My mother's ring and my father's coin
Not forgiveness, but maybe acceptance of my dead alcoholic parents
I sit on the fluffy carpet, my legs pulled up, my back against the couch, my milk-drunk, sleepy newborn facing me, resting against my thighs. Eyes closed, mouth partially open with a little milk dribble trickling down her chin. I feel warm and relaxed, even though my nipples are raw, and my vagina is held together by fresh stitches following the birth of what looked like a 3-month-old. The nursing didn’t elicit the usual painful cramps. I don’t care that I haven’t slept. I feel wrapped in billowy layers of cotton. Everything will be fine. Nothing is hurting. After the intense pain and fear that comes with childbirth and the aftermath of a body that is sore everywhere and a mind tortured by sleep deprivation, I feel fantastic. And as I’m thinking that thought, I realize I should not be feeling fantastic.
I’m never going to take these pills again.
My doctor prescribed me opioids for pain relief after birth. This was over a decade ago, and things are a bit different now, but back then I had a little orange plastic container with oxycodone in my cabinet after my normal, healthy, vaginal birth. I’m not saying I wanted to be in pain after giving birth, but I am saying that taking drugs so strong that I felt like nothing had happened to my body at all, was disconcerting. There was no middle ground like feeling just enough to know which parts were healing and which parts were getting worse. Not feeling anything only results in numbness that prevents me from being alert and on top of things that needed addressing. It was either pain and discomfort everywhere or feeling completely disembodied.
It was the first time I took a substance and liked how it made me feel. And that scared the shit out of me. I threw the rest of the pills away.
When I looked through what was left of my dad (including a heavy box of ashes and every scrap of paper I ever wrote to him), I found the AA coin in the picture above. He had good reason to drink and for much of my life I was angry that he never stopped. I was angry that the drinking made him forget and so I could never make him feel my wrath. He would just forget about it the next day. Same with all the shitty things he said and did. I remembered them, he didn’t. Sometimes, he would feel bad about acting callous or scary, which would make him ashamed, which would lead him to drink more, which would allow him to forget and me to get angry, and the cycle would start all over again.
I was the keeper of bad memories while he lived in blissful ignorance at least part of the time. This has been a burden to carry, weights around my ankles that pull me into the deep, drowning and drowning.
Today I am asking myself why did I want my father to stop drinking so badly? My mother did stop and while some things were possible through recovery, our relationship was never close and I did not feel that she atoned for her sins. I do not have a religious bone left in my body, but I was competing with the most vengeful, old testament version of god in wanting to still punish her some days. Other days I wanted to connect but felt my anger and rage at the past would be too much for her to bear, would disturb the fragile truce and her brittle psyche. What I did understand was that alcohol is not the problem itself. It is the escape, the comfort, the crutch, the coping mechanism. Once it is taken away, the scabs ripped off, the soft raw flesh exposed, after all that effort, the real work begins. And many many many cannot face that work.
My father never got to this point in the first place, but if he did, I don’t know that he would have been able to face the root of it all.
Sometimes I went to AA meetings with my mother and I found very few people there who I wanted to be around. Listening to what sounded partially like self-congratulation and self-pity just made me incensed at the fact that these people gave no shits about how they had affected everyone around them. I kept thinking, great, you stopped drinking, but you’re still a shitty, self-involved person who won’t take responsibility for actually addressing what made you use in the first place. I didn’t like hearing substance abuse was a disease and that I needed to have compassion for my parents as if they had cancer or a broken arm.
What I heard in many of these meetings was exactly what I’d heard at home. You should be supportive, you should be understanding. Your parents are having a hard time, they’re the ones in need of attention, care, and love. I can’t say if that’s what was really said, but it was what I heard.
I have active addicts and recovering addicts in my life and I have always grappled with the question of why some people enter and maintain recovery and some don’t. Why some people turn to substances in the first place and some don’t. I have always looked for someone or something to blame and fault.
There are so many stories about addicts who turned their lives around and are now considered heroes. Few of these stories spend much time on the wreckage these heroes left in their wake. They beat the odds and America loves these stories of rare triumph. But what about the endless stories of all the people who love the users who never get clean, never get sober. Or who do, only to relapse again and again and again? There are so many of us, but our stories aren’t perceived as interesting or dramatic, not as worthy of creating books and movies and music about. We are the watchers, the witnesses, the supporting characters in the dramatic arc of the tortured hero.
Our addicts tell us our feelings and needs and lives are less important than theirs, and so does the world.
I wear this ring I took from my mother’s apartment after her death because she used to wear it a lot during a time in her life when I think she was the happiest. She was creating art, soapstone sculptures, and she wore this ring to many art shows she participated in. She was sober and she was already blind but wasn’t yet too sick with COPD, which eventually forced her to stop pursuing her art when the tiny dust particles became too dangerous for her damaged lungs.
I have this coin I took from my father’s things that smelled like ash and musky cologne, because it is the only physical object connected to that time he tried. As far as I know, he had about 5 months of sobriety in his entire life. I picture him sitting in a meeting receiving the coin and maybe, just for a fleeting moment, having a shred of hope that he could possibly make it out of his crushing despair.
My parents both kept old cards and letters I sent to them, in which I see an abandoned child wanting to pretend I had loving, healthy, engaged parents. These letters are full of hearts and professions of love and claiming to have the best parents ever. And when I read some of my personal writing, much of which I have not shared publicly but it echoes in some of my essays, I see rage and contempt and judgment and while that’s “deserved”, it’s not the full story either.
I considered myself superior as the only one in my family who didn’t turn to substances. I patted myself on the back for being smarter and better than my parents. But my memory of experiencing opioids for the first time slaps me back to reality. What if at that point I had excruciating physical pain that could not be managed otherwise? What if my marriage had been even worse than what it was? What if I had postpartum depression more intense than what I experienced? Would I have thrown the pills away?
I allow the possibility that things could have gone differently at any point in my life. I did make a lot of good decisions and I was vigilant regarding the increased risk of becoming a user myself. Genetics and environmental factors made me a likely target. Some children of alcoholics emulate their parents and some do the opposite to create as much distance as possible. But at that time, as a child and teen, I wasn’t making rational decisions. I just happened to choose certain coping mechanisms over others but things could have easily gone another way that would have made it harder to stay away from substances.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of being buzzed, I don’t like the taste of alcohol and I have a low tolerance for mind-altering substances in general. I apparently don’t have those specific genes that make some people’s bodies metabolize alcohol a certain way that triggers the reward center in the brain more than the other parts that register discomfort with getting too drunk. I am grateful for that but it is not something I earned. It’s not something I achieved through responsible choices. About half of the risk of developing a substance use disorder is biological (genetic or hereditary, researchers continue to fight about how exactly this works), the rest depends on environmental circumstances, other personality traits, happy and unhappy accidents, and trauma.
I think my parents could have turned out very differently if they had access to effective mental health counseling, if they hadn’t been poor, if they hadn’t had certain biological predispositions, if they hadn’t gotten seriously and chronically ill, and if they hadn’t experienced certain kinds of damage and trauma. And this also makes me realize the reverse is true for me.
My parents had limitations that I have rarely taken into consideration when expecting them to become completely different people.
Being a child of alcoholics manifests in many ways, one of which is black and white thinking. The chaotic, unpredictable nature of these kinds of dysfunctional families makes it necessary for survival to quickly sort people, situations, and ideas into good and bad. For the longest time, I’ve tried to figure out whether my parents were good or bad people. Turns out they’re just people.
I don’t know if they “tried their best” but also don’t know that they didn’t. I can say that whether or not they tried their best, it wasn’t good enough for me as their child. They did fail me. But the more I learn about them, the more their behavior makes sense and the more I realize their complex pain.
In my father’s things, I found letters from my mother, long decades after their divorce, still telling him, I believe in you, you can stop drinking, you can do it, you’re worth it. I found a current passport that he kept in hopes of traveling to Germany to take care of my mother as she was dying.
My mother could not help my father to stop drinking and my father could not care for my mother as she was dying, but the remaining tenderness between them was real nonetheless.
As I get to know my dead parents, I feel less of a need to defend them and also less of a need to condemn them.