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When I Missed a Call From My Mom Who Struggled With Addiction

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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.

She knew how I felt about talking on the phone when she was drunk. At least, I thought so. After numerous calls which ended with one or both of us crying, I finally gathered the courage to tell her I would no longer subject myself to the emotional torment. After all, while the impact of those conversations are something I will never forget, she never remembered.

Our roles as mother and daughter were never well-defined. My earliest memory is sitting on top of the refrigerator and the look of distress on my grandmother’s face as she entered the apartment my mom and I shared. Mom was passed out on the couch and I provided basic care for both of us. I was about 5 years old. Since then, I have heard numerous stories about her struggles as a single parent and with alcohol. A common theme emerged, without effective coping skills to deal with stress and loneliness, Mom resorted to the use of drugs and alcohol. I lived every day waiting for the next tragedy, and the eventual disconnect which followed.

When my dad died in 1998, my mom lost all ability to cope. As the eldest child of nine, my caregiving responsibilities increased. When her phone was disconnected, I resorted to reaching out to a neighbor who agreed to drive over and check in. Most often, I received a return call with additional safety concerns I couldn’t ignore.

Setting a boundary with Mom was never easy. Neither of us had much experience with structure. As a child, I yearned for rules and guidance. I wanted parents who asked more questions and cared who I chose as friends. While my foster home experience was horrid for many reasons, I found comfort in the traditional family experiences, such as eating at the table for meals and consistent bedtimes. I believe my mom wanted to be the consistent and dependable parent.

Unfortunately, the trauma and long-term effects of grief, drugs and alcohol abuse consumed all her energy. She loved us, but I don’t think she knew how to be a mom. Years ago, I learned from a cousin the lack of parenting my mom grew up with. Clearly, we were both victims of some circumstances we couldn’t control.

On July 15, 2002, I received a garbled call from Mom. It was a Monday evening and she was drunk. I struggled to understand her. Out of frustration, I yelled and hung up. She called back and I ignored her. She didn’t leave a message. The next day, I received a call from my sister Tory. Crying hysterically, I managed to understand her message. She called to tell me Mom had been found dead, sitting at her kitchen table.

“She’s gone Tricia, she’s gone.”

These are the words I will never forget.

It’s difficult to describe the amount of pain I carry regarding that last phone call. The call I chose to ignore. At the time, I thought I was setting a healthy boundary. Days following Mom’s funeral, I learned prior to the call to me, Mom had spoken with my sister. Tory confirmed Mom was drunk and mentioned the reason for the contact. The day she died, Mom was scheduled for surgery to reduce the pressure in her eyes. She was anxious and worried about the outcome. In the call to Tory, she expressed a need to talk to me. I can only speculate she reached out for comfort, reassurance and care as she had my entire life.

The autopsy states something was wrong with her heart. Given what researchers have discovered regarding the link between anxiety and heart failure, I have no doubt she died from a broken heart. Years of alcohol and drug abuse combined with horrendous grief caused by losing her infant son at six weeks, her brother to suicide and her husband was more than her heart could handle. She was 47.

In the years which have passed, I’ve learned a lot about mental health and how to support someone who is struggling. If I could tell my 27-year-old self anything, it would be this:

“Be kind, but resolute. It’s OK to set boundaries with your mom, but first seek to understand the why behind her drinking. Talk to her. Listen. Love her.

Just as you grew up in a home and often felt your needs and concerns were ignored, so did she. Please know your mom did not choose her illness. The symptoms were always present, but often disregarded. Her trauma was cumulative and what might have felt like an excuse to not participate in your life, was often because she was consumed by grief and pain. It was impossible to continue breathing without self-medicating. Alcohol and prescription drugs were her coping skills.

Finally, be kind to yourself. Self-care is important and a boundary you must prioritize. When you feel good, you will feel stronger and the path ahead will be clearer.”

Original photo by author

Originally published: June 8, 2021
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