I’ve spent my entire life worried that my mother is going to die. The worry is with me every day – as familiar as on old blanket. Why? Because the likelihood of her sudden death is far higher than that of other mothers. She’s an alcoholic. She has abused her body with alcohol since long before I was brought into the world.
Having a loved one with an addiction is extraordinarily painful. Unfortunately, we suffer alone because people are still ashamed of addiction, even though addiction afflicts more people than cancer, heart disease and other common illnesses.
I love my mother. Watching her slowly kill herself via alcoholism is horribly painful.
It’s difficult to describe how this feels to people who haven’t experienced addiction in their families.
I’ve often described having a mother who suffers from alcoholism with the analogy of a glass room in which my mother is trapped. From outside of the room, I plead with my mother to stop hurting herself as she stabs herself with knives. She feels the pain but her mind is controlled by the powerful glass room. It tells her what to do – every self-destructive action – everything that also hurts me, my sister, the rest of the family. The most painful part of the scenario is that my mother is comfortable under the control of the room. No matter the pain or the destruction the room initiates, she remains in its control. There I stand, outside of the room, banging on the glass, sobbing, praying, begging, for her to stop listening to the room and be free. All she has to do is turn the door knob and walk out of the room. That’s the only way out. But doing so is admitting that her life is out of control. She doesn’t want help. She doesn’t want treatment. She chooses to stay in the room. Hurting herself. Trapped.
By standing there beside the room, I’m completely ill myself. I’m sickened by what I allow myself to watch. I am overcome with anxiety and fear. I am traumatized. It’s a bit like being near a fire – the smoke is suffocating. Yet you stay as close to the fire as you can without actually dying yourself. I stand near the glass room, helpless, hopeless. After decades of trying to convince my mother to get help, to be fixed, to be free. This analogy is helpful in describing the pain but it’s flawed in that it doesn’t address how my mother’s alcoholism affects the rest of the world. My mother’s alcoholism has caused her to drink and drive, putting other people’s lives at risk.
Fortunately, I’ve learned that no good comes from me standing at the glass room. It only prevents me from taking good care of myself.
But no matter how great my life becomes, I’ll always have a mother I love who hurts herself in the glass room.
In our society, we are quick to help family, friends, co-workers, neighbors and complete strangers when we learn of a loved one’s illness. We sign up to deliver trays of lasagna and chocolate chip cookies. This does not happen when we are coping with a loved one’s addiction. But alcoholism and addiction are extraordinarily traumatic, terrifying and stressful. Imagine a loved one with a treatable form of cancer or some other horrible illness – but the loved one chooses not to get treatment to beat it – or being so far gone from the illness, that they can’t even think clearly enough in order to get the help that would help them beat the illness. It’s unbelievably painful to love someone who is suffering from addiction and killing themselves – slowly. Parents are watching their children die, siblings are watching their beloved brothers and sisters take their lives and destroy their families’ lives and children and adult children of alcoholics and other addicts are watching their parents slowly die.
When I lived in the same city as my mother, every time I heard sirens in the distance, I would get a flash of fear that my mother died or that her drinking and driving killed someone. It’s not uncommon for my mother to binge drink for a few days and completely cut off from her circle of friends, family and coworkers. When this began happening, those days were awful for me. I’d have to make a conscious effort to reassure myself that worry about whether she was alive or not was completely unproductive, except at completely preventing peace of mind for me.
Over the years, I’ve learned to be much, much better about stepping away from worry about my mother and away from the glass room. My mother knows that when she’s ready to get help she so desperately needs, I’m just outside of the door.
Adult children of alcoholics, parents of addicts, siblings of addicts, significant others of addicts are suffering, truly suffering.
It’s about time we start shedding the ridiculous shame that keeps addiction the family secret – and people who are experiencing this feel so alone. We need to share our personal stories and support each other through the trauma that comes with addiction in the family. That’s the only way we’ll break the cycles of addiction.
The good news is that more and more people recognize this. I hope you do, too.
Take good care of yourself.