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My Daughter and Me

I drank alcoholically when my children were little. And now I worry they’ll grow up to be just like me.

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By Rachael Brownell

01/02/12

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Amelia opens the door just long enough to see me, and then slams it shut.

“Honey, please don’t do this!” I beg. “I can get you into an excellent treatment center! Please just come with me away from here.”

Quiet on the other side of the door. I can feel her there.

“Fine!” she yells. Then: “Give me 50 bucks. I’m out of food.”

I’ve come prepared for this. Coached about tough love and saying “no” when everything in me is screaming to rescue my baby girl. “Amelia, you know I can’t do that right now, honey.” I try to say it softly, hoping it won’t make her mad. “I’m sorry. You know how much I love you.”

Silence again, and then a muffled  “Go to hell, Mom!” as she walks away from the door.

How can we, as mothers in recovery, ever hold our heads up? Traumatized by shame and guilt about the Things We’ve Done, many of us cannot face a sober life once booze and drugs wear off.

Already there, I think, as I turn away. 

The smell of crack creeps from under the door. And a TV goes on inside. Amelia is only 19.

Then I wake up.

I’ve had this nightmare in various forms since getting sober; spawned from the dark reaches of mommy guilt and the deep knowledge that of my three daughters, at least one of them stands a good chance of becoming an alcoholic or addict. Throw in some of the drinking-related chaos my kids have gone through (relationship break-downs, job loss, moves, family conflict) and their chances rise. So my worrying, as counterproductive as it may be, has some basis in reality. 

I've worried for a long time that my oldest girl shows addictive tendencies. Her favorite word is "more," nothing is ever quite right, and she’s very regularly in a foul mood. When things are happy in our tribe, she’s relatively calm. But when things get out of whack, she’s the first to fight, complain, or yell. Amelia does very well in school and has several close friends. I’m proud of her creativity and individuality, but her moodiness terrifies me.

When Amelia yells at me or her sisters, or refuses to do homework, or clamors for more of anything (food, video games, free time), I automatically think, “Is this alcoholic behavior?” or “Did I cause her to be insecure by being reckless in her early years?” I’ll never really know the answer—nor will any parent who worries they’ve caused their child’s struggle in school, or inability to make friends, or autism, or health problems, or bullying.

What I do know is this: I drank heavily during my twins’ first five years. I brought coffee cups full of booze to the playground. I drank during the day while watching them, drank before school activities, neighborhood parties, and play dates. I had a light buzz for many of their early years. So when Amelia turns to me and tells me, “There’s something sad deep inside my stomach that won’t come out,” how can I not wonder if I’m the one who put it there?

Knowing I’m not alone helps (a little), as does the belief that some of the damage can be undone if I’m careful and consistent until my daughters reach independence. But the nightmares live on. 

Ask any sober mother in recovery or hang around the rooms of AA long enough and you’ll hear harrowing tales of neglect and abuse, kids removed by CPS, children lost in custody battles, or worse. You’ll hear older parents bemoan the state of their adult children’s addiction, and see the way alcoholism and addiction tear families apart. So when the Internet lights up with pithy tales of bad mothering, I have to cringe a little. As a group, parents today could certainly stand to lighten up a bit with all the worrying and hovering and over-protectiveness. But in AA meetings, and in my own experience of active addiction, true harm is often done to children—whether through neglect or broken homes, or moving a million times a year, or worse. The tragedies that make headlines only fuel the flames of worry and doubt. “There but for the grace of God go I,” we mutter when we hear about Diane Schuler, the mother who drove drunk the wrong way down the Taconic Parkway, killing her daughter and three nieces.

How can we, as mothers in recovery, ever hold our heads up? Traumatized by shame and guilt about the Things We’ve Done, many of us cannot face a sober life once booze and drugs (those old memory killers) wear off. Many of us inhabit a land where bad mothers come for salvation and understanding, a place most so-called “bad mothers” would never dare set foot.  

I didn’t get a DUI, or lose my kids, or physically harm them. But harm has been done nonetheless. And every time Amelia loses it, or seems depressed or deeply unhappy, I can’t help but think I might be seeing that damage. Other times, I’m struck by how lovely our life is together. My daughters and I laugh a lot. And tease. And joke. And talk about feelings and changes and how hard life can be sometimes. They are very matter-of-fact about the various iterations our family has undergone these past five years and mostly take those changes in stride. 

Every year or so, I check in with the girls about AA. What do they think of it? Do they understand what alcoholism is? Do they have any questions? Usually, they roll their eyes and look bored, like I’ve asked them about the public library system. It’s just their life, to go to meetings with me. It’s nothing special. Nothing interesting. They know I’m an alcoholic and that I go to meetings to stay sober. They grumble when I bring them to meetings, but usually settle right into the kids’ room with no fuss. 

The other day, I brought Amelia to my home group—the same spot we’ve been coming for four years now. She headed to the back with her game and her snacks, greeted the people she knows and settled into the lap of the big stuffed bear who lives in the kids’ room. A short while later, a mom brought her toddler to the kids’ room, set her up with some small toys, and returned to the meeting room. A short time later, I checked on Amelia, and saw her kindly and patiently sharing her snacks with the little toddler girl, who had dumped Amelia’s juice all over the table. When she saw me, she smiled and said, “Mom, this baby is messy but she’s kind of cute.”

That’s my girl, I thought. Kind and openhearted. And then I remember what a lovely older woman told me very early on in my recovery. “You are not your daughters’ Higher Power, my dear. They have a God and it isn’t you.”

And then I think maybe my girls will be all right. Maybe everything is just as it should be. 

Rachael Brownell is a frequent contributor to The Fix and the author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She has written about the importance of humor in sobriety and natural highs, among many other topics.

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