Names have been changed.
It was a week after my mom returned home from court-ordered inpatient rehab. My home finally felt as it should, comfortable and full of laughter.
My smile lingered as I left my mom and little sister playing their memory card game at the table in our living room.
I went to the spare room, where we all kept clothes, to grab a sweater. As I was leaving the room, a bizarre sight caught my eye. My burgundy beanie hat seemed to stand on its own, floating about a centimeter off the nightstand.
I crept closer to the nightstand and slowly pulled the hat up. My eyes widened and my heart dropped. I feared I knew what was there but prayed I was wrong.
Under the hat was a tall colorful can. It looked like one of those Monster energy drinks. I lifted up the can with more force than necessary since it was completely empty. Scanning the ingredients, I discovered it wasn’t a Monster. Monsters don’t have alcohol.
I set the can back onto the nightstand and placed my hat back over it, as if I’d never touched it. The smile I walked into the room with was suddenly too heavy to carry.
I had believed the four-year nightmare of her addiction was over.
My little sister Evelyn and I had stayed with our Uncle Barry and his family while my mom was upstate at her treatment facility for a month. After rehab, it was clear that she was the healthiest she had been in four years. That was when my father died and she turned to drugs, then alcohol.
When she came home from rehab, my mom apologized for what she’d put us through. The Administration for Children’s Services had been involved with our family for a year because of her frequent hospitalizations for extreme drinking, and she verbally abused me when she was drunk.
I was so happy to see her clear and loving again, I forgave her instantly.
Soon after I found the can, she relapsed back to her old slurring, raging, alcoholic self. I was bewildered by why, after finally getting healthy, she’d throw everything away so quickly.
An Emotional Burden
Only a week after she returned, she tested positive for alcohol. A month later, our ACS caseworker sent Evelyn, who was 9, and me, 15, back to live with Barry, my late father’s brother, again. My mom stayed in the home we grew up and fell apart in, and we had supervised visits with her on the weekends.
After my mom relapsed, just before Evelyn and I moved to Uncle Barry’s, she and I were driving back from the grocery store. My mom ranted about my uncle and aunt criticizing her drinking.
“You know, people don’t like it when you’re like that,” I said, fiddling with the bottle of juice in my lap, eyes down.
My mom glanced away from the road for a second towards me in the passenger seat. I refused to face her, but I could feel her glare. “What do you mean?”
“Like…not sober.” I knew that the word “drunk” set her off and would derail the conversation.
“Uncle doesn’t like it when you’re drinking. And Auntie only has stuff to say when you’re not sober.”
“They wasn’t mad at me because of that. They was mad because—”
I cut off her excuses with a wave of my hand as respectfully as I could manage. “Forget about them. I don’t care about them,” I said. “When you aren’t sober, you’re different.”
Finding words that wouldn’t make her flare up in anger was difficult. It was like treading on a minefield. Any sign of disrespect would change the course of our conversation. She would zero in on specific words instead of what I was trying to convey.
My mom remained silent as I spoke.
“When you aren’t sober, you get mean. You say mean things to me. And Evelyn has trouble sleeping because you’re always moving and yelling in your sleep.”
I pinched my finger to feel something other than the heartache, to distract me from the deafening silence that filled the car.
I was so caught up in my own thoughts that I didn’t notice we had pulled into our driveway. My mom dropped her hands in her lap, then reached out and cupped my cheek. “Baby, I’m so sorry.”
I pulled away from her. “You can’t apologize if you’re going to keep doing it.”
I laughed to defuse the situation, but we both knew it wasn’t that easy. Confronting her felt pointless and like an emotional burden I didn’t want to carry.
But she’s my mother. Despite my frustration at being removed from my own home yet again, I still looked forward to visiting her. Seeing her made me happy, though it stung when she was drunk for our visit, like she cared more for alcohol than her own children.
Becoming My Mask
I told only my closest friends about her relapse and about living with Uncle Barry. Pushing down my disappointment and fear, I acted like it was normal when my mom stumbled into the house and collapsed on her bed. That hurt, but I did it for my sister. Evelyn was happier when she didn’t see me worry. It meant she didn’t need to worry either.
Acting happy and going on with my day was difficult. Over time, though, the character I had created for myself—the girl who isn’t full of heartache and always crying—had begun to become me. Fake it till you make it. Feeling numb felt better than feeling sad.
Faking happiness at first felt selfish, difficult, unnatural. But over time, it made me happier than being stressed and sad.
Without intending to, I told my guidance counselor, Ms. Lee, about my mom’s relapse and my being removed from her house.
Ms. Lee sighed deeply, then said, “Sounds like you’re angry at her for throwing this all away when everything seemed so wonderful. Everything was going great and then she picks up drinking again, and now you’re stressed out.”
She helped me understand what I felt: distressed, disappointed, let down. I nodded along with her, then said softly, “And I don’t know what to do…. I don’t know what to do next.”
Ms. Lee bit her lip and took another deep breath. Her eyes darted to the ceiling before holding eye contact with me as if she was putting together her thoughts.
“You have done everything. Anytime you come in here, it’s always about your mom. Not once have you felt concerned about yourself.” I saw pity in her smile.
I was confused, eyebrows furrowed but I still smiled anyway. “Yeah.” What else did she want me to do? Complain about my petty struggles? All my other stresses felt irrelevant compared to caring for my mom.
Ms. Lee continued, “Have you ever thought about how you are coping with all this?”
I thought about her question. Why would I need to cope? “I mean, I’m OK. I watch a lot of YouTube videos to take my mind off things.”
She laughed at that but got serious again. “With you and your mom, it’s almost like the roles are reversed. You shouldn’t have to take care of her at this age when you have so much going on. Maybe we should find ways to help you cope. To help you deal with this on your own terms rather than your mom’s.”
She wanted me to give up on my mom? How could I just let go of her when she’s drowning in addiction? Surely there must be something else I could try.
I Have Done Everything
But after replaying that conversation in my head for days, I realized that I have done all that I could. I reported her drug dealers. I called hotlines. I cooperated with ACS and Sheltering Arms, the agency that keeps track of my family’s health and education (see “Interventions Helpful and Not”).
When I found bottles of alcohol in the house, I’d empty them down the sink. I confronted her, as hard as that was for me. I stayed by her side while she vomited in the bathroom at home and on trips to the hospital.
Maybe there isn’t anything else I can do to make my mom sober. Maybe this is just my life.
Now, a couple months later, I have officially stopped trying.
I still tell my mom every now and then that I wish she would stop drinking. My sister and I never acknowledge my mom’s drinking to others unless we are being questioned. It seems like ACS will never stop coming around.
I had another shift in my feelings recently, after my mom told me to get my own apartment. It wasn’t anything new. She often says these kinds of things when she’s drunk and blaming me for her troubles. It usually doesn’t affect me, but writing and talking about the situation I’d been denying forced me to face how awful it is.
I softly shut my door and locked it, crawling into bed with my blanket wrapped around me tightly. I took deep breaths and cried for the first time in months.
It physically hurt to let myself feel it all. My heart throbbed and tears streamed like there was no end.
I thought about the facade I had put up a few weeks into my mom’s relapse. A mask that let me look at my drunk mom like she was a stranger. I was trying to prevent myself from feeling hopeless with internal walls that protected me from the overwhelming sorrow.
It hurt to finally accept that my life was not OK and that I needed help.
Taking Care of Myself
The thought of seeking help for myself and not my mom is foreign to me. Ms. Lee suggested that I look into a support group called Alateen.
My immediate thought was, “No way. I don’t need to sit with other teenagers and talk about my problems. I need to go out there and try to fix the problem.” But I’d done everything, and my mom is still an alcoholic. I can’t fix this.
Accepting that there may not be much hope for my mom, I can shift my focus to self-care.
It was tiring caring for her. Worrying about her while I was at school. Getting home and trying to feed my mom before myself. I could feel the role of a parent forcing itself upon me.
It feels healthy and like a relief to live like a normal teenager, not the caretaker of my mom. I’m able to concentrate on my own issues rather than paying so much attention to what my mom is doing.
At the same time, it’s scary to drop the facade and seek help. I found a therapist and I’m really excited to tell my guidance counselor about finally taking her advice.
Writing this story has opened my eyes to a new perspective. Regardless of all my burdens, I pull through. I have started eating healthier and working out. I was accepted into a STEM program for animal care. I am taking multiple college credit courses in high school and plan to be a veterinarian.
I am doing many things I am proud of. I know my dad would be proud of me. And so is my mother. When she’s sober and tells me she’s proud of me, it feels good. But when she’s drunk and says it, she starts to cry and reminisce about my dad.
Or she uses my accomplishments against me, saying that I’m going to leave her now that I don’t need her anymore. Then she starts telling me to get my own apartment. Drunk, she’s self-pitying and then mean—the opposite of supportive.
I’m still there when she really needs someone to physically help her, when she’s detoxing or can’t walk to the bathroom without falling.
Emotionally, though, I protect myself by thinking of caring for her when she’s drunk as a chore. It’s just something I have to do before I go back to doing my own thing.
It is lonely, terrifying, and incredibly difficult to move on with my life without my parents. But in a way, I have already started.
I’ve gotten used to not having my dad in my life anymore. I’m not used to my mom being addicted, and I still hope she can get clean, but I have made it through four years of her addiction. That tells me I can clear other obstacles that may be ahead.
To read about how K.G. saw her mom’s addiction before rehab and relapse, read “Mother to My Mom”
To see K.G.’s suggestions for how workers can best help the children of addicted parents, see “Interventions Helpful and Not.”