My Mother, The Drunk

By Joan Malone 08/16/11

She drank, never copped to having a problem, and then she drank some more. One writer details the gritty truth about being the daughter of an alcoholic mom.

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More booze than bedtime stories Photo via

Like most people who have loved alcoholics, I’ve put in many hours trying to figure out how I could get them to stop drinking. If you are familiar with addiction on any level, you’ll realize that this line of thinking is both frustrating and futile. 

Oh, and stupid. 

My first alcoholic was my mother. 

I didn’t understand that my mother was an alcoholic until I was an adult. Proving that there’s a nugget of truth in every stereotype, my family is Irish American. My grandfather was off the boat and owned the bar where my parents met. My dad was a bartender and my mom’s uncle was a regular—he introduced them and they married a year or so later. 

Booze was just something that was always around. It was a part of every meal and a critical element to every celebration. People who didn’t drink were suspect, though I don’t recall us knowing any of them. I learned how to make an old fashioned before I could make toast and had my first beer (though it was also my last for many years) at my first communion. 

It started to dawn on me that my family's relationship to alcohol might be a little south of mainstream after I saw my favorite teacher’s face drop when I handed him over the gift-wrapped six-pack my parents had sent me off to Catholic school carrying. It was his birthday and I remember being disappointed by how quickly he’d shoved it away in a desk drawer. 

I was the oldest of five kids born in six years. One of the most jarring moments of my life was talking to my youngest sister and finding out that my mom hadn’t ever hit her. Nor had she hit most of my siblings. Her violence was saved for me and, to a much lesser extent, one of my brothers. I guess lost in the me-me-me solipsism of childhood, I’d assumed what was happening to me was happening to everyone around me. 

Did the booze contribute to her violent behavior towards me? As sick as it sounds, I like to think so. I’d like to think anything besides the alternative, which is that I was such an awful child, I somehow deserved what I got. 

It started to dawn on me that my family's relationship to alcohol might be a little south of mainstream after I saw my favorite teacher’s face drop when I handed him over the gift-wrapped six-pack my parents had sent me off to Catholic school carrying.

One time when my mother slapped me, I went to slap her back. It was like one of those slaps you have in dreams—starts off strong, but by the time you’re close, it’s turned into a tap. But just that I was ready to retaliate physically flipped my mother out. She threatened to call the cops and called me every awful name she could think of, but by that time, I was immune. I was so beaten down emotionally and physically that it was nearly impossible to hurt me. 

There have been other drunks in my life since then. In fact, the man I’m with now is in the program. I’ve also had a challenging relationship with booze throughout the years. For a few years after a major heartbreak, I could’ve probably qualified as an alcoholic. I was out until 4 AM most nights, drinking and picking up strangers in a lame, sad attempt to feel loveable. 

Until it dawned on me that Last Call Lucy isn’t a good look for anyone and I straightened out. I didn’t quit drinking, but I did cut it down to normal-people amounts and stopped screwing anything with a penis and a pulse. 

I discovered online dating and, for a brief period, only considered men who listed “Never” as to how often they drank or did drugs. That netted me a crackhead who dabbled in 12-stepping and a nut that didn’t drink or do drugs because of extreme control issues. 

A few years before she died, my mother and I tried to repair our rocky relationship. This was frustrating because she would never listen to any suggestion that she might have a drinking problem or even cop to the fact that she ever hit me. I could never figure out if she was in blackouts when she did or if her powers of denial were super-human. 

One night, I invited her to meet me for dinner in the East Village. I had spent hours tracking down an acceptable restaurant that didn’t have a liquor license so she couldn’t get drunk during dinner. I told her where to meet me, but didn’t tell her my booze-free dinner plan because I knew she’d never knowingly agree to it. 

When I arrived, I panicked. The place was packed with people drinking margaritas—they’d just gotten their license. Oof. So I quickly devised Plan B. 

When she sat down, I lied and gravely told her that I was an alcoholic and that it was really hard for me to be around people drinking. I was really struggling with my alcoholism and so my therapist had advised me not to be around booze of any kind. I closed with a sincere plea that she please not have a drink with dinner that night.

I mean, what mom is going to willfully put their kid through that kind of angst? Surely she could wait a few hours before cracking open a bottle of wine at home. 

Not exactly. Instead of taking me and my imaginary problem seriously, she laughed, beckoned our waiter, and ordered a beer. “Lighten up,” she chuckled.  

I was pissed. Sure, I’d been lying, but she didn’t know that. Time to pull out the big guns. I looked her dead in the eye and told her that I thought she was an alcoholic.

I steeled myself and waited for her to scream or possibly reach across the table and rip my lungs out.

But that never happened. Instead of getting angry, it was like I’d never said a word. She smiled, took a sip of her Negra Modela, and told me that she’d read rave reviews about the enchiladas. 

Joan Malone is the pseudonym for a writer who lives in New York City.

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