More than anything, I want to help other people around me. Ever since I was young, I’ve always helped others before helping myself. I was under the impression from a young age that if you gave yourself self-love or self-care that you were selfish. This is unfortunately the conditioning that we receive at a very early stage in our lives, especially for young girls were we are primed for motherhood at four years old when we get our first doll. We’re taught to care for everyone else around us, no matter what the expense. As I helped my friends through their own parental struggles, I suppressed mine, and kept mine hidden from others. Only when my friends would come over to our home would they really see the tragic Shakespearean drama unfolding. From the outside, our house looked normal. We seemed like a normal family. We lived in a beautiful suburb in a small town close to the sandy shores Lake Michigan. I went to a public school that was rated more as a private school because of the high academic standards. I played some volleyball, and softball in school, but was drawn more towards the arts, creative writing, ironically drama. I had kids comment to me that our family was “rich”, and that they were actually jealous that they didn’t live in our house. They didn’t see, however, the hell that was unfolding inside of our Beaver Cleaver home.
The truth was that while I was busy helping the other kids in school with their own problems, I had to learn to live with my mother’s alcoholism. It started when I was about thirteen years old. That’s when I found out that I was an aunt. Everyone in our family knew that my brother had a child out of wedlock, but my parents thought it was best not to tell me until they thought that I could “handle” it. To this day I’m not sure why they thought that. My sweet little niece was nine months old before I finally got to meet her. I was so upset with my parents for lying to me. I knew months before they told me because of the not so subtle hints dropped around the house. It was also about this time that I noticed that my mom started to drink a lot more than usual. My parents always loved a good party and lived a pretty affluent lifestyle, but after my niece was born, everything shifted in our home. No longer did I look forward to going home after school. I would spend much of my time locked upstairs blaring my music, dancing, or writing poetry or short stories as a form of escapism from the hell that was below me in the living room. I lashed out with teenage rebellion and started to drink and smoke too, although that only turned into an enabling her behavior. My mom bought me my first pack of cigarettes at age sixteen, and let me drink as long as I was at home with her. I also learned very quickly, that you don’t talk about your problems with others because the first thing that people have a propensity to do, is to judge you. The only worse thing than being judged was to be pitied.
When I moved out for good at twenty-years old, I thought that things would be different. It was so much worse. The drunken phone calls at work, the weekends of her destroying herself, the cornucopias amounts of cigarettes and beer consumed to fill whatever void in her soul that needed to be healed. Yet, I never stopped loving her. I knew that whatever inner demons she had, she was working on it in the only way that she knew how to. I never blamed her for her shortcomings. Where she lacked in some areas, she excelled in others. Like every child of an alcoholic, I desperately sought my mother’s approval, and let her own self-destruction also consume me. I felt utterly responsible for her, and felt guilty if I didn’t pick up that phone call at work. Sometimes, I would just let her sob and speak incoherently while I typed up daily memos. Other times, I would softly yell at her, so my co-workers couldn’t listen, of what a mess she is. She never remembered our conversations the next day, so there were some nights were I said some pretty awful things to her.
I wanted so badly not be anything like my mother, but instead, I turned into the thing that I feared the most. I started going to parties to purposely get drunk. I was hoping that she would see how pathetic it was and learn something from my behavior. Instead, she tossed it up for her daughter just being a “party girl”. There’s actually three years of my life that are a complete blur. I would go to work in the morning, get off by eleven o’clock p.m., go get drunk with some friends, then go back to work the next day. I can’t tell you how many times that I was stupid enough to drive home drunk. I am so lucky that I never killed anyone or myself in those years. I was reckless, and had a wild abandonment, and I didn’t care. I just wanted her to see me. The truth was that she was so self-absorbed in her own narcissism that she never noticed what I did. As long as the appearance was there that we were a “normal” family, she didn’t really care too much about anyone else unless it was convenient for her. Neither of my parents paid that much attention to me. My mom was consumed with grief from her own past, and my dad worked eighty hours a week, leaving me a lot of times to my own devises. I slid by with C’s and D’s in school, and they rarely ever went to my parent teacher conferences unless I was about to fail a class, and only a handful of times attended school functions. I didn’t like myself starting at a young age. After being bullied for years, I thought for a brief moment to commit suicide at thirteen years old. Luckily it was only for a minute. For my own form of therapy I began to photograph, write poetry and short stories, and paint. The truth was, I had a lot of potential, but no one believed in me. I didn’t realize that I could’ve believed in myself, because no one ever taught me that before.
It’s no wonder then, that I developed General Anxiety Disorder and Depression when I was a child. My mother (having the stigma belief that if you had a mental illness that you were crazy) never thought once of how her drinking behavior would affect me in the long run into my adulthood. Never once stopped to think that maybe she had a mental illness. After seeing one of my paintings, she threatened to take me to a psychologist in a not-so-nice tone. As if I should be ashamed to seek help.
Almost two years ago I finally broke down to see a doctor because my anxiety was so bad that I had now developed IBS/ SIBO from the years of anxiety in my digestive system. My intestinal lining had started to eat away, causing leaky gut. One day I noticed fungal lesions breaking out all over my body. Then the panic attacks started coming more frequently and with more fever. I was desperate to get to the bottom of what was happening to me. I went to my naturopath with a list of symptoms, and for some reason that day I added anxiety and depression. After careful review of my chart she said, “You have General Anxiety Disorder”. She gave me some herbal supplements, and sent me to see another doctor who also diagnosed me with anxiety and depression. For the first time I was in my life I recommended that I see a therapist. I was terrified. But I took the leap of faith and had my first therapy appointment where she mentioned she suspected that I might have bipolar disorder. Immediately, I thought of my mother, and how my sister and I would comment about our mother’s own mental wellbeing. For years we speculated that she was bipolar. If I had it, chances were good that she did too.
The cruel irony of all of this is I had to move 5,000 miles away from my mother to start to heal our relationship. She continued to drink until three years ago; four months after my Dad passed away. She quit cold turkey. Overnight. When I told her that I was seeing a therapist, she told me that she went to a psychologist once when she too turned forty. She told me that when she left she was so upset with herself because the therapist made her feel inferior. She screamed at herself in the car as she was sobbing to pull herself together. That she was “stronger than that” then added, “That’s when I picked up my first case of beer”. I will never forget that conversation. I realized that she also didn’t have any self-love for herself, so how could she show love for others? If only she had stuck with therapy, and gone on medication, she might have not needed to feel a need to pick up that case of beer that day. That would have made me eight years old. I guess she and my dad hid it well from me until I was thirteen.
Today, speaking with my mother, you would never have thought she was an alcoholic for thirty years. As that scared child though, who never knew what to expect when she came home from school, I still am mad at her. A part of me might always be mad at her. I may not ever have the love that I so desperately craved as a child, but I have the love of my mother as an adult. I have for the most part come to understand the reasons why she drank, but never fully forgiving her.
I so wish that I had started therapy while I was in high school. Today, I sit here and wonder how much different my life would have been had I sought help. I lived in that hell alone, as a thirteen-year-old girl. I wonder if I would have had the courage to go off to college. If maybe, I would be a social worker, or psychologist like I so wanted to be growing up. I wonder if I would have reacted stronger and not have taken it personally when she would go on a tyrant and call me “stupid”. I try not to live my life in “what-if’s” and have little regret, but now as an adult I can see that maybe I could have been a little happier if the stigma of mental illness didn’t exist and we both got the help that we needed. I would have gotten the proper care, and would have saved myself mentally and physically. Now, as an adult, I realize that I have the opportunity to encourage, and support others going through similar situations. I want to break down that social stigma by whatever means that I have. That starts here. Being open, honest, raw and real about whom I am and my own story of how mental illness has affected me.
Sarah M.C. is an Adult Child of an Alcoholic/ Bipolar II Disorder/
General Anxiety Disorder. She has struggled with anxiety and
depression most of her life, but wasn’t diagnosed until near her
fortieth birthday. She is the Founder/ President of DBSA Aloha
Honolulu, a non-profit organization dedicated to raise awareness on
depression and bipolar disorder. She is also a blogger featured in
Your Tango and Psych Central, along with being a tea leaf/ tarot
reader, photographer and hobby artist. She and her husband of
eighteen years currently reside in Honolulu, Hawaii. When they aren’t
globe-trotting or working on their businesses, she can be found
sipping on some tea snuggled with her cat.
Sarah can be found on Twitter