What It's Like To Be The Adult Child Of An Alcoholic

My Mom’s Alcoholism Has Ruined Our Relationship

adult child
photo credit: diego_cervo | Getty

Every year, for the past few years, I’ve sent my mother a text message on her birthday. I know that’s really weird. Who has a mom, who is still alive, and they don’t at the very least pick up the phone to call? Now that we have so many technological options, a video chat would probably make even more sense. But my mom and I don’t have that type of relationship.

I rarely call her because she’s an alcoholic. There’ve been many instances when I’ve called her with good news, an important update, or just to check on her, and I could barely understand what she was saying because she was slurring her words so much. I decided that our telephone time would be very limited moving forward so I wouldn’t have to deal with that.

This type of behavior is not new to me. My mom has been an alcoholic for over three decades. As a child, I was used to being disappointed by my mother. I didn’t know exactly why she rarely came through when she promised me something. There were times when I was left waiting for her, literally looking out the window for her to appear, and she never showed up. I was too young to understand that she had a disease, and that her addiction made her act in ways that maybe she might not have if she wasn’t under the influence. All I knew is that I loved my mother more than anything. I wanted to be with her. And she didn’t seem to want me at all.

She and my dad were divorced, and I ended up going to live with my father because she couldn’t take care of me. I moved out of the country with my dad, and not long after I left, I received a letter from my mom admitting to her addiction to alcohol and apologizing for how that affected me and our relationship.

Although our relationship wasn’t perfect after that, when I moved back to the States, at least she was sober. I figured the older I got, and as I had children of my own, it would give her an opportunity to experience the tremendous love that so many moms get from their kids. My mom was sober for about ten years until she fell off the wagon again, right around the time I was pregnant with my first child.

She hasn’t been the same since.

At this point, I don’t have any expectations for what my mom is going to do, or how she’s going to behave at all. As the adult child of an alcoholic, I understand that I can’t depend on her at all. Not for myself, and certainly not for my children. All of the hurt and pain that I’ve experienced, I would never want to inflict that on my children. I’ve done a pretty good job of keeping them safe from being hurt by her the way that I was, but there have been a few incidents that left me angry at myself for giving my mom the benefit of the doubt.

Because my mom started drinking again right around the time I got pregnant with my first child, I never had that maternal support that makes things so much easier during pregnancy. She wasn’t all the way gone at that point, but her inconsistency ended up doing more harm than good. Once, I was in the hospital with pregnancy complications. She said she was going to bring me something to eat. By the time she got there, she was so drunk and acting out to the point that I had to ask her to leave.

I saw my mom the day my daughter was born. She promised to come back and spend my first Mother’s Day with me since I would be in the hospital, but she never came back. I didn’t see her again for a month. A few months later, after assuring me she was sober, I asked her to sit with my daughter while I went to an emergency dentist appointment. When I arrived back home, she had been drinking and playfully calling my daughter vulgar names. Even after that, I still didn’t give up on my mom.

It was about a year later that I decided to move across the country, and my mom was in rehab. I went to visit her and take my daughter to say goodbye, and was ambushed by her counselor who questioned me about lie after lie that my mom had told about me. I was furious! After all that we had been through, that she had put me through as a kid and a young adult, she was putting the blame on me? There was no way I was going to allow my child to experience that.

But being an adult is about giving second chances. And we can all use a little bit of grace. So, I tried again. I told my mom we should try to put the past behind us and start fresh. She came out to California for my wedding and cried when I included her in the events. She’d talk to my daughter on the telephone, listening to her toddler antics for way longer than she had to. I thought my mom was back. That my children would get to have the relationship with her that I never had.

That damn alcohol, though.

We never know when we can call and she’ll be coherent. I bought her tickets to come visit during spring break last year, and she never showed up. I told her then that I was done, and that I wasn’t trying anymore. And so, instead of calling on Mother’s Day or other special occasions, I’d send a text message.

This year, I sent her birthday text, and her response to me sparked some hope. I thought about how I was holding my children back from their grandmother and how I was allowing my past to dictate their relationship. Instead of having my daughter send a text, I figured I would let my children call. As soon as my mom answered the phone, I knew it was a bad idea. My daughter’s face was filled with confusion as she tried to decipher what my mom was saying. I took the phone, said goodbye, and hung up.

Being the adult child of an alcoholic sucks. I’m used to the heartache. It’s what I’ve known for most of my life. I was over the pain of not being able to rely on her like other friends relied on their mothers.

Knowing that my kids have a living grandmother who isn’t able to be there for them breaks my heart. For days after that telephone call, I felt like I was in mourning. The sadness just wouldn’t go away. After all of the work I did to heal from the wounds of being the child of an alcoholic, it feels like they’re all opening back up again as I think about what my children are missing out on.

One of my friends suggested Al-Anon, a support program for folks who have been affected by someone’s drinking. I went and listened, and felt a little better that I wasn’t alone in feeling like I needed to give another chance, but I also wanted to wash my hands of my mom. It was helpful to know that other people deal with the same guilt I do. And the same sadness.

Next, I plan to talk to a therapist. I’ve started journaling my feelings. I posted about it on Facebook. Just getting my feelings out about my mother have been helping me to heal again.

I don’t really know what the future holds for my mother and her relationship with my children and me. All I know is that I need to be strong and able to be here for my kids in the way that my mom hasn’t been able to be there for me.