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What It's Like to Grieve a Mom Who's Alive and Sober

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Editor's Note

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Childhood trauma has stuck with me until today, and while my mom contributes to that trauma, in the beginning, she didn’t. In the beginning, my dad left when I was 6 and she was the mom that people looked to in awe. A single mom of four kids, two of them twin infants, with an ex-husband who abruptly decided to leave for another woman when the newest additions to the family were born. She was even named “Mom of the Year” in our local paper.

No one told me where my dad went, and that was confusing, but the “trauma” of not having a dad didn’t affect me at first. My mom was enough of a parent for both of them. She was loving, caring, and affectionate. Maybe she spoke up for me too much, but I didn’t mind. To let parents do all the talking was typical for my age and that generation. But when she started drinking, I didn’t have a mom or a dad. My grandparents tried their best, but they created traumatic memories as we didn’t get along. I didn’t have words for “neglect” and “emotional abuse,” but I found myself hiding in my room, dreaming of death because I just wanted a mom again.

The mom who I used to adore was now often passed out from drinking too much. She could barely walk. She was a terrible driver and I thought I might die as a kid. I worried every time she left the house alone because I didn’t know if she’d get arrested for drunk driving or kill someone — or even kill herself, although that was too unspeakable to address at the time. The mom who was always so caring became cruel with her words. She was angry all of the time. We fought more than we got along. At 16, she was embarrassing even though my friends never seemed to notice she was drunk when they raved about her being the “cool mom” for leaving us with no supervision. Meanwhile, I wanted supervision. All I wished for was to get my mom back. I missed having a parent.

And eventually, I got my wish. My mom went to rehab and got sober, and it took a while, but eventually, everything was OK again. For years, I had my mom back. She was there. She was attentive and present again. She was supportive. She was my best friend. She cared about me fiercely and was my greatest ally. She stood by my side when no one else did. I finally felt at peace. I couldn’t believe my mom was finally herself again. It was a dream come true.

I guess that’s why I thought when she relapsed, once she got sober again everything would go back to normal — like the last time. But it didn’t. When she relapsed, we weren’t young anymore. I had moved out and the youngest was 16. The chaos of alcoholism reigned over our family just like it did before. But through every panic attack, through everyone night I cried myself to sleep, I reassured myself that one day she would get sober and everything would be like it was before.

And she did get sober. In fact, she’s been sober for two years now. But things still aren’t back to the way they were before. And after two years, I’m beginning to face the fact that they might never be. Despite being sober, she’s still more forgetful than ever. Sometimes, she can’t even remember what I said earlier in the conversation. She lost everything due to drinking and is rebuilding her life, and the first time that happened, she embraced it. Now, she’s just angry. She’s so unbelievably angry at life that it hurts to see. She’s spiteful. And when those feelings get to be too powerful and too overwhelming, she lashes out at others. I don’t know what version of her I’ll get on the phone and even mid-conversation whatever version I get may change as her emotions seem more volatile. They seep out of her, unable to be held in, coming out as snippy comments and pure unhappiness.

As someone who has mental illnesses of my own, I know it’s part of the process. I know she’s not purposeful in hurting my feelings or forgetting important information I’ve told her. But it still hurts. Because in front of me is the body of the woman who was my best friend, and now I’m not sure who she is. If I’m really truthful, I’m not sure I want to.

My mom is right in front of me and she’s sober. I know that should make me happy. I should be grateful. I should rejoice that she’s no longer drinking. But in so many ways, it feels like I’ve lost her anyway. When I searched the internet to see if there were similar stories to mine, articles popped up about how to grieve a dead alcoholic parent. But that’s not my story. My story is that my mom is sober and alive and standing right in front of me. I can hear her voice and see her in the flesh. Yet, it still feels like she’s gone. Like this is some other person I’m talking to.

Worse, there’s no one to talk about it with other than my husband and therapist. My family has mastered the act of pretending like everything is fine until disaster strikes and forces them to realize it’s not. I can’t talk about it to coworkers. Friends don’t get it because they think I should just be happy she’s sober. Talking about it makes me appear ungrateful, so I’ve learned not to.

But I am grateful. It’s nice not worrying about whether she’s drunk and knowing she’s safe. Yet, at the same time, I can’t help but cry thinking about the person she used to be. She was so full of life. So vibrant. She was the person I wanted to be when I grew up. Now, she’s the person I’m trying not to be.

Above all, I miss her. I’m not angry with her and I don’t want her to die. I want the opposite. I want the forgetfulness and anger and spite to disintegrate so I can have my mom back. I want her to love life again instead of looking at every opportunity with the glass half empty. I want her to be happy, because the mom I remember was always happy. Maybe she was stressed at times, but she was certainly happy.

But I’m accepting that the happy, jovial, carefree memories I have are just that: memories. Whether I like it or not, the cynical, sullen woman in my mom’s body is the new normal. At least, it is for the foreseeable future. Even though she’s still alive, the mom from my childhood is gone. It’s a hard truth to swallow and something that will take a long time to fully accept.

It’s heartbreaking grieving someone who’s still alive, because even though the person is still alive, the memory of who I have of her is not. And that hard truth is nothing short of devastating.

Getty image by by-studio

Originally published: August 12, 2022
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