It was a very hot summer’s day. I ran as fast as I could on the scorching sand back from the waves to the safety of a large blanket. Thirsty from both the sprint and the splashing about in the cold coastal water, I grabbed a bottle of juice from the ice chest and hastily gulped down a few swallows before I realized it tasted like cat pee.
My father turned around and quickly slapped the bottle out of my hand with a stern series of ‘no, no, no!’ I wasn’t sure what I had done wrong to warrant such a response, but I didn’t particularly mind as the taste alone was enough to convince me it wasn’t meant to be ingested.
“That’s your mom’s,” he chided.
Being a very sassy five year old, I explained very clearly that it didn’t have her name on it as I grabbed another bottle.
It didn’t take a genius to know that I had just had my very first taste of alcohol, something I had seen my mother regularly consume out of wine boxes, big glass jugs, and out of pretty colored bottles that were stocked in our fridge.
My mother drank. I knew it, I’d always known it. There was always some form of alcohol in the fridge and usually a large stack in the garage. A couple of wine glasses appeared each night on the counter waiting to be washed. It just was just a normal thing.
In fact, I can’t remember a time of my childhood when my mother didn’t drink. As a kid it never really seemed too out of place. My aunt and uncle both appreciated wine, and several of my friends’ parents had beer in their fridge. I was cordially offered a taste on several occasions (usually holidays) but knew pretty early on that I didn’t like it. Well, the taste anyway, at least until I got of age. Over time I learned to hate the effects of it.
We had started learning as early as first grade that drugs and alcohol were very bad, that we should never, ever try them. I remember feeling so guilty about having tried a sip or two that I almost confessed it as a sin to my Sunday school teacher. In retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t, but I never could reconcile that I was being taught that alcohol was dangerous and the fact that it was everywhere I turned at home.
The idea of her being an alcoholic was always very strange to me; it seemed like it was a male problem. Most of the alcoholics I had ever witnessed in person, or even really seen in the media, were men who drank beer. (Except DA Jack McCoy on Law and Order who drank 18 year old Scotch). So, sure, I guess she had some drinks, but I didn’t know that I could actually say she was alcoholic. She always said she wasn’t, and at that point she didn’t show any signs of real impairment until after at least a few drinks. And with a high stress job, well, drinks were okay! I mean, even on TV, a couple of drinks after work made sense. And boy, us kids… kids like us were a handful, and handfuls need relaxing.
Even though it was totally normal to me, I still understood that mom’s drinking was sort of a big secret. It was a big secret I seemed to be unintentionally very, very bad at keeping. And while over time I got better at navigating the river of booze in the home, learning how she was affected by it… I learned a lot about myself along the way.
Lessons learned: Moms aren’t perfect, they deserve a break too, especially when they have kids who are as unruly as you are. Also, sniff anything and everything you’re served before drinking.
It was my first day of first grade.
I was so excited that I had woken up twice in the middle of the night (and had a difficult time falling asleep to begin with), and had unpacked and repacked my school supplies in my backpack. For the occasion, my mother insisted I wore an outfit she had selected, regardless of how incongruous it was to how I usually dressed: a little checkered skirt and vest, a thin and billowy blouse, knee high socks and matching buckle shoes. She had me model it to friends and coworkers multiple times before the big day and I decided to ignore the discomfort by focusing on the outpouring of ‘cute’ comments I received.
She left for work early on the day of, though, meaning I was sort of left on my own to comb my hair. My dad made me a cooked breakfast, helped me pack my lunch, buckled my shoes for me, marched me out front in the bright sunshine for a photo, and walked me to the bus stop. It was the first and last time I ever had such a back to school experience.
Once in Mrs. Fogharty’s class, I was lined up next to Jacob Daniel Rosenthal whose dark eyes and dark curly hair, plus a collared shirt and unfortunately checkered tie, resulted in at least 234 inquiries as to whether we were twins, or at least cousins by staff and students alike. Jacob was very, very left handed, and his seat to my left meant I often had to help with scissors and had to learn how to dodge a rogue elbow that would jab me in the arm. Just before lunch he reached down to pick up a crayon, and in doing so, knocked over a bottle of glue all over my new outfit. The bottle literally emptied, spreading across my new skirt and down my new stockings and into my new shoe. To make matters worse, my new white shirt came home with a stain of brick dust where I head leaned up against the wall. Finally, to forever solidify my school-house anxiety, my request at afternoon recess to use the bathroom was denied; when the doors opened, I dashed but never made it. Thankfully the glue-soaked skirt hid my shame.
I dragged my feet up the cul-de-sac convinced that being six years old was the absolute worst. With no one home, I went across the street to our day care provider, who very kindly helped me into a set of clean clothes that we kept at her house for days like these.
When it came time to go home, my father was too embroiled in his new computer and my mother couldn’t stop wrestling with my toddler brother to notice I was carrying my dirty clothes in a plastic bag. Dinner was a frantic mess of fried chicken and potatoes from the grocery store deli and eaten more or less in front of the television; mom had to watch her Monday night favorites, Dad was still formatting something or other on the computer. At one point someone asked how my day went, and I was honest in saying it had been a hard day, which only earned a few laughs because, you know, what does a six year old know about having a hard day?
I put my clothes into the dirty laundry basket and decided on a quiet, lonely evening. Feeling forgotten and defeated by such a rough day, I went back to my bedroom and started a few practice worksheets for writing letters and numbers.
Not long after mom got her comedy fix (but before Murphy Brown and MacGyver) – which, if my scheduling served me right, also meant after at least two glasses of wine and possibly a mixer- there was a loud thud as my door swung open. In her hands were my dirty clothes.
What kind of irresponsible, selfish and lying sneak did I think I was for trying to hide them? I had ruined them on purpose, she said, just to make her mad. Why did I have to embarrass her in front of my teacher by ruining my clothes, clothes that cost her money, and didn’t I even care about the things she bought me? How could I do this to her? I could forget about nice things because I didn’t love my parents enough to take care of them, I couldn’t be trusted.
Liar. Selfish. Sneak.
Lessons learned: Your bad day doesn’t matter, and “accidents” are just excuses. Also, always do your own laundry.
It was a few days before Christmas break of my second grade year. Jacob Daniel Rosenthal and I received our annual reminder that we were excused from any holiday activities and were wished a happy Hanukkah, (which sent me to the card catalog during library hour so I could learn what it actually was). The afternoon was reserved for the class Christmas party – games, snacks, gift exchange, and awful lot of unstructured, loud, and chaotic commotion.
Looking back as an adult, I had shown symptoms of serious anxiety issues prior to this point. I didn’t handle new environments or situations well, I would cry if I felt sensory overloaded, and I needed routine to avoid major surprises. Confusion made me feel isolated, and failure caused panic. Usually all I needed was a sort of catalyst or tipping point to send me into a thumb sucking, moody and overwhelmed little girl who couldn’t catch her breath.
The annual class Christmas Party meant mental scramble and zero control over anything – over who I had to interact with and activities I had to participate in (and how to do so). It was loud. It was busy. It was my turn… my turn! I didn’t know what the game was and everyone else did… everyone… looking at me… I don’t know how…. I can’t….
The tears started rolling, the head shook a lot of ‘no’s and the thumb promptly went into the mouth as I backed myself under a desk and tried to breathe.
My teacher tried to coax me out. I wouldn’t budge until school was over. I would have to take the ‘big-kid’ bus home, but in the mean time she let me sit in her swivel chair and eat the rest of the cookies as she started some questions… silly questions…
She asked what was bothering me, but trying to explain the rollercoasters my brain sometimes went about was too difficult and risked me sounding crazy. So I lied. Something about being worried, something about my parents, something about my brother… I figured she could just believe that lie and let me have my crisis in peace.
Unfortunately on that particular day, I had a couple of very large bruises on my arm. They were from fighting with my little brother, and by fighting I mean freestyle, no rules brawling over just about anything to get our parents’ attention. I assured her the bruises were from my brother as we fought over what to watch on television. We fought a lot, I explained, and yeah, sure, my parents fight, but it’s nothing serious. Lots of families fight.
But it was just a hard day, I told her. I didn’t like the noise, the lights, the chaos. It was just a hard day.
I had forgotten it’s not good to tell people you’ve had a hard day.
That night after dinner I laid on my bedroom floor doing a festive color by number with my brother. My mother was on a long, serious phone call and I could hear her yelling into the phone through my door. Then there were heavy steps down the hall. The door swung open and my mother yelled about how messy my room was. I was irresponsible, she said. My brother kept shading the same patch of brown over and over. Then came a series of questions and my clueless responses: No, I had no idea who she was on the phone with; no, I have no idea why my teacher would call her; No, I didn’t tell her that… or that… I was just having a bad day…. No, I didn’t hate her. I promise.
It was the first time I responded to the accusation that I hated her, and very, very far from the last.
She was humiliated. She was being accused of a crime. She was embarrassed. She could never look at my teacher again.
And me? I was selfish. I was a liar. I hated her. I was trying to get back at her, embarrass her. I was faking being nervous just to get attention. And now I had her attention, was I happy?
A lot of “I’m sorry” ran through my head, but I didn’t understand why she was so upset. It was just a hard day!
An onslaught of the word ‘shame’ poured upon us both.
Why did my parents fight so much? Well, isn’t it obvious – it was us. Me and my brother were officially responsible for our parents’ misery. And she was ashamed of our actions, of our behavior, that any children of hers could humiliate her the way I had with my selfish behavior that afternoon.
“I’m sorry I make your life so miserable,” she spat. “I guess I should have never had kids.”
I sort of wished she would have smacked me upside the head. The sting of a good smack goes away a lot quicker.
The door slammed and her sobbing could be heard through both of our doors for at least an hour. I prayed a very powerful prayer that only seven year old girls can pray that my father would hurry home and make it stop.
Lessons learned: Feelings are selfish, and sharing them with others is dangerous. Anxiety is shameful, and you should never openly show its signs. Also, it’s probably best you just avoid parties.
By the time I was ten years old or so, my parents were hardly ever home. While both of them came up with quips to make us feel better – you know, working so hard to give us a better life or something stupid like that – but we were pretty certain they were avoiding each other.
When they were home, they fought. While I know all parents argue and fight, mine screamed and yelled and words bounced down our hallways and through our paper thin walls. The house shook. The more my mother drank, the more tears she shed and the meaner things she’d say, then followed a slamming door. Dad would curse and usually just give up fighting. To my knowledge their fights were never physical; between the two of them it was just verbal – a lot of shouting at one another, at life, and a lot about us kids. And though they never hit one another, it didn’t make it any easier or less scary to sit through, and my mother would increasingly express her anger toward us kids.
Divorce was definitely a thing, but it wasn’t particularly common in my younger years. I didn’t understand it, but knew that one of my friends was very tore up about her parents splitting and very upset about the rebound step-family. It was the great terrible tragedy in family movies. But sometimes I wondered if my parents wouldn’t have been better off if they had gone that route. They weren’t committed to one another, but they were apparently committed to make it work if, I speculated, it was just because of us kids.
The fighting got worse with each year, the house a neglected mess, their absence was more frequent, and each year brought more bottles on the table, more volatile moods, and longer hours of work. By the time I was a young teen, there were often a few days a week when I never saw at least one of them.
One night when I was about ten years old, my parents got into a fight in the kitchen behind me and seemed to have forgotten I in the adjacent room working on a history paper. I remember because for the very first time the subject of my mother’s drinking came up, and my dad accused my mother of spending too much time with a male coworker with whom she’d go out to drink with. She had just come home from such an engagement.
My dad, it seemed, had decided she needed to cut back on drinking and expressed that he didn’t much care for her male friend. But my mother wasn’t her usual angry self… she was almost weepy, sobbing as she yelled, angry.
She was drunk. Flat out drunk. I’d never seen her drunk before, not like this.
I mean, yeah, I’d smelled it on her breath and seen her trip on things, I’d notice sometimes she was a little weirder than usual, and I started to try to attribute anytime she said mean things to the alcohol talking; it was easier to deal with if I separated her from her drinking.
The fight ended with her back out the front door and my dad standing alone in the kitchen.
I went in to get a soda out of the fridge and assured my dad that I didn’t like the guy either.
My dad was embarrassed that I had not only heard every word, but surprised that I knew who he was talking about… apparently that was the wrong thing to say. He just shook his head and walked away.
The next afternoon I took my dirty laundry out to the garage as I did most weeks. While I was hunting for clothes-dryer sheets, my hands stumbled upon a bottle of some clear liquid that smelled awful. ‘Tequila,’ it read. I recognized the word, having now started drug/alcohol education, so I took a small sip and wondered if it was paint thinner mislabeled… then poured a capful in the wash for the tough stains.
And I cam up with an idea that felt clearly like it was from God himself – an idea that could save our family!
My parents wouldn’t be home for a few hours, so I set the bottle on the kitchen counter and then began a hunt and a mission. I quickly grabbed all the wine and pink coolers from the fridge, then snagged a few fruity juices she used to mix drinks from the freezer, and placed them all on the counter next to the bottle of Mexican spirit. Looking around the kitchen I went to the drawer under the oven, the very back of the cupboard under the sink, and climbed the counter to reach cabinets above the fridge, and again, lining the spoils up in a row. Their bedroom was next – first the master bath yielded one in the towel closet, another below the sink, and still another in the tank of the toilet (TV had given me the idea). In the master closet I found all sorts of things I wasn’t meant to find, briefly flipped through those, and ultimately found forgotten Christmas presents and a bottle of rum. The one between the mattresses was a fancy looking bottle with a fancy sounding name, and I almost threw out my plan out of fear that this particular bottle could bring me trouble. But by then I was too far embroiled in my quest. Then out to the garage, I grabbed a case of beer and two more crates of coolers.
With my collection stretching the length of the counter and a bottle opener in hand, I began phase two.
All of it went down the drain.
There had been enough splashing to render me almost dizzy from the fumes, and I made sure to change clothes before they got home. In my mind, if the alcohol went away she couldn’t drink anymore. No drink, less fighting. She could quit just like that, the way she always said she would, now that I had taken it all away. I was doing us all a favor.
To show her just how much of a problem it was and how much I hated it, I took every single empty bottle and lined it up in our entryway.
That earned my first backhand to the face.
When I told mom that it hurt me when she drank, she told me she’d make sure to never hurt me again.
“Maybe I’ll kill myself, then you’ll be happy.”
It wasn’t the last time I’d hear it.
My brain tried to believe it was the alcohol talking, but my heart always feared that maybe she meant it, that we really made her so miserable that she couldn’t handle us. This always brought me to uncontrollable cries of apologies for being such a terrible kid, that deep down I really did love her and I was sorry that I made life so hard for her. She would then go into her room and sob loudly enough for me to hear through both our closed doors. Meanwhile, I would retreat to my room, try to drown out the sound of her crying, and, with my sinsuses and ears plugged from my own tears, would pray to God that, if he was real and loved people like I was told he did, that he would forgive me and not let mom make good on her promise.
Lessons learned: Your motives and intention don’t matter. Alcohol means more to an alcoholic than you ever will. Also, love hurts.
I never told anyone how bad my mom could get. More than anything I was embarrassed. I had learned in school and from the media that it was dads who drank and became abusive. No one would believe me, I thought, if I told them what she was really like. She’s a mom… moms care, moms nurture, moms protect. Besides, there were lots of kids who had worse situations than I did.
But when we moved to Montana when I was 14, my mom’s drinking got worse. And because both my parents worked normal 9-5 jobs, we saw more of them. Living out in the country, there was no way to escape other than a long walk… but in the winter it was like prison.
As I got older I learned to let a lot of the comments just glance off, but I think she realized it was no longer making an impact me or, by now, to my siblings either. So, one snowy night after my 10 year old brother reeled from her trying to kiss him (I think he said ‘garbage breath’), she decided to make us pay. She ran to the bathroom, took out a full bottle of hydrogen peroxide, and drank its entirety in front of us.
I don’t remember what happened next, but it was enough to rattle the three of us kids and remind us that maybe she did actually mean it when she threatened to kill herself.
After that, dealing with my mother was basically a dance on eggshells – until I finally stopped caring (or at least told myself that) as a teenager. What was hard is that my father, always the co-dependent enabler, turned on me. To him, I just made everything in the family worse. When I eventually checked out of fights with my mom, he had to deal with her, clean up the mess. I’d be better if I just kept my opinions to myself, just let her be her, just put up with the drinking, the name calling. I don’t think he knew that she would become physically abusive to me, but he wouldn’t believe it if he did (or at least convinced himself he didn’t believe it). He grew to resent me because I was the one that caused her to be unstable. At least that’s how I felt.
Starting in college I began to draw some boundaries to keep myself safe, or at least reasonably so. But while the physical distance meant she could no longer throw things at me or smack me upside the head, guilt became her tool of choice. She’d often call with important news only to hang up on me, screaming her ringer about going to die, and then leave me with the questions as to whether she meant it. Then she’d go back to drinking. Because, you know, I drove her to it. It’s my fault she couldn’t stay sober.
Several years later, after I was diagnosed bipolar, we learned that my mother had been diagnosed years and years prior with Borderline Personality Disorder, possibly Bipolar. All her years of drinking had more or less masked the symptoms, and she more or less hid it the diagnosis from everyone, including my dad. It was likely through her side that I inherited my challenges, but she was always very combative anytime I talked about my illness…. In hindsight, it was the same sort of reaction I got as a kid: she was embarrassed and ashamed of me.
Addictive behaviour is pretty trademark for many mental illnesses, and alcohol is a pretty standard for a self medication. She did eventually go through rehab a few times, rather seriously even, and did have a few sober spells. If you can believe it, though, she was usually more predictable when she drank.
Lessons Learned: It’s always your fault. All of it. Also, careful how much you drink… this could be you someday.
I’m an adult in my thirties. I live 600 miles and three states away from my parents. And I’m still playing this game.
I do have boundaries in place regarding how often we actually talk. (You’re probably wondering why I bother at all… I’ll get to that). There are rules: no more than one call a week, no calling when intoxicated or under the influence of anything, no weepy pity parties, no yelling, and no gossip. I simply hang up. And if it’s more than one call in the week, I don’t bother answering. It feels cruel at times, but it’s safe. Well, sort of.
As my siblings and I have grown numb to the drinking and threats, she’s had to find new ways to rile us. Every week it’s a different emergency or injury. Don’t get me wrong, both of my parents are piles of health problems, and some of them have been very serious. Of course, some of hers are self inflicted designed to get a response, to somehow make us prove that we care about her (or them, as my dad’s health has become her new excuse). I never know which is which. It’s sort of like boy who cried wolf seven thousand previous times, except you know the wolf is actually somewhere around the corner. That’s how unstable she is.
That’s part of why I still answer the phone; there have been legitimate, honest attempts, emergencies, and scares that seem to counteract the empty ones.
In fact, just a few nights ago my mother, clearly either drinking or not taking medication, threatened to kill herself. Again. But then she outlined a plan and means to do it… and when she has a plan, it’s serious. My dad was livid because I gave an ultimatum that he take her to a hospital or I would call police and medical from three states away and make sure she was admitted. It turns out that she did in fact swallow pills… so I couldn’t help but lay awake until midnight the last few nights praying that God protect her and begging to be released from the guilt that I unduly feel.
Incidents like this have caused me to change my mind about how I belong to my family over time. If I’m honest, I wrestle with what it means to forgive them when I still find myself wading through a swamp of effects that growing up in my home left me with. Some are emotional scars that need just need a lot of processing. Some are very legitimate results of a lack of being parented that I have to live with.
I try to maintain at least some sort of relationship, but it involves being reminded of every little infraction I’ve ever committed, with particularly hurtful things pulled out almost like a calculated dagger strike. My mother can remember these, but the things that were truly traumatic and hard for me fell into the holes alcohol eventually ate through her brain; she’ll go so far to deny things flat out, accusing me of making up things just to spite her.
Those hard things…How do I forgive for the hard and scary things that I stuffed so far into my memory I literally forgot they happened? How do I forgive an incident they probably don’t even remember, probably never will, and for which I will never receive any sort of apology?
Then there’s the matter of my own culpability. I share these stories and it is, yes, truthfully, very real abuse. I don’t dismiss that at all, and I will in no way make excuses for my parents’ actions. But I also can’t overlook that I wasn’t exactly without some blame for much of this. I was not an easy child to deal with, certainly not an easy teenager, and by the time I was in college I pretty much just hated every person on the planet, especially my parents.
But, at the end of the day, they are still my parents. I do love them, and God made the relationship between children and parents a special and sacred thing.
Honor your parents? I don’t know how to go about honoring a mother and father who don’t act like a mother and father, when there is little honorable about their parenting.
It can’t be stressed enough that God isn’t asking me to just turn the other cheek and be a door mat or a punching bag. The command may be to honor my parents, but the charge was even greater to parents to love their children, to keep them safe, to care for them, reprimand them graciously and kindly. “Don’t exacerbate,” one verse says, don’t rile them; my copy even says abuse or neglect.
I’m unable to even comprehend what this kind of relationship, a healthy parent-child bond, is meant to look like.
So where do I even begin the healing process?
Lessons learned: When your earthly fathers fail, your Heavenly Father won’t. Also, never answer your voice mail on an empty stomach.
Ever since I was a little girl convincing the pastor to baptise me so I could go to heaven, I’ve only ever heard God referred to as a father, a good father at that. While Jesus Christ is called God’s son, the Bible makes it pretty clear that being a follower of Jesus is to be a child of God. Other followers, from all backgrounds, become my brothers and sisters in God’s great family.
When you don’t have a particularly strong earthly model to base this idea on, the whole concept can be confusing and, in my case, even intimidating. My dad is passive aggressive, afraid of confrontation, seeths with anger at times, and turns the other way when his own daughter is hurting, even in danger.
And God is none of those things.
God is compassionate. God is a protector, a defender, and a provider. God treasures his daughters, delights in them, loves them fiercely. He forgives his children, builds them up, guides them to good things, and takes joy in their joy.
Fortunately for me, my father, for the most part, accepts and acknowledges that he falls short.
But my mother?
I believe that in the totality of God – the trinity of Father, Son, Holy Spirit to get all ecclesiastical – there must also exist motherly qualities. Men and women were both created in God’s image, after all. I see fatherdom in God the Father whom I’ve often turned to because of those fatherly traits. I see a childlikeness in Christ the Son, someone who understands the same human conditions I live through, who feels and weeps and laughs. In the Spirit, I see someone I’ve failed to look to for the support of a mother.
It’s not because it isn’t there, but because I wasn’t looking for it.
Why would I? Why would I even want any sort of mothering at all?
Pain inflicted by a mother feels twice as wrong, twice more a betrayal, twice as damaging, and in my case, twice as humiliating and shameful. In my lessons I’ve learned that having a mother is dangerous and scary and full of hurt.
But I’m missing out on something very powerful. The Spirit of God is also a comforter, a healer, a nurturer, and an encourager. In the psalms, He’s likened to a nursing mother, gentle with her children but fiercely guards them from anyone who might snatch them from her. He keeps watch over those he loves, is always there to receive them, always tender hearted.
I’ve thought a lot about this in the last few nights as I’ve mulled over the current situation with my mother’s instability. She is not the mother that God designed mothers to be, and it’s not really fair of me to expect her to live up entirely to such a high standard. Instead of harbouring bitterness about all the ways she falls short, I ought to intentionally fill the gaps with God’s great love.
I’ve realized that I have to – I absolutely have to – let God be both my father and my mother.
Not only that, but I must also open my heart to the love God has put on the hearts of other earthly fathers and mothers to foster and care for me, take me in as their own. My true family tree is shaped like a cross and it has my sins, my parents’ sins, and all my brothers and sisters’ sins nailed to it.
Lesson learned: God’s love is eternal, irrevocable, extravagant and complete.
But what about my genes? The inherited mess of physical and mental problems passed down from my family?
In my asking God sincerely about this in the last few days, He’s been pretty to the point:
Christ’s blood is thicker than my blood.
Choices are stronger than the chemicals in my brain.
And an open, malleable, willing, determined, and forgiving heart overcomes a past of pain.
Those, I’m sure, will make stories for other days.