When we were little, my brother and I used to play this game. We'd wake up mom after she'd been drinking and see what silly things she said. It was funny.
But when Mom started smoking again after Dad left, my brother and I were horrified. We were 80's children, who'd been inundated with anti-smoking campaigns. To us, smoking meant ignorance and death.
To cope with our shame, we began stealing her cigarettes. We'd find the Players Extra Light packets in her purse or in her car and stash them in a shoe box in my brother's dresser drawer. Packet after packet went straight into that orange Nike shoe box, but Mom kept buying more. She began to find more clever hiding spots. The glove compartment. The hutch. The grates holding up her king-sized bed — the one she now slept in alone.
But we still found them. Soon, the shoe box became full, so we began breaking the cigarettes over the garbage. As long as we were around, she wasn't smoking, and we weren't anxious. But we couldn't stop her every Tuesday night, when we went to my dad's for dinner, so we'd confront her the moment we got home.
We'd ask to smell her breath. When she caught onto our interrogative ways, she began dousing her breath with Listerine before we got home. But we were smart. We'd ask to smell her hands.
I took the cigarettes to school. At lunch time, another curious friend and I snuck into the ravine behind the school and smoked them. Soon after that word got out among the parents that their kids should stay away from me.
I remember the time Mom drove through the garage. I still wonder how she could reverse so quickly that she went right through the garage. I remember the photos she had to develop for the insurance company. Double prints of the splintered remains of her booze-infused rage. I'm still so thankful the garage was down that night.
As a teenager, I often felt relieved by her drinking. I'd stumble home from a party, long past my curfew.
"Are you drunk?" She'd ask.
"Are YOU drunk?"
Mom would be silent, and I'd slip down to the basement, thankful that her addiction let me off the hook, and feeling guilty for being thankful for her addiction.
Today, more than two decades later, there's was still a young girl inside me trying to stop my mom from killing herself. A fearful little girl, terrified Mom's organs will soon call it quits. Terrified she might take too much of the Zopiclone, Ativan, Amitriptaline, Seroquel, and Cipralex she's been prescribed. Terrified that she'll completely ignore the "Do not mix with alcohol" warnings printed on the labels. Terrified her husband will leave.Terrified her friends will finally give up.Terrified I'll give up.
Recently, during one of her "not drinking" nights, I noticed her inebriated self taking over. Aware something was up, I opened the door to her room on my way to the washroom. It took all of three seconds before I noticed a near-empty bottle of vodka nearby.
I lost my shit.
I, the therapist, who helps people manage their reactivity to their emotions, lost my shit.
The little girl inside of me felt panic and guilt and anger. Why couldn't she have hidden it? Why couldn't she have chosen wine instead? Why couldn't she be a more civil or "fun" drunk? Why couldn't she go one night sober? Why did she choose alcohol over me? Why couldn't I, someone who's made a career out of helping people change, help her change?
And then I realized I had to take a step back. I reminded myself what I've had to remind myself again and again. It's. Not. About. You. Addiction is a complex demon, and it doesn't matter how much professional training or love for someone you have; you can't help them change until they're ready and willing to.
David Foster Wallace speaks of suicide like jumping out of a burning building to avoid the flames racing toward him. Sometimes, that's how I feel about distancing myself from the alcoholic I love. I feel like I have no choice, and I have to preserve myself and our relationship by jumping.
And in this scenario, though scary, jumping takes me safely to the ground. There, I can catch my breath and take care of myself, and I can send love and support back from a safe place. Mom, I love you, and that's why I'm calling to you from the ground and letting the firefighters do their thing.
When someone we love is struggling with addiction, they're usually the last one to notice. It's not your job to rescue them, or be their therapist or disciplinarian. It's your job to be yourself — to be the parent, child, friend, or partner that you are.
Take care of yourself.
Trust in the resilience of the one you love.
Trust that their improvement or lack thereof is not a reflection of you, so try not to take it personally.
Distance yourself if that's what you need.
Before publishing this article, I asked my mom if she was OK with my sharing my story. She said "absolutely," and that she was on her way to yoga. My heart warmed, knowing she's making steps toward recovery. But I'm also skeptical of that warmth, as an important part of healing codependent relationships involves disconnecting the link between your loved one's behavior and your mood.
I know addiction will continue to come between us; but I also know that I can give my mom love and support from a safe distance, and in doing so I can give love and support to myself.
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