“Wake me up if you see a car coming,” my mom slurred as she put the truck in park. The light above us blinked to a blinding green, and then she dozed off.
It was late, and we were sitting in our two-door Ford pickup truck at a traffic light on a lonely road in rural Texas. My mom was behind the wheel. Eleven-year-old me, frozen and terrified, dutifully watched for approaching headlights. I looked out into the darkness on the other side of the glass window. Even with my mom sitting next to me, I felt completely alone.
On that night, I was so scared of seeing headlights cut through the darkness. If they came, they would be like searchlights, singling us out for all the world to see. Everyone would know my mom was passed out from taking too many pain pills. Although I sat still, my mind raced. What if a cop found us? Surely, he would notice us just sitting through a green light. That’s suspicious, isn’t it? People don’t just sit through green lights. He would stop to see what was going on. He would notice something was wrong with her. And then what would happen to us? I wished so hard that we could just go. But then fear replaced my frustration. I realized that if we did continue on, my mom might fall asleep and veer off the road. We might actually die. Either way, I was afraid — whether we stayed or kept going.
In that moment, like so many moments with my mother, the only thing I felt more strongly than fear was embarrassment. It burned inside me as I looked over to see her head rested on the driver’s side window. Her eyes closed. Her mouth open. My friends’ moms didn’t do this. I didn’t understand why mine did.
I’ve often wondered why the opening scene I described pops into my mind periodically. After all, it is admittedly anticlimactic. The situation at the traffic light is only a mild example of some of the things I experienced because of my mother’s addiction. I can’t remember if I ever did see any headlights that night. At some point during one of our pit stops, I would wake her up and we’d continue on, somehow making it to our destination. But as I write about it, I realize it might be the first of many moments that I felt it was my responsibility to look out for my mom. I’m also sure it’s when my anxiety issues began.
After a while, my embarrassment faded into cold, hard resentment. Why did I have to worry about what was going to happen, while she was numb to everything because of those damn pills? She could just escape while I was stuck in reality. Why couldn’t she be a normal mom? These questions ate at me until eventually, in my adult life, I found myself ignoring her calls and avoiding her altogether. She was too much for me. Oftentimes, I just pretended she didn’t exist.
Her addiction had a direct effect on me and my family, and I watched the things it caused: a nasty divorce, a custody battle, her homelessness, multiple arrests, and eventually her death from an overdose in 2013. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve spent many years focusing on the bad memories. I felt immense grief from her death, but I had convinced myself that I had a right to push any memory of her far into the back of my mind. I only allowed her to resurface so I could dwell on the pain she caused.
Now, at the age of thirty, after nearly twenty years of resenting my mom, I’m finally beginning to empathize. I’m finally allowing myself to let go of my own pain and try to understand hers.
The truth is, even though the bad moments are vivid in my mind, the good moments are there, too. Though, they exist more as feelings and less as memories. A smell. An image. A song. Sometimes when I least expect it, something triggers a sense of happiness I felt when I was with her. On the occasions when my mom was sober, she was fun, clever, and loving. She was charming and beautiful. And I know there were lots of good moments, even if I can’t quite recreate them in my head.
Not unlike my mother, I deal with crippling anxiety, depression, and frequent panic attacks. Most of my life I have worked hard to ensure that I turn out nothing like her (my kids will never go through the things I had to go through). But I know how easy it is to want to surrender to fear, to feel trapped, and to want to escape.
Thankfully, mental health is not as taboo a subject as it was twenty years ago. I’ve been educated about it enough to know how to recognize and talk about my symptoms with others. I don’t think my mom had that. To many people she knew, she was just the crazy drughead. Not many people trusted her, and it was hard to believe most things she said.
I often think of what her life would have been like if her mental health had been taken care of properly. Maybe things would be different today if the right person at the right time would have offered some guidance. I’m not saying no one tried to help her. Many people did. (My dad nearly went broke from exhausting his resources and now cringes at the thought of marriage.) Even when people reached out, it often seemed like she didn’t want help. I know addiction is hard though, and that those suffering from it often find themselves too tired to fight it. I still can’t help but feel like maybe if she had reached out — in the beginning, before it got too bad — things would be different today.
I love my mom. I always have, even during my intense moments of anger and embarrassment — even when I had to keep watch for approaching travelers during the traffic light nap sessions. It’s been nearly eight years since her passing, and I still miss her every day. Her poor mental health and addiction hid her from me. And I wish that I had gotten to spend more time with the real her. I watched my mom make some pretty big mistakes, but I’m still clinging to any reason to still love her.
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