I could never have sleepovers because my Mom would get too drunk, the kind of drunk where you groan like an autistic person and break dishes and look like you just mouthwashed with blood. For a while I thought this was just something that happened, sort of like a spell that activated once the sun went down and Oprah ended. It’s crazy to think how innocence works: how you can be masturbating or getting high off citrus scented markers and living with an alcoholic for years and have no fucking idea. I don’t remember exactly when I found out. It wasn’t through one of those momentous revelations when the light bulb goes off and everything makes sense. On the contrary, the revelation was gradual and accumulative and is still something I’m coming to terms with.
My experience with alcoholism has been episodic. There was the time I came home to Mom screaming and hurling spaghetti at the pantry door. Food fight! I thought to myself, reaching into the pot and grabbing a fistful of al dente noodles and giggling as I watched them stick to and eventually inch their way off the ceiling. Or the time I came downstairs really late at night to get a juice box only to find her lying on the floor topless. I remember her speaking in tongues that night and rolling around on our booger-colored rug like a sedated epileptic. Too young to conceptualize the situation, I joined in, believing it to be just as harmless an impromptu fire drill. There were times when the two of us would sit outside on our screened-in porch listening to the sound of summer cicadas and the metronomic squeaking of our wooden glider. On those night’s we’d rock back and forth while she’d sip wine and rub my back and tell me fantastical stories about her childhood in bum-fuck Massachusetts. Sometimes we’d sit in the kitchen by candlelight playing with Tarot cards and eating burnt grilled cheese. We would always dip our fingertips into the hot wax and then wiggle them around once the globs hardened and pretend we were aliens. I loved these moments, probably because they are some of the few memories I’ve shared with my Mom that weren’t invalidated by booze. The ironic thing is that they were, I just didn’t know it at the time.
Almost every morning growing up I’d come downstairs and find a chipped teacup from our “good China set” on the coffee table, with a thimble’s worth of crimson liquid still at the bottom. I remember the first time I sniffed the cup, which smelled sour like garbage. Curious, I upturned the vessel and waited as the drop slid down the rim and landed in my mouth. My body tensed at the taste and I spit up almost immediately into the nearest heating vent. I remember wondering why anyone in his or her right mind would choose to drink that bile. I didn’t know what alcohol was. I don’t think many eight year olds do.
In sixth grade everyone was forced to take a class called “Life Skills.” In the context of the class, “skills” meant resisting the temptation of drugs, sex, and lipids, thus lessening the quality of one’s “life.” A man named Mr. Murphy instructed it. He took himself way too seriously and looked like one of those creepy inflatable tubes used to attract buyers at car dealerships. Mr. Murphy was the happiest bearer of bad news I’ve had the pleasure to know. He told us about the effects of tobacco and carb-heavy diets on the body, about the realities of addiction, depression and adolescent suicide, all the while smiling like the man on the packaging for Brawny paper towels. One time he even brought in a squishy replica of a cancerous lung, holding it up in the air like one would a World Series trophy while encouraging us all to poke it. It was in Mr. Murphy’s class that I first found out what alcohol was: that it was something people drank at parties in the woods or when their parents weren’t home; that it prevented people from being able to operate machinery, form coherent sentences or walk a straight line; that it was something bad.
Wikipedia defined alcoholic for me as: “someone whom engages in the compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, usually to the detriment of the drinker’s health, personal relationships, and social standing.” As I got older, I started to realize more and more that my Mom was starting to fit the description. I was now hyperaware of how early she started drinking (4:00PM), how often (every night) and how much (a lot). Every Tuesday before I took out the recycling I’d count the number of empty wine bottles in the bin. When we’d go to the grocery store I’d notice how she’d always give me an item to find so that while I was gone she could make a pit stop in the liquor section. I’d start finding bottles hidden in odd spots around the house, like behind Fluffy’s liter box or under the sink where we kept old pots and floor cleaner. At night she’d become more belligerent, staggering into walls and banging aggressively on the piano like a ticked-off Bach. One night she even smacked my Dad across the face with the leg of a chair. The blow cut open his forehead, causing a thin red line to trickle down to his chin and divide his face in half.
I read online that the best way to confront an alcoholic about their addiction was in a way that was “non-accusatory.” Some people recommended taping baby pictures and post-it notes reading don’t resort to this or let’s talk to the front of their wine or vodka bottles. I remember searching through over five photo albums looking for the right picture, finally deciding on a shot of Mom and I at the beach. In it I’m sitting in her lap in a red one piece and an over-sized sun hat, sunburnt badly at the cheeks. She’s looking at me in the way someone does when they love someone so much that they forget where they are…that they forget themselves. I taped the photo around the circumference of a bottle of Merlot, along with a flashcard that expressed how concerned I was about her. Then I placed it back in the fridge and waited for her to confront me about it. Nothing about the note was ever acknowledged. I found shredded neon bits in the trash the next morning: old microwave dinners and apple cores and the saddest confetti I’ve ever seen.
I remember the circling of red and blue lights as they bounced off my bedroom window. A neighbor had heard Mom screaming and called the police. I was sixteen, and had been smoking weed in my room to numb myself to it. I was smoking a lot of weed those days. It was easier to get high than to keep trying to convince myself that I could fix my Mom. All the years of waiting up for her, of hiding her car keys and dumping her wine out in the backyard behind our maple tree had earned me was a series of nicknames, which were limited, but not exclusive to: sociopath, cunt, traitor, bitch, dumbass, worthless, and Satan. In the morning everything that had transpired would’ve been forgotten altogether: I would be greeted by my Mom pacing cheerfully around the kitchen in a sweaty nightgown, putting on a pot of watery coffee and offering me a plate of Eggo waffles. Even my Dad had thrown in the towel (not that he had ever done anything in the first place). He was now going to bed on the couch by 8:00, getting up at dawn to do yoga and reading a lot of Eckhart Tolle. Between his avoidant spiritualism and my new habit, you could tell that we’d both given up. After the police left, I took another rip of my bong and watched the milky smoke cascade like streamers above my head and slowly dissipate into nothing.
By some miracle I finished high school with decent marks. At my graduation ceremony, my parents sat at opposite sides of the bleachers. When the last name was called and hundreds of hats and gold and maroon balloons were released into the air, I felt nothing but indifference. I remember my Mom and I went out to lunch afterwards to celebrate. We both sat in silence as we robotically dipped pieces of bread into a plate of olive oil and red pepper flakes on our table. I remember looking at her and wanting so badly to say something like I couldn’t have done this without you or I’m really going to miss you. But that would’ve felt too phony. The truth was, I didn’t know the person sitting across from me anymore. She might as well have been a stranger.
The following month Mom drove me up to Vermont and helped me unload all of my stuff into my cramped dorm room, the same room where I’d later crack my first beer. Before she left, I looked around me and saw so many mothers and daughters embracing, shedding big, anime-sized tears. All my life I had been trying to form a connection with my Mom like the ones I was seeing now, one that would warrant the same kind of reaction. I thought back to that photo of us on the beach, which now felt so distant, so submerged. And that’s kind of what alcoholism does. It submerges. When we hugged for the final time I cried just as hard as everyone else, not for the Mom that was about to go, but for the Mom I had already lost, and knew would never resurface.
Elena Robidoux is a writer of prose poetry and creative nonfiction from Boston. Her work has been featured in Vantage Point and Pulp Metal Magazine.