“Whether the alcoholic has been a parent, spouse, child, or friend, their relationship usually causes certain feelings and behavior to develop in the co-alcoholic: low self-esteem, a need to be needed, a strong urge to change and control others, and a willingness to suffer.”
From Three Women by Lisa Taddeo
“The gate that guards the reality of one’s childhood is high and existentially heavy, and merely opening it takes more energy than one expects.”
By Sara Sobel
I don’t want to go home – to hear her slurring her words at me from the couch when she wakes. My dread, anxiety, and fear return throughout the school day, increasing until I walk through the door on Christman Drive. What’s it going to be today? I sit so quietly, perfectly in the Danish chair – some family heirloom fantasy – watching Another World as she sleeps off her afternoon tumbler of cheap, sweet-and-sour-smelling white zinfandel. I hate that smell. I will always hate that smell. I am distracted by her form, wrapped in the afghan born in the brown and orange haze of the 1970s. She’s breathing. I’m not sure what sickens me more – the fear that she doesn’t wake up or the dread that she will.
It’s funny with a mother. I loved her, certainly needed her, and lived for her approval. But the unpredictability that always accompanied her stinking wine birthed the constant fear and growing hatred within me. I never, ever knew what mother would be home when she awoke from her fermented slumber.
So, I waited, every day, after school in the ‘fancy/not fancy’ hard Danish chair with thin, ugly, smoke-infused brown cushions. I waited.
I did not dare look for an after-school snack in the kitchen because I was terrified that any crinkle of a wrapper or creak of a cabinet door or crunch of my chewing would wake her prematurely – a guaranteed grievous error. If that happened all bets were off.
If I was lucky to be gifted a ‘Good Mother’ day, she would wake, light a cigarette, and send me to the kitchen to retrieve her secret stash of Pringles Chips or Archway Dutch Cocoa Cookies, and maybe I would be allowed to have a snack too. Slowly coming out of her fog and back to life, she’d ask about school, and I would answer clearly, perfectly, with sweet stories and embellished details to keep her happy and engaged. This was the mother who baked for school events, volunteered as my Brownie leader, and helped anyone and everyone. She taught me about nurturing children, caring for the sick, honoring my grandparents, and generously bestowing gifts and hugs and kisses. She showed me that meals should be ready when your husband got home, shopping for glamorous purple dresses on layaway was a girly adventure, and Tuesday nights at McDonald’s were a traditional treat when my father worked late. From her I learned always yes, never no.
Junior High did not afford me the after-school curriculars and my own transportation that would save me in high school. So, I was at my mother’s mercy for a few hours every afternoon before my father came home to his perfect house, perfect family, perfect Turkish dinner. It was all smiles by then, and so I counted down to his homecoming every day. His late-night office hours on Tuesdays were interminable, an extended mix of the same tune.
On ‘Bad Mother’ days, I was a slut, a liar, a bitch, fat, ugly, stupid, and no good. No good. Never good. And no one would ever want me. I was not allowed to cry or speak or question. My brain raced as I searched for a funny story or an interesting fact to distract her from the onslaught. Those days were filled with terrifying, traumatic surprises that no child wishes for or wants. Perhaps I would slam into the kitchen wall when she slapped my face, or stand outside the locked front door because she couldn’t bear the sight and sound of me. If we happened to be driving, her fist lunged into my thigh, my stomach, my chest. “Do you want me to drive off this bridge?” she would both threaten and demand. As if I had any control whatsoever. I answered, “No, please no!” – wailing, pleading, and desperate at twelve years old.
Sometimes, she would express her rage at me by yelling and belittling me in front of others in the parking lot at school and, later, when I was older and at home less frequently, by talking to my friends, mocking me, and gossiping as if she was our peer. Then at the age of 23, meeting my soon-to-be fiancée for the first time, she asked him, “Why on earth are you interested in Sara?” the minute I left the room. That question alone demonstrated it all more clearly than I had been able to convey to him with my sad stories. “I get it now,” he said, “I get it.”
This was the mother who screamed, berated, hated – though whether that hatred was primarily for herself or for her youngest daughter was never clear. She taught me about low self-esteem, social anxiety, and masking with pretend smiles and false platitudes. She showed me that practically everyone was somehow against her, lack of education was shameful insecurity, and that I came from a long line of women who resented and scorned their daughters. From her I learned that fat is bad, thin is good.
In those days and at a young age, I didn’t consider, let alone speak of, alcoholism, drunk driving, child abuse, or Borderline Personality Disorder. As I became older, more educated – though not necessarily wiser – these labels would take up space in my brain and roll off my tongue easily.
I never completely understood my mother and, as with so many of us, I don’t believe she understood herself. There was never any discussion, certainly no acknowledgement, of her dysfunction, her abuse. My attempt at a solution was to increasingly establish barriers – telling her only what I wanted her to know, answering her questions vaguely, and making sure that everything was fine – always fine. These were my fragile coping skills for years – through high school, college, relationships, miscarriage, broken hearts, marriage, and children. This is also how I learned to ask all the right questions and obsessively keep track of every detail of everything in order to feed myself with the illusion of control. It’s how I learned to be terrified to walk into rooms already filled with people who were surely staring and judging. And terrified even more of people walking out of rooms – away from me, leaving me, abandoning me. It’s how I learned to hide pain with humor, to be self-deprecating, to hate my body, my appearance, myself. It’s how I learned that parents can love and hate their children at the same time. And it’s how I learned that no one ever wants to talk about all of these things.
My barriers weren’t impenetrable however – I wanted to share things with my mom, I wanted her to know that I wasn’t merely a liar, a slut, a bitch, fat, stupid, unwanted, and no good. But every glimpse I afforded her into my life – into my heart – became a weapon, revenge, words twisted to be spiteful and sarcastic and cruel to the bone.
My ex-husband always reminded me that God’s commandment instructs us to honor our mother and father, which always soothed my conscience for the love I was lacking. As a grown woman with years of therapy under my belt, I worked hard to honor my mother. I traveled to visit, called, nursed her after a heart attack and major surgery, relocated her from Ohio to Connecticut so that she would be closer to my older sister and me, welcomed her in my home, celebrated holidays and milestones. Don’t mistake me for a loyal, doting, affectionate and fond daughter though. I was often going through the motions, not even faking it until I made it. “I’m so lonely,” she often said, crying. I never knew how to reply to that, and I didn’t even attempt to indulge her. As always, karma now reminds me about loneliness every day. I tried, but sometimes I was bad at it all, and he kindly took her calls. The innocent love of child for parent had fled long ago.
As her health inevitably began to fail after decades of smoking, drinking, pill popping, and bitterness, and my visits were to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and nursing homes, I understood that she had done the best she could at the time. My mother was an angry, insecure, unhappy woman, but I stroked her forehead and told her it was okay, I was okay, and that I forgave.
I didn’t feel safe or at ease with my mother – possibly never – until the morning I stood at her bedside, January 17, 2017, looking with grief and wonder at her form covered with medical linens instead of the brown and orange afghan, not breathing. I no longer needed to anticipate which mother would greet me, because I didn’t have to sit waiting for her to wake anymore.
|Sara Sobel 428980|
York Correctional Institution
201 West Main Street
Niantic, CT 06357
Sara Sobel, 51 years old is an inmate at York Correctional Institution in Niantic, CT. She has been writing in multiple genres since college and holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in English and Writing from Kent State University in Ohio and a Masters Degree in Public Health and Healthcare Administration from New York Medical College in Valhalla, NY. Her writing had been greatly influenced by love, trauma, faith, family, and most recently, by her incarcerated status, serving as an outlet for dealing with heartbreak, loss, women’s roles and making amends. She hopes you enjoy her writing and welcomes comments. While incarcerated, Sara has participated in a writing group, the Judy Dworin Performance Project for music, movement, and spoken word at a Prison Arts Program. She is also currently training to be a Certified Braille Transcriber.