Maggie Shafer Writes

When “I Love You” Comes Out Slurred

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The triumph and tragedy of three daughters and their alcoholic mothers

My mom, 1978.

My mom, 1978.

Brittany Ricketts is rarely seen without her dog, Lily.

Lily accompanies Brit to her yoga practice, her business meetings, her desert adventures and mountain retreats. When I picture Brit, I see her in a Toyota truck sporting a wide-brimmed hat, Lily’s head sticking out the passenger side window, a huge dog smile on her face as the two head out to whatever’s next.

Lily used to belong to Brit’s mom, Jen. A post-rehab gift, Lily stayed loyal to Jen through some of the darkest days of Jen’s life, when no one, including Brit, wanted to be around her. While Jen was slowly poisoning herself with vodka, she still managed to feed and care for Lily, long after she’d stopped caring for herself or her three children.

In the weeks between Jen’s death and when her body was discovered facedown on the guest bed in her mansion in Malibu, still, Lily was fed.

The more we get together

My mom is a recovering alcoholic, though I prefer the term “total badass.” After decades of drinking she somehow beat this disease by herself in her bedroom with a 12-step book and CD set she’d heard about from a radio ad, along with some self-guided meditation. At the time, I had no idea how hard that must have been or how rare it was that she was actually successful at getting off the sauce. I just remember laughing with my siblings at the “Do not disturb: Meditation in Process” sticky notes she would stick to her door around 5 p.m. — the exact hour her Costco-sized cold wine bottle would usually get uncorked, and remain so for the rest of the evening.

I don’t think anyone could read the list of traits of adult children of alcoholics (ACAs) and not identify with at least half of them. Do you try to avoid conflict? Do you have trouble understanding your emotions or feelings? Do you desire more intimate relationships? Well, I certainly hope so. The issues themselves with this large and growing population of children raised by people addicted to alcohol are not what makes them unique. What is unique is the degree to which they struggle with these very universal human problems, as well as their particular cocktail of symptoms, that first caused ACAs to come together in the 1980s and demand a little attention.

“Most things that involve mental health move from the professionals to the consumer,” said Dr. Robert Ackerman, co-founder of the National Association for Children of Alcoholics and author of numerous books on the subject. “This was very different. People were uniting with each other, sharing their experiences, and overcoming their hesitancy to talk about them.The professionals knew nothing about it until the ACAs brought the issues to them. So it actually went backwards.”

After nicotine addiction, more people are addicted to alcohol than any other substance in the U.S. Much of the trauma suffered by families of alcoholics is due to the cyclical, unpredictable nature of the addiction. Unlike with nicotine, which is increasingly stigmatized socially and which is rather binary — you either smoke cigarettes or you don’t (though strictly social puffers can usually still dodge the label of “smoker”) — alcohol is consumed along a continuum. There’s the teetotaler to the daily drunk, but most people are in the middle. It’s much harder to spot when someone has crossed over into unhealthy territory when you only see them drink occasionally, socially, along with most everyone else. It can even be harder to spot when that person is your mom.

I hadn’t given my mom’s drinking much thought at all until recently, when I found myself in a counselor’s home office talking through some of the patterns that keep surfacing in my own life. Carolyn Anna, my sweet, sweet angel of a counselor, suggested some of my “quirks” might be rooted in being raised in a home with alcoholism.

I was doubtful. Having been more of a “they’re just feelings” kind of woman, I’m a recovering skeptic when it comes to using distant childhood experiences as an “excuse” for a personality flaw. I also have a hard time identifying myself as “an adult child of an alcoholic” as to me it implies something much more traumatic than what I dealt with growing up. Like I don’t want to be that person who says they snowboard and looks like they snowboard but what they really mean is they have snowboarded but most of their time was spent in the lodge with $10 Blue Moons.

My mom rarely drank hard liquor, and for the most part kept her drinking to evenings and nights. She never physically hurt me (though there were a few times I thought she might) and after particularly brutal nights, she’d come into my room early in the morning while I’d be getting ready for school and apologize. Her tears would sting more than anything she’d done or said the night before.

However, through the research and conversations leading up to this article (“when uncomfortable with therapy, research instead” says the voice in my brain) I’ve come around to believe three things:

1. There are a heck of a lot of ways to be an alcoholic.

2. When you have a parent for an alcoholic, regardless of what kind of alcoholic they are, it changes you.

3. If one or both of your parents is an alcoholic, you are in some great company.

Ackerman said to me on the phone, “If you told all adult children of alcoholics not to show up to work tomorrow, our schools, hospitals and government would all shut down.”

Turns out, I wouldn’t see many of the people that are near and dear to me, either. Skeptic or not, there are millions of us out there, and we’ve all seen or heard or carried things we probably shouldn’t have. While our peers were learning they were unconditionally loved and taken care of, we were learning how to take care of ourselves. While our friends were learning to be vulnerable in their relationships, we were learning how to protect and guard and keep secrets. While our classmates were being parented, we were parenting.

The stories I’m going to share are the result of countless hours of conversation with the two women I know whose lives have been most deeply impacted by their mothers’ addictions to alcohol. These are their stories told from their experience and my own retelling.

Read this article in its entirety on Medium.