I requested Mom undergo a psychiatric evaluation, and a few hours after she had returned from her angiogram on Tuesday, Dr. Vincent Ziegler stopped by for a brief visit. For awhile, I’d been thinking she was battling some sort of mental disorder that prevented her from bathing more than once a week, restricted her diet to frozen dinners and chocolate cupcakes, and had kept her more or less a recluse in an apartment she rarely cleaned. And on her birthday less than a week earlier, while I sat at her kitchen table and eavesdropped on her conversation with one of my aunts, I was shocked to hear Mom say, “I’m still waiting for Janemarie and her family to come over for a visit.” I had looked at my husband then as if to say, What the hell was that all about?
I told the doctor these things and more before he examined her. I chose to speak to him in front of our mom instead of in the hall away from her range of hearing. I believed it was necessary to tell Dr. Ziegler things that could impact Mom’s stroke recovery, and I knew some things I would share with him would embarrass her, so to me, doing it behind her back seemed sneaky, like gossip, and I would not do that to her.
I watched my mother’s face, which looked at me with disbelief and angry eyes while she shook her head “no” as if to warn me, “Don’t you dare tell him everything.”
I think I was eighteen or so before I realized drinking alcohol in the afternoon was not normal behavior for most people, but it was for my mom. After my dad died, she told me, her doctor prescribed Valium to help her cope. Trouble was, it “knocked me on my ass,” she said, so he advised her to drink a beer or two each day. It was 1968, but by the early ‘70s, “mother’s little helper” had evolved into an unspoken addiction.
My mother had grown up surrounded by alcoholics. Her dad, a few brothers, they all drank too much in between managing Grandpa’s dairy farm. From Mom’s stories, I gathered they could be stupid and mean drunks, too, especially her brothers. I remember Mom telling me about a time when she was a young girl, and one brother beat her up, causing my mom to seek refuge in a secret place, where she remained until my grandmother coaxed her to come out of hiding. Years later, a different brother attacked Grandma, pushing and shoving her around her kitchen until my dad pulled him off her.
Mom reports that she rarely drank before my dad died, but after he died, it didn’t take long for the prescribed one-to-two beers a day to evolve into five, six, and sometimes more. In retrospect, I can’t claim to know for certain whether or not she was an alcoholic because I’m not an expert on this subject. However, I think it’s safe to say my mother was extremely dependent on alcohol to cope with her days (and nights), and beer was her drug of choice.
In all my growing-up years, I only remember one time when my mother abstained from drinking. I was seventeen or eighteen when she decided to use Lent as an opportunity to make this sacrifice and grow closer to God by reading and preaching scripture verses. My brother was annoyed by our mom’s newfound evangelism, calling her a “religious fanatic” and “Bible thumper,” but I was thrilled. Of course, it didn’t last.
I could list many circumstances where my mother’s drinking impacted us kids’ lives, but that is not my intention with this memoir. I can report we were more neglected than abused, and sometimes Mom did some disturbing things, like throwing me in a bathtub fully clothed because I’d made plans with friends and forgot to tell her, but our basic needs, like clothing, food and shelter, were always met, and when she wasn’t drunk, she was loving and smart, and I pretty much adored her.
As I’ve grown older, I better understand how and why my mother chose to cope with life in the manner she did. I would be a liar if I said I don’t occasionally abuse alcohol. I would also be a liar if I said if there haven’t been times in my life where I drank beer just about every day, and it’s difficult for me to stop with just one or two. Like Mom, I sometimes drink alone. I drink because of stress, or sadness, or celebration, or sometimes for no reason at all. Before my mom’s stroke, I rarely drank, and it worries me that I’ve been stuck in this drinking rut on and off for almost ten years. I don’t get drunk, but I enjoy the beer buzz all the same.