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When a Mother Loves an Alcoholic - Parenting With ACEs

I was such a mother. 

I was also the daughter of an alcoholic. My mom died earlier this year.

When a mother loves an alcoholic or is raised by an alcoholic, she is changed in profound ways - ways she has no idea are even present, yet ways that make her a confounding figure in her children's lives. At the root of these "ways" is her adverse childhood experiences. As I shared recently in my post, The Legacy of Untreated Secondhand Drinking ACEs,

"[My] Mom and I talked about my realization that I’d blindly participated in passing along the consequences of my own untreated SHD-related ACEs to my daughters the same way my mom had blindly passed hers to me. And these consequences were not limited to developing alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. They were the consequences of insecurity, anxiety, fear, anger, self-judgement, unclear boundaries, accommodating the unacceptable, constant worry, and the other physical, emotional and quality-of-life consequences of toxic stress. It was this shocking insight that moved me to treat my untreated SHD-related ACEs and help my daughters treat theirs."

As I also wrote in that article, 

"Another outcome of growing up with untreated SHD-related ACEs is the propensity to marry or have close relationships with persons who misuse alcohol. Their behaviors are felt to be 'normal' because one’s coping skills for dealing with those behaviors are wired in, mapped, during the brain’s key developmental processes from birth through early-to-mid 20s (the subject of another post, I’m afraid). In my case, marrying a person with an alcohol use disorder felt normal because 'normal' was trying to do whatever I could to accommodate, change, or 'fix' the drinking behaviors and anything that threatened to trigger or exacerbate them."

And so I parented with untreated ACEs for some 16 years. This was followed by an additional five years of slowly changed parenting (unfortunately, my daughters were then 16 and 14, but it's never too late!) that continues even today. My slowly changed parenting was the result of my getting treatment for my ACEs: cognitive behavioral therapy with a therapist specializing in helping families affected by alcohol use disorder; Al-Anon; and studying the emerging research on toxic stress, alcohol use disorders, mental health disorders and ACEs.

My years-long recovery has allowed me to grow into the person - the mom - I am, today (not to say there still aren't slips). As I described it in a 2012 post

"Back in the day, when we did not understand the brain disease of addiction, nor what happens to the brains of the family members or friends who love someone with the disease when it’s not treated, understood or healthily discussed, time together was a minefield. We didn’t understand secondhand drinking. One of us was usually on edge. I was usually wallowing in self-pity or ranting about the latest transgression, and the tension and fear were something you could cut with a knife. There was always the pall of impending doom because doom was usually pending. Mind space and conversations were generally consumed with shares or tirades about what someone else was or was not doing or the good times we’d have when so and so or such and such got fixed or did this or that.

"Not anymore."

I celebrate my "Not anymore," on Mother's Day, now - a day I used to dread, as I explained in my May 5, 2013 post, Mothers Who Love an Addict | Alcoholic:

"Mothers who love an alcoholic have it doubly hard in my opinion. We not only try to help the person with the drinking problem and/or addiction, we try to keep our non-drinking children safe in all manner of ways. We don’t want them to know what’s really going on because we don’t really know ourselves. And so we dig in, trying desperately to protect our children, and in the process, we often make a muck of it.

"I know I did. I am such a mother. The havoc wrecked in my life and then by me in the lives of my daughters made most holidays – but especially Mothers Day from my perspective – something to get through because joy had long been absconded in our family. I didn’t feel I deserved their cards and gifts and unconditional love. I felt like a bad mother. I felt guilty that I could not make things better. I felt sad that they carried an unnameable sadness that wasn’t apparent on the outside, but I believed to be there on their inside, and as expressed in this anonymous 'Unsent Letter to Dad' shared with me, it was an unnameable sadness that was, in fact, likely there.

An Unsent Letter to Dad: the Impact of Secondhand Drinking on Children

"But not anymore. Not any more."

Mother’s Day is now a day of celebration for me – not for me as a mother, but for my daughters and I as an emotionally healthy family. It is a celebration of what can happen when you heal the family “side” of a loved one's alcohol use disorder, when you heal the family's untreated SHD-related ACEs. 

Today, Mother’s Day is the three of us catching up on our lives by FaceTime or in person or via group phone calls – laughing and happy – oh so very happy with that unnameable happiness that was so long absent in our lives.

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