The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully): An Evidence-Based Recovery Story Pt. 6

By Anne Giles 04/28/17

I loved my mother with all my heart, despite our relationship. When she passed, it was time for me to use the love I showed her to heal myself.  

Anne Giles

Check out previous installments in The Last Addictions Memoir (Hopefully) below:

Part 1 here  Part 2 here  Part 3 here Part 4 here  Part 5 here

I look hungrily into the eyes of the children in the photographs posted by their mothers in my Facebook feed. Their eyes are lit with trust. The children know the grass is green, the sun is yellow, and their loving mothers are spellbound by their faces.

When we were teenagers, my sister and I received Polaroid cameras for Christmas and I asked my mother to snap a photo of me. My mother, who hand-sewed all our dresses and had a genius IQ with a vocabulary to match, said, "I'm not good with cameras." I remember risking insistence. Finally, my mother lifted the camera and pressed the shutter button. Pleasure and confidence swelled within me as I pulled off the developing film. What came into focus was my t-shirted shoulder. No face.

That's the only photograph my mother ever took of me.

I was about nine when my mother reported, with scientific objectivity, that I was "characterologically flawed." When I was about 16, she announced that I would be pretty if I didn't have such a big nose, and a nice figure if I didn't have such heavy thighs. She stated that I must not know how to love because of the mistakes I made. She noted that, when I was an infant, the contents of my diapers, nose and mouth disgusted her. Her pet name for me was "Little Toad." When my stomach was upset, even as a tiny girl, I threw up alone in the bathroom, then wiped up any splashes so as not to distress her. My mother said she felt nauseated from even the smell of vomit. I felt so relieved when my father was home when I was ill. He would hold my forehead and wipe my face with a cold washrag afterwards.

When I didn't make the basketball team in eighth grade, after the carpool dropped me off, I dropped to my knees in the front yard, distraught. My mother came out of the front door, sat on the ground with me, and held me while I sobbed.

My mother's alternating heartbreaking hardness and heart-touching generosity kept me on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, one of the most powerful ways to teach brains, whether of mice, dogs or people, to repeat behavior. It kept me turning and returning to her my entire life, even moving back to my hometown to be with her the last five years of her life.

Alcohol treated me the same way. Sometimes it closed my eyes and dropped my head back in bliss. Sometimes it dropped me down the stairs. I kept choosing to come back for a chance at the bliss. Once I had developed addiction, however, my brain had been altered, its executive functioning skewed. I could choose to wait until 5PM for wine, but I could no longer choose not to have it.

"He has a face only a mother could love," I've heard people say about a plain-faced child. "Of course your mother loved you," people have told me. "Mothers love their children." A lot do. I think the mothers who post photos of their children on Facebook love their children. But what a child with an ambivalent mother knows is the annihilating humiliation of not being lovable enough. Not even her face.

Adapting to being my mother's child resulted in what's generally termed "insecure attachment." I tensed with hope, wondering whether or not my mother might seek to hold my hand to comfort herself, giving me a little warmth by proxy. I cringed with dread, anticipating she would tell my little sister, again, that she would be pretty if she weren't fat. I hovered with despair, ready to triage my poor little sister, the sweetest, cutest little girl a mother could want, with Barbie dolls.

My mother told me when I was about 45 what happened to her when she was nine. I wrote here that no selfhood survives that. No matter what child had been born to my mother, the child raised by a parent with such wounds would have had a very, very hard time.

I was unable to have children. I married and divorced twice and wonder to this day, given the scenario with my mother, if my relationships were doomed because my mother was already the love of my life. My father told me recently he married my mother because she seemed like a baby bird that needed protecting. My mother's parents died when she was in her thirties. Perhaps my father and I took over as her parents.

Regardless of what psychodynamics were operating, I loved and served my mother as if she were my own difficult, plaintive, starving baby bird. I learned to predict her next words by the curl of her fingers as she held her cigarette. I attuned myself to her, adjusting what I said and did with both caution and tenderness. When the talons unsheathed, I neither fled nor fought. I would never abandon her. I froze and waited for the slashing to end.

Having "adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)," attachment challenges, and chronic stress from being my mother's child, it's not surprising that I developed an addiction to alcohol as a result of the multiple traumas I experienced in 2006-2007. Wine, at first, felt like the balm I had lacked for half a century: mother love. Once addiction had its way with my brain, I was in servitude again.

During the last year of her life, I drove my mother to radiation treatment for lung cancer. She looked away from me and out the window from the passenger seat and said, "I didn't really like babies. I wasn't a very maternal mother."

No, my poor, wounded, baby bird of a mother, you were not.

A few days before she died, she asked me to lie in bed with her. I slid next to her in her floral-sprigged cotton nightgown. I cried into her mother-scented neck. I held her. She held me.

Paradoxically, what I learned from being my mother's child - the ability to love with my whole being, to attune myself to another, and to acutely focus my attention - have been fundamental addiction self-treatment tools. After four years of miserable abstinence, in my imagination, I went back in time and took my infant self away from my mother. I have envisioned myself as my own foster child since. All the heartfelt awareness, kindness, spaciousness, consistency, acceptance and forgiveness I gave to my mother, all the thought and effort I gave to figuring out her needs and trying to meet them, I now turn inward.

To help myself through addiction and mental illness, I use my full heart and strong mind to tend to myself. When I'm afraid, I don't freeze. I stay and become still. I become aware, not wary. I turn towards truth and reality. I don't flee. I don't fight except to get closer to the truth, or to protect myself from unjust treatment. Survivors of childhood troubles are uncannily adept at mindfulness, an increasingly evidence-based approach to dealing with addiction. We just need to shift the skillful attentiveness we give to others and our environments to our own feelings, thoughts, and physical sensations.

In my selfies, I don't look at the camera lens. I look at my face.

Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. She writes about addictions treatment, recovery and policy at As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder.

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Anne Giles, M.A., M.S., is a counselor, writer and business owner. As of this writing, she has been abstinent from alcohol since December 28, 2012, and is in remission from alcohol use disorder. You can find Anne on Linkedin and Twitter.