Motherhood, Madness, and Addiction

By Lizzie Pantz 06/29/17

You wanted to talk to me about AA, how you continued to attend meetings while still drinking, but I knew my own disease would run with that thought.

Lizzie's mother

On Mother's Day, I watched a documentary about the snow leopard. From the day a snow leopard gives birth, all she cares about is the well-being of her cubs. That is her purpose. That is her life. She’d take on the devil himself to ensure her cubs survive.

In the last scene, the snow leopard is fatally stabbed by a yak while trying to make a kill for her hungry cubs. Something about her lying there — helpless, frozen, defeated—reminded me of you. Yet I never thought for one moment that this was how it was supposed to be with us. Even if humans had such an instinct to protect their children, I figured I wasn’t deserving of it. I blamed myself that this bond between us did not exist.

It took me many sessions of sitting on a therapist's couch in recovery to realize you couldn't be like the snow leopard because you suffered from addiction and mental illness. In therapy, the truth behind behavior that had been rationalized by me for so long was awakened. I remembered you celebrating one year of sobriety with cake at an AA meeting followed by your own private celebration with vodka martinis.

How your nightstand table contained a multitude of mysterious pill bottles ("one for you, one for me," you said).

The day when you stole a prescription pad from one of my doctors, gaining both of us unfettered access to psychopharmaceuticals. It was only then that my eyes were opened: the five-year-old child making noise in the next room wasn’t the problem, your hangovers were.

On the other hand, you did have qualities I respected and I certainly was not a saint growing up. You were a strong woman, a single mother who worked hard. You valued service, often volunteering at a local women's homeless shelter. You made me volunteer to help an elderly homebound woman when I stole your car and crashed it at age 15—trying to visit the first of many wayward boyfriends I would worship in the years to come. Ah, how you hated those boyfriends.  

You shared with me your own upbringing—how you also were raised by a strong woman who rarely showed affection or love. You were a nurse, and although you told me that was because there were only three professions available for women growing up in the 1950s (the two others: secretary and teacher), I suspect there was a part of you that really enjoyed taking care of others (to the extent you could).

Years of turmoil and addiction followed for both of us. Having my first drink and sexual experience at age 12, I hit my emotional and spiritual bottom at age 27. I crawled into the rooms of AA, just wanting to know how to feel like a whole person because alcohol wasn’t working for me anymore. I got a sponsor and a home group and worked the steps, but not necessarily in the straightforward, simple way in which I just wrote that sentence.

I stayed sober but I was headstrong too, and thought I didn’t need to take suggestions, for which I often paid dearly. I allowed my Higher Power to dance around only the edges of my life for many years.

I also thought that when I gave up drinking, my relationship with you would improve but it didn’t. It wasn’t as simple as making an amends. I didn't know how to be a daughter after years of self-centeredness ruled my life. You didn't know how to mother me while your own madness and addiction were taking you under. You moved out-of-state and our phone conversations were uncomfortable and strained.

You sent me packages of random, inexplicable gifts like toys—did you want to replay my childhood? You wanted to talk to me about AA, how you continued to attend meetings while still drinking, but I knew my own disease would run with that thought. You told me I was a horrible daughter, but then couldn’t remember that conversation the next day. You sensed my fear of you, became angry and verbally abusive and I retreated into silence. My sponsor, therapist and many in my AA community reminded me that I had to take care of myself first. You were drowning and I didn't know how to throw you a life preserver without jumping into the abyss headfirst myself. 

I was 36 years old when you committed suicide. 

We were estranged when I received the call that you had overdosed on Ambien. You were gone. You left a note that said you were finally at peace.

I was not.  

I immediately called my sponsor. She was at my door and I was in her arms in less than 10 minutes. She brought me to what I now call my true home, an AA meeting. I raised my hand but struggled to say these three short sentences:

“My name is Liz. I am an alcoholic. My mother just killed herself.”  

I was surrounded by love, hope and compassion. I felt a multitude of emotions, but I did not feel like having a drink and I did not feel like dying. I knew then that I was being taken care of by something outside of myself. My Higher Power moved to the center of my life, or rather, like the author of the “Footprints” poem, I acknowledged that it had been there along.

I still feel anger and sadness over your death. Anger over the empty space you left behind, anger that you often weren't what I needed. Sadness that you couldn't find a solution like I did. But the feeling that keeps me up on some nights is the guilt that maybe I could have done more. Sometimes, I realize that you were beyond human aid. On other occasions I do wonder, could the cub have saved her dying mother? 

Most conflicting is the thought that I will never have to be like you because I am sober. This brings me both relief and pain. You are my "yet." I didn’t drink today. I can and do treat my own mental illness properly. I am not alone and never will be. It is the stark contrast of our different paths that is at once joyful and heartbreaking.

Lizzie Pantz is a lawyer, writer, dog mother and runner from New York City. Lizzie recently celebrated 14 years of sobriety, which she attributes to her Higher Power, her sponsor, the steps and the women of her home group, Girls Gone Mild.

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