May 13, 2020

Darkness in the Light & Light in the Darkness: Growing up with an Alcoholic Mom.

On Mother’s Day, I quietly honored the complicated woman who was my mom.

My mom is long gone from this mortal plane. She decided to end it once and for all one summer evening in her Florida condo. I got the call from the police and flew out the next day to deal with things.

My mom was an alcoholic and suffered from deep depression and anxiety for much of her life.

She’d had some harsh things happen to her in life. Her dad’s death from multiple sclerosis (MS) when she was 13. Her mom’s alcoholism and narcissistic behavior. She had two miscarriages, then a stillborn baby. Harsh things for a young woman—for anyone.

She was adventurous. At 20 years old, she left Philadelphia to take an overseas secretarial position with the United States Department of State. Over some seven years, she worked posts in Baghdad, Beirut, Dublin, and finally Lisbon, Portugal. I have the letters she wrote to her mom describing her exciting life.

The petite, pretty, blonde Irish girl who was my mom: Mercurial. Forceful personality. Given to sarcasm. (Could be biting.) Not given to suffering fools gladly. Impatient. Loved to laugh and party. Vain. She pathologically avoided letting people (including her kids) know her age. (Which was, of course, futile.) Given to confabulation and exaggeration. She had at least a touch of ADHD.

Mom and Dad got married in Lisbon. She quit her job and became a corporate wife. (Post-GI-bill-funded college, my dad had taken an overseas position with General Motors.) Next was several years in Portugal, then Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, and finally, back to the U.S. Along the way, three kids were born and raised.

How fabulous! An expat family living abroad in European capital cities! Yes, it was a charmed life. And we were a family afflicted with alcoholism.

Alcoholism: wrecker of family cohesion and what would otherwise be amicable relationships. Blight upon a person’s life.

My parents’ marriage didn’t survive beyond 20 fraught, rancorous years.

In retrospect, they got married way too quickly—not four months from meeting to marriage. I read in one letter my mom wrote to her mother: He’s cute as a bug. And he’s got an international career. How could she resist the handsome, young man? And vice versa: he was smitten by the vivacious, internationally traveled blonde babe. And they were both enchanted with Portugal—where they were stationed when they met.

But there was the alcohol monkey riding my mom’s back. That came to light over the next years. For many years, there was simply a lack of awareness of what alcoholism was. Then there was the denial. And the codependency.

Mom’s alcoholism precluded my siblings and I having a deep, trusting relationship with her. Same went for my dad, of course.

Like so many alcoholics, mom used alcohol to cover up her feelings of inadequacy. And depression. And loneliness.

Mom had a vibrant personality and upstanding character. Many loved her. Though yes, she made it hard. Under the influence of alcohol, she became a different person. Not very likeable. The alcoholic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde personality switch.

She was extremely—and frustratingly—resistant to help. Once back in the U.S., she tried various forms of rehab. Clinics. Counselors. AA. Nope, she could not ditch that monkey on her back.

Nevertheless, mom tried her best—I’ve no doubt—to give us kids a happy childhood. I know she loved us. There were innumerable ways in which she made our childhood magical. For example, at Christmas we always had a beautiful tree and prettily wrapped presents. She’d gather us three kids in bed to read to us. She told us fairies danced on the toadstools in our yard at night and gave us clothes to play dress-up. She fed us healthy, delicious food. (It’s a goal to write a cookbook based on her concoctions.)

Despite Mom often saying that she wanted out, her suicide was a shock. I’d visited her a mere few weeks earlier. The visit had the inevitable trademark elements of alcoholic behavior. For a bit of time, we enjoyed being together. But in a short time, there was the awful descent into her particular brand of warped negativity.

The coroner’s report revealed an essentially healthy—in body that is—69-year-old woman. But nothing to indicate that inside her psyche, my mom was an anxious, lonely person. For all it might seem otherwise, life for her was stressful and finally unbearable.

I hope she is in a better place. I hope that if any reader of this piece is afflicted with alcohol addiction, or knows someone who is, that you know that help can be found. There is help out there.

Though, sadly true, my mom didn’t manage to find what she needed. Sometimes, it seems, there is just too much pain.

The stronger message for me is that a person who is wrestling with addiction needs to be fully seen—beyond their addiction. Shame and ostracization are not the way to help any hurting, struggling person. Every life has worth. There is a way to the light.

I could tell many stories about my mom. Many that would make you laugh. I’d like to tell one to reveal something of who she was. To honor her. Would that you, dear reader, oblige me.

~

For one month in the summer of 1971, my family—along with another family, our good friends—rented a house on the Mediterranean isle of Ischia. The house was located a ways down an isolated dirt road and was perched above rocky cliffs. It was of a modern design with expansive terraces on two levels and a spacious interior with large windows offering wide sea views. There was a sunken cactus garden off the patio.

The house came with a private “beach” accessed by a steep cliff-side path with rough steps cut through the dense brambly bushes. What a thrill it was descending the trail to the rocky shore where gentle waves surged and splashed, and sparkling sea anemones, sea urchins, and seaweed festooned the rocks. Crabs scuttled about in the profusion of tidal pools. My mom bought us kids white rubber “slippers” to protect our feet from the craggy terrain and spiky sea urchins.

A mere couple of days into our sojourn, a short, noisy procession of overflowing garbage trucks rumbled down the dirt road below our house and around the bend out of our sight. What was this? This was hardly expected. Our flock of adults and kids went for an investigative walk down the dusty road. What we found, not a half mile from our house, was astonishing. A chaotic mess of a garbage dump! Broken machinery, tires, rags and old furniture, food scraps, animal parts, tin cans—all tumbled crazily down the cliffside, right into the dazzling turquoise blue waters of the Mediterranean. Ah, the unpleasant reek we had detected on the previous nights’evening breezes—explained!

We stared. We exclaimed. And we went home.

By the next few days, all six of us kids had contracted ringworm. It appeared, as ringworm does, as round, reddish patches on our bodies. Scandalous! Gross! Then, to our dismay, one balmy night as we dined on the terrace, I peered over the wall into the cactus garden and glimpsed a couple of fat, black rats scuttling about the rocks. To my young mind, they were horrifyingly fascinating. The adults were appalled. Our Mediterranean idyll…by the garbage dump!

My mom was beside herself. The next day, she stood in the middle of the road and blocked passage of a clunking, reeking garbage truck. In animated, broken Italian—and with her unique brand of theatrics—she attempted to communicate her outrage to the bewildered garbage truck driver. Shaking his grizzled head, he grumbled back at her, flung his hands about, motioned for her to back away. “Signora…ma che fai? Va via!” 

A cloud of flies buzzed and hovered in the dusty, odoriferous heat. Furious, my mom stepped aside.

A couple of days later, at the sight of another encroaching garbage truck, my mom bolted down to the road and threw herself prone—in front of the truck. The driver braked, fortunately. Clearly, he had a brand new situation on his hands. After some histrionic bilingual interaction between my obstructionist mom, the garbage man and a couple of other adults from our crew, my mom was persuaded to get up. She reluctantly stepped aside, and the truck rumbled onward to the dump.

My mom decided to take her wrath to a government office in Naples, some 20 miles away across the Tyrrhenian Sea. I wish I could have witnessed what went on at that meeting. But being a 12-year-old, I was not invited. I have no doubt the Napolitano petty bureaucrats who had to contend with this signora pazza had a unique interaction—that left them more amused than outraged or motivated to action. Besides, they had to go home to lunch. The sacred pranzo.

A promise, though, apparently had been made to my indignant mom that something would be done, and a few days later, a wizened, sunburned man showed up. I mean, he came ambling down our road—with a sack over his back. And he set up a homestead. That is, he fashioned a thatch-roofed shelter alongside the dusty road by the garbage dump. Evidently, his appointment was to sprinkle ash onto the fresh dump loads of garbage. We all went out to meet him. He seemed a kindly man. He had hung wine bottles, the type with the straw-clad round bottoms, from the roof of his shelter. His name was Angelo. My mom instantly dubbed him Mr. Clean. He invited us kids to go blueberry picking with him.

The sunny Mediterranean days rolled lazily along. The garbage trucks kept coming, for that is where the garbage dump was. Our ringworm infections cleared up after applications of a salve. We scrambled down to our rocky “beach” every day after breakfast. Donning flippers and snorkeling masks, we plunged into the sea and swam out around the rock outcropping to where the garbage cascaded into the sea. I clearly recall peering down into the lucid depths of the brilliant turquoise water, the filtered sunlight illuminating tin cans, machine parts, tires, and tattered shoes cluttering up the sea floor.

It was a glorious month, a cherished childhood memory. Sun and sea, snorkeling and luminescent grottoes, plates of calamari and pomodori al riso. And garbage and blueberry picking and the molto simpatico Mr. Clean.

What remains the most prominent memory for me, though, is my mom’s valiant attempt to halt those garbage trucks. She would not have her children’s health compromised. She is, undoubtedly, a main influence in my becoming an activist.

~

This is how I want to remember my mom. With gratitude, appreciation, love, compassion, and forgiveness.

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