Should I feel bad?
December 25, 2005 11:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I get over the guilt of estranging myself from my alcoholic mother?

Long story — I spent most of my youth and young adulthood essentially taking care of my family and my mother's several emotional illnesses and needs, the least of which is her fondness for alcohol. A few years back, right before I graduated college, she went through a major negative spell, lost her job, ended a very bad-to-begin-with long-term relationship and got a DUI. The more bad things happened, the more she drank, downward spiral, etc. etc.

I felt it was my duty to help her and also to protect my younger brother. but after years of doing this I finally realized that she doesn't want to get help (yet), but she relishes the idea of emotionally needing someone who also emotionally needs her. (She's been diagnosed with codependency and this has also been an underlying problem in most of her romantic relationships).

After about 23 years of this, I finally burned out of all the negativity and drama (a common phrase of her's is "Nothing good ever happens to me. My life is shit" and so on). I moved to a pretty far away place and for the first time in my life I actually felt like I had a life. I met a wonderful man who taught me that it is okay to depend on people without fearing that they'll hold that over your head. We are now married and I'm trying my best to build a life of my own, which includes a whole lot of happiness, something that seems lacking when I look back at my childhood.

Within the past few months I have found out through other family members (because she lies to me when she's been drinking) that things have become much worse again — she is now seeing a former drug dealer who beat her so bad he broke her coller bone. She is not working nor is she going to counseling.

It is too hard for me to watch her self-destruct and for her to keep using me (that's how I feel) and a cushion anytime any kind of drama, real or imagined, happens, so I finally told her that until she decids to genuinely seek help I no longer want to have a relationship with her — not as an ultimatum but more for my own hapiness. I have not talked to her in a month, and did not show up for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Normally, I would think if I were in a toxi rommantic relationship or friendship like this, the decision to cut that person out of my life would be easy. However, my mother comes from a long line of drinkers, and my grandparents are now sending me hateful letters telling me I've abandoned the family and what a worthless daughter I am.

My husband, wonderful man, and his parents fully support my decision. My father's side of the family (they've been divorced since I was a year old) also supports my decision. In my heart, I feel like I'm doing the right thing for myself but in the back of my mind there is also this nagging guilt that she is the only Mommy I'll ever have and I may never see her again. I honestly feel that the chances of her killing herself (or getting killed by this new man) are far greater than the chances of her deciding to get help. I think much of the guilt is being caused by these awful letters my grandparents are sending. They feel very manipulative.

I know that this a question really only I can answer, but opinions would be helpful. Also, I have considered counseling but do not feel it is right for me, FYI.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm about 2-3 years estranged from my family. Although my situation is not as extreme as yours, it is similar in some respects.

When your family is only good for sucking your energy, I don't feel that it is wrong to let them go.

Some people are closer to their families then others. I don't think it's an accident that families without destructive people members like your mother tend to stick together better.

Counseling may help. If you go this route, make sure to find someone that you have a good rapport with. Also, I know that there are groups out there for families of alcoholics.

Who knows? Maybe if you stop talking to your family for a while, your mother will see this as a sign and seek help.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:46 PM on December 25, 2005

I think the first thing to do is stop reading the hateful letters. If you're severing ties from a toxic relationship, don't leave the job half done.

I cut ties 7 years ago from my abusive family, and I tend to focus on the fact that I simply chose happiness for myself. I don't see any cause for guilt in that. A very sad byproduct of my decision is that it caused other people to feel anger and resentment toward me, and I am truly sorry for that, but it doesn't diminish how utterly correct the decision was for me.

Be proud of your strength for doing the right thing for yourself and your new family with your husband. A loving and supportive mother would be.
posted by Failure31 at 12:14 AM on December 26, 2005

Al-anon? Counseling? Stop reading the letters from the grandparents?

It sounds like you know that what you're doing is best for you, but you might just need that extra bit of support that talking about it with others that have gone through the same thing can provide.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:27 AM on December 26, 2005

Know that the people who truly care about you do understand that you are doing this to protect yourself.

I had to cut my abusive mother off three years ago (yes, we did have counseling, I would think that I had gotten through to her in session, but twenty minutes later it would be back to the same shit) and have learned that I have to look elsewhere for nurturing-- it seems from your post that you do have those resources-- it isn't just biology that makes a parent.

Good luck.
posted by brujita at 12:41 AM on December 26, 2005

I would think that I had gotten through to her in session, but twenty minutes later it would be back to the same shit

Yeah, that sounds a lot like my family. One of the hardest things for me was accepting that my family most likely will never change.
posted by Afroblanco at 1:08 AM on December 26, 2005

I'm in a similar situation: I know I need to disengage from my parents, yet because of feelings of guilt I allow myself to get sucked back in to the kind of exchanges that hurt me in the first place. I find that I need to keep reconvincing myself that I'm doing the right thing as well, and make no mistake: disengaging is the right thing for you to do, and that's confirmed by the people that you've found who really are supportive of you.

One of the things I find helpful is a kind of thought-experiment that I picked up from a book somewhere: imagine the worst thing that could happen in this situation, and then ask yourself ask yourself exactly how bad it would be. Right now that might feel pretty horrible, but would you really be unable to live with it, or would it be very painful, but ultimately manageable, especially now that you've found a group of supportive people? Or compare the pain you might feel when you find out your mother did die from her self-destructive behavior, with the pain you will feel when you get back into the codependent interactions you've just a short while ago gotten out of. That's a really awful thing to contemplate. When I feel my reaction to both options, they both feel like 'no', but in a different way. The 'no' to getting back into codependency is much more visceral and alive, and the 'no' towards the idea of living on with a parent's death feels guilty and small. I can't rationalize these feelings very well yet, so I can only hope that what I mean comes through in writing, and I hope this helps in some way.

Good luck! Sounds to me that you're well on your way out of a bad place already. Let the good place take care of you.
posted by disso at 2:11 AM on December 26, 2005

yeah, stop reading your grandparents letters.
posted by delmoi at 2:45 AM on December 26, 2005

As Rhombold suggested, there's Al-Anon, and there's also Adult Children of Alcoholics, both of which can help with this type of situation.
posted by essexjan at 4:21 AM on December 26, 2005

You shouldn't feel guilty and it's not your responsibility. You can't live someone's life for them. Put your energy into people who will give you something back and enjoy your life.

Also, you may want to look into therapy for yourself.
posted by qwip at 5:12 AM on December 26, 2005

You've acted in self-defense, which is completely justifiable. Tear up your frequent flyer card for guilt trips.
posted by enrevanche at 5:17 AM on December 26, 2005

First, it sounds like you have some decent support in your husband and your current friends.

I've done this (alcoholic mother, emotionally abusive). Five plus years, and now we speak, but it's on my terms. The empowerment this will give you, the cutting her out, will be difficult - family will tell you that you're being mean. You tell them, that you respect their good intentions, but their time would be better directed in helping her have a stable life, instead of trying to control you. Later in life, if you decide to resume relations with her, you know you have the ability to cut her off for six months if you see bad behavior.

Counseling is warranted - preferably a female therapist to take the materal role for awhile; barring that, an older female mentor.

At some level, you need to begin to acknowledge that you're not her parent, it's not and has never been your job, to take care of your mother. Really.

It's a parent's job to care for a child, and your grandparents have been coasting on your back..

So, you need to cut her out of your life (state it to others, and possibly even yourself that it's a temporary thing.)

Your grandparents: They just need a letter that explains exactly what is above:

That you're not interested in saving your mother. That they ought to understand that their daughter has some severe dependency problems...and need to possibly hit rock bottom to learn to stop utilizing those substances, and under no circumstances will you continue to enable it.

This letter must keep a respectful tone, but certainly also requires a note that you love them, your mother, etc, but you find the relationship destructive to yourself, and has been for years.

You will be accused of being a bad child, irresponsible, etc. No phone calls. Quit trying to find out how she's doing for the next 12 months You should explain this to your brother as well...this sort of pressure wil fall unto him as well.
posted by filmgeek at 6:47 AM on December 26, 2005

Wow! It sounds like you're going through a really tough time. The holidays are especially difficult. I remember not attending family celebrations and feeling horribly scared that something bad was bound to happen. I've taken advantage of both groups for adult children and one-on-one counseling. Fortunately, my mom realized she had a problem and has been in recovery for just over 15 years. What's tough is that our family is not all on the same page about recovery or their own addictions. I found the following books helpful as I worked things though: Recovery: A Guide for Adult Children of Alcoholics and Melody Beattie's Codependent No More, when a counsellor first recommended this book to me I read it and absolutely hated it--it hit too close to home. On a more clinical level, there's Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery. Also relevant, John Bradshaw's The Family.

I wish you well on your journey. Take *excellent* care of yourself.
posted by teddyb109 at 8:04 AM on December 26, 2005

Two things. First, remember that you have to take care of yourself before you are able to take care of anyone else. Yes, I know that's a cliché, but it's true. It's why the airplane emergency instructions say to put on your own oxygen mask before helping your children with theirs. You have other family members that need you and want to be supportive of you. Second, have your husband or a very trusted friend pre-read letters from your grandparents and summarize the not hateful bits for you. There is no need to pollute your mind with hate, so insulate yourself accordingly. Counseling and groups mentioned above are good, but there are things you have to do for yourself, too.
posted by ilsa at 8:26 AM on December 26, 2005

I strongly third the Al-Anon recommendation.
posted by Miko at 9:38 AM on December 26, 2005

ilsa made a great suggestion: have someone else read the letters and decide if you need to hear what's in them. I did this for a friend, with letters from her mother, and it saved her so much hurt.

Guilt: my experience is that the guilt never really goes away. I've learned to have the guilt but keep it compartmentalized. Imagine your guilt and self-judgement in a box in the closet; then imagine that everything else in your "house" is composed of compassion, understanding, vindication and validation. It doesn't work 100% of the time, but it helps so much.

Please reconsider your decision about counseling, or at least follow some of the above advice and connect with Al-Anon. Best wishes.
posted by shifafa at 10:31 AM on December 26, 2005

There's got to be some condition on which you would see your mother again, right? If she quit booze, dumped the drug dealer, started taking care of herself again, etc, you'd accept her back into your life, right? Well, whatever those conditions are, make them known. Tell your mom that until she shapes up, you can't be a part of her life. That way it's on her, and you've done nothing but set a positive goal for her.

No doubt she's poisoned her parents against you and cast your decision in the worst possible light. You might try explaining it directly to them.

If, of course, you would never see your mother again under any circumstances, then you'd better get used to the idea, stop caring, and start investing all your thought into your husband's family.
posted by scarabic at 2:30 PM on December 26, 2005

Chiming in on the Al-Anon option as well. Counseling is good (it's great, in fact) but I found that seeing other people in a similar predicament as mine helped ease the stigma I was feeling (as in "If anyone knew how insane my family was...") and I met a lot of people that are living their lives "in spite of" a chemically dependent family member.
posted by SawBeck at 3:33 PM on December 26, 2005

Ditto to what everyone said. Anon, you've opened yourself up to your husband and his family, and it's been a positive nurturing experience. Counseling, and/or attending Al-Anon will provide you with further help and support, and put things in even sharper perspective. Don't dismiss those options as "not for you".

Good luck.
posted by Devils Slide at 12:26 AM on December 27, 2005

I feel for you. I have had similar problems with my mother and cut off communication with her about a year and a half ago. While it has certainly made my life more peaceful and I know it was the right thing to do, I also struggle with the guilt of not being the kind of daughter I'd like to be. I can't even imagine how difficult it must be to go through this when you're also receiving horrid letters from your grandparents.

I'm still learning how to live with this, and some times (holidays, bdays) are worse than others. However, the bottom line is that until I'm in a place where my mom's illness doesn't tear me apart, I cannot have a positive relationship with her. It sounds like you're in the same place. Hang in there, know that you're doing the right thing for YOU, go to therapy (especially if you're thinking of starting your own family - you'll be amazed at the stuff that bubbles up!), and try to achieve peace.
posted by widdershins at 8:33 AM on December 27, 2005

Lotus flowers are a nice metaphor. They grow out of the shit at the bottom of ponds...through a long stalk...into a beautiful flower on top.

For me, dealing with my abusive parents and alcoholic sister is all about how long I need that stalk to be. I've tried various lengths over the 20 years since I left the parental home.

When the "stalk" is too short, I get sucked in to all the shit at the bottom of the pond. Fights and lying and manipulation and thievery and all the rest of it.

If the stalk gets too long (or broken entirely, as when I didn't speak to my parents for several years) I feel disconnected and rootless. There's a sense of calm that comes after talking to them sometimes - they are my family, after all, no matter how bad, and as you say, you can't get another mother.

I enjoyed speaking with them on Christmas day, by international telephone. I go visit them once every couple of years. That's what works best for me. It's up to you to find how long you need your "stalk" to be, I guess.

Al-Anon, maybe. For me, I don't like to focus too much on that side of life - I don't want to start becoming someone who identifies too much as a "victim", because I'm really not - I'm happy, free, and successful, in spite of the shit I grew up in. I'm grateful for the life I've been given, and even for the family I've been given.

Sounds like you're doing surprisingly well, too.
Well done. As everyone else said, there's no need to feel guilty about being happy. Just work on what to do to make yourself even happier.
posted by cleardawn at 8:34 AM on December 27, 2005

I don't want to start becoming someone who identifies too much as a "victim"

Actually, Al-Anon is very much against this type of thinking. The discussion in an Al-Anon group centers on much of what you've said -- how to manage yourself and your own interactions so that you're acting in your own life, not stuck just reacting to someone else's difficulties. Al-Anon strongly pushes people to focus on themselves, and to stop feeling like a victim.

Again, just try it out. One of the sayings you'll hear is "Take what you need, leave the rest". In my own struggle with alcoholics, I learned a lot by attending meetings for about a year. I really didn't embark on the 12 steps, I just listened and gained perspective and found out about some new ways of thinking. It helped me greatly. At that time in life, I didn't need the rest.

If you've found any comment in this thread at all helpful, then attend a meeting or two; you'll hear all this and more, and be able to participate in the discussion and ask questions, as well.
posted by Miko at 8:48 AM on December 27, 2005

I'm glad to see there are so many of us who have cut ties with the family (well, not glad, but nice to see we're not all alone).

I agree with just about everything I've read here. Though I'd recommend ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and not Al-Anon if you have it in your area. I found that when I went to Al-Anon meetings it was filled with spouses and siblings, and their concerns/issues weren't quite the same as us children. (and ditto on the not doing the 12 steps -- just take what you need, which sometimes may be just knowing you're not alone).

Good luck, and remember you're not the only one. It can be hard at first, but it does get better. And remember that you're taking care of yourself, and if people can't understand that it is their problem not yours.
posted by evening at 9:59 AM on December 27, 2005

Miko speaks much truth, as she usually does. Judging from the fact that you're asking this Q here, it may well help you to talk to some people with similar issues.

But on the other hand, please don't think "Oh my God, I'm such a fuckup I need help, I need counselling, Omigod everyone on MeFi says I need to get help from Al-Anon" .... because you sound to me like you're doing fine.

Not everyone benefits from the 12-step mentality, and for some people it can be destructive. Miko is clearly a strong person who was able to take what she neeeded from Al-Anon, and leave the rest... and perhaps you would too.

Or perhaps you'd be more like me, and attend a couple of meetings before getting tired of listening to people saying what they think the rest of the group wants to hear.

Or perhaps you'd become one of the people saying what they think the rest of the group wants to hear, and basing your whole life around meetings.

Twelve-step programs like Al-Anon have some good features - they're maybe the best tool yet developed for fixing a competely fucked-up life. But if your life is NOT completely fucked up, it's maybe a sledgehammer-and-nut situation.

The 12-step program has some (not all) of the same characteristics as destructive cults, it can get to you in quite subtle ways that you don't realise at first. And not everyone is strong enough to "leave the rest" without some pain and guilt.

If you're desperate for the chance to talk to people with similar problems, go for it. But if you're just looking for a friendly chat and some advice, then talk to either a professional therapist, or better still, your friends. That's what they're there for, and they're unlikely to want you to radically change your entire outlook on life, or apologize to everyone you've ever wronged, or any of the other potentially soul-destroying things that AA requests of its adherents.

Just so you know what you're getting into, here's the Twelve Steps that Miko mentioned - the basic tenets of the Al-Anon (and AA) path:

Twelve Steps

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made a direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
posted by cleardawn at 10:35 AM on December 27, 2005

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