How do I navigate my relationship with my functional alcoholic mother?
November 12, 2017 11:12 PM   Subscribe

This is a 2 part question & id appreciate help with both if possible. First, how this affects me personally, and second, how it is affecting me in the context of a romantic relationship.

From when I was an older child - late teens my single mother had a drinking problem. This manifested itself in several ways: not being able to get out of bed for events that were significant to me as a child, finding embarrassing things in my lunchbox, having a constantly messy home that meant I could rarely have friends over (or return the kind gesture of them having me over) and frequent injuries, including once I was about 16, when I found her lying naked on the floor in one part of the house. After that I staged my own intervention, where she broke down and admitted her loneliness. It never happened again and I moved out a few years later.

1) right now I live far away and we Skype every so often. To be blunt, my mother has no life. After my grandfather died, she became a carer to my grandmother. I remember a Helena Bonham Carter quote once, where she said she had spent many years married to her parents. She used to have lots of friends, now she has one long-term one she holidays with. She had hobbies, which I've encouraged her to take up numerous times over the years. This summer I bought her an art session, which she loved, and created beautiful prints with - but she has not lifted a hand to any more
art, despite her initial motivations. In most Skype sessions she has nothing to tell me apart from news about the cat & other local pets. I find this sad & often feel quite miserable during these sessions.

1)How do I cope with these feelings, in the context that this is how my mother is going to continue being, lonely and with not much a life?

Secondly, my mother earns a lot of money but has never moved out of her very small house in a questionable neighbourhood. I find this bizarre, but the most embarrassing part is the state of parts of the house. She started to
rip up the kitchen 10 years ago & never finished. She leaves piles of things all over the hallways (because she has too much stuff & hoards & could easily afford a bigger place).

This summer I helped her develop the kitchen plans, attending sessions with her. She didn't commit to one, although the plan was nice & not too expensive, and has dropped it entirely. Therefore the kitchen is STILL in a state of disrepair. As a child, one girl spread a rumour that my house was a wreck and it sticks with me now.

2) I am in a committed relationship with a man who is from a more affluent background & whose parents have their shit together slightly more than mine (i.e. Normal functioning house). He has been hinting strongly about wanting to visit her while we are LDR, as they get along well & he doesn't know about my mothers problems. I rarely stay more than one night at her home because I find it mentally stressful & also sets off my allergies badly (the cat & she has taken up smoking in the house again, yuck). How do I deal with this without making my SO feel I am not including him?
posted by Willow251 to Human Relations (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I’m so sorry you’re dealing with this. I think if you are committed to your partner, you’re eventually going to have to open up to him about your mother’s mental illness. I know when you grow up in a home where someone is an addict or unwell, the instinct to hide the worst of it from outsiders is really powerful, but this is something you have to be able to work through if you think your guy is trustworthy enough to keep around. A kitchen that’s been halfway torn apart for a decade and hoarding are real, serious issues— not on the level of messiness to be embarrassed about. Tell your boyfriend with compassion that your mother has struggled for most of your life with mental health issues that have made her home unlivable. If his parents really do only “have their shit together slightly more” than your mom, ie they have some mental unwellness going on as well, he should understand. If not, if he’sa halfway decent person, he should still be kind and understanding. I know that shame of letting people know or see what’s really going on in your house is overwhelming, but know that you don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Your mom is sick, and you are both trying to deal with that sickness as best you can.

That being said, you DO NOT have to take your boyfriend to that house or spend time there yourself. You don't need to be ashamed, but that kind of site of childhood/ongoing trauma can be hell to visit and you are under no obligation to enter that space.
posted by moonlight on vermont at 11:40 PM on November 12, 2017 [14 favorites]

I give both child you and adult you a big hug from afar. Know that despite loving your mom and wanting the best for her, you are not responsible for her. You never should have been responsible for her. Alcoholism is a terrible thing and its effects wear on an entire generation (or two). Your mom does have an addiction but you aren't supposed to be the fixer of her problems. I read a book about letting go of my fixer nature (as hokey as this may sound) called Co-dependency No More. I feel it helped me identify ways to get out from underneath years of mitigating crisis in others as a result of my upbringing.

My suggestions: limit the Skype sessions. Let your mother rely on herself and her travel buddy for companionship. Let her choose not to take care of household projects. Let her be in charge of where she lives. If she's not bothered by it, don't be bothered by it. It's tough to do but it is necessary for you to back away from becoming Mom's "mom" for the rest of your life. As far as your boyfriend, now is the time to have a serious conversation about your family and why you do not wish to take him home. I'm fairly sure he's going to be understanding and if he wants to press the issue, be polite and firm about the unhealthy dynamics at play with your mother and that it is in your best interest not to introduce that into your future.

And... I know it gets mentioned a lot but therapy? Therapy really will help unwind the years of shame and frustration at having to grow up too soon. Lean on it when you need/want it and know that there are SO many people out there who have walked this same path. Group therapy is also pretty solid for (adult) children of alcoholics. You're not alone!
posted by missh at 2:07 AM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

I had some similar stuff with my parents & family home when I was growing up. It wasn't alcoholism in my parents' case, but a lot of the practical circumstances sound very familiar, even down to the never-completed project in a room whose function most people would regard as essential to their well-being (it was the bathroom, in my parents' case).

Eventually I found peace with it by coming to understand that - bizarre though they were to both my child and my adult selves - these were their choices that my parents had made about how to live their lives. They were working with what they had - I wasn't obliged to approve of their choices, nor to choose the same things for myself. I moved as far & as quickly away from them as soon as I had the chance, and throughout my 20s & into my 30s I really strictly limited the amount of contact I had with them. Occasional phone calls (no skype in those days), and maybe maximum once or twice yearly visits "home". The one time I brought a partner back there, it went so so badly that I never tried to do that again.

You can make your own choices about how your life is going to be. If the guy that you're with is a keeper, then I hope you'll be able to open up to him about your reasons why you're not going to introduce him to your mother any time soon, without him freaking out over it or thinking that it's somehow about him. Once you explain how all this has affected your life until now, how he responds to that is maybe a measure of how well he can be there for you. If he's comfortable introducing you to his folks, that's great - but you're under no obligation whatever to return the favour. You have perfectly good reasons for not doing so.

It's tough (in fact it's still tough for me, decades later) to look at other people's families & see the value of the love & the wisdom that functional families can share & pass between generations, and know that you're never going to get that. Take your time & mourn the lack of that in your own life - it's real. If you have kids yourself one day, I guess you'll have some great how-not-to-do-it counter-examples.
posted by rd45 at 4:22 AM on November 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

I am sorry you are dealing with this. I suggest baby steps on a lot of it.

1. tell your partner the truth about your mom
2. if you do decide to visit, don't stay with her! you don't have to stay with her.
3. work on removing the judgment and shame from your assessment of your mom (she is who she is, that only mildly reflects on you, if there are still good parts of her that you enjoy interacting with, focus on those)
4, consider therapy or reading up on ACOA type stuff because the intense feelings of shame you have are sadly common to children of alcoholics and it might make you feel less alone to have people you can talk to about this sort of thing

My dad was a functioning alcoholic who everyone thought was an amazing genius. He basically drank himself to death. It was pretty difficult to manage but one of the things that really helped me was deciding I didn't have to have HIS shame and secrecy about things become mine. It was just true that his house smelled like cat piss and he wasn't doing a good job taking care of himself. I didn't have to be mad about that, but i also didn't have to hide it as if everything was okay. I was kind and respectful to him because I knew he was having a hard time, but I didn't take on his problems. I work hard on not becoming him.
posted by jessamyn at 6:57 AM on November 13, 2017 [9 favorites]

There is some great advice above, so I just want to add a different perspective. My mother is like your mother, but we are three siblings who chose to deal with this in different ways. I'm the one who basically did what is suggested above, not right away, and with a lot of back and forth. But over time, I've let her live her life, not felt responsible and not let her manipulate me. I've been open with my partners about her, and they have been kind and understanding towards her (and respectful of my choices).
The other two have had different approaches, one more like yours, the other see-sawing between flaming anger and desperate craving for love and also dealing with their own issues.

Now, my mother is old and not doing well, and we needed to intervene at a point, for public safety reasons (her home was becoming a biohazard), and it has been surprising to me that I'm the one she talks to about her issues, and the one she brings along to the doctor because I say out loud she is an alcoholic and she needs her treatment to deal with that. What I am trying to say is that being open and straightforward, and at the same time keeping some distance from one's mother doesn't necessarily mean that one will be estranged for ever, or a bad person. Setting boundaries can be the loving choice.
posted by mumimor at 7:36 AM on November 13, 2017 [5 favorites]

Thanks for the hugs and support!

To be clear, as my mother is a functional alcoholic, she has met my boyfriend many times and he has even holidayed with us and other family friends. She didn't drink to excess during the trip, and while she still has problems with it, it *appears* to not be as bad as it was. They get on really well, which is why I think I'm so reluctant to tell him all: I feel like I'm bad-mouthing her and I think he'll probably be quite shocked and look at her differently, which makes me feel kind of sad.

But I don't know what else I can do, given that I am not willing to have him over to the house as long as it is in a state of disrepair, which seems indefinite. I also find it utterly selfish that she can't sort this out (when I even offered to help) when all my friends have their partners over effortlessly - I resent it. My father's house is more presentable and he doesn't struggle with addiction problems thankfully. I suppose I am worried my boyfriend will be thinking...oh no, do I want to marry into this, thinking of grandchildren etc. That worries me.
posted by Willow251 at 2:51 PM on November 13, 2017

I'm in a very similar situation with my mother. I had a pretty terrible childhood but still have a relationship with her that only exists because I hold her at arm's length. I gave up trying to do the 'good daughter' stuff a long time ago because it only resulted in disappointment and frustration for me (and probably her too). I would try to help clean or fix things around the house, and it would be met with a lot of resistance, even when she was the one who originally brought up the idea of doing it. My mother has a lot of pride and shame herself, which makes it very hard for her to accept help, but that is something I am wholly unqualified to assist with. My brother perseveres to the detriment of his mental health, and I do my best to support him, but I refuse to go down that road any longer. When I visit, I never stay at the house for longer than a couple of hours, and I stay with friends instead. The house is in such a state that it would be an actual health hazard for me to sleep there. We keep in contact via FB messenger otherwise, and things are ok. These days I see her more as just a person in her own right, rather than my mother, and it has helped immensely. There is a freedom in not being tied to her and instead choosing to have her in my life like she were a friend.

I laid it all out for my partner about 8 months into the relationship, at that point where I knew we were in a solid place but if it was all a bit much for him, he could bail without it becoming some great heartbreak. He took it really well. He too comes from a more affluent family and a greater place of privilege, but also has a slightly dysfunctional family. I do think it is worth mentioning that almost everyone has a weird family and comes with a bit of family baggage, and no matter how 'normal' people seem, there is often stuff going on behind the scenes. This has been one of the greatest realisations of my adult life and has allowed me to be more open about the things that have happened to me growing up, and in the process, I have shed a lot of shame about it all. My partner knows he will never ever visit that house, and he accepts it. Quite frankly, I don't think he really cares because it's just a house you know? If he placed a lot of importance on seeing it, that would be very weird to me. He just wants me to be happy.

At some point, I think you've just got to trust in the relationship you have. If you have a respectful, trusting relationship I think the conversation will go just fine. I understand the hesitancy to have it, but imagine if you have it and it goes as you fear - that he will judge you for your mother's shortcomings - that is important information for you to have about a person you may be considering a future with.
posted by BeeJiddy at 4:14 PM on November 13, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you really want to commit to this guy, and for him to commit to you, you can't have secrets or closets or places you can't go together. If you marry, at some point you will need his support when your mother becomes old, like mine, or to help you clear out your mother's home, (sorry to be blunt but I've been through a number of losses during the last decade).
One of my siblings has a partner who refuses to have anything to do with our mother. But they still support my sibling unconditionally and they are informed on everything.
You don't need to bring him to your mother's house right now, but you do need to be open and honest abut what is going on. And if he can't take it, then he is not the man you need.
As I wrote above, my partners have been unfailingly gracious about my mother, and my issues with my mother. Even my ex-husband, who was abusive and who would often bring in my family issues to taunt me, never ever blamed me for my mother's shortcomings or compared me to her. His family was and is to this day endlessly supportive in every way. Alcoholism is a disease, and you don't blame people for it, like you don't blame people for cancer.
Don't be afraid, the truth is your friend. And again, being open and honest is the best you can do for your mum.
posted by mumimor at 8:38 AM on November 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

I realise that I will need to have a conversation with him. My concerns are

1) opening up a can of worms detrimental to my own mental health. Largely I think I deal with this by living my adult life as happily and as best I can. I don't really want to transport myself back to childhood by exploring that pain. For some people, they may want to discuss it/get therapy but I prefer not to.
2) sometimes my boyfriend mentions female friends and how great/welcoming their parents are and I imagine being ditched and left for more 'stable' parents with normal homes. This may be silly but maybe it's not such a crazy emotion to have.
posted by Willow251 at 10:34 AM on November 14, 2017

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