The Distance Between Me And My Alcoholic Mother

by Panda Elder
Originally Published: 
adult children of alcoholics motherhood alcoholism
JJRD / iStock

JJRD / iStock

Do you know how often, as a mom, I want the comfort of my own mother? My life is often lonely, exhausting and frustrating. Sometimes I want nothing more than the love and reassurance of my mom, the person who has always told me I’m doing great and everything will be OK.

I am half the mom I am because she modeled such sensitive love and understanding. Her primary job was to offer her children acceptance and empathy even in their most difficult times. She navigated teen years and sibling rivalries with grace and respect. She held me when I had bad dreams and let me skip school once in a while to hang out with her. She gave me an invitation to always be honest with her by never shaming or judging me. My children could have won the grandma-lottery, but one thing stands in the way of cashing in: her drinking.

She didn’t always drink. It started when I was about 9 years old. I remember the first time I saw her dark side. My brother and I were playing with neighborhood friends all day and sitting in a recliner together come evening. When we asked her if we could have a sleepover with some of our playmates, she didn’t only say no, but flipped the chair we were sitting in onto its back. We were astounded, because our sweet mom was acting so out of character. A similar meanness ruined Easter that same year, and I remember not being able to make sense of it.

I started to understand that this was how she acted when she drank, which she always did in hiding. The only way to know was the harsh look in her eyes and her unpleasant demeanor. For the years that followed, I sought my mom’s company first thing in the morning only. For a while, she gave us apologies in the mornings for how she behaved the previous day. Eventually, she gave the apologies up, and we all accepted that Mom has a drinking problem—one that always seemed less severe because of the jokes we made about it, one that would never seem completely real because of thick denial. There was never a good time to talk about it, so it was always swept under the rug.

My mom recently visited me. It was the first time I saw her in over a year, and the first time she met my son, who had already celebrated a birthday. I looked forward to her visit, but it also made me uneasy because when she drinks she’s not the awesome person she is when she’s sober. She’s confrontational, defensive, and plain ole weird. She mutters under her breath and gives dirty looks, and I’m not even sure if she knows it.

While she was visiting, I enjoyed having her sober version around. I got to ask her opinion on everything from, “Do you think the baby needs Tylenol?” to “What kind of curtains do I need in my bedroom?” One day, she sent me to bed to take a nap, and in the dark, I climbed on a picture frame and broke it. Do you know how good it felt to be able to complain, “Mom! I broke my picture frame! (sniff, sniff)”? Without fail, she said, “It’s OK. We’ll get a new one.” I’m usually the one getting whined at and the one making everything better. It felt so damn good to be mommied myself.

She said, “I could come live here, in Florida. You could go back to work, and I could take care of the babies.” That would be a dream come true, but doesn’t she realize she has a problem that stands in the way? I left my children with her while I went shopping one morning. When I returned, I found her out front, holding the baby in her right arm, smoking a cigarette with her left one, and blowing the smoke across his face. I was aggravated, but at least he’s not regularly exposed to such offenses. I couldn’t let her do that all day, every day. Doesn’t she know that? I went into the kitchen and opened a cabinet to find a new bottle of wine open, which meant the jug (yes, jug) she started on the previous day had been polished off. Doesn’t she know I wouldn’t make her my children’s caregiver?

My disappointment in her makes me somewhat avoid her. Like many other adult children of alcoholics, I don’t go home for holidays, or any time, really. I want her to know that I don’t skip out on these times because I don’t care. In fact, I hate feeling so isolated, and I want my mom so bad. Except, I only want the sober one.

I want my mom to know how much better my life would be with her in it, to help me with my children and remind me to get rest. I love her, and I worry she will die thinking that all the distance between us is because I’m a cold-hearted bitch. I want her to know that it’s not me creating the distance, but her drinking. I don’t think she’ll ever consider that, so I fear I’ll always be misunderstood.

Although I’m inclined to blame her, I wonder what my part is in it all. Perhaps I should be paying back all the understanding and acceptance she’s always given me. Perhaps I should take her alcoholism as a lesson in loving unconditionally. I try not to let her vices overshadow the fact that she is one of the kindest and most sensitive souls, but to be honest, I’m not succeeding. I know it’s childish, but I can’t help but take her drinking and smoking personally, like if she really wanted to be a part of our lives, she would give it up.

I miss the feeling I had as a little girl toward my mother—the feeling that all was well as long as she was around. Now, as a mom myself, I want that more than ever. I want my mom, not only for myself, but for my children. They don’t fully get to experience the joy of her tendency to spoil—her famous words being, “Sure, put it in the cart.” They don’t have her compassionate words to remind everyone in frustrating times that “they’re just children.” No one comes to their rescue on the days I snap and slam cabinets. I need my mom, and my children need their grandma, but there’s an elephant in the room standing in the way.

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