This article is a liability to me.
If you’re asking where the liability lies—the thread I’m about to weave, or the process of weaving it—the answer I have for you is an emphatic, vague, and emphatically vague yes. The content is a self-renewing wound. The writing of it, a stiff and stinging pour of lemon juice and salt. But even though I’ve avoided this very writing experience for a very long time, I want to do it now. If not to resolve the innumerable stutter-starts in various Google docs and hidden blog posts (that I’ve never shown anyone), finally validating my attempts at catharsis into at least one complete story (as close to complete as any story can be), then to combat the agonizing torrent of Mother’s Day marketing that tortures and infuriates me year after year after year.
Yeah, this is a story about my mom.
When I was 14, the implications of having a figure I must call Mom (implications that come with being human) started to clash with the person who embodied the role.
I started finding handles of vodka hidden in strange places in my house. Once in the middle of the night, I crept into my parent’s bathroom to grab a bottle of nail polish (or shampoo or cotton balls). I happened to be thirsty, and saw a glass filled with what looked like water. So I knocked it back. And learned what my mother’s poison tasted like.
Things quickly snowballed as these stories often do. She was drunk at my soccer games, shut herself in her bedroom for whole weekends, and barked at anyone who dared to address the root of the behavior we were all experiencing. To the bewilderment of my dad, brother and myself, she managed to hold high-level jobs at well-known corporations—all the while smelling like rubbing alcohol as she rushed out the door in full makeup, perfect hair and expensive outfits (my very naturally beautiful mother who specialized in PR was well adept at maintaining attractive veneers).
I don’t know if I fully recognized it as such at the time, but the way I reacted to this dark and devastating development was a whole-hearted attempt to preserve the youth I saw as precious and fleeting. I threw myself in competitive soccer, school, friends and part-time jobs, creating a world of escape from the alcoholism developing in my house, the hell I didn’t know well enough to name it as such. And strangely (or so it seems to me now in hindsight) I was happy. I loved high school, loved my friends, loved my life. College was more of the same. I so diligently worked at the perimeters of a full life, that that’s what I got. I was lucky, too— to have a wonderful dad who I’ve always called my best friend, my soulmate, and as it seems now, my war buddy. He is the reason I was able to create a world outside the hell, and because of that he will always be larger than life to me.
There was, of course, a wall I put up in order to preserve my happy sphere outside my mother’s poison, which meant I couldn’t really engage with her. She got clipped answers, eye rolls and knew nothing about my life. I was the caricature of the insolent teenager. While this behavior just so happened to be cliché, it wasn’t as much self-righteous coming-of- age attitude as it was my survival mechanism. She, as you can probably guess, hated it. Scolded me, tried to punish me, spun me typical parental yarns about respecting her. Hearing her combat my main armor against her terrifying disease, I simultaneously experienced guilt that I was hurting her, and knowledge that I couldn’t change my attitude if I was going to have any chance at being a happy, functioning teenager.
My edge did (slightly) soften two years ago, and it happened, again, the way these stories often do—at the lowest point you could expect, the lowest point I always feared. My dad had finally left their house and divested himself of this highly dependent non-partnership, and my mom couldn’t handle it. She spiraled down to greet the lowest-dwelling demons of her disease.
Days before Christmas my dad called me. My mom was in the ICU. My brother (who, thankfully, was living with her at the time) had found her barely conscious beside several empty pill bottles, handles of vodka rolling around under the bed beside them. At some point that night, she’d also attempted to drive her car into the garage (to really drive the point home, as it were), but only got halfway in. My brother had to reverse the car back into the driveway and close the garage door.
I came to the hospital to see a woman who didn’t recognize me. Unconscious and detoxing an unseemly quantity of pills and vodka, she would occasionally twitch and start, looking at my dad, brother and me blankly. Progress was slow over the next three days, and by December 25 th the nurses were trying to engage her cognitively, to see if they could jog her brain into better clarity. One of the nurses pointed at me, saying, “who is that?” My mom turned to me, fixing her blank stare on my face, and said: “remind me her name?”
I’ve come to learn that the “mom” label is just as much a villain in this story as the alcoholism itself. When my mom blinked at me in the ICU two years ago and couldn’t recognize me as her daughter, I was set free. Free from the guilt of not being able to solve her disease, free from the slighted feeling that I didn’t have the Gilmore Girls-esque relationship that so many of my friends seemed to, and completely free in embracing the happy sphere that I began to create when I was 14.
I don’t even so much have a wall anymore as I do a calm acceptance that my happiness is mine to create, and that what happens to other people—regardless of their label within a familial (or any other) structure—is beyond my control. I know I don’t hate my mom, and I’m not sure I love her. But as time goes on, and I become more self-assured, happy, and confident in the choices I’ve made, I don’t feel the need to define whatever it is I feel towards her. Marketing emails with assumptive “for the best mom EVER” subject lines still, and will probably always, irritate me. But now that I’ve written this, at least I know that mine is one more story out there that defies the rampant, monolithic guilt trip that holidays and relationships can be.