I endured a very complicated relationship with my mother.
Many of us have because the mother/daughter relationship is built on so many layered emotions that, at times, it is hard to figure it all out. Add onto that mental and physical illness, depression, anxiety, drug addiction, divorce, remarriage and a thousand tons of Jewish guilt and now you’ll start to get the picture of my mother and me.
When she was a young mom, she was energetic and fun, creative and social. She was a great hostess and cook, had a generous, welcoming soul and made everyone feel loved and connected. But she also had a dark side that only my father and I got to see. He and my mother divorced and he left before it got really bad and she fell into the deep end of the pool.
Much of my adolescence was spent balancing my own natural desire to be with my friends and discover myself while simultaneously making my mother smile, keep the peace and be a dutiful daughter so she would be happy with me and love me.
As long as my interactions with her could remain peaceful, my world was okay. I didn’t know that this constant battle wasn’t my responsibility to fight and that, fighting it alone, I could never win.
Going away to college gave me physical distance, but the pull of the guilt and desire for her to be happy was constant. She eventually remarried and had a few great years where everything seemed to settle down into a manageable level of peace. Her traumatic outbursts and unrealistic demands quietly simmered in the background.
Fast forward a few years, a few minor injuries, and the illness and death of my maternal grandmother, and my mother was again drowning in the deep end of self-medication to dull her pain. She was on her way to full blown drug addiction.
She denied she had a problem even as it worsened and her behavior grew more erratic and belligerent. She was in constant denial and refused to take responsibility for the vile, hurtful, awful, hateful things she said to me. I tried to remind myself that this was the mother who had loved and nurtured me as a child, and who doted on my own children as any proud Jewish grandmother, but it grew increasingly difficult.
In January 2012, after several cancelled dinner dates and game nights, my mother came to my home intending to bake with my kids and me; something we all used to love to do together. But the woman who showed up to bake wasn’t my mother. The woman who showed up was her drug addicted evil twin. Within an hour, she was hurling insults and cruelty to me in front of my kids and then launched her attack onto them, which sent them into hiding in my daughter’s room. After reasoning failed, I threw my mother out of my house to protect my children.
I knew I had to so something but I didn’t know what since the interventions, the heart to heart conversations, and the pain management doctors failed. I wrote her a long letter explaining, in the most loving way possible, that I loved her, but couldn’t allow her to treat us this way and implored her to accept help.
I made a promise and gave her a choice. I would be with her everyday of her life, holding her hand and supporting her if she would check into an in-patient drug rehabilitation hospital and would agree to change her life. We would circle her with love and support every day and she would never be alone again. Or, if she chose to do nothing and continue self-medicating with her oxy/ anti-anxiety/ anti-depressant cocktail, then she would never see us again.
It was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I had to try tough love to save her and remove my children and myself from this toxic situation.
I never heard from my mother again.
I did learn from her best friend, who agreed with me, that my mother was beyond angry with me and thought I was 100% wrong.
But I never heard from my mother again.
In October 2013, over eighteen months after our fight, my 69-year-old mother died of heart failure, most likely due to twelve years of drug abuse.
Overwhelmed with sadness, loss, and grief, I tried to process the anger I felt toward her. She had chosen drugs over her only daughter and grandchildren and now my attempt at tough love had failed utterly because she was dead. The little girl inside me was devastated and lost; the grown up woman was angry and disappointed. I struggled with guilt over what I could not control and tried to make peace with the raging emotions inside me.
How could I reconcile my complicated relationship with this woman who used to be my beloved mother?
No one in the family was willing to eulogize her. I was compelled to step up and give her a respectable send off. For three days, in between making arrangements for her funeral and burial, I poured over 70 years of family photographs and forced myself to remember the good times: the themed birthday parties, the holidays shared with family and friends, the laughter over stupid Halloween costumes, the milestones like graduations, weddings and bar mitzvahs, vacations and silliness.
I started to see my mother as a flawed, imperfect human being who had a disease. She suffered and endured pain and disappointment. She loved her family with all her heart and, when she could, she made each of us feel special. My mother was never happier than when her friends and family were around her. She was a generous, beautiful soul.
My mother lost her way and couldn’t find her way back.
A few weeks later, while going through her things, I found a letter she had written to me shortly before my daughter was born twelve years earlier, while I was pregnant and before the drug abuse started, that she had filed away and not given me. In it, she told me how much she loved my children and me. We were the light of her life and heart and no mother could be more proud than she was of me.
This was her reaching toward me from beyond to give me the forgiveness and closure I needed.
In the year since her death, I have come to know my mother more than I knew her in life. She was beloved and respected by all who knew her. She is missed daily and the gifts of her spirit live on in her best friends, my cousins, my children and in me.
What I learned is that we are all flawed and struggling.
Drug addiction is a disease that affects more than just the addict. Its far reaching effects change relationships and ruin lives. The friends and family are powerless and have no ability to “fix” the addiction if the addict refuses and is in denial.
Accepting powerlessness over others is the first step toward our own healing.
We are all on our own paths and sometimes we are lucky to have our paths merge with those we love and who can give us love in return, as well as guidance, advice, encouragement, entertainment, laughter, and hope.
Reach out and share your heart and soul with those you love. Today and every day let them know how much you cherish them and the blessings they bring to your life. Now is the time. Now is all we have.
Author: Marci Stern
Editor: Caroline Beaton