Here’s what l discovered during my recovery from anorexia, if I wanted to get healthy and stay that way, both physically and emotionally, I had to dig deep and look at the things I’d rather keep swept under the rug. The past is the past. I definitely didn’t want my treatment to center around blaming my parents for my anorexic plight. But, as much as I wanted to, I couldn't ignore the past.
This is hard for me to write because I love my mom dearly and when she passed away unexpectedly three years ago it was like the stabilizing piece of my Jenga tower was pulled out, and I crumbled. I wasn’t sure I had it in me to rebuild another tower. She was loving, generous, supportive and kind. And she was an alcoholic.
As a child, I had the tale of two moms.
Sober mom would patiently help me with my dreaded math homework, and painstakingly sew sequins on my ballet costumes. She made us oatmeal for breakfast and tuna casseroles for dinner. I could count on her to be there to cheer me on through every dance recital, soccer game and choir concert. She was smart, witty and fun. When she was angry her Italian temper flared and when she laughed her whole body shook causing those around her join in. She was present.
Then there was the “other” mom. The one who would wake my little sister, Lisa, and I up in the middle of the night for a drunken drive to McDonalds for hot apple pies, the mom who wandered into the deep end of the swimming pool, Lisa and I in her arms, until she absently let go leaving us to sink under, and the mom who had to be awkwardly carried out of neighborhood gatherings and family celebrations. When drinking she became slurry, sleepy and vacant. Does she even know I'm here?
I became astute in reading the signals, taking the temperature of the room as I describe it now. With just a look in her eye, the sound of her voice, the way she held her body, I knew within seconds which mom I was dealing with. My life felt wobbly and uncertain and I learned to navigate it by staying quiet, and small. I was painfully shy, afraid to even speak when called on in class. I avoided any interaction with other adults, be it the checker at 7-11 or a friend’s parent I knew well, as if eye contact would allow people to see right through me, unveiling the family secret I was trying desperately to protect. I preferred to stay in my room and listen to Dolly Parton records, and read Nancy Drew. Just pretend this isn’t happening and maybe it will all go away.
I quickly identified that mom’s drinking was worse when dad was out of town on business. He would call every night when he was on the road and ask, “how’s your mom tonight?” Code for, "has you mom been drinking?"
I never told him, I didn’t want dad to be mad at her, I didn’t want our family to break apart. I felt my silence was the glue that held our family together so I kept my fear and shame buried inside, hoping to the outside world we looked like a “normal” family.
My mom got sober while I was away for my sophomore year in college. I never asked her about her drinking. To this day, I have no idea why she used alcohol, what thoughts, feelings and emotions surrounded that period in her life or how she recovered. I've always felt she buried so much guilt and I didn’t want to hurt her further by bringing it up.
Despite it all, my mom and I were very close when she passed away al-anon, she and I were friends, and she was the best grandma I could ever hope for my kids. Losing my mom was my own rock bottom and the reason I found the strength to go into recovery and rebuild my tower. It has been difficult for me to face the relationship between my mom’s disease and my own adult child of an alcoholic. Had I made the connection sooner, before marriage and kids, then maybe when life, once again, got wobbly and uncertain I wouldn’t have felt the need to be quite so quiet, or so small.
Top Left: Mom and I in 1968.
Top Right: Lisa (4) and I (6). About the time I started to figure out something was wrong in our house.
Bottom Left: With her grandkids. This pic says it all.
Bottom Right: The year before she passed. I knew she was worried about me, but we never talked about it.