At eleven years old, I’d watch my mom dance late into the night, the big green headphones covering her ears, sipping her wine between record changes. I’d sit on the fuzzy carpet and run my hands over her records. I loved the way the edges frayed and how the light reflected off the covers.
She always looked pretty to me, even when the headphones made her look like a monster alien-bug. She’d watch me watch her dance, and pull me in by my arms and swing me around, over the cream-colored carpet, lifting my legs high above the old brushed-steel turntable. Then she’d drop me down. I’d lie on my back and look up at her, a fat-bottomed wine glass in her hand and a bottle not too far away.
“Mommy, you’re pretty.” I reached toward her hair. I could never reach high enough to grab a touch of her locks.
“Mom, can you hear me?” I said, a dozen dances later, when she was on the ground in the backyard after falling. She spread her hands and feet on the grass and made a snow angel, but there was no snow.
“I hear you,” she yelled back in a drunk voice.
I struggled to help her up from the grass. “You need to get up, you’re bleeding.”
“Oh, that’s not real,” she laughed back at me. “Can’t you hear the music? I was dancing.”
“There’s no music, Mom,” I said. “We have to go inside. It’s late.”
“Fine. You’re no fun.”
I lifted her from the grass, put her arm around my shoulder, and walked her toward the deck. One at a time, our feet touched the wooden stairs until we were at the door. I turned the knob and brought her to the couch where she lay on her back.
“Look, it’s the moon,” she said.
“On the ceiling,” she said, staring at the globe light there. “The moon is in our house. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“I see it,” I said and ran my fingers through her hair.
She walked back to the record player and switched the Black Dog album from Led Zeppelin to one by Carly Simon. I could never hear the songs she listened to on her headphones. Much as I wanted to, the sounds were hidden, like her own acknowledgment of alcoholism.
When I grew up I did hear the records. I heard the Black Dog lyrics, and found out what people meant by down and out, and why mother’s flaming heart could never get its fill. The lyrics confirmed for me why on all those crazy nights, I cried myself to sleep. They confirmed for me that I would never be enough to fill my mother’s glass. I’d never get her to realize, without the assistance and acceptance of professional help, that we’d both be enough for each other, that she’d be enough without booze.
My mother’s drinking worsened throughout my teenage years. She filled the countertops with wine, not chips or snacks. Most of the time, she confined her drinking to the house and never got fired from her job. I almost wished she’d do something stupid like crash a car so she might get a shot at rehab. The silence and the behind-closed-doors drinking hurt her and me the most.
Finally, in my late twenties, I decided I’d help my mother get sober. However, a meeting with an addiction counselor dismantled my wish of getting her in rehab. During the session, Dr. Lee explained to me that interventions go two ways: 1) my mother would get the message that her drinking is killing her and her relationship with her family, or 2) she’d never talk to us again. With my overarching fear of the latter, I backed away from the intervention avenue, and five years ago, I decided to move out and get my own place.
Leaving my mother’s house was a good choice. While at home, I felt an intense need to baby her, to watch this adult-child and make sure she was safe, make sure she didn’t burn the house down like when she left the shrimp in a 375 degree oven overnight, or the time she dropped an oven mitt on a stovetop flame. The anxiety of waiting for her to hurt herself propelled me into depression, and into overwhelming guilt whenever I left her side.
My mother’s mixed messages about love steered me into various other types of co-dependent relationships. I often dated men with addictions to alcohol, sex, or drugs and tried to save them, to watch them, like I tried to save and watch my mother. But even though I was far enough away from my mother, and in the arms of a new addictive personality, I still ached for her love, hoped she’d put the glass of red down long enough to pick up the phone and call me, to ask me to come home.
I spent years in therapy, working with a counselor who specialized in addiction to help me overcome and manage the guilt, unhealthy behaviors and low self-esteem associated with familial alcoholism and co-dependency.
For example, my therapist told me to think about my life as a pie chart and allocate percentages to parts of my life that caused me the most stress, and to remove those parts from the chart and from my life. She also suggested setting boundaries — visiting my mother only on my timetable, and walking out when interactions with her turned unhealthy. The therapy largely worked. I do much better seeing my mother on a limited basis, like once per week. These check-ins provide me with enough space to maintain my own mental health and still have a relationship with her.
Therapy has also helped me to temper my expectations. I still hope that my mother will clear the wine bottles from her crowded countertops, but, even as I continue to miss her, I don’t let myself hope too much. I accept that love is unconditional.
A few weeks ago, my mom and I sat on the carpet in that same living room and looked through her old records. We spread them out on the floor.
“Choose the ones you want,” she said.
“Why? Are you going somewhere?”
“Stop it,” she said. “Just choose the ones you want.”
“This feels so morbid,” I said.
She laughed as she held her glass of white wine, and then yelled out, “I mean, put a record on!”
And so I put a record on, The Best of Carly Simon. My mother sits in her blue leather chair and puts her feet on the ottoman. I sit down on the floor, now all wood, and the cold feels good against my legs. “I Haven’t Got Time for the Pain” plays from the old turntable, and I lean my head back on the armrest as my mother runs her fingers through my hair.
She takes a deep sigh and says, “I love her.”
I breathe in her exhale and agree. “I love her, too.”