This week is National Addictions Awareness Week (NAAW) in Canada, and to mark the week we will be calling attention to books that help to bring addictions into the light, where they don't thrive as well as under cover of secrecy. This morning we are pleased to feature a chapter excerpt from Hooked: When Addiction Hits Home (Annick Press). Hooked, edited by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes and featuring an introduction from Robert Munsch, is based on interviews with people who, in their youth, lived with an addicted parent or sibling. The story we feature today—that of Pierre, who grew up with an alcoholic mother—is one of ten in Hooked.
No one in Pierre’s family ever acknowledged his mother’s alcoholism. And for a long time, the secrecy and mistrust prevented Pierre from speaking about anything—including the fact that he was gay.
No Reason to Be Ashamed
Surrounded by drinking
My mother is American, but my twin brother, Remy, and I grew up in France, where my father is from. We lived there until I was fifteen and my parents divorced. During our time in France, my mother drank pretty steadily. There was this whole community of mothers who stayed home during the day and drank together. My friend Thérèse’s mother was also an English-speaker, and an alcoholic. Our two families formed a unit where the drinking started early, with cocktails around eleven a.m., and ended in the evening after dinner. It was a way of life growing up, and my mother certainly wasn’t the only one who did it.
How it affected her
My mother’s drunkenness became most apparent in the evenings. Her speech would slur and her emotional state would change. Aside from telling us she loved us, my mother was emotionally guarded when she was sober. When she was drunk, her guard would slip. Sometimes she would become affectionate; sometimes she would become mean. If my father was away, she would often have breakdowns and cry. She was not what you would call a happy drunk. All the emotional baggage she managed to evade during the day would sort of catch up with her in the evening after she’d been drinking.
I remember asking my mother when I was quite young why she was so different at night, but I don’t think I actually used the word “alcoholic” until I was thirteen or so. Around that time, Thérèse and I both came to the conclusion that our mothers were alcoholics, and we’d compare notes about their drinking habits. We’d say, “Your mother is a better drunk driver than mine is,” or “Your mother is a nicer drunk than mine.”
My mother and Thérèse’s mother had a pretty toxic relationship. They were very competitive—partly because they were both in love with my father. Much later, after my parents had split up, my dad and Thérèse’s mom ended up together. Long before that, though, our moms used to compare lives and try to one-up each other. And because my mother was so crippled by insecurities and felt like such a failure, she could never win.
Once, after one of these “whose life is better” sessions, Remy and I came home to find our mother in the bathroom crying, saying how her life was worthless and meaningless. We tried to console her as best we could, but we were only ten and we didn’t really understand where this was coming from.
Failed by her kids
Sometimes my mother’s emotional outbursts had to do with our performance in school. My mother had a very high IQ and held us to high academic standards. But because she was usually drunk in the evenings, she never provided us with much guidance or support.
I remember one semester—around the time that our parents’ marriage was first on the rocks—during which Remy and I were not getting good grades. When we brought our report cards home, my mother went into this rage. She said things like: “I’ve sacrificed my life for you, and this is how you repay me? My life is worthless! I should just throw myself off the balcony.” It went on and on and on, all because we hadn’t reached the level of academic success that she expected of us. That really struck the fear of God in us.
When I look back now, I’m pretty sure my mother was never suicidal. Despite the occasional threat, I don’t think she ever really considered killing herself. But at the time, we took it as literal truth that we were both terrible failures, that we had let her down so badly that she might do something awful. I felt like I would lose my mother because I hadn’t worked hard enough. I felt like my Cs were the reason she was sad. And so I redoubled my efforts, and so did Remy, and we both rose to the top of our class.
Dad didn’t help
Although my father wasn’t an alcoholic, he did drink, and he was certainly very tolerant of my mother’s drinking. In fact, he has told me that from the time they first began dating, he knew she was an alcoholic. Despite this, he never discussed her drinking with her.
Instead, he was usually the first to pour her another glass. My father comes from a drinking culture, so his relationship with alcohol is very different from my mother’s. In France, most people drink with every meal except breakfast. So I think that contributed to my father’s tolerance of my mother’s drinking. And despite the fact that it was way beyond normal, nobody spoke about—or even acknowledged—my mother’s drinking.
Avoidance and denial are very common problems in the families of addicts. Many addicts’ partners and spouses will sometimes go so
far as to facilitate ongoing substance abuse, rather than risk confronting or shaming their loved one.
After the divorce
Our parents got divorced when Remy and I were fifteen, and Mom’s drinking went from bad to worse. She had signed a prenuptial agreement with my father, which left her with very little. As a result, we were forced to move back in with her family in the United States. My mother’s father, also an alcoholic, had passed away years before, and none of her remaining family members drank. This meant that on top of becoming more frequent, my mother’s drinking also became more noticeable.
I can’t remember a time after we moved back to the States that my mother was coherent beyond seven or eight p.m. On weekends it was even worse: by four p.m. she’d be slurring her speech and passing out on the sofa. That was something we hadn’t really witnessed in France. Sunday afternoons in France were spent with my father’s clients, so she had to behave herself. But once we moved to the States, she had nothing else to do, so she became increasingly depressed. And my mother drinks to manage her feelings. It doesn’t work, but she keeps trying.
A code of silence
Like I said, no one in my family spoke about my mother’s drinking. This began with my father in France and continued with my grandmother in the States. Although my grandfather (her husband) was an alcoholic, she never admitted it. In fact, I’ve even heard her say that he never drank, which is completely delusional. Sure, my grandfather wasn’t a complete wreck—he had a job and a social life—but he was undeniably an alcoholic. While he was still alive, my grandmother developed a habit of going to bed early so she wouldn’t have to see him drunk. That was her coping mechanism during her marriage, and it later became her way of avoiding my mother’s nighttime drunkenness.
I remember my grandmother once asked my brother and me, “Does your mother have another glass of wine after I go to bed?” And it was such a funny thing to ask, because Mom actually got drunk on vodka most of the time, not wine. But I guess that was her way of delicately approaching the subject without really touching it. And that’s the closest anyone ever really came to discussing it. Even then, I remember feeling such a rush of shame at the question—as though I’d been caught drinking. I felt exposed and red-handed. I didn’t perceive it as Grandma’s way of trying to help. For her part, my mother was never able to admit that she was drunk. She was always just “very tired.”
Despite everything, my mother and I have always spent a lot of time together, and often enjoy each other’s company. And yet she was the very last person I told I was gay. I think this is because I had decided that if she didn’t have to talk about her drinking, I didn’t have to talk about my sexuality. I thought maybe if I didn’t bring up her slurred speech and emotional breakdowns, I didn’t have to tell her I was attracted to men. And even when I finally did come out to her—because I’d already told everyone else—we hardly talked about it. She didn’t have any kind of response at all, really.
It could have been worse, I suppose. When I came out to my father (who was still in France) he clung to the belief that homosexuality was a phase I’d grow out of. And when it became clear it wasn’t, our already rocky relationship deteriorated quickly. In a way, though, my mother’s silence was equally upsetting, because it was another example of how we never talk about difficult things.
When she couldn’t simply avoid talking about something, my mother would often claim to have forgotten it. She would sometimes make irrational demands and then act surprised when I confronted her about them later. While my brother and I were in high school, we never really had a curfew, but one night when I was going out, my mother randomly decided I had to be home at eleven p.m. I was seventeen at the time and it was just absurd. We had a forty-five-minute argument about it, and I was so mad at her. But the next day, when I brought it up, she said, “Oh, I would never have said eleven. I must have meant one o’clock!” And I said, “We talked about it for forty-five minutes!” But she claimed not to remember any of it.
Research shows that heavy alcohol use can damage memory, sometimes permanently. Many people will not fully remember events or conversations that occurred while they were drunk.
How I coped
As a young child, I wasn’t very good at coping. I assumed that my mother was drinking because I had done something wrong. When I got to high school and finally understood that my mom was an alcoholic and it wasn’t my fault, I started acting out. I sometimes did this academically, probably because I knew that was important to her. By the time I was sixteen or seventeen, I was very depressed and I let my normally high grades start to slip. I became a terrible procrastinator and couldn’t bring myself to finish anything. I think this was partly my way of retaliating for everything, but partly I was just so depressed I couldn’t do well even if I tried. Fortunately, when I did perform, I made up for the times when I wasn’t performing, so I still managed to graduate at the top of my class.
Learning to talk about it
With time, I learned to cope in more effective ways. And ultimately, I learned to talk about my mother’s alcoholism. It took a long time for talking to be helpful, though. At first, I confided in Thérèse. The two of us kept in touch after I left France, but we always used very pointed, hurtful language to talk about our mothers’ habits. We called them drunks and other unkind names.
Later, in high school, I spoke with a school therapist about my mother’s drinking. And I think that was the first time I talked about it in a way that wasn’t as poisonous. But I was definitely still coming from a place of anger. And of course, being gay added a whole other layer of complexity to my teenage years. So it was a very isolating time. The only people I was able to talk to were outsiders, and I could only talk to them in a sarcastic, dismissive way. To this day, even my twin brother and I have never really spoken about my mother’s drinking. I think this was because we grew up surrounded by walls of silence, and speaking became threatening to us.
Where it has left me
It’s hard for me to look back and say my mother’s drinking did “x,” but it continues to be very difficult for me to talk about my feelings. I also live with a terrible fear of people changing. I assume that if someone says anything positive to me, they’re either lying or they’ll soon change their minds. I can’t bring myself to believe nice things, unless they’re repeated over and over again … especially when it comes to love and affection.
Emotions also scare me—particularly great displays of emotion like the ones my mother was prone to when she was drunk. I tend to blow ordinary interactions out of proportion and assume that, if someone raises their voice at me, we’ll probably never speak again. For a long time, people crying made me very uncomfortable as well, but I’m slowly getting over some of these things.
My brother, Remy, is even worse. To this day, he’s never been in a relationship. And as difficult as I find it to talk about my feelings, he’s basically completely unable to do so. He has a tough time connecting with other human beings, something directly related, I think, to our experience as kids. My mom is still drinking, and it still upsets me. But now that I’m on my own, it’s easier for me to avoid her when she’s in really rough shape.
About a year ago, I was taking the subway to work and there was a teenager on the platform with his mother. She was visibly very drunk and very poor. His situation was probably even worse than mine growing up, because my mother would never have been intoxicated in the middle of the day like that, and we were never broke. And you could tell that this boy was so embarrassed about the whole thing and that he thought everyone waiting for the subway was judging him.
I so badly wanted to tell him that no one was looking at him with judgment, and that he had no reason to be ashamed. I wanted to tell him that, if anything, people felt only great sympathy for him. I think that’s what I missed out on, growing up: someone to tell me that I had nothing to be ashamed of. I wish I’d said something to him. Maybe next time I see something like that, I will speak up.