It was New Year’s Eve, 2014. I was 14 years old.
We were watching the Times Square event on TV at our grandmother’s vacation home in Florida. As the night went on, my mom downed one plastic cup of red wine after another, becoming increasingly “loopy.” That was the term my younger siblings, Luke and Olivia, and I had agreed on using. “Drunk” sounded too extreme. The tension was already thick because earlier that night my mom had snapped at my grandmother and aunt. She then pulled me aside and gave me an incoherent lecture about how everybody in the family had “brainwashed” me and turned me against her.
After the ball dropped at midnight, I headed off to bed, eager to put this crappy night behind me. But then, Luke and Olivia rushed over to me and told me to get back to the living room.
There she was, lying belly-down on the floor, so drunk that she was unable to pick herself up.
Seeing her collapsed on the floor like that was first time I fully realized just how much weight she had gained. My mom had always been so thin.
We woke up our grandmother and aunt, who quickly ordered us to go upstairs. Luke and Olivia began crying and running around in a panic. I—being a person who usually skips “sad” goes straight to “pissed the f*ck off” in these kinds of situations—became so furious that I took a hairbrush and smashed it against the wall so hard that it broke in half.
Meanwhile, my mom was so limp from intoxication that my grandma and aunt couldn’t lift her up. All they could do was roll her on her side in case she vomited (which she did). They gave her a blanket and pillow, and left her there for the night. The next morning, we all woke up and acted as if nothing had happened. She found out the next day that she’d broken her shoulder.
There’s a reason why they say addiction is a family disease.
The addict may be the one whose physical health is on the line, but everybody in that person’s orbit is also along for the ride—perhaps even more so than the addict. There will be times when you’ll just want to give up and write this person off as a lost cause. You will want to let them live with the consequences of their poor choices, even if it kills them. I know that’s how I felt at some points, as well as my dad, my brother, my sister, and just about everyone else in my family. But that was only because we didn’t understand what addiction was—just like so many others.
Let me ask you this: would you get angry with somebody for having cancer? Diabetes? AIDS? Of course not. You wouldn’t think twice about sticking with that person every step of the way and doing anything you can to make sure they recover. So what makes somebody with an addiction any different? I’ll answer that one for you: nothing.
An addict’s chances of overcoming their disease are only as strong as the support they have from the people who care about them.
My mother has already told her story about her road to recovery and helping those who are now trying to recover themselves. It is now my turn to share my story of how I and the rest of my family helped to keep, and continue to keep, my mother on the right track. I hope to be an example of what to do if there’s ever a person in your life who has this disease and needs your help.
The biggest mistake you can make is continue to make excuses for that person when it becomes increasingly clear that there’s a problem. The deeper the hole you let that person dig themselves into, the more difficult it’s going to be to pull them out of it. This is something my family and I had to learn the hard way.
The first time I really noticed my mother drunk was at a bar mitzvah the two of us were at when I was twelve. She was too intoxicated to drive home, so my friend’s mother had to give us a ride. At the time, I thought nothing of it. My mom approached me the next morning and told me it happens to everyone at parties every once in a while. And hey, that made sense, so I let it go.
Of course, I didn’t want to face the reality that she’d been relying on her wine and vodka more heavily than ever since my dad and her split up.
She began retiring to bed earlier and earlier. Eventually she was out cold by 7:30 at the absolute latest. Of course, that left me to deal with Luke and Olivia’s reign of terror on my own. Luke even began busting my chops about becoming “too parental.”
We continued using code words to describe how she was acting, such as “loopy,” “silly,” “weird”. We said anything at all to avoid the dreaded D-word, even though we all knew the truth. It wasn’t affecting our day-to-day lives, so we were able to push off dealing with it. And when my mother’s problem began manifesting itself in ways we couldn’t ignore…we still ignored it.
March of 2014 was when she had her DUI and had her driver’s license revoked for seven months.
My mom swore to me that she’d never have a drink again—IF she was going to drive somewhere. And that was good enough for me.
When she had her fall on New Year’s later that year, we just moved past it. She told us she’d try to “limit” her drinking a little more, but at the end of the day, she was an adult and was allowed to drink. And again, we let that be good enough for us. But of course, nothing really changed.
In fact, it just got worse. Olivia, only eight at the time, was becoming afraid to even be around our mother overnight. I began having to ask my dad to pick us up and bring us to his place (they were separated) for the the night. All the while, my mom insisted she did not have a problem.
It wasn’t until one night the following summer (well over a year after her DUI) when “alcoholic” finally stopped being a forbidden word.
Luke and I actually never saw what happened that night because we were away at camp, but Olivia did. She asked our dad to pick her up her once again when our mom began having another “episode,”. This time, my mom had a meltdown on the driveway and my dad had to practically drag her into the house because she was too drunk to walk herself.
I’ll admit it: this was embarrassing.
It was embarrassing when my mom had to have a breathalyzer installed in her car for two years (which kept her from driving more than a few times). It was embarrassing to have two family service people give us monthly visits. What was really embarrassing was when those people barred us from being with our mother without another adult around for what ended up being nine months.
How could this happen to me, I would think to myself. We’re not some poor family living in some ghetto town. How could I have ended up with a parent who’s an addict?
Of course, I had to learn the hard way that addiction was no “poor people problem.” Just like any other illness, it does not discriminate.
But hey, my mom had finally admitted in no uncertain terms that she had a problem, and said she’d begin going to weekly group therapy. She said no to a rehab center, because that would be overkill. Three or so relapses later, she decided that maybe rehab wasn’t such a radical idea after all. And when she returned, she was all better, all cured, until she wasn’t.
Now this hurt. I began taking personal offense to each drink my mother had, each cheap plastic vodka bottle I found hidden in her closet.
It really began to feel like she was choosing alcohol over her kids. But looking back on it now, I know that wasn’t what was happening. What makes an addiction an addiction is that you aren’t “choosing” to do anything. It’s as if someone is pinning you down and forcing alcohol down your throat or jamming a heroin needle into your arm or what have you.
April 4, 2016, was the day my mother finally sobered up for good. But her fight to stay on this path is not over. In fact, it’s never over. She’s more committed than ever to her AA meetings, and she sponsors several recovering addicts. She never lets a day go by without expressing her gratitude for having recovered, as well as the people who let her get there.
When I shared my mom’s article on Facebook, I described her as a “recovered alcoholic.” She was quick to correct me about the proper term being “recovering.” I told her I knew that, but I didn’t want people to get the idea that she isn’t sober because, again, most people don’t have a proper understanding of what an addiction is. It’s not some monster that you slay for good and then you’re all better.
Becoming sober is half the battle. Staying sober is where the real challenge lies.
Please believe me when I say that I’m not looking for pity here. I decided to share this story so that I can help someone who may one day have a loved one with this same problem—plus anybody who already does.
My advice is to not drag your feet on confronting the problem if you haven’t already. My family and I waited too long, and it made our eventual struggle to help my mom all the more difficult. Nothing is “overkill,” nothing is “making too big of a deal out of it.”
It is important that you rally together all the people who care about this person, because nobody has ever beaten an addiction on their own.
My mom had a consistent network of people to support her–my siblings and me, my father, my grandparents, and my aunt, and friends–but others aren’t so lucky. A friend of hers from AA recently died of a heroin overdose, leaving a three-year-old son behind.
It won’t be easy. There will be times where you’ll feel like giving up, times that will seriously test your devotion to that person. But believe me when I say it’s all worth it in the end. You just have to take it one day at a time.
Max is a senior at Millburn High School. He is passionate about politics and writing and plans to study journalism in college.