How to deal with finding out decades later that mom was an alcoholic?
October 17, 2019 5:02 PM   Subscribe

When I was in Jr High, my mom had a liver transplant. At the time, I was told it was a misdiagnosis of a mystery illness. She very nearly died. I am now 40, and have just learned that it was actually cirrhosis from drinking. I had some suspicions but this is still a massive jolt to me, and boy, do I feel dumb for ever thinking it was anything else.

I cannot remember most of my childhood, but I know it was unhappy, and I am living with the after affects of it now. So this, in a lot of ways, confirms that something was not right, which I do appreciate. I do have a few memories of her saying something cruel to me, or accusing me of breaking something that I really don't think I broke, that do make a lot more sense if she was drunk at the time...but I'm just struggling to make it all add up.

My mother is dead now, after living 20+ years happily after the operation, and never mentioned any of this. No one has, until I confronted the only family member who I can rely upon to give me real information, as I've been doing some heavy duty therapy about anxiety, depression, and trauma. I'm really struggling with how I could not know, and that I can't remember - - I have no memories of being like "my mom is drunk." My dad was MIA for much of my life, I have no siblings or close family. I am not sure if anyone tried to step in at any point, or if they didnt, why that didnt happen.

This doesnt feel like a situation for Adult Children of Alcoholics as the deed is already done. I have a lot of friends who have parents with substance abuse problems, but they've been working through it their whole lives. I'm curious if anyone else has ever lived in this situation, or dealt with a similar revelation later in life that puts childhood in a very different light?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It was certainly not as impactful as your experience, but I grew up with a close aunt who was a functioning alcoholic and did not know about it until I was in college and my parents sat me down and told me. She hid her drinking for her entire adult life and never got sober. She held down a full time job and raised a family. She was also a smoker, which (to my kid mind) explained some of her odd behavior and hid the smell of drinking. Odd things would happen related to her, her personality always seemed erratic, and some of the family would make very veiled comments about the situation, but for a kid, you are used to your family the way they are, and when you only know a person one way, that’s just the way they are. I could. not. believe. it when my parents told me she was an alcoholic, and yet it was so obvious at the same time that I felt stupid for not realizing. I don’t know how or whether my uncle ever told their kids about her alcoholism or even if they acknowledge it now. It’s still a somewhat veiled secret in the family even after my aunt’s early death.

I find it so plausible that you never realized and never knew. It’s a shame to me that so many families, mine included, still hide this as some kind of dirty secret.

Most of all I am so sorry.
posted by sallybrown at 5:44 PM on October 17, 2019 [14 favorites]

and boy, do I feel dumb for ever thinking it was anything else.

What, just because you were too young to know better and everyone in your life was lying to you?

My mother has just turned 80 and she still has disagreements with her older sister about the alcoholism in their house growing up. My mother has distinct memories of periodically helping her father remove the alcohol stashes around the house, her sister remembers none of it. Family secrets can really play havoc with childhoods even 70 years later.

This doesn't feel like a situation for Adult Children of Alcoholics as the deed is already done.

I'm not quite sure how you mean that. The group is as much focused on the damage done growing up as it is on the current struggles people have with alcoholic parents.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:13 PM on October 17, 2019 [24 favorites]

From a member who wishes to remain anonymous:
(cw: sexual assault and incest)

I'm 47 years old and just this past year I learned the full extent of the sex crimes that were going on in my childhood home. And it staggered me in a weird way. I wasn't sad or angry, which are my instinctive reactions to bad news. I was just ... unmoored. I found myself re-examining every childhood memory. Like, our family canon was that my mom's pentecostal brother fell out with us because we weren't holy enough. But maybe it was due to my half-brother's cousin and mother rapeyness?

My mom is English to the core ... an expert compartentalizer, a social smoother-over, and, in the right company, a vindictive-as-fuck recreational disapprover. Imagine the ideal Judge Judy viewer; mix in some formal English table manners and that's my mom. Despite her own victimization at the hands of my brother, and my dad's utter indifference to it, she programmed me to believe that our household was the stable / sane one and to hold the entire rest of the world in deep contempt. I thought I came from good white euro hardworking third-generation immigrant never-hungry lower-middle-class stability. I thought my childhood house was a lone point of light surrounded by the lazy, the tacky, the addicted, the mentally ill, and the forever-fucked children of the casually divorced (this was the 1980s, after all!)

But no, in truth my childhood home was something I escaped.

Looking back, my mom was happy to take credit for that escape. She told me repeatedly, starting in my 20s, that she raised me to get an education and leave my hometown, that there was nothing for me there. It broke her heart to have to do that and send me away but she knew it was best for me. And that repeated assertion takes on a new light now.

I could have very easily turned rapey, like my oldest brother. I could have self-medicated myself into psychotic oblivion like my second brother, who is a whole other nightmare. Addiction and sex crime both run in my genetics. My great-grandfather was a genuine no-shit night stalker, sentenced to fourteen years' time for attacking a woman who had just gotten off a bus. My grandmother was a child when this happened; I don't know if even she knew the true story of her father's sudden absence. I've got the newspaper clippings, though. I know what happened.

But do I know what happened in my own chilhood house?

There are no press clippings there, just the words I heard in 2019 from my mom, who authored my reality for way too long and whose age-related cognitive difficulties lead her to hold strong beliefs in things that are outright false. She's alone now -- she's not widowed, she's divorced and the family is an estrangement furball. And she's angry. She wants to spill on all the fucked-up business, about just what vile pieces of shit everyone else in my birth family is. Half the time I want to jump on Facebook and post YOU ARE A FUCKING SEX CRIMINAL all over my brother's wall. But is there any point to that? My rapey brother's kids are adults now. I have replacement brothers, chosen family that I love deeply even after 35+ years. My birth family is destroyed and should not be reconstituted. My mother is very sick, at the end of her life if there is mercy in the universe. My relationship with my father is one of seemingly mutual indifference, which is emotionally very easy if you're shitty enough to get there. My own life is full of art and love and pets.

So yeah, unmoored. "Struggling to make it all add up," like you say. I thought I was a golden boy destined for great things; instead I was just another prospective Jerry Springer guest who rolled some lucky numbers.

OP, the reaction you describe doesn't sound strange or weird to me at all. We don't author our own childhood realities. Other people do that, and those realities have power, and it's disorienting in the extreme when they are broken. All the best to you as you work through this.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:33 PM on October 17, 2019 [26 favorites]

Adult Children of Alcoholics benefitted me post my alcoholic parent's death.
posted by wellifyouinsist at 8:10 PM on October 17, 2019 [5 favorites] parents got divorced when I was 18. There was no fighting or anything, they were attentive loving parents, and we were kids and didn't know any different really. So finding out the whole thing was a sham and they'd been miserable forever was, as per everyone above, unmooring. My mom hadn't spoken to my dad in years at that point (apparently) and the accusations that came out and emotional blackmail was just...wild. I don't know what the answer is (well, therapy), but I went through the same line of questioning too. Everything was a lie! And what had I learned then, about relationships?? I had lots of people express disbelief that we didn't know something was wrong - but we didn't. We really really didn't. I totally believe you. Therapy. I wish you peace.

This sucks.
posted by jrobin276 at 9:23 PM on October 17, 2019 [3 favorites]

ACoA may actually be really helpful because you’re highly likely to hear many of the thoughts, feelings and smaller details you’ve shared here echoed back to you. With various stages of processing, insight and coping mechanisms to go along with them.
posted by iamkimiam at 11:29 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yeah - keeping these kind of things secret is exactly what some families (mine included) do - often through multiple generations where the same behaviours repeat. Family members become expert at it - as a kid, how are you supposed to know? Please don't beat yourself up.

Just to add to the examples - my grandfather, respected prof, pillar of the community etc. was in hospital on and off for months with 'mystery liver illnesses' and it took my mother, out of four sibilings, to fly over from thousands of miles away and tell the nurses that yes, he did drink. And it wasn't just a few beers in the evening, it was cases of beer, all day, and more. And that he had been doing this their whole lives.

Jump 20 years into the future and it took my own father being admitted to hospital after falling and cracking his head open for me and my brother to really open our eyes and see what was going on.

After a particularly nasty episode last year relating to my father's fall and my mother also getting drunk and being horrible to me, I did attend a couple of Al-Anon meetings, and it was helpful, in terms of just having all this out in the open - and hearing that it wasn't my fault. Many people expressed their guilt and surprise about finally confronting the past and not knowing what was going on, so that may be useful to you. I didn't keep going, as I am super not into higher powers (and back here in the UK it is hard to find a meeting where I live), but I'd try it with an open mind. Just those few meetings really helped me realise it wasn't just me and my family.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 11:55 PM on October 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

Echoing here that many many times things going on in families are hidden and dismissed. It’s very possible that you asked questions like

Why is mommy all wobbly?
Why is mommy still sleeping?
Who got all sick in the bathtub?

And you might have received dismissive or angry answers. You might have even been told you were imagining things or been accused of lying.

These kinds of responses can lead to forgetting.

I 100% believe you. You were and are having normal responses to fucked up situations.

And yes, it’s worth looking into Al-Anon and ACoA. You may need to try a few groups to find a good fit for you. Each meeting has a personality of its own.

I wish you peace and comfort. This is not your fault.
posted by bilabial at 3:47 AM on October 18, 2019 [6 favorites]

I have very scattered childhood memories because of repeated severe trauma. I have had external validation for some events from people outside of my family, but as a decent psychiatrist pointed out when I wanted to know if it was possible to get childhood medical records, "Will this help, given that those were likely incomplete and based on deception too?"

You don't HAVE to get it right - there is no truth to be found, no reliable objective history. You'll have to make sense of who you are with a changing evolving past. Be kind and take it slow.

Your sense of self, if it was based on a strong past or family identity, does take a blow and becomes fragile for a while. I try to think of myself as who I am right now, not as someone who came from some place.

Another thing is that event memory feels inherently unreliable, but I do trust physical memories, the whole-body sensations of nausea or panic or heat or whatever that come on. Maybe the memory associated it is diffracted through a child's confusion, but the emotional trauma with the memory is still clear and can be trusted. There are some great books about trauma and memory, and the adult children of alcoholics book is good. But mostly, you have to learn to be comfortable with having traumatised memories. NOT unreliable - but traumatised, which is different.

I hope for strength and patience and compassion for yourself as you get through this, day by day.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 4:22 AM on October 18, 2019 [11 favorites]

There are vast chunks of my childhood I cannot remember. My parents (particularly my father, especially my father, oh boy, my father) were alcoholics, and I literally did not realise it until I was in my 40s. I have no siblings, and my nuclear family was so secretive and isolated that I didn't get much in the way of feedback as to what a more normal family life might be like. We lived this strange life, with few friends, and most of our contact, outside each other, was with our equally weird and secretive extended family. As with the anonymous poster, I was encouraged to think as everybody else as stupid and inferior. I got constantly told to keep our family's business private, and only recently have I realised it was all in the service of hiding the drinking and the rest of the ugly stuff.

I'm pretty well estranged from my family now; I live in another country, and outside of sporadic contact with my parents, as they spiral even further, I haven't communicated with most of my relatives in 20 years or so. I may never get complete memories, and I've had to make peace with that. There are no reliable narrators from my childhood to confirm what I've figured out on my own, but I can look at the evidence I do have, and can remember, and the chronic alcohol-related illnesses that plague my parents now, and know enough.

This happens to a lot of people. You aren't alone, and as a fellow survivor, I wish you well.
posted by skybluepink at 4:30 AM on October 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

From an anonymous member:
Another member here who recently discovered that one of my dead parents was a criminal of a particularly vile sort.

Even though they are long dead, it has blown a hole in my view of my childhood. I've had to reevaluate the story I told myself about my parents, and understand that that deep feeling I had always had something was wrong was correct. I spent years thinking that I had been imagining something or that I was being dramatic. But I had been right. Worse than I thought, in fact. Worse than I had ever dreamed.

I'm seeing a therapist for PTSD resulting from the revelation, and it has been quite helpful to me. If your understanding of your parents changes radically, it has quite a large impact. Don't underestimate how much it can shake you up. Good luck and take care.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 5:04 AM on October 18, 2019 [11 favorites]

I don't know that I have a great deal that's substantive to say that hasn't been said already, but I do want to add my voice to the "you were not dumb, only young; you are not alone" chorus.

My mother was an alcoholic, and (like anon 9:33's mother) extraordinarily judgmental -- in hindsight, I think she thought "judge first, lest ye be judged"? But she also grew up with my Highly Proper Church Lady grandmother, so who knows. Like skybluepink, our family life was deeply isolated from others, something that has carried into my adulthood.

I got unmoored at age 13, when my mother went into inpatient alcoholism treatment (and a school counselor advanced the untrue belief that I was drinking based on absolutely zero evidence, but that's a whole 'nother story). I'd like to say that I got over it and that was the end, but... that's not true? Every once in a while another piece of the whole weird sad puzzle snaps into place, and I'm like "... how did it take me so long to realize this?"

For me, time has helped, especially (as several others in this thread have noted) time away from The Fam. My mother passed away several years ago, but my dad is still the same controlling self-centered jerk as always, and I am a better person when I do not deal with him.

I wish you peace, and the strong self-concept you deserve.
posted by humbug at 6:12 AM on October 18, 2019 [3 favorites]

As another perspective, I don't really have any childhood trauma to speak of, and I still really don't remember much of my childhood. I'm sure the ADHD contributes to that, but really, I only have flashes of memory. I often get "don't you remember (event x)?" and there's just nothing there at all.

I know it probably doesn't help (in the moment) but: Don't beat yourself up, memory is Fallible.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 6:26 AM on October 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Adult Children of Alcoholics would be no less helpful because time had passed. When I went, it was full of firmly held beliefs that were often unverifiable, but the big help was hearing from people who experienced the same kind of stuff I did.

You may want to think about other issues. Your Mom may have had additional mental illness that fueled drinking, may have had childhood trauma. Alcoholism severe enough to cause cirrhosis in a youngish person is not simple. If she stopped drinking after the transplant, that would also create family stress; recovery is not magic. The effects permeated your childhood, whether you were aware of the drinking or not. It was obviously a Big Secret, perhaps some of your feeling of foolishness is shock at the scale of deception and wondering what other secrets your family was hiding.

This is a lot to process, come back for support here as needed, ACOA, therapy, whatever works. Big hug.
posted by theora55 at 6:37 AM on October 18, 2019 [7 favorites]

Kids are hard-wired to learn from their parents, and it's the parents' and family members' responsibility to give them the truth in manageable, age-appropriate amounts.

You probably noticed and said all kinds of things, and your family felt defensive and lied to you in response: What's that smell? What are all those bottles? What's in that coffee cup? Jason's mom took him to the zoo, can we go? Why did you sleep on the floor? Why are you yelling at me? Why do you yell more than Jenny's mom? Why do you always have a headache? Why did Auntie say you drink too much to Mommy and then Mommy yelled? How did Mommy's liver get sick? The adults probably snapped at you or got weird and evasive and annoyed and withdrew their affection when you made these observations- starting in toddlerhood! And each time, the mood changed enough that you eventually learned to tiptoe around certain topics or moments, and that was your normal.

The adults around you- including your mom- all knew your mom had a problem, felt shame for her, and guilt for not stopping her, and concern for your wellbeing, and they explicitly and implicitly lied to you, in ways that were likely motivated both by shame and by love. The lies explained things that were totally new to you. And you couldn't fact-check what you were being told, because as a kid you had no baseline for comparison, no access to the internet, not even language or emotional awareness to really pinpoint what was going on.

The human brain is wired to ensure that you believed them. Please don't feel bad about it or judge child-you by adult-you's standards.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:37 AM on October 18, 2019 [13 favorites]

We all love the AskMeFi questions about innocuous things families and communities do that we later realize are actually very out of the ordinary, and this is no different.

There are a lot of history that get glossed over so that no one needs to address uncomfortable truths, like, Native Americans were in what became Philadelphia when William Penn was granted his charter, but were gone by the revolution. Schools don't talk about where they were relocated.

Your mom had a liver transplant. That's not that unusual. I only know my grandfather was an alcoholic because there was a funny story about it: he got sober when my grandmother locked him in the basement for three days.

As a child, you had no way to know that things were wrong.
posted by JawnBigboote at 8:09 AM on October 18, 2019

I can’t speak to the alcoholism aspect of this, but I can confirm that sudden revelations that force you to re-evaluate everything you thought you knew are traumatic. I’m recently divorced and just learned that my ex-husband was carrying on an affair with my sister-in-law and successfully concealed it during our marriage and throughout our divorce proceedings. We had an unhappy marriage, but I trusted him, and I never lied to him. I had rebuilt my life and was happy and then to learn about this long campaign of deception—it’s devastating. Who was I married to? What else do I have wrong? My brain keeps serving me up things that I took at face value that I now know were straight-up lies. I think it’s just going to take time to work through all the memories that now have to be re-evaluated. I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It’s really hard.
posted by HotToddy at 8:17 AM on October 18, 2019 [14 favorites]

I've always known my dad was an alcoholic but I didn't realize until my thirties that my mother (who raised me by herself) was really, really mentally ill. When I finally realized how inappropriate her behavior was, it made me re-examine my childhood with that new lens. I was like, "Was she always this way?" and then thinking back to what I remembered... yeah. Yeah, she was. It totally blew my mind. Your mom is just... like air, or like water to a fish, you never notice it because you're around it all the time. I think it's very common to only discover as an adult that your parent was a very fucked up individual, in whatever particular way (addiction, abuse, mental illness) and have to re-evaluate and come to a new understanding of what that meant for you. I think therapy might be the place to start. Can you find a therapist to help you work through it?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:51 AM on October 18, 2019 [8 favorites]

My father (who is a child of an alcoholic) drank excessively in my childhood but I didn't know it at the time. His habit was to drink outside the home. We never had any booze in the house growing up. Not one can of beer. He drank at a bar most every evening at different times in my childhood. I thought he went there to play pool and I probably knew he drank beer but I didn't think of it as the addiction it was. As a child it didn't compute that my father was an alcoholic. I only realized it when I was maybe 13 or 14-years-old and even then I thought he only drank too much and behaved like a jerk. As a kid you don't know what's normal or abnormal. In my late teen and twenties I knew he was a bonafide alcoholic.

It's common to have not many memories of childhood -- in my case I think it's because I was invisible to my parents because they were dealing with their own issues. Kids need their parents to recognize them so they can recognize themselves. Also, as a kid you're generally not looking outside yourself too much, and if you have an lot of emotional pain you can't remember things that happened because you were too consumed with thoughts or in shutdown mode.

Being a child of an alcoholic can affect your emotional health greatly and can affect how you behave in relationships. It's important to work through your hurts and traumas, however don't spend too much time there if you can help it. Peace and healing comes with the understanding that our parents were trying their best. They were consumed with their thoughts and addictions.

Alcoholics are consumed with shame and people with shame hide. My father drank because of anxiety, shame, negative thoughts, and depression. I decided (after too much time in my thoughts) not to repeat the cycle. Instead of blame, resentment, and victimhood I decided to choose love, empathy, and understanding. I envision my father as a little boy growing up with pain and traumas in an alcoholic home.

People have differing levels of pain and trauma. Some are fortunate to have a small amount of pain. I happened to have a parent with a great deal of pain. Such is life. It's not my fault. It's not their fault. It wasn't ideal but I was able to heal, or transcend the pain, and I am able to view my pain as separate from my self.

With time and understanding the pain lessened to nothing and all I feel is love, and most of the time neutrality. I used to cry and blame and be a mess when I looked back. (Oh how I loved to look back.) My pain was at the surface of everything I did. I let it affect me and thought my pain was my true essence so to speak. Now I can look back on my childhood (although these days I rarely look back) and think -- that happened -- people acting out their pain and dramas and stories -- those stories don't affect me now and had nothing to do with me at all.
posted by loveandhappiness at 10:30 AM on October 19, 2019

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