My Mom’s Addiction

By Taylor Ellsworth 03/19/12
My mother has struggled with addiction her whole life. And I’ve struggled to forgive her.
Mother and child, when mother's on meth Photo via

My parents met in the 70’s in high school. My mother, Betty, was a hard-partying blackout drinker who loved music and art. My father, Brian, was a country boy with a bass guitar who had just moved to the city of Portland, Oregon. They quickly discovered a mutual appreciation for Iron Maiden, freebase cocaine, and hard liquor. My father dropped out of high school and they fell in love, moved into my dad’s band’s party house in a neighborhood known as “felony flats,” and, after a few years, got married. My dad was in a metal hair band and dressed in zebra-print leggings and red pleather vests. My mother was an artist of sorts—she made jewelry, cloth dolls, and mosaics—but always had some sort of waitressing, housekeeping, or other physically taxing job. The early years of their relationship were spent partying and going to rock shows together.

One day my mother got sick and tired of being sick and tired; that’s all I really know. She began going to meetings because, in a family like ours, everybody knows what 12-step programs are before the age of 10. The meeting she went to provided food for its members so, when my father got wind of this, he tagged along for the free sandwiches. He stayed, however, because he quickly realized that he belonged there. And, just like that, their lives as a sober couple began.

When my mother discovered she was pregnant a few years later—at 28—it came as a shock. She cut her long mullet and my father sold his motorcycle. They were determined to be good parents and, by the time I’d grown old enough to make memories, my dad was a suit-and-tie car salesman; my mom, an eccentric housewife and PTA president. They were living the American dream: they were homeowners, complete with two hyperactive children—my long-lashed, impossibly athletic brother and had arrived when I was three—plus a dog and a cat. Living grown-up lives had taken its toll, however; they stopped going to meetings and sponsoring people, and quit spending time with sober friends completely. Life continued to happen, as it tends to do. My dad’s back pain soon required a heavy prescription to Vicodin, and once he decided that his real problem had been cocaine and not alcohol, he gave himself permission to drink wine like the other people at work. Since my mother was still committed to the idea that she couldn’t drink, she would take my dad’s pain meds or smoke weed in the garage. She quickly got sick of just getting stoned, however.

I vividly remember my mother once telling me, pupils dilated and wineglass in hand—years before I cleaned up—that someday I would need AA.

Before I got sober, I had yet to hear the cliché that people don’t end up in the rooms by accident. My parents told me that they didn’t need sobriety anymore and, despite my misgivings, I believed them. I grew up thinking they were superheroes, really. And, for a time, they were. In her early homemaking days, my mother planned elaborate themed birthday parties complete with scavenger hunts and homemade cakes, but she also listened to Biggie and let me pick out my own clothes. I assumed that my parents were infinitely wiser than me; maybe I clung to this illusion longer than most children do because the truth scared me. Some adult children of alcoholics talk about always knowing that their parents were drunk or high. I, on the other hand, was completely oblivious. It was evident that something was off about my family, but I could never quite put my finger on what it was: I couldn’t pinpoint why my mom would forget to pick me up from school or my dad always seemed to come home from work after I went to bed. I just thought that we were quirky, or even at times that I was imagining a problem, and I learned to take care of myself. I got both a job and a drivers’ license as soon as I legally could, which allowed me to spend as much time as possible eluding my inconsistent family and forgetting about them by getting drunk as often as possible.

What I didn’t know was that my parents were both caught up in separate but parallel whirlwinds of addiction. My mom was smoking meth with the type of tweakers whose mugshots you see on the nightly news, spiraling downward into a lifestyle of petty theft and delusion, and my dad was drinking tall boys on the drive home from the bar at 2 am. My own addiction was also just beginning to blossom: I was learning how to snort drugs, how to take shots without chasers, and how to smoke weed without coughing. Despite my parents’ lack of sobriety, they were stricter than the “normie” parents of my friends; they could always sniff out the lingering odor of a spilled beer or pick up on the slightest slur in my speech. I spent roughly the same amount of time grounded, sulking in my bedroom and perusing MySpace, as I did playing beer pong and crushing pills.

One night when I was drinking beer with my friends in a dark, dingy basement, I got a phone call from my dad. Normally, I wouldn’t answer for fear of getting caught, but I was still relatively coherent and felt strangely compelled to pick up. The conversation began with one of the worst phrases of the English language: “I have something to tell you.” Immediately, my heart jumped into my throat and began to race.

“What’s going on, Dad?” I was trying not to spiral into the abyss of anxiety.

“It’s your mom. Something really bad happened.” He hesitated and then added, “I found out that she has been doing some really bad drugs.” I wandered upstairs, away from the basement, not wanting my friends to overhear my family drama unfolding. Somehow, I instinctively knew he was talking about methamphetamine.

“Is it meth?”

“Yeah. It is. I’m really sorry Tay. Do you want to come home?” I could tell he was crying. I began to panic; I couldn’t come home. I’d already started drinking. It would cause unbearable discomfort if I couldn’t drink anymore that night. I knew my dad needed me home, but I needed to get drunk more.

“No, it’s okay—I think I need to be with my friends right now.” Guilt chewed away at my insides as I wondered if he knew what was really going on.

“Okay Tay. I understand. I love you. It’s going to be okay, I promise.” He sounded so much calmer than he usually did when I resisted coming home. It seemed that his worry for my mother was the only thing more consuming than his worry for me. I hung up the phone and picked at my chipped purple nails for a moment before heading back into the basement and asking, “Who wants to get fucked up?”

That night, my dad found stolen mail and bags of meth in the demo car from his dealership that my mom had been using. She had stopped by his work to ask for money, and when she was leaving, he saw her get into the car with another man; he was her meth dealer and boyfriend. I didn’t know this, of course, until much later.

All families keep secrets from each other but the discovery of my mother’s addiction felt like an irrevocable betrayal—like I was the one who had been cheated on. At the same time, it came as a relief. All of the incoherent text messages I’d read over her shoulder, her crazy demeanor behind the wheel, the mismatched, childlike clothing she’d been wearing, and the morbid quality her art had taken on made perfect sense in light of the news. I finally knew that the chaos wasn’t all in my head.

Despite the betrayal, I continued to drink and use, managing to justify blackout drinking and sorting cocaine while simultaneously condemning my mother for her meth use. Meth seemed dirty and shameful, while my coke habit made me feel glamorous and important. My father continued to drink, mostly in secret, but I was too absorbed in my addictions and relentless disdain for my mother to notice this. I did learn, however, the true meaning of codependency. My dad essentially self-willed my mother into rehab by threatening to leave her if she didn’t. Under the circumstances it made sense, but had he really understood the disease, he probably wouldn’t have thrown thousands of dollars of borrowed money away on the hopeless endeavor. My mother continued her affair in treatment and refused to cooperate when we attended family therapy day. She didn’t want sobriety or treatment but we continued to beg, convinced that our cries for a return to normalcy would be enough to incite a desire for sobriety.

Years of begging and hoping for change wore my father down to the breaking point. He eventually got sober and filed for divorce—and custody. Courts usually favor mothers in custody battles, but my mother didn’t contest it. When I moved into the first apartment of my life with dad, I virtually stopped seeing my mother for several years. It was as if the only thing binding us together had been our status as roommates and without that, we were strangers. When we did see one another, every six months or so for a strained coffee date, she claimed to be sober but never provided any convincing evidence—no amends or improved honesty, just lackluster lies. But she did at least stop doing meth. Once you’ve seen the physical signs of meth use—tightened jaw, impossibly wide eyes, the dirty, sour smell, and the terrifyingly righteous anger that can be heard in every word spoken—it is impossible to miss a tweaker. I never had to ask about meth.

I vividly remember my mother once telling me, pupils dilated and wineglass in hand—years before I cleaned up—that someday I would need AA. When I did get sober, I think it intimidated her. I was more connected to my dad than ever, through both our shared sobriety and our shared classically codependent conviction that somehow it was our fault that she couldn’t seem to get clean.

In sobriety, I’ve learned how to treat chronic relapsers and stubborn newcomers with tolerance and understanding: by seeking signs of my former self in what they do. I have no problem listening to a dry, newly sober alcoholic babble about her plans, utterly convinced that she has it all figured out. I am incapable, however, of offering this same compassion to my mother. My patience becomes nonexistent the second I see her prematurely aged face. They say that meth changes a person irrevocably—more so than crack, alcohol or heroin. I won’t ever know if my mother is the same woman I idolized when I was 10. Perhaps my perspective—the lack of respect I have for the fallen superhero—is the only thing that has changed.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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