It was a frigid, rainy evening in April 2003 when I leaned over to my friend on the school bus and asked to borrow her cell phone. We were on our way back to school from a varsity softball game, and I needed to call my mom for a ride home.
The phone rang to voicemail several times before she picked up.
“Hey, Mom, it’s Sara. We’re on our way home from the game, and we’ll probably be back in 20 minutes. Can you pick me up from school?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.”
Twenty minutes turned into an hour. I went back inside and rummaged through my backpack for a calling card. I called my brother — who said Mom wasn’t home — before I called my dad.
“Dad,” I said, tears starting to blur my eyes. “Mom didn’t pick me up from school. I’m just waiting here.”
Within 20 minutes, I spotted my dad’s car pulling into the school parking lot. On our way home, we noticed a familiar Honda Civic on the back of a tow truck in front of us. As we inched closer, we realized it belonged to my mom.
The tow-truck driver told my dad the car’s driver had been arrested. It had been found on the side of the road about a block away from my school. She had fallen asleep behind the wheel.
That night, it finally hit me that she had a real problem.
My mom’s dependence on alcohol started around the time my parents divorced. It was 1998, and I was 11. I remember the brown paper bags piling up and the empty wine bottles hidden in cabinets throughout the house.
But her attempts to conceal her disease became futile. She’d start making dinner after work but pass out before she could finish. She’d pick fights with me over things that were beyond my control: my father’s love life, her online dating prospects, my personality similarities to my father and her financial situation. She’d forget about my activities and be too drunk to drive me places.
After a nasty fall outside that left her with a busted lip, a close friend and a neighbor decided to take her to rehab in 2004. She was too drunk at the time to be admitted, and they suggested she come back when she was sober.
She never did.
There’s no handbook on how to survive a loved one’s addiction. You start to see the person who raised you through a different lens. Their disease changes you. Every day, I would come up with new ways to distract her so we could pour her alcohol out. I went as far as throwing myself down the stairs to get her attention. I spent every day confused, depressed, mad and burdened.
My father — a man who, even after the divorce, never wavered as a parent — told me he had hoped my mom’s drinking was just a phase. But when her drinking got bad, she became unbearable and unreasonable.
When she first started drinking, he gave us information on Al-Anon, a program for families and friends of alcoholics, and he talked about whether we should attend. I never considered attending, because I always thought I could just deal with it on my own.
I kept my mom’s drinking to myself as I was going through high school, convinced that others could smell my shame that her disease controlled my day-to-day life. I felt embarrassed that my family was struggling through this. I would never invite friends over to the house after school; I’d always have to find alternate plans for rides to and from places, because I never knew if she’d be sober.
As her disease worsened, I would tell my friends pieces of what was going on just to get it off my chest. When she was in bad shape, I would sleep out, even on school nights, just to get away. I’d go to bed every night wishing things would be different in the morning. But it was almost painful to wake up and know that when I got downstairs, something would be burning on the stove, Patsy Cline would be blasting on repeat and my mom would be passed out on the couch.
I went to college nearly 800 miles away from home just so I could get a break from taking care of her. I rarely drank; I was almost always the sober driver. After my sophomore year, I stopped going home during school vacations. The more time I spent away from her, the more I realized I needed to take care of myself first, because she wasn’t willing to admit she had a problem.
Over the years, I tried to talk with her about her alcoholism, but she never wanted to hear it. It forced me to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t change her and that it didn’t need to weigh me down. She refused to recognize she had a problem and actively denied it whenever I brought it up. I could pour her wine out, but she’d still find ways to drink. If she wasn’t willing to change then it couldn’t be my problem anymore.
Her addiction forced me to be more cautious. It wasn’t until after college that I started drinking socially. I thought that if I drank anything, I would turn into her. But the more she denied she had a problem, the more it dawned on me that I wasn’t her. I had developed more self-awareness and control than she had ever shown me. But that realization didn’t happen overnight. There was never any therapy sessions or group programs, there was only time.
Most importantly, I realized that talking about these issues and getting help isn’t shameful, because alcoholism isn’t a one-person disease: It affects everyone. I know that now at 27, but when I was 16? No, I was really stubborn. It took me a long time to realize that letting people in doesn’t make you weak. And you should never feel alone when dealing with a loved one’s addiction. Because you’re not.
I moved in with my dad for about a year and a half after I graduated college. My mom lived far enough away that it was inconvenient to see her as frequently as she wanted. I’d keep busy with work and friends that I never had any free time to give to her anyway.
When a job opportunity to move out west arose, I jumped on it. For the first time in years, I felt burden free. I was away from home and living on my own in new surroundings. It felt like a fresh start.
But the more I thought about how hard it was coping with my mom’s addiction growing up, the more I recognized that it was those troubles that shaped me. It’s made me more cautious out of fear of being let down. But it’s also made me more responsible in how I deal with people in my life.
Maybe I didn’t need a fresh start. I just needed to realize that I’m not my mother. I never trusted her to show up for me as a parent. I never felt she cared about me. And maybe she didn’t or maybe she couldn’t because she was always drunk, but it forced me to see how important it is to be there for the people in my life.
I always wanted to help her, and I couldn’t. As long as she continued to deny she had a serious problem, I knew I was better off limiting myself to a few hours each year because it’s too frustrating and painful to be around her.
I saw her last on Christmas Eve. We had a nice dinner. As I left her apartment with my sister, she approached me for a hug and a kiss. I leaned back a bit, barely letting her brush my cheek. I patted her on the back, wished her a Merry Christmas and left. Within the hour, I heard from my brother.
Mom was drunk, belligerent and fighting with her neighbor.