50 Ways to Leave Your Mother
After she got sober, the author had to confront an equally crippling addiction. Her mother. A first-person account of breaking the ties that bind you.
My story is one of transferring addiction. I quit alcohol when I was 23 but spurned A.A. and stubbornly refused any outside help. Six years later I was still on the pot-Vicodin-Valium-Xanax-Paxil-cocaine-non-alcoholic-wine-maintenance program. When I quit the last of the substances I was abusing eight years ago with the help of a 12-step program, I discovered that people often served as a substitute for substances; to obsess over, to beg salvation of, to get into trouble with, to generally count on to destroy my serenity. It was exhausting. And it was not what I got sober for.
In my family of origin, the one who suffers the most wins. When I was a child, my mother would often start crying to get her way. Most people have attempted emotional manipulation once or twice. The problem is when you do not know another way. My mother did not. She still doesn't. So if crying doesn’t get her what she wants, she quickly moves on to suicide threats.
When I first got sober, I got it into my head that I was now superhuman and could solve everyone’s problems. I had all the answers. I could figure everything out. And when I discovered that even sobriety has its limits, I thought I was worthless and should jump off a bridge. Martyr much? Wait, was I becoming my mother?
And that was when I found Alanon. Because long before I ever drank or used, I was having trouble taking care of myself in relationships with people. How could I have known another way? This is what I grew up with.
Admitting I was that powerless over people sure made me thirsty for something to take the edge off. I knew I had to find new and effective coping skills, or I would be bound for relapse of one kind or another.
My Alanon sponsor told me, “She is making you responsible for her life. You are not responsible for her life.” And that was it in a nutshell. Using was a way for me to avoid taking responsibility for my own life. Using other people by “Martyring, Mothering, Manipulating, or Managing” is just another version of that. My mother’s version.
The next step was learning how to “say what you mean, mean what you say, and not say it mean.” That last part is still hard to come by. The first time I remember my mother threatening suicide, I was 14 and in a motel room with her in Las Vegas. She was on the other side of a door with pills and booze and a big ole chip on her shoulder. I was not equipped to lovingly allow her the dignity of her choice. I did not know then that I did not cause her disease, I cannot cure her disease and I cannot control it.
The last time my mother threatened suicide was less than a year ago. She had called me at nine in the morning to ask for $300 to do a diet program. When I told her I couldn’t give it to her, she began to cry.
“Why are you crying, Mama?”
“I just thought that maybe my children would like to have me around a little longer is all,” she said, her voice warbling.
“I do want you around Mom, but you can go on a diet without a $300 program and I don’t have the money.”
“Well I know you have it,” she said. “I guess you just don’t care.”
“You know that’s not true Mom.”
“I guess I’m just waiting for the next speeding car to come by,” she said.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked.
“I mean I’m waiting for a fast car to come down the road and I’m gone.”
“What are you saying?” I pressed. “You’re going to jump in front of a moving vehicle?”
“Yes, I am.”
I wanted to laugh and I wanted to cry and I wanted to tell her to fuck off and never call me again. But I did none of those things.
“Well I certainly hope you don’t,” I said.
“Well, this might hurt your feelings but that’s just tough luck. I know you could do it if you wanted to and you just don’t want to and I guess if none of my kids want me around that bad I’ll just go on and go now.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said, and I got off the phone. My innards felt like I had swallowed acid.
I called a suicide hotline and emailed her their number. I searched for mental health facilities on the Internet and emailed those to her, too. I emailed her doctor. I called my brother and sister in Georgia and then I dragged myself through my day.