90 days

90 days.

That’s how long Mama spent at Gray’s Landing, “a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center”, when I was in 7th grade.

Ninety days.

That is also the amount of time she spent in jail, immediately following her stint in rehab, as the result of her third arrest for DUI. To this day I’m not sure how it went down…I wasn’t in the car…THANK GOD.  Although, I seem to remember overhearing something about her putting the car in reverse while on I-65 or maybe Highway 72, and backing under an 18-wheeler. Sounds both impossible, yet probable, considering she was most assuredly drunker than Cooter Brown at the time. Suffice to say, it is a miracle she lived through it. She did, in fact, walk away without scratch on her. The majority of the damage was to the car, unless you count emotional carnage. Along with these sketchy details, comes a recollection of them being mentioned in hushed tones, which is probably the reason I can’t fill in the gaps. Everyone tried their best to shelter me.

So, what are we at now? 180 days. 6 months. HALF A YEAR.

It’s all the same.

If you think about it, it’s also a helluva long time for a 13 year-old girl to be without her mama. Then consider the fact we lived in a small Southern town in Alabama, and you realize it’s an excruciatingly long time. Let’s face it, teenage life is hard enough when you don’t live in a place where everybody knows your name, as well as the names of all your ancestors and all your business. Adding insult to injury, my sister, Bug, was the dispatcher/jailer at the county jail where Mama had to serve her time. To say this was traumatic, is an understatement of magnanimous proportions. It’s worse than traumatic. It’s horrifying in the most epic of ways. Then again, alcoholism often, if not always, plays out in that manner at one point or another. Rock bottom, I believe it’s called?

Imagine having to lock up your own mother, day after day, for 90 consecutive days.

Let that sink in for a minute or two. Could you do it? Only the bravest could, and Bug ranks on up there in my book of guardian angels. More on her later, though.

3 times 30=90.

3 arrests for DUI.

3 years without a drivers license. (Oh. Did I forget to mention that? Sorry.)

Are you humming that Sesame Street song “Three is a magic number” yet? Thought so.

Only it wasn’t magic.

It was hell. And she never stopped drinking.

Not after spending time in the hospital going through the DT’s when I was 6 years old. Not after attending numerous Alcoholics’ Anonymous meetings throughout my early adolescence. Not after going to rehab or even after a stint in jail when I was in 7th grade.

Never. 

One thing I can say with certainty is she did not drive a car for three whole years. For some reason, she took that part of her punishment seriously. She still drank, she just didn’t drive. Funny thing…I got my license for the first time before she got hers back. Rest assured, the irony of this is not lost on me, mostly because it meant I never had to ride with her behind the wheel of a car again. Finally, I could be my own way home, as well as my way out. Which was truly a blessing.

Allow me to elaborate.

I possess few memories of childhood prior to the age of eight or nine. None of them are precious. Possibly because the human psyche is phenomenal, and often completely blocks events too traumatic for the conscious mind to process. This is my only explanation, because I was intelligent beyond reason, with an otherwise eidetic memory. There are witnesses to support this fact. So, it would be correct to assume, under normal circumstances, I would remember everything. But my childhood was anything but normal. I do have some glimpses, or flashbacks, and I’m ready to share them. Be warned though. They epitomize the term gut-wrenching, and veer so far from heart-warming they cross all the lanes and crash into the center divider. So, if you are sensitive, well…grab some Kleenex for my  journey down Memory Lane.

As far as I can remember, my mother’s problem with alcohol dates back to my elementary school years. Kindergarten to be exact. It started before I was born though. When or what triggered it, who knows? The majority of my siblings swear their childhoods were idyllic. Full of joyous events, family outings, church socials and playful antics. Something Norman Rockwell might use as inspiration. Mama and Daddy might as well have been named June and Ward according to the “First Five”. There are 7 of us in all, and Bug is next to me in line. Her child-hell, began right around the time I was born, when she was 12. If you think about it, that really emphasizes why I always thought Mama’s drinking was my fault. She started when I was born. Anyway, I’d swear upon a stack of Bibles that the First Five were all party in a giant conspiracy theory about their upbringing if it weren’t for the Super 8 movies still in existence, as evidence. Numbers six and seven didn’t get so lucky, but we stuck together. There really was no other choice for survival. Even after she fled at 18, got married and had a baby of her own, Bug wasn’t gone for long. She returned for me, so to speak, and hasn’t ever stopped having my back since. While I’m rolling here, let me also admit to being jealous of my siblings, who knew a Mama I never did in childhood. Going one step further, I even blamed them for a bit for not being more persistent when petitioning the court for custody of me. Yes, it is my understanding they tried to get me the hell out of there so I could live some semblance of a stable, happy life, but to no avail. Daddy was warned of the plan, and the jig was up. He assured them it would ”be the death of Mama” if they took me away, and they retreated. The Enabler had spoken. Um, hello? What about the death of me?!! Obviously I couldn’t speak up for myself. What did I know? To me, it was perfectly normal. After all, I was only five, and that was my life as I’d always known it. Of course, I’m fully aware it wasn’t their fault, just as her drinking wasn’t my fault. So my fingers aren’t pointing at anyone, unless it’s to get their attention and profess my unconditional love for them. They know that. But I’m not sure they ever knew about my resentment to begin with, or the period of time when there was a whole lotta anger goin’ on because of it.  Until now.

But I digress.

I can’t recall what grade I was in, but I know Mama would often pick me up from school and head to the County Line to Mills Beverages (aka “the beer store”). You see, we lived in a dry county, situated right smack in the middle of the Bible Belt. So, unless you wanted to deal with the bootleggers (which she did on occasion, and it never ended well) you had to drive to the neighboring county to get your poison. Hers was Country Club beer back then, which I believe would be the equivalent of Colt45 today. However, as her disease progressed through my teens, she began to fancy cheap vodka, but in a pinch would guzzle whatever she could get her hands on, including cooking sherry and Listerine Original. Anyway, whenever she had me in tow while on an excursion to the County Line, she would bribe me with a Coke and a bag of Lay’s sour cream and onion potato chips so I wouldn’t rat her out to Daddy. Once back in the car, she’d reach in her purse and take out what appeared to be a plastic Coca-Cola label and wrap it around what I now know was a can of beer. This was to disguise it so she could drink it while driving home. Call it “DUI Incognito”. The manufacturers of that little plastic thingy should be sued for aiding and abetting child endangerment as far as I’m concerned. I have no idea how many beers she consumed while behind the wheel during the half-hour trip, but I do remember watching her drive with one eye open and the other shut, presumably to combat her beer goggled, double-vision. Clearly, Jesus took the wheel on many occasions and made sure I got home safely. There is simply no other explanation. Also, to this very day, just the smell of any brand of sour cream and onion potato chips make me gag. Couple it with a Coke, and I will vomit. Seriously.

Another such incident involved the police showing up at school to take me home from 4th grade. Apparently, my mother drove to pick me up, parked, got out of the car, staggered towards the school and passed out on the lawn of a house on her way to retrieve me from the classroom. The home belonged to someone whom, of course knew our family. No charges were filed, but of all the people whose homes were on that street, she landed in the District Attorney’s front yard! Living in a small town was both a blessing and a curse I suppose. Now that I am older, I can reflect on this one in a tragically hilarious way, and it makes me laugh. Then again, what else can I do? Perhaps if I ever write a script about my life, this will be the comedic relief scene.

Alright. Now for the nitty gritty.

Even though her drinking began before I was born, my most vivid recollection of it during my own childhood was in 1977. I was five years old. The current age of my Sweet Pea. One day, Mama kept me home from school for no particular reason. It might have been close to my birthday, because I remember the Presidential Inauguration of Jimmy Carter being on television, and that happens in January. My birthday month. Sometimes she kept me home, because she was lonely and wanted company. Apparently, even at five, I was a good conversationalist. Who knew? Maybe she just didn’t want to fool with getting me ready. Whatever. Regardless, it wasn’t my choice, because I LOVED SCHOOL. Still do, in fact, and wish like hell I could go back. During my whole life, Daddy worked in construction, and subsequently crafted many things in our home. One of them was the bed my parents slept on. It was king-sized, had a canopy and was built into the wall. Mama spent a good portion of my childhood in it, watching the television, which Daddy had ingeniously hung from the ceiling at the foot of the bed. Only one problem: there were no remote controls in 1977. In order to change the channel, you had to stand up at the foot of the bed and do it manually. Sounds simple enough, right? Sure. Unless you are heavily intoxicated, lose your balance, fall off the bed and smack your head on the brick wall next to it, which both knocks you out cold, and leaves a nasty, bleeding gash on your head. Now, imagine witnessing this as a 5 year-old, and then having to sit there, waiting on your mommy to wake up, believing she might not, for what seemed like an eternity…until your daddy got home.

Yes, that really happened. 

Feel free to pick your jaw up off the floor and read on. That’s the worst of it.

So far.

Now that I’m reflecting and writing, it’s rather amazing the kinds of details I actually remember about the isolated incidences. Children absorb a lot apparently, and if it’s particularly heinous, have the ability to repress the information for a really, long-ass time. After 35 years, I still remember the brand of beer she drank, what she looked like as she drove drunk, and what was on the television while I sat by her side, scared shitless she was dead, the day she kept me home from school. I also remember the smell…and it’s both nauseating and haunting. Oh, and the hoarse, slurred sound of her voice, as she screamed “HONEY!!!” at the top of her lungs, trying to get Daddy’s attention. This actually wakes me up at night, from the depths of my dreams, still. But if I had to pinpoint a time when Mama told me she loved me, or hugged me just because, I draw a complete blank.

wow. WoW.WOW. Perhaps hypnotherapy is in order?

Despite the genetic predisposition children of alcoholics have to become addicts themselves, I am happy to report I escaped. No addictive personality here, people. Well, not for substances anyway. Some would argue that I have an addiction to perfectionistic overachievement and helping others. Which could explain why I seem to attract these personalities as a white-hot flame would a suicidal moth. But, whatever. I just don’t give up. And I’ve put myself to the test over the years to prove it. In college, I tried all sorts of things, stopping short of stuff requiring a needle. Nothing stuck. No pun intended. To this day, I am able to have a glass of wine with dinner, a few beers while watching a football game, or even a shot of good ole’ Jack to soothe a scratchy throat….and walk away. Social drinking in moderation is fine by me, but I don’t crave booze to enhance my experience with friends. Nor do I need it to drown my problems. In other words, if we reverted back to the days of prohibition and lived Boardwalk Empire, I would be just fine.

I do worry about The Beans though. What if it just skipped MY generation? Certain behaviors they possess, even at their young ages, do send my radar spinning into over-drive on occasion. So I am keeping a close watch, just as any good mother would. Not surprisingly, my attention to detail is off the charts as well, and making special moments for them is at the top of my priority list. Because, I am living proof. They will remember the seemingly insignificant details, while only recalling the big picture in puzzle form. So I am determined to make sure they have all of the pieces.

While getting these thoughts “out there” is therapeutic for me, make no mistake, please. I mean no disrespect to my Mama.Or anyone in my family for that matter. My life story is what it is: imperfect, beyond my control, and completely mine. One of many things I accept, but cannot change while I say the Serenity Prayer, every single day. I’m writing about it now to set it free.

To set me free

I am positive she loved me, and would never have intentionally placed me in harm’s way. Alcoholism is a disease, and she had it in the terminal sense. Anyone who says otherwise, has never loved someone affected by it. Those who believe alcoholics choose to drink, neither understand the nature of the affliction, nor the fact there is no cure. Just like cancer. While normal people CAN choose to drink or not, alcoholics must choose to be sober. If they don’t, they will drink. That’s the truth. They make promises to stop as they draw their last breath, and they mean it. Honestly they do. Every. Single. Time. Yet, they are powerless against a selfish demon who reaches into their soul and takes hold like a vice grip, squeezing the life out of another promise and the hope of recovery once again. Until broken, it’s a vicious cycle that leaves smoldering wreckage worthy of a big budget, Hollywood movie about Armageddon in its wake.

Alcoholism affects everyone. Not just the drinker.

This I know

My mama drank to escape her reality. Which, from an outside observer’s point of view, wasn’t all that bad. She was a gifted artisan in all realms of sewing. She had 7 wonderful children who loved her dearly, and a husband who worshipped the ground she walked upon. He gave her everything she desired within his grasp, including the key to her undoing. Apparently, it wasn’t enough. But I wasn’t inside her head, and therefore can’t judge her actions nor hold them against her, especially not in death. Lung cancer, arterial disease, chronic alcoholism and a broken heart took her from this blessed Earth almost 17 years ago. I miss her every single day, and wish so much that she could meet my husband…talk to him…for so many reasons… and wrap her fragile arms around The Beans in an embrace only a grandmother could deliver. She would love loves them. I’m certain.

For many years after her death, I harbored residual resentment towards her for robbing me of my childhood. But no more. There is forgiveness in my heart, because now I know she was simply doing her job the best way she knew how, and above all…

preparing me for the road I would travel each day in adulthood. 

Thanks, Mama. Rest easy. You gave me a great map, and marked all the twists and turns in red Sharpie! 

I love you.