I am beginning to understand that, since I work pretty hard to keep a nice home and a good life, I feel threatened by the symptoms of alcoholism. It is sinking in that it is a disease that can be arrested, but never cured. I am almost losing the ability to communicate with anyone about it openly. So I write.
I sat by your bed in the nursing home, smiled and said, “Mom, there isn’t any hard liquor in our house any more. Your wine cabinet is intact,” I felt real hope when we talked yesterday, because we were talking kindly, and because you were realizing that, with your age and medical condition, it is best to outgrow martinis. So you suggest gin and tonic. And today I wake up at 4 a.m. in a knot.
Your idea to substitute summer gin and tonics for the martinis sounded reasonable, since a G&T takes only one jigger. However, that would mean bringing hard liquor into the house, which I just explained that I got rid of. I didn’t mean just for this week. But I said, “We’ll see how it goes, Mom. Take it easy when you come home.” There is such a thing as taking one day at a time. This morning, I don’t have much trust in your G&T plan. Zero, actually.
I feel: Tired of being an enabler. I deserve healthy boundaries. I am not able to change or fix this. But I can keep the worst temptation out of our way. I don’t expect you to consider it love and a gift of care. This is so hard to say, I have to write it down.
Mom said, “I did a stupid thing because I was so mad at you.”
Translation: I got drunk and fell down because you are so uncivil — it’s your fault.
I felt: Demeaned. I must be a bad person. I am the problem. I should be guilty. So, if you’re not an alcoholic, then you might have a teensy anger management issue. But I’ll refer to my late brother’s favorite saying, “Denial is not a river in Egypt.”
What if instead Mom had said: “I did a stupid thing because my brain is wired for alcohol. I’ve been fighting with you for weeks because you keep my gin in the basement and count out my Tramadol.”
What if Mom had said, “I got drunk and hurt myself because my brain craves gin. My pain justifies my drinking.” But she didn’t. She blamed me.
I felt: Wounded. I did not cause this disease. I cannot heal it. How can I do my best to take care of her when she sees me as the problem? Sickened by the images of your bloody forehead, the blood coagulating on your amber pearls, the broken coco-cola glass under the bed. Your screams as the paramedics sat you up. None of which you remember, of course, with so much alcohol in your blood.
Mom said: Let’s be friends.
I fear this is the translation: I’ll be nice to you so long as I am getting my way.
I felt: Resentment. Yes, without realizing it, I have become resentful of you because it’s mostly about your pain, your drugs and your drink. Childish of me to want anyone to think about my needs. As a child of an alcoholic family, I am expected not to have needs, right?
My hope: Let’s be friends. I wonder, can we be friends if I don’t drink with you?
What if: I admit that I don’t enjoy drinking much anymore. I am ambiguous even about drinking with my girl-friends at a restaurant. It’s true. I no longer enjoy the effects of alcohol. And I certainly don’t enjoy watching your sharp mind and wit get altered when you’ve had too much. But that – having too much– is your business, not mine. I can always go to my room. However, can I plan a weekend away without worrying for your safety?
Consider: Let’s be friends. That feels good. I want that. And then there’s the reality of let’s be mother and daughter, where the grown daughter has to take the role of the care giver. Tricky business.
I feel: Pressure to be perfect. I don’t stand up to you when you start complaining about tiny details of my performance. How’s the food, here in the skilled nursing facility, Mom? Looks way less than perfect. How many days will you remain grateful to be home, I wonder? I’m overwhelmed at times, but try to be brave. I am your full-time care taker. I feed you, do your laundry, pay most of the bills, transport you, plan for recreation, and speak on your behalf in medical crises. Note, this is not the life you were living, Mom, when you retired.
And while I’m on retirement: I need to be able to travel and do things beyond managing my house to suit your needs. I deserve it. I’m going to seek options.
Consider: I don’t want to enable alcohol abuse – drinking which exceeds your doctors’ orders. Tough love, for your safety and my sanity. When you come home, you will start doing more for yourself. The things I do, like serve breakfast and dinner, will be around a normal, reasonable schedule. Healthier for you and less stressful for me. You will manage your drugs and your drinking in cooperation with your primary care, heart doctor and pain specialists. You will pour your own wine, for example. Monitor yourself, not me.
I realize you may fight me on this one when you feel stronger, and then you might hurt yourself again. But, don’t blame me, blame the bottle.
I know that I am a nervous, high-strung, flawed individual. But I am trying to live a happy, healthy – peaceful retirement. I wish we could be done with the drinking drama, but I have no control over what you do. I can only learn to take care of me. Today I owe you a big thank you, because taking on the responsibility for your care has caused me to take my own health seriously and change some of my habits. I am in better shape, thanks to you!
I love you with all my heart. I promise to work on showing my love, on being patient with you and speaking in a friendly tone – and removing myself when I can’t. I’m not superhuman.
Have you considered?: I have my addictions. My craving is for sugar, not alcohol. I know that I can’t keep cookies and sweets in my cupboard because, once I start eating them, I’ll polish them off in a day and regret the effects. They make me want more and more. And it’s a health risk! I can’t serve starchy meals because I won’t be able to stop eating the pasta, etc. I have a sugar problem. That’s why I changed my pantry and cooking style to stay healthy and avoid the binges.
Translation: When things are too tempting it is best to not keep them around for weak moments, which happen like every other day. I do this because I am learning to love myself! Finally, after only 70 years.
In our house, there’s wine, a little for warming the heart – to drink in moderation. Period. I understand you have pleasant associations with your evening wine. I avoid wine as a daily drink, largely because I view it as empty calories, and also because I don’t like so much the fuzzy feeling in my brain any more. I keep it for special occasions, when work is set aside and there’s a time to lighten up. My habits have changed over time with age and maybe a touch of wisdom.
That phrase “in my house.” When you moved in you continually said, “It’s your house…” and you also said how grateful you were to have a daughter willing to give you a home. Over the years, you’ve come to act more as if you are in charge, like we used to joke about how you did at Gary’s. Well, I feel the need to gently remind you that it is my house. Where I want you to be happy and, if possible, healthy. Passing away peacefully in your sleep was always my best hope for you when you die; never was it picking you up off the floor holding a sopping towel full of blood against your split forehead and nose. Not in an ICU with monitors and strangers. Not with the shame and blame.
I’m sorry you hurt yourself, but I’m grateful you have healed well. I’m glad we get more life.
Here’s my summation of this recent “stupid thing” you did, Mom. My heart is broken, but I am not. I forgive you and I forgive myself.
Very sincerely your loving daughter,