A mother’s struggle with drugs and alcohol has affected the whole family. (Photo: Getty Images)
I was driving home from a business trip when my cellphone rang. My eyes darted to the screen. The Bluetooth revealed a number I didn’t know – and no name. Usually I ignore these calls. I picked up.
It was my mother’s neighbor, whom I hardly know. She was calling to tell me my mom was in the hospital and my 5-year-old daughter – who had spent the night with her – was with the police.
My stomach dropped. I called the police station. My daughter was fine. My mother was drunk at the hospital. The neighbor saw her stumbling around the backyard while my daughter was blowing bubbles. Speeding toward the police station, thoughts raced through my head. Why did my mom do this? Why couldn’t she be trusted with my child for just one night and half-a-day? Had she been lying about her so-called sobriety all this time? My hand clenched the steering wheel so hard - I was white knuckled.
I’d never knowingly leave my kid with my mom if she was back to using drugs, a habit she developed years ago after being prescribed the powerful painkiller OxyContin for her sciatica.
Back then, I was just a senior in high school, preoccupied with prom and college, and totally unaware she was even on the medicine some classmates cheekily referred to as “safe heroin.” That all changed when my mom called me from work one day and asked me in a speedy, shaky voice to bring her pills. I found what was left of those pills – just 3 in a 30-count bottle that was filled only days ago.
I don’t know why, but I brought the pills to her and didn’t say a word. That night she didn’t make us dinner, so I cooked up some boxed macaroni and cheese. My little sister and I ate in front of the TV watching The Simpsons. While my mom was in the shower, I checked her purse. The bottle was empty.
The next day, a Saturday, my mom called for a refill and the doctor’s answering service wouldn’t do it. The pharmacist looked at me sternly as my mom had a meltdown, throwing orange bottles of pills for high blood pressure and antidepressants on the counter, asking, “But, but, are any of these for pain?” I was embarrassed and called my dad. And that’s when it all came out. My mom was a prescription drug addict.
My dad stepped in and called my mom’s doctor, who then refused to refill her oxytocin prescription – or take responsibility for blindly giving her so many refills in the past. So my mom was forced to quit her pills cold turkey. She called out sick from work for a week and cried in bed, mostly in the fetal position, refusing medical help. She couldn’t function or eat, cook or clean. After a week she emerged looking wrinkly and weathered. I cooked dinner. She pushed rice and chicken around on her plate, but drank a tall glass of red wine. Then another. I didn’t think it was a good idea, but I was a kid studying for final exams and at least she wasn’t taking drugs, right? Wine is legal. Wine isn’t a drug. Years later in Al-Anon I learned wine was a sub for her drugs.
Things didn’t get better even though my mom was no longer on pills. She started drinking a bottle of wine every day after work. Pink wine, white wine, Merlot, fruit wine coolers. One day, we went shopping at the drugstore for my prom makeup and she left me alone to decide between sparkly lavender eye shadow or a glimmering nude shade, slipping me $100 and telling me to go wild. I realized later she was manipulating me with all that money. She wanted to keep me in the drugstore while she perused the liquor store. When I met her in the car, there were two six-packs of Mike’s Hard Lemonade between us.
One day over the summer before I left for college, I found my mom passed out on the yellow tile in the master bathroom with the shower running. There was an empty vodka bottle next to her. The small closet where she kept towels and linens was filled with bottles of vodka, wine and gin — some rolled up in towels. I threw cold water on her and called 911. I thought she was dead. No one was home. My heart raced. My face felt clammy. I felt drunk.
In the ambulance, she was irate and crazy and called me terrible names. My mom was always a mean drunk. I hid my face in my purse, rummaging around for nothing. At the hospital, doctors pumped my mom full of fluids and gave her some meds to take the edge off what would be the worst hangover.
Once she was under medical care, I called my friend for a ride home, telling him that my mom’s leg was acting up again instead of admitting the embarrassing truth. I stared at the ceiling from my bed that night — alone in my home, because my dad was with mom at the hospital. My little sister had gone to grandma’s.
The next day, my dad drove her to a rehab center and she stayed there for 28 days. I expected to have my normal mom back, but that wasn’t the case. She came home mad. She was drinking within days. I left for college. She only got worse and my dad was left to put her in bed and collect hidden bottles from around the home. They divorced, which escalated her drinking — suddenly everything was dad’s fault. She drank vodka straight from the pint and six-packs of beers.
Being away was wonderful, but I sometimes felt like I was waiting for a call to tell me my mom was dead. That call never came. Holidays were terrible. She drank and was mean to everyone in our home. I would eat some food on a fancy plate with a sterling silver fork then read in bed. I began to resent her and no longer felt sorry for her. I called her a drunk under my breath. She had abandoned me for liquor. At the time, I called bullsh—t on it being a disease, but I know now that it is.
After college I moved to New York City with no money just to get away from her, and not long after that, I had a baby. My mom and I saw each other here and there. She was drunk during the first few years of my daughter’s life. But when I threatened my mom with not being able to see her granddaughter, she went back to rehab for round two. I thought my mom was sober after that stay. She went to AA and read the big book. She talked about steps and forgiveness.
And it had been a solid three years since I caught her drinking or even suspected she was lying. But now here I was, for me, rock bottom yet again. I picked up my green-eyed 5-year-old daughter from the police station. “Mommy can we have pizza? Nonna is sick.”
After the hospital-police station incident, my relationship with my mom became strained, but I allowed her to have supervised visits with my kid out of pure guilt. I thought about her dying and us being on bad terms - how could I go on? Still, I smelled the booze on her breath and noticed her shaking hands as they played tic-tac-toe. At this point she was a functioning alcoholic. She worked and was able to take care of herself enough, but trust between us was lost.
A few months ago, when she was 66 years old, she chased half a bottle of Klonopin down with a pint of vodka. Then she called me, speaking pure gibberish on the phone. I called 911. Again. I was calm this time. Taking care of mom was the new normal.
An ambulance took her to the hospital, where she detoxed for 3 days. Then she was held in the psychiatric unit for 12 days. She was diagnosed with a severe mood disorder, alcoholism, and an addiction to benzodiazepines. I learned that she’d been manipulating doctors for pills. She convinced one that she was having crippling panic attacks, so he gave her Klonopin. Another was fooled into giving her Xanax.
When she was released from the psychiatric unit, she was transported to a gross halfway house with mentally ill homeless people and a woman named “Baby,” a former crack addict running the place. She stayed there one night and one day before I rescued her. She wasn’t going to get help there – but I picked her up on one condition: She go to a rehab center near my home. She agreed. The center was gorgeous and in an upscale town. Medicare covered the bill. Before I left her with the competent nurse, doctors, and other staff - we hugged. “This is it, mom. Get better,” I told her. “Or I’m turning my back on you.” I left her with mascara running down my cheeks.
She completed 30 days there and immediately found a sponsor at AA. She sometimes goes to two meetings a day. At the end of May, she celebrates 90 days of sobriety – which I track closely because she’s living in my home. She calls me her saving grace, but I’m not. She saved herself.
There is a bright side to this story for me. My daughter will never pick me up off the bathroom floor, visit me in a psych ward, or drop off clothes at a rehab center. I’ll never steal money from her or hide beers in my underwear drawer. My daughter will never have to worry about me, because I’m the mom and it’s my job to worry about her and take care of her.
Disclosure: Anna Jenkins is a pen name. This is a true story the author chose to write under a pen name to protect her child and respect the rules of Alcoholics Anonymous.