I love watching the TV show Mom. I love the mother-daughter angst and hilarity, the messiness and the beauty, and the warm, slapdash coffee-drinking community of the AA women in the show. I love the raw honesty, and how perfectly it shows how you can both love and hate someone at the same time.
It reminds me of my year-long stint in Al-Anon about seven years ago. I was heartbroken and truly desperate at the time, which is probably the only reason I went, but I look back on that time fondly.
The room we met in was dingy, the walls the color of mayonnaise, the floor was carpeted that indiscriminate browny-gray color. There was bad coffee that you could cover up the flavor of with heavy sugar.
There were people that looked nothing like my friends or family, people I probably would not meet anywhere else in my life, and yet, we had so much in common.
When I moved to a new city, I vowed to continue to go to Al Anon, but gradually, life and work commitments got busy and crowded out the time I had planned to spend on meetings.
Now that my husband and I are about to have our first child, though, there’s been a sense of inner persistence that I need to go back.
It has to do with my mom.
My mom… where to even start? I’d describe my mom as feisty. She is never more herself than in the midst of a debate with someone. She was the person who would chat with the grocery store cashier in such a way that caused one of us to ask, “Do you know her, Mom?” And she never knew the person, but she was good at making conversation. Birthday parties, Christmases, Easters, our home would be decorated to the hilt. We had Christmas and Easter traditions. We had perfect family pictures in which everyone wore a matching outfit. She was the person who got the question a lot, “How do you do it all?” because she did it all, flawlessly. And the house was clean at all times, even with eight kids.
She was also the person who would be in the mood of the Wicked Witch of the West, and pick up the phone and suddenly transform into Mary Poppins.
And then, my dad died. I was fifteen. My oldest sibling was nearly eighteen; my youngest sibling was two. My mom was forty-five.
About three months after my mom’s death, some friends of my mom came over to keep her company. A short while after that day, they found me and one of my sisters. “We’re a little concerned about your mother’s drinking,” they said. They mentioned some behaviors they were seeing.
I still don’t know why they brought it up to us. We were kids, and knew nothing about what to do, or what was normal and what wasn’t. It was almost like they thought we could do something with the information.
We did nothing, because we didn’t know that there was anything to do. Slowly, life as we knew it changed in little ways. One thing I heard a lot during that time from my mom was how “No one understood” what it was like. She started finding reasons not to see the many friends she had once spent time with.
I went to college. Coming home for breaks for most college students can be suddenly very strange, because you see your family from outside for the first time, and all the things that you once thought were normal start to look weird. For me, I saw that my mom was increasingly choosing to spend time alone, leaving dinners to my much-younger siblings to put together on their own. This scared me.
One of my sisters mentioned to me, on one of these trips home, that her boyfriend thought our mom was an alcoholic. “Do you think she is?” she asked. “I do,” I said. I remember my mom storming into the room where we were talking. “Who said that I was an alcoholic?” she demanded.
“I did, Mom, and I think it needs to stop,” I said.
This was when she took the keys to the truck I was driving. I spent a tortured weekend wondering what to do, and why I was being punished for telling the truth.
This began a period of years wherein I was my mom’s fiercest critic. I thought that if I could fight the increasing dysfunction and show her a mirror to herself, that she would change, and everything would get back to “normal” again. I was worried about my siblings at home growing up thinking that this was normal, and I was eager to show them something different. The more I fought and tried to change my mom, the worse things got.
I never stopped to think that in my mom’s eyes, she thought I would never see her as good enough. I never thought for a second that the drinking might be about depression, or shame, or anxiety.
Throughout college, my mom started accumulating dogs. It seemed that for every sibling that left the house for school, there would be a new dog to replace the person who had gone. We suddenly were at a point where there were seven dogs in our family home, and one was ferocious.
The dogs became the reason why my mom couldn’t stay for a sister’s wedding reception. They needed her back at home.
When I left my toothbrush and contacts on the bathroom counter and the dogs ate them, I was still responsible for replacing them.
Things came to a head one day when I came to pick up my sister to take her out for her birthday. As I entered the garage, one of the dogs started barking frantically and then attacked me. I was on the floor, unable to fend off the dog, who bit me on my arms, my legs. Blood was everywhere.
As my mom cleaned the several bites, she said, “You probably need to go to the hospital.” The wounds were deep enough that I needed to change the bandages every two hours. The words I remember hearing as I left the house were, “If I have to put down my dog because of you, I’ll never speak to you again.”
This was the breaking point, for me. I drove to the doctor and had the bites attended to, and then I went to see a counselor to try to figure out how to respond to my mom. Internally, my world had crumbled. Who was I, I thought, if even my own mom would choose to protect her dog over me? It was a realization that either I was worthless, or I couldn’t depend on my mom for the love that I thought I could. My counselor encouraged me in drafting a letter in which I laid out some boundaries: that I wouldn’t accept responsibility for the dog attack, that I wouldn’t be talking to my mom for a while, that I would not accept critical remarks anymore.
The period of silence lasted for six months. During that time, some of my younger siblings challenged me. “You know she won’t apologize,” they said, “so it’s up to you to make amends.” I questioned myself for wanting to maintain distance. I would be ruining Thanksgiving and Christmas if we couldn’t be all together, they said. Finally, a note came from my mom, inviting me to family Christmas. Guilt assailed me again. At least she was extending an olive branch, I thought. But I was still very angry.
Against my better judgment, I went to family Christmas, to keep the peace, so not to deprive the rest of my family of a chance to have a holiday together. Five minutes in, I knew it was a mistake. My temper was at the boiling point. My mom greeted me civilly and kindly, but there was no mention of the past, the dog attack, or anything that had happened before this. She wanted to pretend as though nothing had happened. This tipped me over the edge. I raged and screamed and threw things. My mom looked afraid that I was going to attack her. I decided to leave the house, even though it was Christmas.
And this is what led me to Al Anon. “How do I fix my mom?” was in essence, the question that I wanted answered. My first meeting was thus a shocker. I expected words of advice and pity. What I heard was “Keep the focus on yourself.”
I wanted a quick fix. I wanted everything to get better so I could get on with my normal life again. What I found, was that many people in Al Anon had been going to meetings for 30 years. It wasn’t a one-and-done sort of thing. It was a lifestyle shift. What I saw in the people who shared was something I didn’t even realize I wanted: peace. Patience. Serenity.
The biggest realization that came to me through my time in Al Anon was that no, I couldn’t change my mom. I couldn’t change her alcoholism, or the effect it had on our family life and on my relationship with her. But I could exercise my own choices. I could choose to say yes or no. I could choose to be present or absent. I started to put up boundaries and my first consideration started to be, “Will I be safe?” If the answer was no, my word would be no. Secondly, I thought, “Will I be treated well?” Again, if the answer was no, I would say no.
Boundaries saved my relationship with my mom. Instead of raging, trying to persuade through argument, and raised voices, I found that by using the power of no, I had control over our encounters that I had never had before. I also found that my mom responded to my no, and she responded when I left the house as a result of a critical comment. It was when I started letting go of changing her and focused on my own behavior, that she actually started to change how she treated me.
The last six years have been mainly positive lessons in setting boundaries, and my relationship with my mom has been neutral or positive much of the time. I have thought back gratefully to Al Anon and the lessons it taught me, and figured that I had learned what I needed to learn from it.
This year, however, things started to get hard again.
It began with my wedding. Christmas of last year, my mom fell from a step stool and fractured her leg in several places. The damage was quite bad, and she needed surgery and a long, six-month recuperation in a wheelchair, which was very challenging for her. Each of us siblings did what we could to help her around the house and chip in for groceries, which started to become alcohol as well. For Easter, my mom asked me to stop on the way and buy her alcohol. I was uncomfortable with the request, because I didn’t want to enable her addiction. When I refused, she threatened not to come to my wedding. I forced myself to say, “Well, we’ll miss you.” The threat was rescinded.
Because my mom brought up the upcoming wedding a lot, and seemed quite stressed out about it, I knew it was a big deal. We worked together to find a dress she liked. I arranged to have her hair done on the day, and to have her makeup done, thinking that all these things would give her a boost of confidence on the day.
The wedding came around, and I realized that my mom’s anxiety was not helped in any way by the dress, makeup or hair. She attended the wedding, but when my husband and I came to reception, we couldn’t find her anywhere. My siblings shared that she had decided to stay at the AirBnB for the night instead.
The level of hurt and betrayal I felt at her absence brought back memories of the dog attack several years ago. As my husband and I spent time on our honeymoon, I reflected on my mom, and tried to figure out what was bothering me so much. It came down to, that I could try to be the best daughter I could be, and that she still might not show up to the important moments in my life. For the first time in a long time, I find myself feeling this: I give up. What’s the point of putting in the work on a relationship like this?
As I’ve been preparing to become a mother myself, talking with my mom about motherhood has sometimes been really helpful (she’ll tell me about what to expect in pregnancy, and how it feels going into labor). I would like to draw on her knowledge, both because she had eight kids and went through labor several times, and also because she’s a nurse. Most of all, I’d like to share in motherhood with her because she is my mom.
But this time has brought some new fresh wounds. I’ve heard from my mom several times now that she doesn’t plan to visit me or the baby when she is born – not out of spite. Not because she doesn’t support me in becoming a mom. It’s because she really doesn’t like the city where my husband and I live.
I thought boundaries were the answer. Setting and keeping boundaries for what I will and won’t accept has been really helpful up to this point.
In the last year, however, the new pain I am experiencing has to do with the absence of my mom. How do you put up boundaries on the absence of your mom in your life? Why am I suddenly at a new breaking point, when things seemed to go so well for so long?
I read somewhere that we tend to dismiss anger because it’s not a “pretty” emotion – but, in reality, anger sometimes points the way to truth. Anger is a teacher. When something happens and it makes us angry, that anger tells us something about ourselves, that maybe something was violated, or a need was unmet.
In this case, I am feeling a lot of anger. Anger because I’ve tried really hard to be a good daughter, visiting my mom when she needed help, being there for her. Now, in getting married and having a child, I realize that no matter how much I might show up for her, she might still not show up for me. And I don’t know what to do with that new understanding.
Should this be a surprise? Has the past taught me differently? No. As I look back on this tale of my mom’s alcoholism, it is clear that the disease has stolen a lot – from my mom, from my family, from my relationship with my mom. The well has been dry for a long, long time, but I keep going back to the well and getting angry because there is no water there, and there SHOULD be.
I know that I need to let go of the SHOULD. I don’t think I have the power to let go on my own. And that is how I know I need Al Anon again.
Usually I wait to write a blog post until I feel that I understand everything and can tie it up with a neat little bow. In this case, there is a lot that I still don’t understand about my own feelings, about the situation, about my mom, about what might be the key to finding new peace in this mess. But I feel compelled to write it out anyway, because it’s real, it’s here, and I’m learning as I go.