‘I’m not ready to remember’ – when your mum is an alcoholic

Illustration by Amber’s Illustrations

How Sara* realised her mum’s drinking was out of control – and how she helped herself out of a spiral of her own

There is a moment that I can’t help but go back to. I can remember it so vividly that sometimes I wonder if I imagined it. I was around five years old and my Mum and Dad were on a night out. The babysitter suggested that we draw something for our parents as a gift for when they got back. Eagerly, I set to work. I drew something that I thought was funny and would make Mum laugh: her face in silver, looking into a mirror, and her cheeks and the vomit coming from her mouth in green. 

The babysitter had asked me to draw something for when my parents got back, and I’d taken that literally. I drew what I knew my mum would be doing when she got back – she would be in the bathroom being sick. I knew this because I always heard her after she got back from these nights. Often I would go and sit with her, stroking her hair.

As it turns out, that didn’t happen that night, but the next morning came and I went to see what my Mum had thought of her surprise. I found her crying on our white armchair, the one we still have in the house today. She had the drawing on the coffee table in front of her. I was too young to understand. But it was just a case of waiting for me to understand what being an alcoholic meant.  

When your parent is an alcoholic a huge part of that is denial – from themselves, and from others.

When your parent is an alcoholic a huge part of that is denial – from themselves, and from others. It is very unlikely that they will sit you down and identify themselves, and, on top of that, your family around you is dealing with it in their own way – through pretending or ignoring a lot of the time. I had to join in on ignoring it until it became too blatant to look past, until those ‘big chats’ began. Big chats where there was always shouting, crying and a forced, impermanent resolution.

Pretending that the situation was as simple and black and white and not an issue but just a few bad nights was my way of understanding it when I was younger.  In fact, we would only talk about it when really bad things happened, like when Mum got drunk and was ill, or when she got drunk and got angry, or when she got drunk and hit me, or when she got drunk and I would ask to leave so she would pinch me under the table until I bruised. In truth, the things I just wrote are things I’ve only ever said out loud once when sober. Even when writing this, I’m leaving a lot unsaid. There is so much I’m still not ready to remember. 

In truth, the things I just wrote are things I’ve only ever said out loud once when sober. Even when writing this, I’m leaving a lot unsaid. There is so much I’m still not ready to remember. 

As I grew older, I began to see it more clearly, just like a detective begins to unravel a case – albeit a case that, in this situation, has gone on for years and is still wide open. When I was five, I was noticing things, I was seven when I was questioning things, I was thirteen when I was finding things – like dusty bottles on top of cupboards and in the wardrobe and in the loft – and from then on I was Googling my questions and finding definitions on the internet, feeling how the word ‘alcoholic’ felt in my head. How could I call my Mum an alcoholic? Wouldn’t that be like calling her a ‘whore’ or a ‘bitch?’

It makes sense that I thought this way. My understanding of what an alcoholic is was constructed in secret and partially through piecing an image together based on what was around me. I grew up watching Coronation Street so, to me, an alcoholic was someone like Peter Barlow.  He’d drink for days on end, you’d find him in the street bleeding and paralytic, and his family constantly begged him to attempt rehab. My Mum was none of that – she had a job, she had friends, she wasn’t drunk all the time, and she was loving and capable. 

I found the truth of my mum’s addiction in a grey area, somewhere in between. Sometimes she was fine, sometimes I couldn’t even tell whether she had had a drink, sometimes she was picking me up from school drunk, sometimes she was just drinking too much on a night out, sometimes she was passed out on the bathroom floor… but no one saw every side of her except me. 

Friends would come to my house and be greeted by a  loving woman. She would make us incredible food and be her chatty self. I would sometimes try and talk to my friends about how she acted sometimes, and I would be met with platitudes like ‘my parents drive me crazy too.’ They didn’t get it because they didn’t see it. If Mum was an alcoholic she would be drunk all the time. She wouldn’t be making us cottage pie. It was just normal embarrassing Mum stuff, right? My mum wasn’t an alcoholic because it wasn’t obvious. 

If Mum was an alcoholic she would be drunk all the time. She wouldn’t be making us cottage pie. It was just normal embarrassing Mum stuff, right? My mum wasn’t an alcoholic because it wasn’t obvious. 

There was another edge to this too. To share how I felt I would mean I’d have to openly label her. Did I want to call my mum an alcoholic? If I told people would they punish her? Alcoholics have a lot of negative traits but my Mum is not just the poorly conceived connotations that come from the word ‘alcoholic’. She was abused as a child by her own dad and she struggles. Her issues can make her do unimaginable things – but she is kind and funny and I don’t want people to judge her.

Talking about alcohol abuse is made even more difficult by society’s completely fucked-up way of  portraying issues around alcohol. It totally stigmatises addiction, attaching extreme images of homelessness and hospitalisation to what can actually be a very high functioning illness. This is all whilst encouraging binge drinking in nearly every social situation. I watched countless times as my Mum’s friends bought her drinks, even when she said no, or even when I asked them to stop and was labelled a ‘stroppy teenager’. Ironically, these would be the same friends who would talk behind her back about her behaviour at parties. It’s all symptomatic of people’s extreme definition of alcoholism and society’s flippant treatment of alcohol. DO NOT even get me started on all the plaques that Mum’s been bought that say inane shit like,  ‘I like cooking with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food’ or ‘I’m on a gin diet, so far I’ve lost 5 days’. The dark comedy of it is almost unbelievable.

DO NOT even get me started on all the plaques that Mum’s been bought that say inane shit like,  ‘I like cooking with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food’ or ‘I’m on a gin diet, so far I’ve lost 5 days’.

For the child of an addict it leads to a totally isolating situation and, for me, led to a crushing impact on my mental health. It’s incredibly difficult to grow up with an alcoholic as you’re dealing with so many negative behavioural habits from your own parent:  manipulation, blaming, secrecy, violence, just being pure shit… it made me feel crazy and paranoid. My house was a minefield and my head even more so. She would replace the vodka in bottles with water, hide bottles in strange places, put them in other people’s recycling boxes… but she still wouldn’t confront it. As a consequence, I started questioning myself. Am I wrong? Am I helping her? Am I making her drinking problem worse? Sometimes I would find bottles and just put them back. It would only provoke  the same conversation I’d had a million times. The same sensation of staring into a sink, trying to bury yourself into a state of numbness, as you pour every last drop of alcohol in the house down the sink. 

 In response to her habits, I created my own strange habits: tracking the amount of bottles in the recycling box, recording conversations, drawing lines with marker on the vodka bottle – desperate for tangible evidence that will be irrefutable, believing that she would have to face up to her addiction and get help if I handed her something undeniable. Of course, it doesn’t work like that. 

I’m so thankful that she is now getting help and those conversations aren’t such a battle, but in a way, it’s a trade-off. When she does slip up now, she is so regretful and so guilty, she makes promises she can’t always fulfil. These are promises that I have heard thousands of times, each one building up like scar tissue. 

It was, and still can be, a cycle of finding bottles and worrying and being angry. It’s shouldering the knowledge that if you do bring up that empty bottle you will kickstart a talk where, undoubtedly, you will cause your mum to rock in a corner and sob. It’s a decision that weighs on your soul and it’s a decision I’ve had to make thousands of times in my life. All of this whilst still being told my mum is fine.

I want anyone in a similar situation to know that you are seen. Your emotions are valid. Your struggles are valid. When you live in the grey area  of bad but not bad enough, you feel trapped and alone. But you are not alone – and most importantly, you are not responsible for your parents’ happiness.

When you live in the grey area  of bad but not bad enough, you feel trapped and alone. But you are not alone – and most importantly, you are not responsible for your parents’ happiness.

I used to believe that if I was good enough, if I listened enough, if I was kind enough, my mum would get better. It’s been a gradual process and I’m still not out of the other side, but through counselling and distance, I see that this isn’t the case. My worth and value isn’t dictated by that situation. I used to think that if my Mum really loved me, or if I was a ‘better’ person, my mum would stop. But I now see that my  mum’s drinking is an entity of its own. 

There has been huge progress in my own mental health too. I’m proud of the first time I forgave myself for not being able to ‘save’ my Mum or the first time I told myself I wasn’t responsible, or when I let myself move out of the family home, or allowed myself to have a relationship with my Mum and know that I do not make or break her mental health. The first few times I ever got drunk I used to get paralytic and hysterically cry that I would turn into my Mum, it would bleed out like a series of sob stories and friends would get tired of hearing me cry about it. Now I’ve got a handle on my relationship with alcohol – I neither hate or love it. 

And I am noticing, for the first time, all the negative side effects  of caring for my Mum. For example, my desire to forget last night by the next morning has made me too willing to give people love and respect when they treat me with much less than. I am trying to teach myself that I am allowed to be upset and to put myself first, and that I am allowed to not forgive someone sometimes. 

I’m starting to realise that I have value. I’m starting to understand that I am more than my relationship with my mum. That I was not put on Earth to save her, that I am more than that. That I am my sense of humour, the friends I have, the kindness I show. I am the main plot line of my life and the viewers at home are clapping and crying with happiness when I take the happiness I deserve. This life I have is chaotic and unrelenting but I am not my sad moments –  I am every moment.

*Sara is an anonymous author. 

If your parents’ drinking is affecting you, you can find support at NACOA, The National Association for Children of Alcoholics.

 Follow Rife on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook

Support more young people to have their voices heard

Rife is Watershed‘s online magazine created for young people, by young people.

We offer paid internships and publish work by young writers, photographers, illustrators, and filmmakers from all sorts of backgrounds, helping them get into creative careers. Rife has reached over 8,000 young people through our workshops, over 220 young people have made stuff for Rife on topics ranging from mental health to identity to baked beans, and last year, over 200,000 people visited our website.

In these complex and uncertain times hearing from and supporting young people who are advocating for social change and contributing fresh perspectives has never been so important. 

Through supporting Rife you can ensure that this important work continues and that more young people have their voices heard.