My mother was unflinchingly strong and alive
It all started when my dad suddenly rang to ask if I could stay the night at my friend’s house. Young, clueless and blissfully unaware, I had thought nothing of it. It meant I could keep playing the newest Sims expansion. I still remember the tone of his voice the next day when he told me my mother wasn’t well whilst he drove to the hospital. 10 year-old-me assumed she’d been in a car crash or had appendicitis.
We arrived and I blinked up at her in an unfamiliar common room. There was jaundiced yellow lighting, paint cracks in the wall and a large man in a purple velour jumpsuit in the hallway. My mother sobbed as another patient worked on a puzzle. I wondered who the woman in front of me was as she faded into the strangers in the common room.
The mother I knew was full of wisecracks and laughter, sparkling brown eyes and over-shared secrets. She loved shopping, movies and me. She showed me how to blow-dry my hair upside down to make it bigger, scratched my back when I couldn’t sleep and constantly told me I could do anything I set my mind to. She planned crafts like glass-making, making pottery or baking cookies. At Christmas she always put on ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’, only bought me Barbies that wore business suits and made peppermint bark ice cream. At school, she made me dress up as Amelia Earhart rather than just sticking me in a pretty dress. She had worked as a high-flying IT consultant whilst still remembering to put my favourite bear-shaped snacks in my lunchbox and plan the best Halloween parties. My mother was unflinchingly strong and alive. Even when her father had died from his own addictions, I hadn’t seen her cry. She was and still is and always will be my mother.
Over the next year, I stood on her doorstep, terrified of the different person I’d find each time I’d go inside. I watched as my strong, resilient mother crumbled like a sculptured idol in front of me – as I nodded and tried to devise what I could do to bring her back. For the last seventeen years I have wanted to put her together again, perpetually drowning under such an insurmountable task.
There was a beige home phone that I stared at for hours one of the many times she disappeared. It had a curly cable connecting it to the plug. There were grey numbers and my dad’s writing, tiny and illegible, attempting to mark four names by the speed dial. He’d gone to my mum’s as I’d been so worried.
There were tubes in the hospital and marks on her arms from the IV. She cried as she told me she hadn’t wanted me to see her like this, like she’d seen her own father. I didn’t say anything. At eleven years old, I thought she had left me, not a world that had become too unbearable to live in.
So I would try to leave too, as my mother slurred through tears, asking me where I was going. Writing this feels like revealing her most shameful secret. There may have been months, maybe even years, when she never picked up a bottle. We eventually found out because of the DUI. She hid it better than anything else, because she wanted to protect me, she didn’t want to be like the rest of her family, and she was ashamed. There were other hospital trips, although now because she’d had too much to drink.
When I was fifteen, at 2 am in the morning, I received an email from my mum saying that she’d finally worked it all out: she was bipolar. She wrote pages to me explaining her diagnosis and what it meant. My mother’s sickness finally had a name, but for me it meant the same as it always did. She wasn’t OK. Which meant I always had to be. I couldn’t fall apart because there was no longer a mother to scratch my back and whisper she loved me.
Sometimes she wouldn’t want anything to do with me for a week, a month, a year. She was impermanent; crashing in and out of my life as her illnesses dictated. But I had thought she hated me. For not being a good enough daughter and for never being able to look after her in the way she needed.
After her diagnosis, my mother worked so hard to be better. She wanted so badly to be well and to be a good parent. Repeatedly, she faced difficult challenges and always managed to get back up again. I often felt like her medications were like throwing a thousand random darts at a board and hoping something struck. My mother told me the only thing that scared her more than her pills was not having them. She would speak openly of her experiences of bipolar, but not of alcoholism, for a mental health charity. She never drank, apart from when she did.
One time she sent me a care package when I was at university, full of Percy Pigs and fluffy pens. I cried as I opened it. I had spent so long learning to survive without her love. I didn’t know what to do with it.
So, we remained on the peripheries of each other’s lives, constantly afraid of hurting each other or ourselves. I meticulously managed our relationship. Crafting a life support system for her out of well-timed phone calls, dinners and support plans. It never worked. The more I tried to help her, the worst it often got.
When it’s Christmas Day and your mother rings you at 5 am, being that unmistakable kind of not right, what are you supposed to do? And when you get there and you’re certain she’s on some sort of substance, but she gets worse each time you ask if she is okay, what can you say? When you can’t bear to hear the words she’s saying, how can you listen?
But I like to think we both tried our best. I still loved her so much – too much, I thought. That was what made it so difficult.
Years later, when the police let us in, I found my mum’s phone by some pill packets in her bedroom. The last visited website was ‘SOS Sobriety Groups’. I told myself she was helping a friend, till my father found the wine bottles. I can’t tell you anymore. It is too ugly and too sad.
I emailed the website twice and never received a response.
One of her closest friends told me all my mother had wanted to do was make up for my screwed-up childhood. How whilst she hadn’t been well enough to be a mum, she’d make sure to be an amazing grandmother. I tried to persuade her that my mother hadn’t wanted to die.
Months later, I did the same at an inquest. I can’t shake the feeling that we’d both been on trial for her death.
Whilst we all know you cannot ‘fix’ someone else’s addiction, it is a different thing entirely to feel it. It is another slogan along with ‘you need to put on your oxygen mask first’, ‘they’re not choosing alcohol over you’ and ‘you’re not responsible for your mother’s suicide attempt’ that I would rationally realise but never be emotionally convicted by.
Soon it will be the 1 year ‘anniversary’ of my mother’s death from an accidental overdose. I think she just wanted to feel better, but I won’t ever know. Loving and losing someone that suffers from addiction has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through. I wish I had advice to make any of it better, but I don’t. Despite the checklist I tried to make after she died: eat well, exercise, get counselling, be okay.
I have worked so hard to seem normal and happy to everyone around me. Perhaps because so many mental illnesses are supposed to have a genetic, or taught, component. Especially after my mother died, I was hyper-conscious that people were going to think I had lost my mind too. I tried to reassure myself that I would never let myself get sick. As if my mother ever chose to be.
Since her death, I have raged at myself for the many other errors I made. I’d love to pretend that I never got angry when she was unwell, but I can’t, and I only got angrier because I was never allowed to be. She told me once that I resented her for being sick; she was probably right. Who knows where my mother ended and her illness began. All of her behaviours became unquestionable to me, and therefore unchangeable. I would always wonder and never ask if she had been drinking.
But I still maintain that if my mother wasn’t ever responsible for any of her mistakes, we not only robbed her of the autonomy to get better, but also of her ownership of all the fantastic, caring things she did. Of which there were many.
My mother can’t be reduced to her illnesses. She wasn’t just an alcoholic, like no one ever is. The labels turns it into more a judgement than a disease. Classifying and mocking unwell, vulnerable people under extreme stereotypes of abusive criminals. In the office or at parties, people would laugh and joke about the illness that hurt my family so much. I’d hear friends of friends talk disparagingly of addicts and benefit thieves, whilst my own immigrant mother stayed at a Premier Inn before she could get council housing. But she was so much more than her struggles.
More than anything after she died, I wanted to scream that from the rooftop and the pulpit. I wanted to hold her life to narrate it better; into what she would have wanted. To keep her image alive, the pictures from the thousands of pages in her book where she hadn’t relapsed, but she’d got back up again and she’d lived. Still, I want to remember her for every day she fought and chose not to drink, then for one last day when she did.
I don’t know why I’m writing this, because, like I’ve said, I have no real advice. Maybe I’m on some frantic search for a poignant truth to explain why my mother got sick and died. Perhaps it gives what we went through some kind of purpose or silver lining.
But, for everyone that has ever felt like I did; alone, helpless and overwhelmed, I would like to say that you are not strange, guilty or failing. I write this knowing how lucky I am to be afforded so many privileges that my mother, and many others, are not. After all, I had another parent to look after me, a roof over my head and relatively good mental health.
But I also know how hard it is to love someone with your whole heart and fear what their illness makes them capable of. Perhaps like I hope I was, you are doing the best you can, no matter how awful you think that is.
For the most part, I write to grieve for my mother. The life she deserved to have, full of adoring grandchildren she’ll now never meet. The mum I would have had if she had never got sick. But also for the woman who tried so hard to live, who wrote that she loved me ‘millions and billions’ in countless books, and who, sometimes, drank.