What It's Really Like To Care For A Mentally Ill, Alcoholic Parent

by Kimberly Zapata
Originally Published: 

The last time I spoke with my mother was on June 19, 2020. I don’t know why I called her. I was on vacation. My husband, children and I had taken a trip upstate. We were enjoying hiking paths and trails and boat rides on the lake. I was relaxed. It was 8:30 a.m. and I was sipping on iced coffee while strolling down Main Street. The roads were empty. The air was cool, and everything was still. The world seemed silent. And — if I’m being honest — it was out of character, at least for me.

Due to my mother’s severely compromised mental state, this call could and usually would wait. Boundaries, my therapist called it. I needed to establish boundaries. But for some reason I dialed her cell that morning.

For twenty minutes, we chatted about politics, Netflix, and the ongoing pandemic.

It didn’t take me long to realize things were off. Her speech was rapid — and slurred. One word trailed into the next. She didn’t take a beat or a breath. Her stories were scattered and her thoughts were erratic. She was paranoid that her neighbor was out to get her. That President Trump would be the death of her. And she repeated herself, over and over again. But I listened, patiently and with care. I tried to be measured and reasonable, though admittedly I wavered. I became short tempered and snippy minutes into our call. And then I told her I had to go.

I said “I love you. Be well.”

But she wasn’t well; she was drunk, and this was the drunk she would never recover from. She lost consciousness a few hours later. I found her, face down in her own vomit, on Wednesday, June 23.

To say I knew this day was coming seems sad and ominous, but it’s the truth. My mother was sick — very sick — and had been for a long time. In the ’90s, she struggled with her mental health. She battled anxiety and depression without a doctor or therapist. Without meds. By 2010, she began self-medicating. She chain smoked cigarettes with her coffee. With her wine. With her beer. And she regularly drank to the point of passing out. Of blacking out.

When she lost her job in 2013, her limited budget went not toward food and shelter, but to booze.

But that’s not all: Over the years, her depression increased. She was sad and despondent. She felt helpless and hopeless, and she was beyond irritable. Her words were full of anger and vitriol. There was hate in her heart, and it bled into her thoughts and voice.

She slept excessively, from 5:00pm to 10:00am, or not at all. There was no balance. No in-between. No healthy amount. She stopped bathing and showering; the skin beneath her arms flaked off. There was a rash beneath her breasts. But I tried to help her, financially and emotionally.

I desperately wanted to fix her. To hold her together.

When you care for a mentally ill or alcoholic paren, you do everything you can to save them: from their illness, their demons, and themselves. You offer to take them to the doctor, even if they won’t let you. Even if you cannot. You stage interventions, frequently and regularly. You remind them that they do not have to live like this. There is help. They do not have to go through this alone. You cry, often. The weight of addiction is heavy. I mourned the loss of my mother while she was still alive. And you hang onto hope because you need to. Because you have to. Because hope is all you have. But there’s more to it than that.

Caring for a mentally ill, alcoholic parent means sending texts and holding your breath. I would wait for a response to appear with trepidation and fear because the absence of said response was dangerous. It meant my mother was passed out — or dead.

Caring for a mentally ill, alcoholic parent means living in shame. I hid the severity of my mother’s struggles from most because I didn’t want others to judge her. I didn’t want others to think poorly of her.

Caring for a mentally ill, alcoholic parent is confusing. I didn’t know who my mother was and struggled to recall the woman she had been. I wanted to remember the girl my aunts and uncles told me about — the one who sang loudly, gave her heart freely, and took no shit — but I couldn’t. I only knew a sick woman. An unstable woman. A sad woman. A woman who, despite being and breathing, was already lost.

Caring for a mentally ill parent is exhausting. It takes a lot of mental and emotional fortitude to keep going in spite of it all. To keep going, with your parent or without.

There is also guilt associated with it. My mother was sick. Very sick, and I wouldn’t abandon an ill friend, so why did I step away from her? Why did I establish walls and boundaries? Because I needed to. I had to. Because, like most children of alcoholics, I realized I couldn’t help her unless she was willing to help herself.

Did it suck? Absolutely. It still fucking hurts. She deserved better, and so did I. I miss the relationship that could have been. The woman my mother should have been. But I go to therapy to process the pain. I regularly speak to my children about their grandmom — and my mom — and I know, in my heart of hearts, her death was not anyone’s fault.

She was sad. She was hurting. She was sick. And that? That’s the hardest part about caring for a mentally ill, alcoholic parent. Because knowing doesn’t make the shit better. Knowing doesn’t make the discomfort stop, and knowing doesn’t save her. Knowing won’t bring her back. But knowing can bring comfort. In acceptance, there is peace.

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