The Secret of Toxic Mom Cocktails

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Toxic moms and alcoholism often seem to go together. The challenge for adult daughters is attaining an adult perspective on how much drinking had to do with their mother’s past toxic behavior.

I’ve told this story before: One day my (genius) therapist asked me to describe my mother. What did my mother wear, do and say on a normal day at home?

My mother always dressed to the nines to leave the house. Always full make-up. Always intoxicating, heavy perfumes. I’ve said before, if she could wear furs, cashmere or suede T-straps dance shoes — she would. If she could wear them all at the same time — even better. But at home? There was her full length pink satin quilted bathrobe with a long belt tied in a bow — not in the middle — but always on the side where the hem met her hipbone. Very Audrey.

She had this robe for a very long time. It went from a prized garment to a house-cleaning rag. She wore it every day for eight or nine years, basically all through my teens. At the end it became her hair dying robe with a shawl of red dye riding her shoulders like a fox stole.

Her jewelry was very important. She never took off her bling-bling diamond wedding set as well as a Russian enameled cocktail ring and a huge pale green jade and diamond right hand stunner. On a boring Sunday night watching Ed Sullivan on television she wore blush and red lipstick. She spent nearly every sitting moment perfecting her Jordan almond nails. She moisturized her neck and arms like others breathe. She primped like a movie star. She smoked Virginia Slims holding the burning stick far from her face between puffs. She believed smoke gave you wrinkles, not smoking.

My therapist listened with a neutral smile on her face. Then she asked me the following question:

“Did your mother have anything in her hand?”

(This is why we GO to therapists. Why we pay THEM money.)

Me: “She usually had a little pale green glass tumbler, a little drink in her hand.”

Therapist: “A small glass?”

Me: “Yes, very small. Maybe as big as a small apple.”

Therapist: “And what was in it?”

Me: (I had to think.) “Usually a little while wine or vodka?”

My therapist just looked at me.

“She only drank a tiny bit. There was never more than two sips in that glass.”

Blink-blink.

Therapist: “Was that glass ever not in her hand?”

Me: Thinking.

Therapist: “Was it ever empty?”

Me: (Clap of thunder realization.) “My mother had a drinking problem.”

My mother had a drinking problem!

How gentle was my therapist to lead me along that familiar path that I could only see with child eyes? All of my memories of my mother were formed before I had any ability to discern if adults had problems like drinking or depression or other compulsions or bad impulses.

Not only did my mother drink — honey, she DRANK.

Not only did she drink every day, she drank until she was stewed and slurring. It was so common that it seemed normal to me. It was what I grew up with. When she slept during the day, I thought she was tired. When she didn’t wake up, I thought she was tired. She was tired, not hung over. A child doesn’t really know what a hangover is.

What I needed to learn was that so many of my childhood memories included only half the story. It’s not that I wasn’t smart. As an adult, a journalist, a chaplain I can spot folks with substance abuse issues at 100 yards. Those observations are not negative or positive; they are just observations that might inform my interaction. They can often trigger empathy and sympathy. As an adult, I won’t argue with a drunk. As an adult, I’ll let a drunk “explain” things to me but we won’t converse.

If you grew up with someone who had a drinking problem there are a lot of conversations and interactions that might benefit from an adult re-think. I know I’ve spent plenty of time wondering if things said in my home were sober or drunk messages.

Had I known or been told as a child that my mother had drinking issues, what difference would it have made? I did haunt libraries. I might have sought out information on how substance abuse affects families. A school counselor could have told me about Alateen or Al-Anon programs.

There’s a questionnaire at www.al-anon.alateen.org that might surprise you. The title is: “Did you grow up with a Problem Drinker?” I started laughing when I saw how many of the descriptions captured my experience. I’m listing a sampling of the bullets, not all.

You may have grown up with a problem drinker if:

  • You fail to recognize your own accomplishments.
  • You fear criticism.
  • You overextend yourself.
  • You constantly seek approval and affirmation.
  • You feel more alive in the midst of a crisis.
  • You care for others easily yet find it difficult to care for yourself.
  • You isolate yourself from other people.
  • You respond with fear to authority figures and angry people.
  • You often mistrust your own feelings and the feelings expressed by others.

How did you do? Did you discover something? Should you spent some time considering this topic and how it applies to your family? If it doesn’t apply to you and your mom, could it apply to your mom and her mom?

My hope for this post is that it illustrates that you can’t always figure out family history on your own. It’s important to discuss your memories with a trusted friend or therapist. I’ve always had a hard time opening up to others – – especially about my childhood. But I’ve found the more I seek to understand my life and enlist others to help me on that journey, the happier I am.

Until next Sunday, BEE HAPPY.

Rayne Wolfe’s dream is to write her first book Confessions of an Undutiful Daughter by the end of 2011. She completed her dream journey May of 2011 on 8WD after a year living her dream. You can find her at Toxic Mom Toolkit on Facebook.

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  • Heather Montgomery, CEO & serial entrepreneur

    Amazing realization Rayne… I can definitely say that alcohol wasn’t the issue in my toxic situation, but that is only one to check off the list.

    Lots to share – but I’ll need a cocktail (in a good way) :) Thanks for sharing as always – Heather

  • Laurie

    Oh goodness, I just remembered how much I hated this crossing guard at my oldest daughters elementary school. He was a stinky old man that screeched at you no matter how hard you tried to cross the street the way he wanted you to. My gut would knot up as we approached him every morning and Meg would squeeze my hand and her little mouth would go perfectly round. One day he wasn’t there. I mentioned it to my girl, Meg. She stopped and looked up at me and said ” I don’t know Mom, but I hope he’s in the hospital gettin’ his damn cranky taken out!” We both laughed really hard, and I realized how important it was to be a Mom who checks in and deflects shit, who helps her kids figure things out and not take everything so personally. Dr. phil says we all need a soft place to land. I love that. My husband is so sick of me qouting Phil, but sometimes Phil is so right on about kids and mothering, and really beyond that….I still need a soft place to land.
    Thought provoking stuff, good medicine for self inquiry.
    Carry on and keep calm, L

  • Heather and I were talking about your posts and I was wondering about your thoughts on other toxic influences on us as children. I didn’t have toxic parents, but I now realize by your posts that I had a toxic ballet coach. She was my teacher from when I was a little girl until I was 18 – and I got fed up and quit. She didn’t drink, but she was sure mean and spiteful and could say the cruelest things. I was always the dancer standing up to her – getting in her face. My mom wanted to pull me out, but the coach did create the best ballet dancers and I loved ballet. But I saw this woman 4 times a week – more during performances. Do you think someone like this can have the same or similar effect on us as a toxic mother can? Do healthy parents help balance it out? I’m curious what you think. Can a child be influenced by toxic other relationships?

    • Rayne

      I think adults have huge and lasting impressions on children. I can remember adults that I met for an hour who I can still hear their voices – good and bad. They can say something encouraging or discouraging. It all sinks in. If one person says awful things to you and two others say positive things (like our parents usually do) then I hope that the positive words outweigh the negative. When in doubt, I hope you remember the positive words.
      So much of this depends on how resilliant a child is, too.
      Teachers, coaches, trainers – – these people have unique challenges when interacting with children. I get it when football coaches are tough on high school seniors, but a ballet teacher and a little girl? I would hope that that a teacher would choose to instill a love of dance where they see no hope for creating a prima ballerina.
      My dad always used to say, when people are awful (rude, or rotten) just tell yourself
      maybe they’re not feeling well. Substance abuse, depression, money worries can turn
      otherwise kind adults into cruel adults. When people are awful I always hear my dad’s voice, saying, oh, forget it. They must not feel well. My dad wasn’t perfect but he always thought of the positive/negative impact of words. He was pretty considerate and careful around us when we were little. For that I am eternally grateful.

  • Remy G

    Well, that questionnaire was quite interesting. I”ll have to look more in to it. My mom didn’t have the walk-around tumbler, she did have wine with dinner tho. Pretty much every night. My grandpa had a brandy old fashioned at 4pm every day, you could set your watch to it. But do I think they had drinking issues? Not really. but maybe I need some more research. I have talked with a few therapists, but for other issues, so maybe another trip to the couch will be important!
    Rayne, thank you so much for being a part of this dream team!
    xox Rem

  • This story reminds me of the mother to my 3rd boyfriend. She would get home from work at 2:00 in the afternoon with a gallon bottle of wine that she would finish watching her soap and then Mike Douglas.

    Before dinner she would switch to the hard stuff and by 7:00pm she would be completely wasted, then she would start in on her sons and anyone around about all the things she hated about them. I had never seen anything like it. The boys would just get up and everyone would leave.

    At the time I couldn’t figure out why my relationship with her son was like it was, but in looking back I get it now.

    I am now experiencing something similar once again with a neighbor. It’s not fun. I’ve thought of having Veronica over and enlisting her help. I still think people don’t know how to really deal with it.

    Sometimes people are like this when they don’t eat right, or their hormones are all over the place. They don’t realize how mean they can be. I wish the medical field was more about catching these problems instead of prescribing so many drugs. I wonder how your mother might have benefited with help from a great doctor.

    Catherine

    • Rayne

      You know it’s funny, I don’t think I can remember my mother ever going to a doctor other than for cosmetic issues. (Moles removed, freckles reduced…) She really didn’t take great care of herself. Another red flag; another area to think about when we look back
      at our toxic moms’ lives. I love today’s comments. Lots to think about!

  • Kasey Abela

    Alcoholism is connected with low blood sugar condition in almost all of the cases, and with exhausted adrenal glands, too. This might be the physical basis of alcoholism, though in most of the cases alcoholism has an emotional factor, also, and needs both physical and emotional treatment, and even spiritual help, as the A.A. practice eminently proves. Members of A.A. are becoming more conscious of their low blood sugar condition, and their need for its treatment. Coffee drinking, sweets, and heavy smoking, generally “enjoyed” at A. A. meetings make abstinence more difficult for them and are bad substitutes for the even worse alcohol. A sweet binge can cause perfect hangover symptoms, because these are connected with hypoglycemia. (Blaine: Goodbye Allergies 67.) Alcoholics are much better helped by the proper diet prescribed for hypoglycemics and by additional vitamin and mineral supplements. (Williams: Alcoholism – the Nutritional Approach). If you ask heavy drinkers why they drink you might be surprised to find out that they think they are getting an energy bump, or it relaxes them, both signals of a blood sugar problem. There is an old saying in A.A. “When you have cravings, eat a sandwich.” You’d be surprised how well this works! Overreaction to alcohol with symptoms of drunkenness may be caused by low blood sugar condition even if only small amount of alcohol was consumed. Characteristic signs are: low temperature, sweating, rapid pulse, breath does not smell of liquor. Sleeping in this condition is very dangerous. Fast help is needed. As first aid give him to drink orange juice or another sweet drink. If he does not recover, or starts to pass out, call a physician who can administer intravenous glucose injection. (Weller: How to Live with Hypoglycemia 65.). Adrenal fatigue may be an intimate component of addiction too and adrenal support can greatly enhance the treatment protocol for alcoholism and many other types of addiction. Alcohol, carbohydrate and stimulant craving is often driven by the body’s desperate need for quick energy that may result from weak or fatigued adrenals. For example, alcohol is a naked carbohydrate in an extremely refined form (more refined than white sugar) that quickly finds it way into the cells, forcing them to generate energy at a rapid rate. However, this sets off a blood sugar roller coaster and uses up nutrients that are not replaced by the alcoholic beverage. Although the alcohol consumption may temporarily compensate for some of the effects of low adrenal function, it also requires the adrenals to respond by manufacturing and secreting hormones to regulate the energy production, balance blood sugar and maintain homeostasis. As a result, the extra demands placed on the adrenals may further fatigue them, resulting in continued craving for alcohol. Not trying to excuse behavior, just seek to help the world understand.

    • Rayne

      Thanks for sharing so much great information. Certainly ‘food for thought’! I know that proper nutrition is key to health and emotional balance. I’m hoping the information you provided today will help our readers in the future. Thanks for visiting 8womendream.com.

  • Laurie

    There’s some awesome organizations for people. I didn’t respond well to any of the AA meetings. Hanging out a lot with troubled people who had all kinds of abandonment issues, etc., quite depressed me. Therapy was so good for awhile. Then once full on awareness became part of my daily life, I moved on to other healing modalities. I love Dr. David Reynolds take on therapy. His process is based on a simple but difficult task. Do what needs to be done. That was eye opening for me when dealing with molest, divorce, family shit…..and sometimes life in general. It’s incredible what we can deal with and still come out right side up. One thing I can’t imagine is a lack of Motherly instinct…..but oh boy, I sure know it happens.
    Thanks for sharing your story Rayne
    Love, L

    • Rayne

      That’s really good information: do what needs to be done! I like that. So many really difficult life challenges can be conquered in baby steps. The hard part is facing things. Starting. But things DO fall into focus.

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