In a second I could tell if she was drunk. I could tell by the way she texted me – lacking clarity, with unnecessary spaces between words – and by the way her car was parked too far to one side in the garage. I could tell by the scratches on her side mirrors, showing that she had side-swiped another car. Even without these clues, I would have known just by listening to her slurred voice, seeing her bloodshot eyes in her blotchy face, and hearing her tell me, “I have not been drinking.” When I was little, I would confront her and try to force the truth out of her, but all I got in return was her thinking I was crazy and saying it was my fault she was drinking. As I grew older, I learned not to argue with her and just let her sleep it off on the couch, hoping that tomorrow would be a better day. Learning to love an alcoholic has been the hardest lesson in my life. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told to keep my mother’s addiction a secret. My dad would claim, “No one has to know,” and my mom would say, “You aren’t telling people I’m in rehab, right?” They wanted this secret to stay behind the walls of our house. But the more I kept it a secret, the more anxious I became. I spent hours at school wondering which side of my mom I would come home to. ••• I awoke to the phone ringing. A male officer informed me that my mother had been arrested for drunk driving. I was 12 and never should have had to hear that. The night before, a friend had come for a sleepover at my house, and my mom had gone out to get us dinner. I watched as she drove down the street on the left side instead of the right and immediately regretted letting her get in the car. We waited for four hours, and she never returned. When I answered the phone and it was the policeman telling me she had been arrested, I immediately blamed myself. If I had stopped her … if I hadn’t wanted takeout food … if I had only been nicer to her. Mom got on the phone and asked me why I’d let her drive, then begged me to bail her out, but my dad was out of town, so I had no way to help her. She made me feel that her situation was my fault. I couldn’t sleep that night. After her night in jail, Mom became depressed. Refusing to admit she had a problem, she continued to hide the alcohol from us. I turned into a detective, rummaging through cupboards to find half-empty bottles hidden, as if we couldn’t tell she was drunk. My dad was confused, not knowing how to talk to her. So she drank. My brother was too ashamed to bring friends home because she might be drunk. So she drank. I developed social anxiety and was scared to go to crowded places or talk to friends. So she drank. We created a fake reality to cover up Mom’s problem, hiding behind the walls of our house so our neighbors and relatives would think we were a perfect family. My parents fought constantly. My mother would force my dad to buy her alcohol by threatening to walk to the store in a snowstorm or drive the car herself, despite being drunk. My dad abided by her rules and became her servant, stocking up on bottles of liquor to fulfill her cravings. My parents’ marriage disintegrated, but they agreed to keep living in the same house. “If I make her move out, she’ll be homeless,” my dad explained, making me feel like accepting her alcoholism was the only way we could keep her alive. My dad set up camp in his office down the hall, turning his couch into a bed. But that was not enough for my mom; she complained that his phone calls were too loud and forced him to go to the library to work. My mom became queen of the house, and we were her servants. We didn’t talk about our problems because we were scared to admit that we needed help. We were a broken family, and we all knew it was because of her drinking, but we couldn’t blame her. When I was 14, my dad researched the disease and informed my brother and me of the effects of alcoholism. We found support groups called Al-Anon and Alateen for families of alcoholics. I asked my dad why we needed to go if it was my mom who was the alcoholic. I lied and said I was not affected by my mom’s drinking, but Dad bribed me to go, so I gave it a try. When I first walked into Alateen, I saw the distant, scared faces of young people just like me. In Alateen, teenagers meet weekly to discuss what they’ve been through with alcoholic or drug-addicted family members. I could see in their eyes that they had experienced a lot. I heard the stories of kids with abusive parents, and many whose parents had divorced. I felt lucky that my parents had stayed married despite my mom’s drinking. I knew that if we didn’t support my mom, she might be living on her own somewhere worse off. I surprised myself by sharing a lot at that first Alateen meeting. I had bottled everything up and didn’t think I could let it out. When I spoke, everyone listened and responded, “I’m here for you.” Many of the teens gave me their phone number and told me to call them if I needed anything. I finally felt supported and understood. I liked how it didn’t matter if the girl who was sharing was the captain of the cheerleading squad or just an average student. Alateen was anonymous, so anything shared in the group would not be repeated elsewhere. I felt safe and free to reveal how I really felt about my mom. My mom agreed to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings after her second arrest for driving drunk. Living without a license for six months was difficult, and she was scared of getting a third DUI and losing her license for even longer. She came home crying after her first meeting. I was really confused why this disease made people so emotional. Alcoholism was not like cancer; she wasn’t dying. She informed me that she had faulty wiring in her brain that made her addicted to alcohol. This addiction ran in our family and could affect my brother and me. Mom befriended a sponsor through Alcoholics Anonymous who suggested she attend a rehab session at the local hospital. She did, and my dad, brother, and I went to the family meetings there. Learning in depth about the disease helped us understand what she was going through. We felt more sympathetic knowing that we had no control over it. Now, six years after I answered the phone call that changed my family’s life, I am proud to say that Alcoholics Anonymous, Alateen, and Al-Anon have saved my family. I wouldn’t be so accepting, loving, and caring toward my mother if not for these groups. I would still be blaming myself and covering up our family secret. I have also learned how common alcoholism is. One in five adult Americans have grown up with an alcoholic parent, according to statistics from the National Association of Children of Alcoholics. Although my mom is not cured of this disease – and she never will be – she is on a path to recovery that I support. Alateen helped me cope with her disease more effectively. I have learned to live a happier life, no longer taking responsibility for my mother’s drinking, and understanding that she must stop on her own. All anyone can do is take it one day at a time. If you need help dealing with a loved one who is an alcoholic, check out Alateen: www.alateen.org.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.
This piece won the October 2015 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.