By Grace Gnewuch
When I was 11 years old, I made a promise to my mom. Well, rather than it being a promise to my mom, it was more a promise to myself—a challenge, if you will.
When my mom heard my promise, her first reaction was to laugh. “I should record you right now and play it to you in ten years,” she told me. What was it about what I said to her that she found it so unbelievable that she would laugh?
My promise to my mom was this: I will never drink a single drop of alcohol. Not in my entire life.
Not a single drop.
I understand why my mom reacted the way that she did. Drinking alcohol has become so ingrained in our culture as Americans that it’s less common to find someone who actually refrains from drinking it than it does finding someone who chooses to drink it. Even those who don’t see the appeal in drinking are still often peer-pressured into drinking once they hit 21 that they end up drinking even though they may not necessarily want to. Alcohol has become a social necessity in our culture.
Yet I refuse to ever drink it.
I wish I could say it was simply just a personal choice of mine that hasn’t been influenced by anything, but it’s not. Even though I always failed to see the appeal in it, my desire to avoid all alcoholic beverages has most definitely been influenced by my past experiences with it.
When I was young, around the end of elementary school and the beginning of middle school, I found out that my mom was an alcoholic.
When I say alcoholic, I don’t mean that she was an alcoholic like the ones that you see on TV and in movies. She wasn’t abusive or violent. She got out of bed everyday and went to work so she could help support my family. She took care of me and my sister to the best of her ability, and I will always be thankful of that.
It’s hard for a kid to understand the gritty details and truths of substance abuse, but it wasn’t hard for me to at least understand that my mom wasn’t my mom when she was drinking. I could tell that she was different when she drank, and it scared me.
Thankfully, during this time, my mom began going to AA meetings. My dad would go with her to support her, and I can remember this one time when my sister and I went when she had hit a milestone in her path to recovery. We were all incredibly supportive of her, but just being supportive of an alcoholic isn’t enough to help them fully recover. The biggest step to recovery is teaching your body and your mind to not want alcohol. And that’s where my mom would struggle.
After a few weeks at AA, she would relapse.
It was a cycle that my older sister and I became accustomed with. We both got really good at telling when my mom had so much as a sip of alcohol. The look in her eye would change. It was like she was possessed by something.
What absolutely didn’t help was the way my dad would enable my mom. After she would succeed in a few weeks of sobriety, he would bring home a six-pack of beer to celebrate. I know it seems like common sense that what he did was incredibly stupid and counterproductive, but he didn’t understand one very integral and important fact about alcoholics.
Fast forward to 2010. My mom’s addiction was still going strong, but my parent’s relationship had finally collapsed. My dad moved in to an apartment complex just down the street (even though it felt like it was thousands of miles away to me and my sister) and left me and my 15-year-old sister to live with my mom.
Many adults can attest to the fact that taking care of a drunk person isn’t fun nor is it easy. What’s even worse is taking care of your alcoholic mother with your older sister when your thirteen years old.
I remember there would be days that I would walk home from school dreading that my mom had already started drinking. Would the bottle of wine that she had bought the night before be empty? Would she have gone out to have gotten more?
Am I gonna get home to find my mother dead?
I didn’t know. I was horrified that my mom would drink herself to death. Or maybe she would fall and hurt herself while she was drunk so severely that I wouldn’t be able to help her.
A few months after my parents divorced, my mom got into contact with her old high school sweetheart who was a recovering addict that already have over fifteen years of sobriety under his belt. He eased her through the recovery process. He supported her when she needed to be supported. And most important of all, he told her something that all addicts need to hear:
“I can’t save you. You have to want to save yourself.”
Alcoholics can’t be saved. They aren’t projects that need to be fixed. They’re people with diseases beyond their control who need help, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Thankfully, my mom was able to push herself through recovery. She went to AA meetings at least twice a week. She kept in contact with other recovering alcoholics.
Because of my mom’s determination and strength, she has been sober for five and a half years.
Just when I thought that I was done with trying to live with alcoholism in my life, a second experience came in a way that I did not want nor expect.
My dad’s new wife.
I think it’s pretty cliché to say that she’s an evil stepmother (even typing the word out makes me cringe because this woman isn’t even old enough to be my mother, nor could she ever be a good maternal figure in my life) but it doesn’t change the fact that she is one.
Right off the bat, my sister and I were overly cautious of this woman. She was 19 years younger than our dad. She was unemployed. She gave off a strange, but familiar, vibe.
She gave off the same vibe that my mom did when she was drinking.
So immediately, our red flags go up. This woman was strange. She was hard to look in the eye, had almost no shame, and couldn’t take care of herself. Maybe she was just a weird person. Maybe we just didn’t want to like her because she came into our lives so suddenly that we rejected any change that was made too quickly. We didn’t know.
An answer came November 26, 2014.
My sister and I were spending time at my mom’s place for Thanksgiving. We were having a generally good time until I got a call from my dad, which was strange because he knows that I was with my mom, and I don’t like being bothered by him when I’m with her because I don’t see her often (she lives in Michigan). But I answer anyway because he’ll get frustrated if I don’t.
His wife was in the hospital.
She had two seizures.
She was trying to detox from alcohol.
Now my dad did not tell us that she was an alcoholic, so this was already a shock. But what made the shock even worse was the fact that she was such an intense alcoholic that even when she was still drinking a few glasses of wine a day, it wasn’t enough for her body.
She almost died. Because of alcohol.
She got sober right after that. The experience scared her (obviously). But she didn’t go to AA meetings. She never tried rehab. She quit alcohol like people quit cigarettes: cold turkey.
She relapsed a few weeks ago.
So here’s what I realized. Alcoholism manifests pretty randomly for most people. You can be drinking fine for a few years, and then you don’t even realize that you’ve grown dependent on it over time. It latches onto you, and once it has you, it refuses to ever let go.
People can still drink if they want to. Alcoholism is not like other addictive drugs. Not everyone gets addicted to alcohol. But regardless of whether or not you’ll ever become dependent or addicted to alcohol, it’s still important to be mindful of it because it ruins people’s lives. It can kill you if you abuse it.
That promise that I made to my mom all those years ago is still fresh in my mind. My experiences made sure that I would never forget it. I don’t want to forget it. I don’t want to forget my determination. So, even now, my promise still stands strong and true.
I’m never going to drink.