My mother would have been 73 today. She died at 55 of a heart attack caused by undiagnosed coronary artery disease. She was also an alcoholic who never found sobriety. I should back up a little to give you some context. BOTH of my parents were alcoholics. My dad was what I refer to as a functional alcoholic: he would get completely smashed after work, fight with my mom all night, and get up and go to work the next morning, very seldom missing a day. My mom was what I refer to as a dysfunctional alcoholic—she binged for days at a time. Staying up all night, drinking and burning holes in every couch we ever owned, the bright red tip of her cigarette falling off and sliding between the cushions while her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Her binges were separated by up to two weeks of being sober—just long enough for me to hope she had turned a corner and kicked the habit. And then I would come home from school and find her in her spot on the couch, smiling with a happy buzz I knew would advance to passing out and adding to the collection of burn holes. My dad got sober May 22, 1990. He spent the final 27 years of his life a sober man. There is no one on earth I am more proud of than my dad. He faced the devil, looked him square in the eye, and dropped him to the floor with a swift kick to the balls. That’s my kind of guy.
Both of my parents were good people, despite their shortcomings. My mom loved and cared deeply for others. She sang to me, recited poetry to me, and passed on her great love of reading to me. Sadly, she never learned to love herself nearly as much as she loved others. My dad, even with a drinking problem, attended all my high school football games where I cheered in my cute little uniform from the sidelines. He was the biggest cheerleader in the stands. My fellow cheerleader friends loved his enthusiasm—Mr. Boone was the loudest and the proudest dad in the stands without a son on the field.
My childhood was far from ideal. I’m not sure anyone but another child of alcoholics can understand the magnitude of that statement. My childhood, for the most part, was a few happy moments sprinkled in with a whole lot of heartache. I lived a double life. The person I was at school was someone entirely different than the person I was at home. I was happy-go-lucky, upbeat, popular at school. At home, I was sullen and angry. So very angry. There’s a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar that describes my childhood more accurately than anything I’ve ever read, even though he was writing about the torment of slavery and not about a little white girl with alcoholic parents. Still, good literature can relate to a wide assortment of individuals on a variety of levels and my love of the poem for my own personal reasons is in no way an attempt to diminish the experience of slavery—for which there was no way out. I was fortunate. I knew I would eventually grow up and get to live my own life. But the scars from those years are a terrific reminder of my resilience. This poem brings it back every time I read it.
We Wear the Mask
BY PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
My willingness now to share parts of my story—to remove the mask and share what’s beneath is perhaps a fulfillment of my desire to help others. And as crazy as it sounds, I’m grateful for the tough experience of my childhood. It was through those dark days, those nights I didn’t sleep because my parents were screaming so loud sleep was impossible; the times I literally had to walk over piles of laundry to get into the house (drunk folks generally don’t do laundry); the dinners of inedible roast forgotten in the oven (drunk folks also do not make great cooks); those hard days taught me so much about resilience. About willing myself to fight through the pain and find a smile—to look on the bright side of life. Because there is always a bright side.
It seems insane to me now that I maintained even one healthy friendship during those turbulent years, but I had a network of people who loved me—the mother of a high school boyfriend became a surrogate mother to me, even after her son and I parted ways; an English teacher who allowed me to write “barf pages” every Monday about what was on my mind, finally allowing me to spill my guts about my hurt. I consider her methods my first introduction to talk therapy. I had friends—only a select few, mind you—who knew what was happening at home and gave me a place to sleep some nights when being home was too much for me to bear.
I wish my mom was still here to share with her what I’ve learned over the years. Towards the end, I desperately wanted to help her learn to love herself, to discover that she mattered. I wasn’t sure how to do that, really, but I planned to give her diamond earrings for Christmas—an extravagance that would have blown her mind. I still wonder “what if.” Maybe that’s my cross to bear, but it prompts me to share love with others. Maybe my mother’s final gift to me was teaching me to seize the moment to share my heart—not to wait for special occasions to tell someone how much they mean; to share the truth even when—especially when—it is exceedingly hard to do so. Because what most of us crave as human beings is love. And there is nothing more loving than the truth. Even when it hurts to remove the mask.
***This is not really where I thought I was going when I sat down to write. Talking about truth and love and all that. I wanted to celebrate my imperfect parents. I wanted to share the craziness that my mom died the same month she received my dad’s final alimony payment, that my dad’s first response after learning of her death was “Don’t worry about anything, I will pay for everything.” And he did. I wanted to acknowledge that my childhood was pretty jacked up, but I hold NO bitterness at all about the things I went through. The good, the bad, and the ugly have made me who I am and I really love the woman I am. And yes, I fought to become her. But that’s the thing about writing—for me, it goes where it goes and I’ve learned to let it. ***