Grief: Alcoholics are Not Nice. ACOAs Have their Moments Too

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Little known facts:

Before I write publicly, I always take a few breaths and meditate on what I’m about to do.

Each post I write tends to have 20 small revisions before I click “publish” (which really is a misnomer, because I’m sharing, not exactly publishing, but that’s another post sentence paragraph altogether).

For the past year, I’ve not only meditated, but I’ve gone with my gut when I write, doing my best to cast any fear aside so I may best and most freely express myself.

For the past nine months, I have appealed to Archangel Gabriel, the angel of messaging and the one who visited Mary and told her about her pregnancy — to me Gabriel has it going on, and if I can get a smidge of that, I’m happy. What I’ve specifically asked for of Gabriel is three things: candor, humility and humor. Sometimes in differing order; I determined that Gabriel really knows the best way to parse out these things.

Last weekend, I hosted my family for what we call “Second Christmas” — it’s named as such because we don’t all see each other on Christmas. I host every other year. Thanksgiving is all my side of the family and Christmas is my husband’s.

Mom has been gone now about 16 months. Some “holidays” are easier than others; the last time we celebrated Second Christmas at my house, it was February 2013 and the experience was really emotionally profound for me personally. I recall going outside and looking at all the snow which had recently fallen and seeing our outdoor Christmas lights still on our bushes out front light up the snow from beneath it.

The street was silent. The snow, in its big fluffy flakes, was heavy yet soft and I could hear it land on all sorts of surfaces, other flakes, the leaves of the bushes, my jacket, my cheek … and I remember saying to myself that I was really so very happy. I took it all in, privately and alone outside looking in toward my home where everyone I cared for most deeply in all the world was existing, for just that moment, in what I inferred as a state of harmony and presence.

I remember coming back into the house, the contrasting heat and voices rushed over me. I came in from silent, dark yet white to chatty, bright and yellow. I said to everyone, “There could be no finer hour for me again because everyone I love most — in all the world — is safe and here right now.” I am sure one of my brothers made some snarky remark because I can tend toward the sentimental at times (it’s seldom but it happens), or maybe he didn’t, but the truth is that I was in such a state of bliss, it didn’t matter.

That was the last time I hosted and it was the last one Mom attended. She died seven months later of a massive cardiac arrest on her way to get a root beer float.

So this year, we were all together again at my house. I knew it was going to be hard for me; I was twitchy the week before and I knew it was just something I had to push through and I was really happy to do it. My immediate family is one of my most favorite things, but it was still a lot.

During one of our down times, we turned on the previous night’s Saturday Night Live. The musical guest was a former hip-hop artist named Sia and I’d never heard of her because I’m ancient and I listen to Pandora or yoga music. Her first performance was really … just so bizarre that I couldn’t turn myself away from wondering what the hell she was going to do for the encore. She did nothing bizarre, but she sang a song called “Chandelier” which simply took my breath away.

I Googled Sia. I wanted to know about her song, about her as an artist beyond what my family could tell me: she went completely underground for a while, but now she’s back. She obscures her face, in some form of ironic protest to the amount of publicity she gets, so now, instead of having a face everyone can see, she has created more interest in her face because you can’t see it now…I don’t know… People are weird.

Anyway, the song is about alcoholism and it’s an autobiographical anthem and when I say anthem, I mean Anthem: she belts out this song as though her life –and possibly others– depended on it. I could have been Sia; I could have been an alcoholic.

Maybe it’s the chords, or the song’s structure of minor keys and minor chords, but I couldn’t help but be mesmerized by it. It spoke to me about my own mother and the sadnesses she must’ve pushed away in order to perform as much as she could in a real world with real children who have real needs.

Sia isn’t asking for acceptance or your pity in this song. She’s just telling you how it is in the most primal and aggressive and self-sacrificing and beautiful way she can. I don’t know how she can speak after singing that song — not only is it emotionally draining, but her vocal range and thrust of the sounds that come out of her head are insane.

So it got me thinking, after reading about her, the song, her history and as much as I want to give my mother a break — even though she’s dead — for all the shit she put me through as a child and young woman and young adult and middle aged adult, there is a part of me that just … isn’t quite ready.

It’s not that I want to re-live all that hell, and I definitely don’t court it. Simply, part of me can’t move on entirely from it yet because I think I haven’t processed it fully; I haven’t fully accepted and decided that what all the books say about Adult Children of Alcoholics is correct: that we aren’t the cure, the cause, nor can we control it — “it” being the alcoholic’s alcoholism — and that thinking you have some control over someone else’s life choices is a bit of an ego rush, no matter how sick.

As much as I want to let it all go, there’s a hang nail: if I keep it — the pain of being an ACOA — in my chi, then I also keep Mom alive, and that’s really hard to deny, so I don’t bother. If that’s all I had with her, for the most part: her rages, her narcissism, her deflection, her projections, her denial, her lies, her manipulations, her rages and rages and rages — all those things coupled with my fear dressed as anger, then she isn’t really dead is she? And I get to still play a victim to it. (Lots of layers…)

The other thing is that I lived on “alert” about Mom for more than 40 years, so it’s going to take some time to wind down and let it all go and relax.

I have many wonderful people in my life who tell me to let it go, to move on, to forgive her, to let it go to let it go to let it go… and I have, for the most part, but it’s completely impossible, isn’t it: expecting me to release all the pain and fear and hurt and shame and guilt and rage is like expecting me to forget what the sun on my skin feels like. We love it when the sun rests on our skin for a few moments, don’t we? We do. And we recognize it immediately as a good thing, a familiar thing. It powers us, it feeds us vitamin D, it cleanses our senses for just a moment when we are zapped into that moment — from WHATEVER we had going on in our heads — to feel that eight-minute-old blast of heat, nourishment and “celestial love” from our giant blazing gas orb. The sun sustains us.

So it is the same with me and being my mother’s daughter. That relationship lasted almost 46 years. I’m no masochist and so I ask of anyone who knows an ACOA (who admits they are an ACOA) to cut us some slack when we get swept up by a song, a memory, a smell, a sound, a feeling or a silence. Just cut us some slack. This shit’s hard.

Growing up with an alcoholic parent is hard — like, the kind of hard some people can’t even imagine: We have to rely on someone like “Drunk Uncle” to take us to school or make our lunches or wake us for school or bathe us or take us to the doctor… But “Drunk Uncle” is a sloppy drunk; he’s funny and creepy but not super angry. Replace sloppy, funny, and creepy with pissed, snobby, paranoid, mean and morose and that’s what I had. Imagine that taking you to a friend’s house and meeting their parents. Imagine that opening the door or answering a phone call for you.

A part of my being an ACOA denies my mom her affliction because that is too hard to admit: that she chose a substance over caring for me. Plus, I protected my mother like a guard dog from a harsh society and its realities. It’s nuts.

How do we do it? Well, I do it with humor and candor and humility (“There but for the Grace of God go I”) which keeps me as stable as possible and well, slightly more off center than someone who grew up in a “regular” home. But I cheer myself also, because unlike someone who grew up in a regular home, I’ve overcome shit you don’t even understand and while that doesn’t make me better than anyone else, it does mean I’m not a damaged loser either — I’ve overcome it, with a semblance of love, kindness, humor, silent compassion and reality which can astound.

ACOAs are not into trivialities — we don’t have time to bullshit. We hug you because we mean it. We love you because we feel it. We repel you because we feel you’re toxic; we are like human barometers — we don’t have time to suffer your delusions, rationalizations, intellectualizations and obfuscation, excuses and blathering tedium because WE HAVE LIVED THROUGH IT already. So if we cut you out, it’s because we’re done; likewise, if we keep you around, it’s because we love you with a love that is powerful, humble, vulnerable and loyal. When we Do The Work of being an aware ACOA, we are probably one of the best things to have in your life. We’re like rescued pets…

Candor.

My dad asked me yesterday after I ranted about what a wretch my mother could be, about her rages (which he knew nothing about because he and the rest of the world was at work or asleep), “You say you miss your mother…. why do you say that and then say things like this?”

I thought I’d explained it before, but he’s older now and it’s been a rough ride for him — almost 60 years with that woman will take its toll and he has his own health as an aging human — so I cut him slack and say, “Sure. I get it. I know it’s a conflict. The thing is: I always missed her, or what she was supposed to represent: a mother. I mean, I am still here; she didn’t completely jack it all up…” But I don’t miss HER at all. I really don’t. Not for a second.

The worst was some of her AA friends. Mom had all the books, attended all the meetings, even worked the phones for AA at midnight to help people who were suffering as she was, to support them and try to encourage them from taking that drink in the middle of the night. I remember the phone would ring at all hours, waking me up. But I supported it. Some of the people calling were really hammered though. I resented them; I knew she would likely fall to having a drink on the call. The lure was too strong.

And her meetings friends … they were really insufferable, saying all the sayings and using all their codes, nodding knowingly at me as I would walk by, snarling and hissing. They disregarded my pain, the suffering of our family. They said many times that I needed to cool my jets, be a better daughter because my mother was so fragile, that I would toss her over the brink. Many times I told them to go to hell. I see it now, it was a form of self-protection: a tribal “thing”: they were doing the same things to their families and kids, they had to protect her from assholes like me… There was only ONE person I respected in her lineage of sponsors: Ellianet. She was a tall, lean and sporty woman. She was still in Buffalo. She was tough and real and she would allow my anger. Not enable it, but “see” it and she understood it. She was a loving, consistent and firm hand to Mom. Mom thrived with her. I think she was sober for a couple years with her. Then we moved. Even if Ellianet lived here, there was no way she’d hang with some of the cheap-shoe, big-haired, Cadillac-driving poseurs my mother ensnared in her web. I honestly think Mom went to those meetings to recruit actors for her plays and Tennessee Williams readings in our moody, suburban, book-lined living room…

But there were good years for her. Mom worked the program for a bit, she made real changes and I was proud of her. Still bitter as hell, but proud. I knew better than to let my guard down as I became a full-blown teenager. She would help people, staying sober for a few months at a time, maybe even a year or two. She was lovely then. But the relapses… oh, they were crushing.

Humor.

We talked about people on my Facebook page who have much fonder memories of my mother than I was ever blessed with (why they can’t imagine that a person like Judy Garland, Carol Channing or Liza Minelli would ever make a good parent is beyond me). They offer their plastic platitudes and essentially refuse to see the other side of the story — that having an angry Bette Davis for a mother is really, not cool. They would gloss over my pain and ignore the truth I’d love to skywrite on our cyan canopy. I say that says more about them, not her and certainly not me.

These people mean well, I know they do guess, but they have an appreciation of my mother that … simply didn’t exist in my world. That version of Mom was more of a visitor. Dad understood that; lots of people didn’t know my mom. She was a secret wrapped in an enigma disguised as a puzzle. I don’t think she knew herself.

Alcoholics are really difficult people. They booze up to cover their pain which they won’t tell you about because __________ and then they expect you to just rainbows and butterflies deal with it; that you’re the one with the problem if you have a problem with their problem. 

I told Dad, “They say things like “think of her fondly…” and “she was a wonderful woman …” and “she loved you so much… ” or “she was your mother, of course she loved you…” (so all those times she woke me in a rage at midnight 1) to find her things she was convinced I stole; 2) correct or defend a paper or diary entry I wrote; 3) or to clean up a mess I made hours before when she was out of commission was her way of showing love).

I rolled my eyes, laughing in contempt.

He understood it only partially. So I went further. Dad is one of the funniest people I know, and so I portrayed and parodied my response to those platitudes, “Oh! Yes, I can recall those wonderful moments … sure. Give me a second …” and I used my left forefinger to count on my right hand, finger by finger and opening my palm recounting the kindnesses, moments of fearless love, and security my mother selflessly extended to me and I mocked myself, pushed back pain, feigned enthusiasm and difficulty discerning the pleasantries and I counted to four. He laughed and we moved on.

Was it all for effect? Was I performing? Yes and no. Sometimes humor is all I can muster to deal with the reality.

Humility.

Reflecting on that with my dad revealed to me that it was yet another moment for me in my life of now 47 years that I realized that I’m no walk in the park either. I joke with friends, “It’s so nice being perfect…”

I can be super reactive like a viper; I can say some really stupid things — completely without thinking — as a result. I have a sense of “humor” honed by years of pain and hurt and rage which can either lift you up or stun you. I try to apologize when I figure it out. I try to grow.

So I listen to this song by Sia again and again to flush it out of my system and then I get it, as I’ve gotten it so many times before in my life and this won’t be the last time (thanking God)… because

There but for the Grace of God go I…

I’m a lucky person. I am so aware of what this year means to me — when my mother was 47, she was uprooted from her hometown of her entire life and essentially forced to pitch tent in a new place… oh! Hers was an emotional tsunami that no one could’ve ever predicted.

If I ever thought my mother was “weak” (and I have plenty), her defiance of that life we all tried to make in 1981, has shown me otherwise. Mom was not weak, she was a force, but it broke her, that move.

So I will be on my toes for weird stuff this year.

I believe in genetic energies — that when she was 47, I was almost 14. I was her middle child. I am 47, my middle son is almost 14, and this year has lots of messages for me and my son and I plan to do my best to watch it all and stay present and stay humble and stay grateful for the fact that I’ve survived what I did.

I also need to give myself the latitude of knowing that I am NOT her and that if we end up (randomly and unexpectedly) moving this year and start a new life, that it will be OK because I am ME, not her.

I can embrace that whatever lesson my mother had to endure to teach me by example to keep my life together –despite all the pressure and feelings of entrapment and bullshit of life that she and we all endured– that she taught me well.

Mom taught me well. She used to say she was so grateful that I’d escaped alcoholism. She used to say she was proud of me for it, but those conversations only resulted in me being mad that she wouldn’t stop. And then we would fight.

I haven’t had a hangover in 17 years. I’ve never submitted to the “hair of the dog” to convalesce after drinking. Somehow I knew that having a drink because I was sick from having too many drinks was a reeeeeeally bad idea. She would tell me often of how I am genetically marked, that I exist in the crosshairs of a fatal condition.

Will I think only fondly of Mom from now on? No. And please don’t ask me to because I’m messed up too. She didn’t always speak of her mother with 24k golden love either.

For some people, when I write about Mom in this way, they chafe, the shift in their seats, they furrow their brows, they take breaths and sigh… They get mad. That’s on them… that’s their messaging from their own bodies that they need to pay attention to.

If what I say bugs you SO much, I posit to you: why? Why can’t YOU handle me writing about my alcoholic mother in such a fierce way? Is it because to you she was so much more than that? Ok… I’ll allow it. But as much as I allow it in you, I ask you to allow it in me that she (as any alcoholic is) was a fatal, atomic combination. She, in particular, was a talented, entitled, narcissistic artist; an actor; and a drunk. You try growing up in that and let me know how you turn out. Let me know if you fart rainbows.

In her egoic, human state she would want only gorgeous remembrances — that she was more than what I paint her to have been. She would want me to throw her a bone because she refused many times to permit my recollection of the horrors of my life as her child. She never apologized, she never owned her stuff nor allowed that she shaped me. She used to say, “You have anger issues, Maally…” and I’d be thinking in my head, “YA THINK?! I WONDER WHY…”

But as much as she couldn’t allow it in her human state, in her energetic, spiritual state I feel “she” gets it and “she” knows that it’s not so simple: Mother sets the tone — I know this more than anything — as she recalled of her own mother. My mother set the tone and I fell in line, like a duckling. Maybe in some crazy way, she didn’t want me to get too close to her because she was teaching, training and honing me in order for me to stop the cycle.

This is my lemonade.

So this past weekend was the last revolving holiday “tradition” Mom attended and for me, writing about it was cleansing. I feel as though I’ve been able to close the chapter now. Moving on.

Maybe it’s time to think about forgiveness.

Thank you.

5 responses »

  1. Have you read Anne Lamott’s chapters in Small Victories on trying to forgive her mother? Her deceased mother? Your words brought this to mind. Your post is beautifully, honestly put, from the heart. Thanks for sharing and being so open. It does matter.

    • no i haven’t read it; i should get that book… everyone is telling me about it. i love AL. she’s a hero to me. thanks for commenting, as always. it’s hard to share this stuff, but i am always bolstered by kindnesses from you and others who thank me for sharing. xo

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