Confused Grief: A Letter to the Children of Addiction
Sometimes you lose someone and it breaks your heart in a way you didn’t even know was possible because you loved them so.
Sometimes you lose someone and it leaves you angry, bitter and and resentful because they hurt you and you can never tell them.
Sometimes you lose someone and you are overwhelmed with genuine empathy for the internal battlefield that they long fought and ultimately died on.
Sometimes you lose someone and you seethe with quiet rage that they didn’t try harder to pull out of that battle instead of martyring themselves to their own self destruction before your very eyes.
Sometimes you lose someone and you don’t know how you will ever go on without hearing their laugh again.
Sometimes you lose someone and you find yourself having secret moments of something like relief that the category 5 hurricane of pain that surrounded them has gone out to sea.
And sometimes…. it is all the same person.
The years I spent vascillating between cowering, raging, checking out, and pleading for love depending on the state she was in piled on my little shoulders and then as an adult found me broken, alcoholic, anxious, depressed, codependent, addicted to a list of substances, and with no identity of my own.
Her alcoholism didn’t just destroy her. It destroyed me as well. I’m sure you could argue with me that I am not destroyed, and today, I would agree. But there were years and years of my life that I very much felt and behaved as if I were.
Nobody told me how exhausting grieving my mother was going to be. Not because no one told me that it would hurt, I knew that, but because the feelings I had surrounding her were so conflicted, so torn, and that only magnified a million-fold with the explosion that was the news of her self-inflicted death.
So how do I grieve the person who hurt me the most?
How can I miss someone and wish they were here, but at the exact same time, know that her actions almost destroyed me and that if she had lived longer, it may have been enough to drive my own trauma to sentence me to death too?
How is it that I understand with heartfelt, honest compassion and empathy what happened to her and why but also allow myself the anger I have a right to over the childhood that was stolen from me?
How is it that I can genuinely forgive her for the years of abandonment and rejection knowing she was sick and but still have a piece of myself that knows that she could have tried harder and gotten better just like so many others have?
How can I tell myself one second that she did the best she could with what she had and then immediately have the thought that she absolutely did not or I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this and she wouldn’t be dead?
How in god’s name do I rectify the fact that in that last moment before she took her own life, she thought of us and still went through with it…or didn’t think of us at all? But then still realize that I cannot try to gauge anything of any great importance based on the moment she was most out of her mind?
These questions aren’t what wreck my soul on some days. It was my own experience with my own addiction and self-destruction that gave me an all too up close and personal look at the darkness she lived with. It made me forgive her in a way that nothing she could have ever said to me would have. But the turmoil of the mutually exclusive is the cross I am now left bearing.
I truly believe that my purpose is to use the awful things I went through to bring a sense of understanding and hope to others who share similar struggles. But how do I speak out about the emotional abuse and neglect that an addicted parent inevitably doles out without telling on her? Without at times almost vilifying her? To many, especially those who don’t understand the disease of addiction, she will appear to be something that I don’t want her to be seen as. But what if that is the truth? Is it all she was? No. But was it for many years? Yeah. So….. what? What do I do with it? What if the information and the experience could help people? But shouldn’t I just let her rest? Am I NOT letting her rest by telling my own story honestly? Do I try to find a way to explain it and relate it without expressing what it was? Isn’t that a lie? Isn’t me censoring the ugly only further validating the exact shame that I am trying to alleviate some of for children of addicts, people with childhood trauma, addiction, and mental illness?
What the FUCK do I do with all of it?
Most days, I do nothing. Those are good days. And thankfully, after many years of handling it wrong, and then these last few handling it right, those days have turned into the large majority. They used to be about non-existent. What I used to do was everything I shouldn’t have. Drink. Use. Hate myself. Abandon myself. Act out. Self-injure. Cling to toxic people. Self-destruct. And I am grateful in a way you can never know that that part is over. But there are times when a song, a smell, a picture, a person, a memory…they send me straight down the rabbit hole of opposing interpretations and feelings I can’t make any sense of.
Because you can’t make any sense of something that is constantly moving and shifting.
There are times I wonder if I am doing something horribly wrong by talking candidly about what it was like to grow up with her in the full grips of her addiction. I fear being viewed as seeking attention, pity, or validation. The honest truth is that there was a time in my life that I did just that. I fear that the people who loved her who are still in my life will look down on me for it for discussing it, or will flat out disbelieve me because they only knew her as the pieces of her they experienced. And god, do I envy them for that. I wish I had gotten to experience more of those pieces. Even as I write this, I am plagued with self-censorship. But in those moments I stop and remind myself of the fact that I know my motives. I know that although there will for sure be those who think that’s why I talk about it, this isn’t for them. They don’t matter. I’m not saying this for them, or for me. I am saying it for the people who write me heartfelt emails, comments, and messages telling me that my words brought them a moment of comfort for the pieces of them that hurt the most, the pieces that they have often spent years hiding and hating. And as far as the people who loved my mother who find it hard to hear these things about her, I emphasize, and I welcome them to bring me their happy memories of her. I treasure those stories, even if they break my heart a tiny bit.
So how do I grieve her and at the same time, grieve my non-existent childhood?
I don’t have a real answer for that. That’s why I’m writing this. This has been one of the most stop and go and delete and re-write things I have written in a long time because I don’t even know how to express something so confusing. But I’m writing it because I know that I can’t be the only one who finds that aftermath of the sharpest grief is this deep seated internal conflict.
If you are reading this, and you have lost a parent to addiction or suicide, I am sending you every ounce of love and strength I have. I want you to know that I know how hard it may have been for you to navigate life with the traits and defenses you developed, because I too developed those things. I want you to know that I too left a trail of failed and unhealthy relationships. I too self-medicated and drank way too much. I too blamed myself for not only the way my parent treated me, but for anything and everything that I was. I too hated myself.
But I want you to know something else.
IT. WASN’T. YOU.
There was nothing you could have done better. It was bigger than you, and them. It’s bigger than all of us.
I am, with every inch of my heart, so sorry for the things you lost, the things you missed, the things you needed and never got. I am so sorry you always came second to their alcohol, their drugs, or their mental illness. I’m so sorry for the broken heart that was handed off to you, without any choice in the matter.
The last thing I want to say is this..
It will never, ever be ok. Things like this are SO far from ok, it’s a ridiculous thing that anyone would ever offer that sentiment as a form of comfort. BUT….YOU can be ok in spite of it. You can become someone who breaks a cycle. You can make peace with the confusion and accept it as something that will always be there, but no longer rules you. You can have a life you long doubted possible if you can begin to heal yourself. I don’t say that just because it sounds nice, I say it because I did it. It’s real. You possess the ability to find it in yourself to understand that while some things are so innately and horribly dark there can be no finding good in them, BUT that you can create something light. And if the only thing you ever do with it is find the patience and strength to forgive yourself for all of the shitty behaviors you learned along the way, and then you CHANGE those behaviors, well…then you’ve done a whole fucking lot. Because hurt people hurt people, and sometimes sick people hurt people, and sometimes people are so hurt and so sick that they leave a giant impression of pain that radiates out in waves of destruction that go on for years and decades to come.
So when you refuse to be what the world tried to turn you into, you absolutely and unequivocally change the world.
In my book, that makes you a superhero.