On Loving a Functional Alcoholic.

This post is an elaboration on a response I made to a comment from And Everything Afterwards’ entry titled “Talk to Your Children about Alcohol.”

My mother is the primary, but not sole, alcoholic in my life. She is a high functioning alcoholic. And because there are people in my family who are alcoholics that cannot function as highly, she refuses to believe that she has a problem. I used to believe I was being overly sensitive about her drinking as a kid, because she didn’t look like the drunk-all-the-time, can’t-keep-a-job, beats-their-kids-to-a-pulp alcoholic popularized by USA media. Because those roles are usually reserved for men.

Mothers are multitasking, loving, selfless beings that deserve a drink or two to unwind, is what the media portrays. But what happens when mommy turns into someone else every night after she’s had several glasses of her wine and she’s passing out in the bathroom? What about when I have to help mommy put on her pajamas and tuck her into bed after cleaning up her vomit? As long as you get to school on time the next day and she goes in to work consistently, everything is fine. She might get a little out-of-control now and again, but she most definitely does not have a drinking problem because the bills are paid, you have a roof over your head and food on your plate.

This was very confusing for me growing up. As a matter of fact, it remained confusing for me until very recently (I am now in my late 20s). I knew as a kid that I didn’t like what alcohol did to my mother (and certain other family members). But I also knew that my mother was responsible about getting me to school, herself to work and making dinner every night. I suspect it must be just as confusing for the high-functioning alcoholic as it is for those that love them.

I have made the intentional effort to follow a few WordPress users’ sobriety blogs. I admire their strength. It takes a really strong person to be able to look at their self objectively and say “I have a problem and I’m the only one that can decide to fix it.” I know that breaking an addiction isn’t easy. I know that the resurfacing of issues you’ve done everything to bury and forget is a struggle. I know that no one is perfect and that people fuck up in their recovery sometimes. But I have incredible pride when reading the raw & honest accounts of the recovering alcoholics to whose blogs I’ve subscribed.

My wife says I should rid myself of expectations when it comes to my mother. I shouldn’t expect her to drink and I also shouldn’t expect her not to drink. I agree with her. Investing expectation in someone who has a warped sense of reality is dangerous. It would be like running back into the arms of a physically abusive lover. A relationship with a functional alcoholic[-in-denial] is the same. Of course you love them and you want nothing more than to believe that they will be better this time. But how many times do you have to hope for it to be better this time before you realize you’re playing Russian Roulette and they keep handing you a fully-loaded gun?

You did not sell them the gun. You did not load the gun. You cannot unload it. But you do have the power to stop playing the game. It will be painful–your heart will feel like it is ripping apart. You will feel guilty–who will be there to take care of them? You will bargain–what if I just do something to distract myself next time they drink? But until they make the decision that the gun is hurting them and the people they love, there is nothing you can do to keep them from self-harm.

I haven’t seen my mother in almost 6 months. I haven’t had a conversation with her (other than superficial banter during my wedding) in nearly 7 months. The last real conversation we had was about her last drinking binge and it resulted in her hanging up on me, calling my aunt (her sister) and shouting at her about how I was her “devil daughter.” It is pretty scary the person an addict becomes when you confront them about their addiction. It’s like approaching a caged tiger. All it wants to do is get out of the cage, but the closer you get to the latch, the more violent it becomes. It hates the cage, but it’s the only ‘safety & security’ it knows, so it’d rather hurt you than have to deal with adapting to the ambiguity of a cage-less environment. But the reality is that a tiger is a tiger and it cannot let itself out of a cage. We must stop seeing our beloved as a tiger and realize that they are a human being inside of a cage without a lock, and that they must grant their own freedom.

Some days go smoother than others. Some days I don’t think of my mother at all; on others, many things remind me of her. It doesn’t necessarily get easier, but I can feel that I get stronger..little-by-little. I’ll never be invincible, that’s a fantasy. But I will get better and better at dealing with the deep pain of my childhood and the scrapes and cuts I get from time-to-time as an adult. I don’t have to reconnect with her (honestly, she is more avoiding me than vice-versa..), but I believe that I will, in the near future. It seems it would be impossible to go to my hometown to see family and not cross paths with her. So in the meantime, I’m building my strength and working on this whole No Expectations thing.