My mother was bipolar. She was also an alcoholic. I’m not sure which came first. All I know is that when I was fifteen years old my world was ripped out from underneath me. I’m an only child and up until that point I had a fine life. No problems to speak of. My mother was my best friend. We were attached at the hip and she did anything and everything for me. She was the “cool mom.” Then she went crazy.
She divorced my father after twenty-five years of marriage. Refused to speak to him and wouldn’t really let me speak to him either. From there, it was a whirlwind. There was a suicide attempt. And physical fights. The cops would call me and tell me I had to go pick her up from somewhere because she was drunk and causing a scene. She blew through all our money. One month she’d be staying up for days at a time, running around starting projects and never finishing them. The next month I’d have to drag her out of bed just to take a shower. I spent my sixteenth birthday in a mental hospital. I lived in a hotel for three months. I drove her car for her before I even had a permit because she was too drunk to drive. If I did anything that annoyed her she would say that I drove her to drink. That it was my fault she was this way.
This went on for ten years. I never talked about it. I kept my mouth shut and tried to live life as normally as I could. I didn’t want anyone’s pity. These are the cards I was dealt and I did the best I could, just like anyone else. After a few years, my mother finally let my dad back into the picture and he took over taking care of her. I moved out and distanced myself from her as much as possible. I wouldn’t ignore her if she called but I didn’t go out of my way to keep in touch with her either. She had fallen into a deep depression and it stayed that way for years. There were no more manic episodes. She didn’t remember much from her manic days but she never forgave herself for the things she did remember. She never let go of what she put us through and for hurting us…especially me. She was like a zombie, barely even leaving the couch. I didn’t know her anymore. She wasn’t “mommy”, the beautiful, gentle woman that had raised me. Just an empty shell.
Last October, my mom got sick. She went into the ICU and we discovered she had advanced cirrhosis due to sustained excessive alcohol consumption. They told us there was nothing they could do.
During her last few days, I sat at her bedside holding her hand. She couldn’t talk but she could understand. I told her I was sorry. I told her that I loved her. I told her that I turned out so great because of her and not in spite of her. I told her I wished I had spent more time with her. You always think you have more time than you do. She eventually slipped into a coma and one morning passed away in her sleep.
I will forever regret how I treated my mother those last few years. I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t handle her. I didn’t understand what she was going through and I didn’t try to. Those of us who don’t have addictions or mental illness can’t really relate to it or fathom what it must be like. I thought she was just being selfish. “How could she do this to me?” It wasn’t until it was too late that I realized that I was the selfish one. How hard it must be to have no control. To be a slave to something. How terrifying it must be to not even be safe in your own head. How can you deal with reality when you can’t even trust your own mind?
She never judged me and her love for me never faltered. Not once. And I should have shown her the same respect. I didn’t. I was mad, hurt, betrayed, and just sick of it. But she didn’t deserve the life she wound up with. She was the sweetest woman you’d ever meet and she was in such pain every single day. Unable to ever escape from it and it eventually killed her.
Addiction is not selfish. Addiction is a disease. It’s pain. Guilt. Regret. Loneliness. Sorrow. It’s feeling lost and confused and seeing no other way out. It’s desperation and heartache and tragedy. Anyone who knew my mother knew that she did not want to be that way. She didn’t choose this. No addict does. She wasn’t having fun. She did it because she felt she needed to. Because she didn’t know what else to do. She did it to escape from her illness, from her regrets, and from the thoughts in her own head.
I chose to write this blog about something so personal to me because of a Facebook status I came across on my feed today that really got under my skin. A girl I used to work with who decided to post about how heroin addicts are “selfish” and “losers.” It’s unfortunate that people are so cold to a struggle that they themselves have not endured. I’m not an addict so I cannot speak from an addict’s perspective. But I did endure that struggle, right by my mom’s side. Anyone who is close to an addict would never speak of them that way because they see how torturous it really is. And those who are not familiar with it, you shouldn’t speak of something you know absolutely nothing about.
The courage it takes to choose sobriety every day…every minute…is nothing to belittle. It should be applauded on every single level. I’m grateful that I at least had the opportunity to apologize to my mother for not understanding at the time and I am grateful for what I’ve learned from the experience. I’m also grateful to anyone who is compassionate to those who are struggling with addiction because they are extremely difficult people to care for. And to those who have found peace of mind and happiness without any mind-altering substances… we are the lucky ones. Be kind.