The Secret Life Of An Alcoholic’s Daughter

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“My name is Colleen, and I am the daughter of an alcoholic.

My mom was born right outside the city of Boston. She was a middle child and grew up in a picturesque neighborhood in the suburbs. In the pictures that I have, she is a happy child, well dressed and surrounded by loving family and friends.

Despite her promising upbringing, she fell into alcoholism.

She was always in denial about her addiction, so I am not sure when it started. From the little I have been able to dig up, she was already drinking by the time she met my dad. They dated for a few years before deciding to get married. Her alcoholism was bad enough then that his family had understandable doubts about the marriage. My father loved her and chose to marry her anyway. They moved to New Hampshire, ands built a house in a small town tucked into the southwest corner of the state. I was born a few years later.

From an early age, I knew something was wrong. Each morning we went to the grocery store. Mom always made excuses about why we were there. She needed rice to make dinner that night, or we needed milk. Yet we always ended up in the beer aisle, with her lifting a 12 or 24 pack out of the cooler. In the check-out line, I  was allowed to pick out a treat if I promised not to tell dad.

woman holding her daughter
Courtesy of Colleen Perry

She would change after those trips. My mom had beautiful expressive eyes. When she drank, they became dull and lifeless. She also became extremely emotional. When sober, Mom was kind, but distant. When she drank, emotions of anger and sadness came tumbling out. She constantly repeated that she loved me. If I did not reciprocate, she accused me of not loving her.

By the evening, she was slumped over on the couch, attempting to smoke cigarettes, screaming and raving. During this, Dad would usually arrive home from work.  He was the safe parent, so I stayed close to him. This made mom angry, and she turned her aggression towards him. There were many nights when I was kept awake by the sounds of them fighting

husband and wife posing
Courtesy of Colleen Perry

The mornings were always confusing.  Sometimes, she would still be drunk, dad would be gone, and I was left  to fend for myself. Other mornings, she would be sober.  My parents would be sitting there, having coffee like nothing happened. It was extremely perplexing for me as a child. We never acknowledged the fighting or the addiction. I was left to interpret what happened on my own.

I grew to resent those trips to the grocery store. I was constantly put into unsafe situations due to her addiction. That made me angry. One time, she drove us into a ditch. Someone called the police, and she was arrested for DWI. We were separated, and I watched as she was dragged into the police station.  I was 7 years old.

After her arrest, I knew that what she was doing was wrong. I did not trust her anymore. Trying to understand it, I confronted her about it. I begged her to stop. She refused to acknowledge her alcoholism. She pretended everything was fine, even as it was falling apart. Each day she would go to the store, and each day we were forced to deal with the aftermath of it.

brunette woman
Courtesy of Colleen Perry

The messages I learned at school only made things more complicated. Growing up in the 90’s there was not compassionate, trauma informed viewpoints on addiction. Drug use and alcoholism were heavily stigmatized. I learned that those that fell victim to drugs or alcohol had failed morally. I was ashamed that my mom drank the way she did. I felt that her alcoholism made me a bad person too. I kept what was going on at home to myself for fear of being judged. I had no one safe to talk to, so I stayed silent.

My life was often confusing and contradictory. One misconception about growing up around alcoholism is that things are always bad. That our childhoods are a series of painful events, with nothing good to speak of. This is not the case. Often, it is a confusing mix of good and bad.

There were many times that my mom was able to rise above her addiction and be present. I struggled with Freshman English, and she called my teacher to advocate for me. Sometimes she made coffee and we would sit on the porch and talk. Each year she made me a cheesecake for my birthday. In the summer, we went to the White Mountains and went camping as a family. There were good moments in my childhood too.

My mom loved me, but her addiction often shaped our relationship. She would cook me my favorite dinner before a big test, then days later, go through my journals and hurl something she read at me. I loved her, but our relationship was complicated. That is the the hardest part of loving someone in active addiction. The good is woven in with the bad. I stayed silent because I had no idea how to share the story without being misunderstood.

Years would pass before I would share my story openly.

In my early 20’s, mom’s alcoholism caught up with her. She was constantly coughing, and she began to lose her memory. Her legs began to retain fluid. We begged her to go to the doctor, but she refused. I think she knew what was coming and wanted to face it in her own way. It was selfish, but there is also part of me that understands her choice.

In those last few months there was a shift in our relationship. She was sober. She was finally trying to take care of herself. I was still guarded, but I wanted a relationship with her so badly.  Looking at her health, I knew her days were numbered. I did not want the pain of the past to define the last days I had with her. During that time, we were able to connect in a meaningful way.

Then one day she apologized to me.

We were sitting on the couch drinking coffee, catching up. She turned to me suddenly and said,

‘Colleen, I am sorry for everything.’

Her apology caught me off guard.  As a family, we never expressed our emotions.

I awkwardly mumbled it was okay. Then we went back to our conversation, like nothing had happened. Little did I know that moment would come to shape me.

It was a rainy day at the end of June when we lost her. We had known it was coming, but nothing truly prepares you for it. I struggled after of her death with a complicated set of emotions. I was incredibly sad that she was gone. Yet there was also part of me that found closure within her passing.

The first 24 years of my life were shaped by mom’s alcoholism. My childhood had been chaotic and confusing.  My family ignored the problem, and at school I learned alcoholism was bad. I had reached adulthood still holding onto shame and secrets. Yet, even though she struggled, I loved Mom. In the wake of her death, I saw the opportunity for healing.

I wanted to share her full experience in her eulogy. I decided to openly acknowledge her alcoholism. It was terrifying, but I needed to share the truth. Prior to her death, she had tried to do better. I wanted to acknowledge that, but I could not do that without sharing the whole story. So, I stood up in front of everyone I loved and told them that my mom was an alcoholic.

Something incredible happened in that moment.  A weight I did not realize I was carrying was lifted from my shoulders. For the first time in my life, I was being authentic, and it felt good. There was a freedom that came to me in that moment.

Inspired by the positive experience I had sharing my mom’s story, I began to share on Instagram. I was struggling emotionally and needed a space to move through that. I talked about my mom, and how her alcoholism has hurt me. That has been an incredibly healing experience. For years, I thought I could run from my past or repress it.  It was only when I turned to face it that I became whole. Telling my story set me free.

The response online was immediate. I connected with people from similar backgrounds. They told me my story gave them hope. It showed people they were not alone, and acknowledgement of their truth is healing. So many are not in a place where they can share their stories. I feel a responsibility to share my truth so that others see they are not alone.

Alcoholism is a quiet addiction. So many people suffer, but so few people talk about it. Things have gotten better in the last few years, but there is still so much stigma that surrounds it. People see alcoholism as a choice and a moral failure. They use this logic to dismiss those struggling with alcohol. The problem is, when you marginalize the alcoholic, you marginalize their family too.

I still live with the legacy of my past. I spent years in survival mode, holding the world at a safe distance. This protected me from getting hurt, but at a price. I cannot fully experience the world when I hold it at arm’s length. To truly live, I am learning to be vulnerable. Each day I must fight to stay present within my own life. Sometimes I stumble. The tone of someone’s voice or a certain smell can trigger an intense emotional response, and I must work through that.

I am also learning basic skills as an adult. Mom’s alcoholism made our home chaotic, and I was never taught basic stuff. I did not learn how to fold laundry and put it away till I was 28. I still struggle with self-care like brushing my hair every morning. I constantly forget to put on a coat on cold days.

I did not realize that you are supposed to bring a gift to a wedding. I shared that in a post, and the response was surprising. Other survivors were relieved they were not the only ones experiencing that challenge. Children of alcoholics often struggle with everyday things, but stay silent about it because of the embarrassment. It is a lifelong legacy, and that needs to be shared.

Alcoholism touches families in so many ways. I want society to understand how complicated it is to love someone struggling with alcoholism. I want to give survivors a place where they can acknowledge their truth. It is my hope that the next generation will be able to share their parents’ alcoholism openly and be met with compassion.

I come from a place of anger and pain. I believe the best way to break through that is compassion and love. I believe that starts by telling the story of my mom in a sensitive way. We had our struggles, but at the end of her life, we were able to make amends. I will always be thankful for that.

I can hold my mom responsible for the damage she caused, and still hold compassion for her. In my healing journey, there is room for both.”

mom and daughter standing outside
Courtesy of Colleen Perry

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Colleen Perry of impacted By Alcoholism from New Hampshire. Follow her journey on Instagram, Facebook Twitter, and Wordpress. Submit your own story here.

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