Names have been changed.
When I was little, I would come home from school to find my parents laughing together over a funny work story. My dad ran his mechanic shop while my mom volunteered at my little sister’s school.
While they talked, my sister Evelyn colored another masterpiece for my mom to hang up on the fridge.
When she wasn’t working, my mom took Evelyn and me to the park, the beach, or the movies. She loved cooking and was constantly trying new dishes.
Losing my dad to cancer was a shock, despite every doctor and nurse telling us he wasn’t going to make it. My dad had prevailed against their predictions before. Watching him die, with his hand in mine, flattened me. I cried for days.
My mom stopped eating and speaking for weeks, which scared us kids. I had to take care of my sister, even though I was only 12 and Evelyn was 6. Evelyn was distraught and confused at the disintegration of our family. We were on our own in what felt like a dark tunnel with no light at the end.
About two months after my dad died, my mom became more alive in the worst way possible. An aggression had awoken in her. She drove over the speed limit. She’d fight over the smallest things. She swore in front of us kids. Then I saw her buy something in a tiny black-tinted plastic box from our neighbors.
Later I saw my mom pull out the same thin box at the hair salon. She clipped it open and revealed a pill as small as the flashlight lens on my phone.
“What’s that?” I pointed.
She threw back the pill with water. “It helps with headaches.”
She continued to get more reckless, until it became clear what I had to do. I wasn’t about to stand by and watch my mom become a drug addict just because a supplier lived next door. I told my guidance counselor at middle school about the drug dealers selling to my mom.
The very next morning, a team of heavily armored police with guns raided the house next door. I watched from my window as they escorted the dealers outside and into the police vehicles. “I didn’t do anything!” they screamed. I felt guilt, then fear.
What if my mom finds out I reported them? I agonized. But my paranoia faded away when my mom said, “I think someone caught them selling drugs.” I felt relief, then pride that I had prevented my mom from becoming a drug addict. Nobody ever found out I’d told. I felt like I could lead my mom onto the path of healing.
My dad had been our rock, the one to reassure us that everything would be all right. He stuck with that positive attitude even when he was diagnosed with leukemia. My parents fought sometimes, but all would be forgotten the next day.
After he died, my mom’s grief went from shutting everyone out to fighting everyone around her. She became like a teenager: She caught attitudes easily and was unkind. Drugs made it worse, and without her supplier, she soon turned to alcohol.
On drugs, she was a monster set loose in the outside world. With alcohol she turned more of her rage on me. She yelled that I didn’t understand her and asked why I was still living with her. She was still affectionate with my sister, which felt spiteful when she was being so cruel to me.
I had lost my dad, and now I was losing my mom. The drinking became extreme very quickly. She’d drink until she couldn’t stop vomiting, then check herself into the hospital to detox. Reports of so many detoxifications alerted social workers.
“Does She Love You?”
Our involvement with “the system” started when I sat beside my mom in the hospital bed for the third time in a month. I looked up from my phone when a woman clutching a small notebook to her chest entered the hospital room. Her smile reached from ear to ear and her pearly white teeth kind of scared me. She seemed like a bottle with too much energy trapped inside.
At first I thought she was a hospital staff member. Then she asked my mom if there was anyone to take me home. She said something about “alcohol” and “children,” then an acronym I didn’t know, “ACS.” Her name was Ms. Taylor.
Then we were having biweekly meetings with her, and my mom was getting blood-tested for alcohol. It was a 60-day investigation that made me feel like a victim rather than a bystander to my mom falling apart.
“Where do you sleep? How do you get disciplined? What do you usually eat?” Ms. Taylor asked during our meetings. She also asked Evelyn and me to pull up our sleeves and pants to check for signs of abuse. My mom had never hit me, but these meetings made me feel fragile and damaged.
One day, Ms. Taylor asked me something I found I couldn’t answer right away. “Does your mom love you?” She held her pen over her notebook, ready to write down my answer.
I stared at the ground. When was the last time she told me she loved me? When was the last time I really hugged her? The last time she rained kisses all over my face was when she was sober and my dad was in the room.
I took a deep breath. “I question it sometimes.”
A few months later, my mom told me I was invited to a meeting with ACS, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services. That made me feel like I held an important role in the outcome, even though I was only 15.
Beforehand, my mom reassured me that the meeting would go smoothly. “It’s not like we committed murder,” she said. She would always compare being an alcoholic to something more extreme to make it seem like it was nothing. “Speak with confidence. We didn’t do anything wrong,” she told me.
I nodded my head. She was right, we didn’t commit murder. She was, however, under the influence and not taking care of her kids. My uncle usually took my sister to school, and I walked to my school. I ordered take-out almost every day at meal time.
My mom, uncle, and I took a taxi to the meeting on a Sunday morning. It was in the ACS building, in a grubby conference room on the third floor. The fluorescent lights made it as bright as a hospital, but the table had coffee stains, and the chairs didn’t match. It seemed unprofessional, like they’d cleared out a storage room and grabbed any chair that was free.
My least favorite social worker, Ms. Taylor, was there with her supervisor. So was my favorite social worker, Mr. Khan, who worked for a different agency. His supervisor called in over speakerphone.
There was a facilitator, an older woman with dreads and a friendly smile. There was an advocate to help guide my mom and let her know her options. And, finally, me, my mom, and my Uncle Barry, my father’s brother.
Mr. Khan waved at me and I waved back, taking a seat across from him and next to my mom. My uncle sat on my left and cracked jokes to ease the tension.
“Ms. Genevieve,” Ms. Taylor’s supervisor addressed my mom as she flipped through the file in front of her. “Do you know why we are having this meeting?” She studied my mom.
My mom touched her neck, picking at the collar of her button-up. “I had a few drinks to…” She touched her head. “Because I have headaches sometimes and it calms it down.”
The supervisor nodded her head, looking back into the file. As she was flipping through the pages, Mr. Khan jumped in. “The father died of cancer, and the kids didn’t receive any therapy or counseling.”
This grabbed the attention of the facilitator who was reaching for the file that was in front of her. “The kids never had any form of counseling?” she asked my mom.
My mom cocked her head. “People in the hospital talked to us.” I guess she considered a conversation with doctors to be therapy.
My mom fidgeted continuously, touching her face and neck when she talked about my dad passing away and her subsequent drinking.
Different people asked her, “How long have you been drinking?” and “What steps have been taken so far?” They also asked about family that my sister and I could stay with. They needed to familiarize themselves with the case that they suddenly had to judge.
When someone suggested therapy, I mentally sided with my mom when she said our family did not need therapy. I believed I was strong enough to manage this on my own. I didn’t need any stranger to dig up everything I had already buried.
We went over our family’s accomplishments, such as my sister getting on the honor roll, my getting accepted into a STEM program for 10th grade, my mom showing up for all of her alcohol tests. That gave me hope, but it was the calm before the storm.
It was time to talk about ”family improvements,” which was actually a list of problems.
My mom’s leg bounced as they called her out for not attending her mandated therapy sessions regularly. I looked at my mom, eyebrows furrowed. This was the first time I’d heard that she hadn’t been going to her therapy.
Then it was my turn to speak. Gulping down my fear, I said. “I’m feeling conflicted because my mom says one thing and the papers say another. But I do think an inpatient program would help.”
Heads nodded to my words. I looked at my mom sitting next to me, and she was glaring at me with the burn of a thousand suns. My heart dropped as I realized I had demolished my relationship with my mom.
My uncle left halfway through the meeting because of business, so I was the only family member to weigh in.
The adults decided that my mom would have to enter a month-long inpatient treatment. All because of me. The adults made arrangements for Evelyn and me to stay with Uncle Barry, who lives nearby, while Mom went upstate to her program.
After the meeting, my mother was furious. She told everyone she knew about me “throwing her into jail.” I assumed all our relatives from other states and countries thought I’d betrayed her, including my Uncle Barry.
Right before she went away, I saw Barry working on a car outside of my dad’s former business, near our house.
I slowed to a stop as he approached me. With my head hanging, I waited for him to tell me I should have kept my mouth shut in the family conference. My eyes brimmed with tears when his paint-covered work shoes stepped in front of my Converse.
But instead of a wave of anger, he pulled me into a hug. “It’s OK.” He squeezed my shoulders as I sobbed on him in the middle of the sidewalk. “It’s OK. You did the right thing.”
People walked past and shot strange looks, but it was liberating to be forgiven. Even more liberating was seeing the smile on my mom’s face a month later, when she came home from rehab–a sober, genuinely happy smile. She was back to the mom from before my dad passed away.
She talked about what she’d learned at rehab with pride and apologized for the problems she had burdened us with.
I didn’t need her apology. All I needed was for her to come home, healed. I got my wish.
To see what happened next, go to “What Happened After Rehab.”
To see K.G.’s suggestions for how workers can best help the children of addicted parents, see “Interventions Helpful and Not.”
- Foster Care
- substance abuse