Choosing Yourself: Why I Severed Ties With My Mother

I'm done. Even if I'm not ready to be done, I have to be done. I am watching her kill herself, and it is killing me. 

The last time I saw my mother, I was eight weeks pregnant with my fifth child. She called, frantic, begging me to come to her house. She'd had a fight with her husband. He was drunk, and now in jail. She was alone, in her house that was scattered with broken computers and shattered spice bottles — all manner of things strewn about. 

We — my husband, our youngest child (who was 11 months old), and I — drove the 35 minutes to her house. I sat silently, nauseated from the hormones of early pregnancy and from the scene I knew waited for us. 

We arrived and we found things in the state I expected: the house in shambles, my stepfather gone, my mother passed out on the sofa —  a handle of vodka beside her. 

♦♦♦

Three years prior, my mother is living about a half-mile from me. One morning I call to check in. She doesn’t answer her phone. I’ve just finished an all-night shift at the hospital where I am a RN. I take a short nap and resolve to try her again when I wake. I call. She doesn’t answer. I worry. 

It’s spring break, so the kids are home. I put all three (13, 11, and 9 at the time) in the car and I drive to her house. We stop for Taco Bell. I’m tired and hungry. They are bored and impatient.

The kids wait in the car while I run up to her door. I’m not sure what I’ll find. 

What I find is her, naked, vomiting into a bowl. The two strangers in her house tell me she has a stomach bug and they wanted to call me, but she told them not to.

She doesn’t have a stomach bug.

I drive her to the hospital 30 minutes away. I hope my favorite social worker is on duty. I hope she will admit her to inpatient detox. I hope my mom makes it to the hospital alive. 

My grandfather is driving. My grandmother is sitting, sullen, in the passenger seat. My mother is next to me, alternately sobbing and vomiting on the dress I’d grabbed from her floor and thrown over her head. She’s not wearing a bra or underwear. She’s barely coherent. She’s very angry.

We bypass the waiting area. Thankfully they know me here. They draw her blood. We wait. My favorite social worker comes. I’m grateful to see a face that is soft and concerned. She pulls me to the hall where I tell her my mother needs detox.

She tells me she is sorry they can’t admit her.

Her blood alcohol level is .39 (you can review the scary information about BAC here).

She's taken Xanax on top of the booze. She should be unconscious. She could be dead.

The social worker, my friend, the face I’d hoped to see, stares at me. My gaze shifts. My eyes well. 

“She shouldn’t even be coherent at this point, Joni. Blood alcohol levels this high can be fatal. She must have quite a tolerance.”

“Yeah,” I say. “She has quite a tolerance.”

What happens after that is a failed attempt at sobriety; Twelve Steps that are never worked, therapy that is never followed through. 

And she’s clean for a little while. Or at least functionally drunk. She’s been functionally drunk a lot, and dysfunctionally drunk a lot, too.  

♦♦♦

She lays on the sofa, crying incoherently. She displays a bruise that is the result of an injury inflicted by her husband. He is one in a string of seven? Eight? I throw the empty vodka bottle in her direction. She screams and sobs, "Why are you throwing things at me?"

“ARE YOU SERIOUS?” I’m filled with rage, and overcome by a sadness that few will ever understand. 

I remember, still, the weight of the bottle and the smell of the liquor. I think, This is plastic. How cheap is vodka that comes in a plastic bottle? Vodka is the one people say you can’t easily detect on your breath. Who said that? She used to drink tequila. Vodka must be cheaper. This is a store brand. It must be really cheap. It smells like booze everywhere in here. I feel sick. Why did I come here? I need to throw up. 

Things happen — talk about rehab, talk of sobriety — but it never sticks. She can barely get clean. She can never stay clean. The promises have been made and broken so many times. I would call it lip service, but the truth is that, even if she wanted to be sober, she can't. She is too sick, too addicted, and too consumed.

She is powerless against it.

Some time passes. I don’t call. She doesn’t call. Eventually she emails me. Guilt? Loneliness? She tells me she knows I don’t want her in my life. She tells me all the things she always tells me. I cry. She calls and leaves a voice mail. I don't return her call. 

I'm done. Even if I'm not ready to be done, I have to be done. I am watching her kill herself, and it is killing me. 

I cry for a while and then I decide to write her the letter I’ve been writing in my head since my first memory of her drunken stupor, the letter I wrote when I was eight and 11 and 14 and 19 and 25 and 29 and and and.

Mom,

I love you. You're my mother and of course I love you. I want you to be in my life. I want you to know your grandchildren. I want you to know me and Matt and our marriage, which is happy. I want to share my life and trials with you. My pregnancy with Max was very trying. The labor was long and hard and ended with me being transferred to the hospital. The recovery has been long and difficult. I have needed a mother. Desperately. You weren't there for me. 

I need you but I need you to be healthy. Emotionally and physically. I just simply cannot subject myself and my kids to your alcohol use and emotional liability. The last time I saw you only confirmed that. Do you even remember? You were essentially passed out on your sofa, your house in shambles, you looking like a shell of yourself. Before that how long had it been? I don't even know.

My heart aches for a relationship with you that is healthy and whole. I know you have had hard times. We have all had them. Your life has taken some rough paths and you've done your best. I respect that, but I have to make boundaries to keep myself and my family healthy too. My kids have seen you under the influence of alcohol more than sober. THAT is the gramma Terri they know and I'm not OK with that.  

You have so much to give. So much love and energy and talent. I want to see you able to give and receive love in a healthy way. But you need to be healthy and happy with YOURSELF to do that. Please consider that.

Love, joni

My email history holds this letter, even if I don't want it to — even if I don't want it to exist at all. Now, penning this article, is the first time I’ve read it since I sent it.

And I’m crying again.

I don’t really want to be writing this. Also, I do. I don't always choose the writing, sometimes it chooses me. This is one of those times. 

I haven’t seen my mother in more than five years. I don’t know how she is or where she is. I don’t know if she is sick or well, sober or drunk. I don’t know if she’s still married, if he beats her, if she beats him. I don’t know if she even has a roof over her head; food.

I don’t know if she misses me. 

I miss her, or at least the her I wish she was.

She has missed Thanksgiving, Christmas, every birthday, my oldest daughter’s graduation, my youngest child’s birth, countless opportunities to see her grandsons perform in jazz and marching band, and my sister’s master’s degree. She is missing it all. Every moment that has meant anything to me in the last five-and-a-half years, she has missed. She will miss Thanksgiving again in two days. I will make apple pie and remember the apple pies she made when she was sober, and the ones she burnt when she was not. 

Severing my relationship with her was incredibly painful, but it wasn’t hard. My life is peaceful without her in it, but it’s also lacking. I know I have a mother, but I might as well not. In many ways it would be easier that way. But my mother is sick. I don’t know if she will ever be well, if I will ever see her again. 

I don’t expect to. And that is painful, but not hard.

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