of sobriety and had passed my sister’s hurdles only to dig through her cabinets, likely drinking cooking wine and cough syrup while “connecting” with her grandchildren. That is when we, as sisters and mothers, made a decision on behalf of our children, born and unborn.

No more mom.

Calls still came and I shook my head when my sister finally summed up our unspoken family consensus, “Is she dead? Call me when she’s dead. Then I’ll know what to do with her.”

I never told my sister about recurring dreams I’d had where I’d be called home. I would face the family of the person she killed, I would identify her body and then handle the clean up. I would tell my dad and sister after it was taken care of. The last gift I could offer them when it came to the woman we survived together.

Several years ago another call came. A judge had sentenced her to a rehab facility and as she’d been shipped to another coast and hadn’t paid her rent her landlord had to discard of all of her belongings. This included our baby books and boxes full of our childhood that she guarded with her life. It also included a little wooden stool my dad had made for me with a puzzle on top, my initials carved into it. When I was a toddler I would sit on it and eat waffles. I had asked for the stool so many times, been turned down, and now it was gone.

I grieved a nonsensical little wooden stool and for the first time in a very long time I was angry with her for canceling out my childhood. First with her refusal to choose me, to force me into the role of parent for her and for myself, and then for losing every momento that proved that I once looked much smaller, much more innocent.

So, I forgot her again.

When I found out I was having a little girl fear set in. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to be a good mother. I found myself sad at times that I didn’t have a mother figure in my life to experience my pregnancy with me or give me advice. I knew that when my daughter had babies I would fold my wrinkled knees onto the floor and help her set up her nursery, answering any questions, quieting any fears.

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The night Olivia was born I held her in my arms and I looked into her searching eyes and promised her, “I will always choose you.”

I didn’t realize that in choosing my daughter I would be forced to face anger I had held within me so tightly. So, I stopped forgetting my mom and finally allowed myself to remember. I recognized that no able-bodied woman would ever look upon a child and choose to hurt them if they are strong enough. Looking into my daughter’s face I knew without a doubt that my mother loved me. I’m sure she still does in her own way. But, I cannot fight against addiction and she wasn’t strong enough to do it either. It was a blackness, a murkiness that settled into her bones, into her skin, into those places in her brain and in her heart and snuffed out the pieces of her that a child longs for.

She never had a choice. She never made a choice. It was made for her a million times over in a million different ways throughout her life.

So, I forgave. Over and over and over again. With that forgiveness comes very strong boundaries and an understanding that finally feels calming. I’m certain it is because I have my daughter. I have the mother/daughter relationship I so desperately wanted and had I not experienced darkness I don’t know that the light would be as bright.

I don’t even notice my hands look like hers anymore. I’ve repurposed them to care, nurture and mother in the way my daughter asks when she crawls into my lap for a hug or nighttime cuddles.

These hands have never hit my child. They’ve only known love.

Olivia has recently become curious about my childhood and my mother. She asks her name and asks me what I looked like, who I was when I was five. I pull together the handful of photos that my father’s side of the family squirrels away for me from their own photo albums and piece together a story that sits well with Olivia’s understanding today. She has asked why we don’t see my mother and I’ve shared that my mom has some grown up problems and she’s not like her father’s mother. She very intuitively asked one day, “Mom, was your mom mean to you?”

“Yes, baby. My mom isn’t a very nice person.”

“Will I ever meet her?”

I paused, thinking of all of the things I want to protect my child from, all of the bad that she doesn’t need to see or experience, “Maybe one day. I’m not sure yet.”

Olivia nodded, seeming to understand something she shouldn’t and very resolutely ended the conversation, “Let’s talk about it when I’m 7. That seems like a good age to meet a grandmother.”

Indeed.

Its in these conversations with my trusting, kind-hearted daughter that I recognize my strength and conscientiousness as a woman and a mother is because of the fight, the boundaries, the determination, the heart that refused to be shadowed and the grit that has become encased in my cells.

I’ve become the mother I always wanted and the woman I hoped to have in my life.

I guess you could say, in a strange and unexpected way – I got it from my mama.

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