For My Mother, Putting Down the Alcohol Wasn't Enough

By Dawn Clancy 02/11/19

As an adult, I struggled to reconcile how my mother could be bone sober but still function like the manipulative, bewildering, and self-absorbed alcoholic I sat next to in all those corner bars as a kid.

Woman looking to the side, mother with alcohol problem
When I told her it was me, she said "What? My daughter? You can't be. My daughter’s dead." ID 17329881 © Felix Mizioznikov |

A fruit fly was floating in a glob of liquor stuck to the bar. Next to it was a plastic, black ashtray holding a mound of white ash and lipstick-ringed cigarette butts. The butts belonged to my mother, who I was sitting next to and whose free hand was wrapped around a bottle of Budweiser. The bartender, a pasty man with a few thin strands of black hair matted to his head, slammed a Shirley Temple down in front of me. The base of the glass landed in the puddle of liquor smashing the already dead fly.

My mother didn't notice my barstool nearly tipping over as I swung my legs forward and back to inch my seat closer to the bar. If she were paying attention, she would've noticed my arms weren't long enough to reach my Shirley Temple. Instead, she was focused on a random guy at the opposite end of the bar. They were yelling over each other, which made it impossible to understand their argument. Their words clashed in midair and became one tangled cluster of sound. But by the tense curl of my mother's upper lip, and from the way she wildly poked and whipped her lit cigarette in the air, I knew she was miles from sober.

For me, at six years old, this was how I understood my mother. I didn't know who she was or how her mind worked without alcohol. But I believed if she put the bottle down, she would become the stable and sane woman I wanted her to be.

Unfortunately, it took my mother roughly 30 years to become sober. And during that time, we were estranged. Over those decades, with little to no contact, I had no idea how paralyzing my mother's habit had become. I didn't know she'd swapped out beer for hard liquor and was downing a bottle or two a day. I didn't realize she'd reached a point in her addiction where she was so consistently drunk, she had to crap in an adult diaper. Her live-in artist boyfriend kept her shelves stocked with liquor and changed her as needed.

At some point in her early 50s, my mother walked into her first AA meeting. In those rooms, she discovered sobriety. Eventually, she found a sponsor, broke up with her caretaker boyfriend and replaced her stockpile of booze with tins of Maxwell House coffee. My mother went on disability, found a primary doctor, and saved money to fix up her home.

On the outside, she appeared to have reached sobriety nirvana. And when, in my early 30s, I was told by a relative that my mother, then in her 60s, had been clean for a decade, I couldn't fathom it. My mind couldn't hold an image of her without a mouthful of beer and a cigarette twisted between her fingers. I struggled to believe it: if she was certifiably sober I needed to experience it for myself. It took me a few days, but after some digging I found her phone number and called.

"Hi Mom, it's me... Dawn," I told her.

"What? My daughter?" she said. "You can't be. My daughter’s dead."

"No... Mom. What?” I didn't know whether to laugh or hang up. "I swear it's me," I repeated. "I'm not dead."

"No, no, no," she said. "My daughter's dead. You stole her identity."

Given how bizarre our exchange was, perhaps I should've proceeded with more caution, but when I discovered the rumors of her sobriety were true, I decided to reach out again. After all, if my six-year-old self was right, all my mother needed to do was put down the bottle.

Over the next year, through measured contact, I discovered the holes in my mother's recovery revealed an intricate system of emotional IEDs. Each one, when detonated, caused a familiar flinching in my gut and appeared to be constructed from the same materials she so deftly used when I was a kid. As an adult, I struggled to reconcile how my mother could be bone sober but still function like the manipulative, bewildering, and self-absorbed alcoholic I sat next to in all those shitty corner bars as a kid. Luckily, I had enough therapy to know I was under no obligation to fix my mother or to stay in contact with her.

During our last phone call, I let my mother know I'd reached my limit with our relationship. And in response, at every point where there was the slightest pause in the conversation, she repeated, "I get it, I get it," which pushed the exchange far beyond confusing. Days before, my mother had erupted when I missed her phone call, but when I told her I was walking away from whatever our relationship was, she appeared oddly understanding and supportive.

Before we hung up, my mother said she loved me, that she was proud of the woman I'd become, and that she was sorry for being an alcoholic instead of the mother I needed her to be. Unlike in previous exchanges, there wasn't a trace of sarcasm in her voice, which made me wonder if I'd misunderstood my mother's behavior. Were my instincts leading me in the wrong direction? Was the guilt I felt actually punishment for potentially hurting my mother? Was I too defensive? At that time, no matter how hard I obsessed over the questions, I couldn't lock down the answers.

But eventually, my mother showed me everything I needed to know.

Several years passed, and during that time my mother and I remained estranged. While I enjoyed the overall emotional freedom the distance created, I occasionally got snagged by lingering doubt and guilt. To cope, I began writing about my experience, and soon I landed a gig with a popular, national magazine. They commissioned me to write about estrangement and the challenges I faced growing up with an alcoholic mother. Not only was this my chance to validate my experience, but I also hoped the finished product would provide comfort to other women emotionally scarred by their mother's addiction.

For months I worked on the draft, and during that time I relived many of the disturbing events that destroyed my relationship with my mother: the nights my pajamas reeked of cigarette smoke from the bar, the incident when she flipped into a drunken rage and attempted to throw me out of a third-story window, and the times, when I was a kid, that she chased me around the house, swinging a serrated steak knife at my back, threatening to kill me.

Days before the piece was set to go live, my editor informed me that for legal reasons the magazine needed to acquire my mother's consent to publish. Given that I hadn't spoken to her in years, I was torn over how to proceed. I didn't want to hurt or shame my mother, but at the same time, I felt compelled to tell my story. Ultimately, I embraced the unknown and passed on her number. Nearly a week passed before I heard from my editor.

"I spoke with your mom today, and the conversation was very positive," my editor excitedly shared over the phone.

"Are you serious?" I responded in disbelief.

"She's given her consent, admitted to being a long-time alcoholic, and she’s totally supportive of you telling your story," she told me.

"So... she didn't give you a hard time or anything?"

"No, not at all.”

Although I had no idea what to expect from my mother, her positive reaction left me dizzy. And while I felt an unparalleled sense of accomplishment knowing my piece and my story would be floating, unencumbered, across the internet, my gut churned with guilt. Admittedly, my mother's response would've been easier to process if she had reacted with the rage I expected her to. But because she gave her consent without a tinge of condemnation, I felt I betrayed her. I felt as if I hadn’t given her sobriety a chance. Perhaps I failed to give her the credit she deserved.

Again I was obsessed with a nagging question I couldn't answer: Was my mother finally the sane and sober woman I'd always wanted her to be? But then, a few days later, I received another call.

"I've got bad news," my editor told me. "Your mom called me today and has changed her mind, saying she disputes everything and denies ever being an alcoholic."

"You've got to be kidding me," I sighed.

"Your mom sounded completely different on the phone... aggressive and unhinged," my editor explained. "I can't be sure, but I think she may have been drinking."

With one phone call, not only was my piece killed, but I also realized that the confusion and doubt I wrestled with over the depth of my mother's sobriety were instinctive warnings. On all accounts, my mother was sober: she hadn't picked up a drink in 10 years. But she wasn't in recovery. She hadn't yet faced the issues that convinced her a life of perpetual hangovers and adult diapers was better than living with whatever reality had to offer. My mother no longer slurred her words, but she was as unstable and unreliable as ever.

Today, I'm convinced my instincts instantly picked up on the disparity between my mother's sobriety—or abstinence—and her lack of real recovery. Looking back, I realize there were numerous times that I was in contact with her as an adult when I felt like a confused six-year-old kid again, sitting next to her at some shitty corner bar, watching her get loaded. Thankfully, my confusion finally made sense.

While I can't speak for every person with alcoholism or addiction, and I prefer not to generalize when it comes to an individual’s sobriety, I know at least for my mother, putting down the bottle—as difficult as that may have been—was only the first step. And now it's up to her to keep on walking.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Dawn Clancy - Headshot.jpg

Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is