"It Will Never Happen to Me" and Other Lies

By Jessie Monreal 01/08/18

I swore I would never be a drunk, hungover, unavailable, tired, sad, neglectful mother who was too empty inside to give any love to her child.

A mother hugging her son, who looks sad or serious.
He knows I love him. We are proud of each other.

It will never happen to me.

That’s the name of one of the most well-known books about adult children of alcoholics (ACOA) and children raised in an alcoholic home. The title stems from the fact that almost every single person raised this way swears up and down that they will not be like the parent or parents who hurt them so badly by constantly choosing alcohol or drugs over them. You swear you’ll never touch it, you won’t be that way, your kids will never feel the things you had to feel. You’re not gonna miss hockey practice, or embarrass your kids in front of their friends, or scream and yell in a belligerent fog every night when you come stumbling in. You’re going to abstain. You’re going to be there for your kids and family. You’re going to get your shit together and keep it that way. It will never happen to me. FUCK. THAT. SHIT.

And then guess what?

It happens to you. You are not exempt from the experiences that lead kids to experiment with booze and drugs. But you are a time bomb. All the years of being unheard, unimportant, ignored, beat on, laughed at, left behind, shuffled around, or whatever it looked like at your house, it all creates this thing you carry around. This hole. A big, stupid, ugly void. And when other kids have a couple beers at a kegger or steal a bottle from their parents and pass it around, it’s just something they do, and it’s fun, and it’s whatever. But not for you. It hits you…it hits you and whatever it is, the warm fuzzy glow of alcohol, the head rush of cocaine, the sleepy peace of benzos, the pleasant nothingness of opiates….it fills that void. All of a sudden, that empty space is gone. The feeling different than everyone goes away. Your confidence gets bigger or your lack of confidence just doesn’t matter so much anymore. All the things you ache with trying to live with on a daily basis, they just stop hurting so bad.

And now…it’s happened to you.

There is something called “the laundry list” of ACOA traits. The first time I read it, I froze. And no matter how many times I read it, or the different takes on it, it stops me in my tracks because it’s a perfectly accurate summary of exactly the way I think and function. Everything on this list--things like being approval seekers, being drawn to toxic, addicted, or codependent people, feeling guilt for asserting ourselves, stuffing our feelings, and having terrible self esteem--occurs as a direct consequence of the mechanisms a child develops to protect themselves from a hostile, confusing, chaotic environment that is the polar opposite of nurturing or loving or anything a little human being needs to develop properly.

Anyway, without describing the whole ugly thing and why it was horrible in great detail, I will just say this:

I love my mother with all my heart. I did then, and I still do. My heart breaks for her every day, and losing her will never be something that does not hurt my soul in a way that is not fixable. My mother was beautiful, inside and out, and I can still hear her laugh. My mother did the very best with what she knew, and I am not angry or judgmental about what happened to her. I hate it….but I get it. Sometimes I wish I didn’t.

I will also say this:

I have spent all my life that I can remember swearing I would not be like my mother. I have spent years trying to fix what living with her and her disease did to me. I tried alcohol, drugs, men, working too much, hiding, projecting, repressing, avoiding, running, and resisting. I’ve tried therapy, support groups, and sobriety. A few of those things have helped. Most just made it worse. I swore I wouldn’t drink the way she did. Then I did it. I swore I would never put drugs up my nose. Then I did that too. I swore I would never be a drunk, hungover, unavailable, tired, sad, neglectful mother who was too empty inside to give any love to her child. Then I did that, too. I swore that those things would never happen to me, and they all did. I love my mom…but I don’t want to be like her. Not the her that I lived with. Not the person who was consumed by her addiction and eventually destroyed by it. I don’t want to be the kind of mother that has children who spend their entire adult life trying to recover from their childhood.

I want to be the mother that I needed so badly when I was a little girl.

I am so, so far from a perfect parent. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m even that great of one. I look at my phone too much. I don’t have the most patience in the world. I am busy with work and school and sometimes too tired to play and I just let my son watch TV for two hours with me, or while I do school work. I don’t always watch my mouth and sometimes I say shit I wish I hadn’t. I am not creative, and I don’t make cool homemade stuff or bake things or remember to do his homework sometimes.

And then I am filled with overwhelming shame and fear at what damage these shortcomings will cause because I am so hyper-aware and hyper-vigilant of how my behavior could hurt my child. I am gripped with fear that I am going to cause him to feel the things I feel, and I don’t think I could look at myself in the face ever again if I hurt him that way. Because I know that seeing that pain in the face of her children is so much of what pushed my mother to end her life. There is nothing worse than knowing that you hurt your own babies. It is excruciating, and it is unbearable.

But there are some things I always make sure to do. I tell my son how much I love him every day, at least once, but usually more like 15 times. If I am ever not with him for more than 24 hours, and sometimes even less than that, I call and say hi. I tell him how much I missed him every time we are apart, even if it’s just when he’s at school. I carry him out of his bed to the couch every morning even though he’s almost too big to lug around anymore. I am up making him breakfast and talking to him every morning, which may seem small and normal and everyday, but it didn’t happen in my home. I go to events at school any time I can, and I do everything in my power to let him know just how important he is, not just to me, but just as a person in general. I want him to know--if nothing else--that he matters. Because there is nothing that will lead you more directly to an unhappy life than feeling like you don’t.

My son has now said several times, “I’m like my mom.” He’s said it about being smart, about loving sports, about loving food. But the part that matters is that he says it gladly. He says it with a smile. He says it like it’s something he is so proud of. Hearing those words come out of his mouth, and seeing the happiness and pride in his eyes brings me to tears every time. It lets me know that despite all of my mistakes, and all the things I have messed up, and all the time I can’t get back, I am succeeding at the one thing I want the most: I am someone he can look up to, and someone he can rely on. He knows I love him. We are proud of each other.

It did happen to me. But it made me who I am. It brought me to this place I am in now. Just because it happened, there is nothing that says it has to stay that way. You can take the absolute worst and use it to propel you forward if you so choose…

I guess what I’m trying to say with this whole rambling rant is this: Without a fall from grace, there is no redemption. Redemption comes from a return from a desperate and horrible place or situation. And redemption is beautiful. Resiliency is empowering and amazing. The lower down you are, the more triumphant your return will be if you so choose. So don’t give up because you ended up somewhere you swore you wouldn’t. At any moment, you have the power to make a change. Just take the first step. It’s the hardest one but, with that one little step, you can go anywhere.

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Jessie Monreal currently works at a treatment facility as a clinical case manager. She holds a degree in addiction studies as well as a CADC. She has experience and education in both the mental health and substance abuse field. Jessie has been in recovery for over four years, and is passionate about reaching out to others who may be struggling, as well as educating the public and breaking stigmas. She currently writes a blog on these topics at www.wontstaydown.com. You can also learn more about her at https://www.facebook.com/Jessierosewriter.