How I Lost my Mom to Addiction—and Found the Road to Recovery
Some of my earliest memories are of my mom hanging out with her friends, drinking wine and getting tipsy. When I was little, it didn’t bother me—I just thought she and the other moms were having fun. Even better, we kids could pretty much get away with whatever we wanted as long as it didn’t disrupt happy hour.
My parents divorced when I was eight and my dad passed away shortly after. This meant that my mom was a single parent to me and my two sisters, Grace and Jeanne.
As the years progressed, my mom’s drinking became more frequent; her behavior much more erratic and far less jovial. We found ourselves tiptoeing around the house, trying not to step on the landmines of her moods.
When she was out of control, which was more often as the years went by, we learned to avoid her and fend for ourselves. I found myself endlessly trying to protect my sisters from the chaos, but I was just a kid. Most of the time it felt like I was the parent to my mom and not the other way around.
It was exhausting.
I had alcohol for the first time when I was 16.
I was going on a flight alone—and I was terrified of flying. “I can’t do it,” I told my mom, trembling as we got ready to leave for the airport. “I’m too scared.”
“It’s okay, honey,” she said. “Drink this. It’ll take the edge off.”
She produced a plastic cup with rose-colored wine in it, letting me sip in the back of the minivan all the way to the airport curb. It worked; I felt calm, warm and relaxed.
From that day until I was in my 40s, I never got on a plane again without drinking.
My childhood was punctuated by a lot more than a fear of flying—I was constantly overwhelmed by nervousness, panic and anxiety (feelings later diagnosed as PTSD and depression). All I wanted to do was flee. In my teens, I threw myself into relationships of convenience, hoping the next guy would provide me with an escape—another pattern that followed me well into adulthood.
My mom’s behavior got even more unpredictable as I grew into a young woman. She became increasingly verbally and emotionally abusive, which I thought meant there was something deeply wrong with me. Over time, I got a nervous stomach whenever I saw my mom pouring herself a glass of wine. I didn’t understand alcohol abuse the way I do now. I just knew that somehow the drinking made what was already bad so much worse.
I told myself I would never behave like my mom.
No matter what happened, I would stay far, far away from alcohol. What was so great about it anyway?
At first, I kept my promise.
I didn’t drink in high school. Once I was in college, I learned to drink recreationally and enjoyed my fair share of pub crawls and spring break parties. The social drinking continued into my 20s, where I continued to have the girls’ nights out, work happy hours and occasional glasses of wine with dinners—but all within healthy limits.
I wasn’t living with my mom anymore, but her chaos still followed me.
I spent the better part of my adult life paying off fraudulent charges she accrued under my identity. Well into my 30s, she would call at all hours of the night, threatening to harm herself or leaving unintelligible voice messages. Her episodes got so destructive that both my sisters and I went through various bouts of cutting her out of our lives for years at a time.
In 2004, I gave birth to my son, Jack. Two years later, I moved from Los Angeles to Kansas City to follow my then-husband’s job and create a fresh start for our new family.
As much as I wanted this move to be a fairy tale, it quickly became a nightmare. Our marriage expired before the tags on my California plates. In no time, we were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce and I was a single parent raising a son in the middle of the country with no support system.
Alcohol became my stress reliever.
I was no longer drinking to be social, I was doing it because I needed it: to relax, to calm my anxiety, to relieve the stress of everything that was my life.
There were times I questioned myself.
I’d wonder if I was drinking too much, but then I’d look around at other moms and everyone else seemed to be doing it, too. Even at baby showers, kids’ parties and soccer tournaments, moms were drinking wine by the bottle.
I guess by then we’d all bought into the lie Sex and the City had sold on TV: if you were a glamorous, independent woman who had her life together, you needed your glass as much as you needed your Gucci.
At first, I was just having a glass of wine at night to level out at the end of the day. Then one became three and three became four. Before too long, I was depending on it daily—to function, to numb, to sleep—all the while trying to keep it out of my son’s sight.
It was exhausting.
I was completely shocked to see myself repeating my mom’s same destructive lifestyle, despite all efforts to the
contrary. I embraced meditation, journaling and other healthy habits to turn things around—but I couldn’t bring myself to embrace sobriety.
“I can’t stop drinking,” I blurted to my partner one day.
I hadn’t planned on saying it, but there it was. I had already tried treatment for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts over the years, but none of it had been a long-term solution. Only when I went to intensive outpatient treatment did I start to heal from past trauma I’d never recognized or faced.
The ironic part was that around the same time, my mom was cutting back on drinking as well— though for more serious reasons.
In 2016, after months in critical care from a near-fatal blood infection, she recovered—only to be diagnosed with colon cancer. She was cancer-free in 2017, but by 2019 it was back and more aggressive than before. She was in and out of the hospital constantly, and on so many medications that it had become impossible for her to drink—her doctors told her that doing so would be tantamount to suicide.
As an unexpected, yet welcome side effect, all of her unhealthy behaviors had seemingly disappeared overnight.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Jacq,” my sister Grace told me on a phone call one night. She was working and living in LA near my mom, so she was seeing things first‐ hand. “Mom is a different person. She’s like the mom we always wanted.”
I was hopeful but guarded.
After all, I’d been through every emotion imaginable with my mom, from love and sympathy to hatred and resentment and back again. I was hesitant to open up to her again, but I had to. Just as my sister told me, Mom sounded calm, lucid and loving on the phone. Not just once, but every time I spoke to her.
Grace was right. She was the mom I’d always wanted.
On the strength of our conversations, I flew out to LA to visit her in 2020. I hadn’t remained fully alcohol-free in the years since I began my sobriety journey, despite going a year or more each time. I couldn’t pinpoint why I would fall back into old habits—I just knew that the “pink cloud” eventually dissipated and I was left with myself again. And maybe that was the real problem to be faced.
Now that my mom was sober, albeit medically necessary, I thought that this may be my chance. I wanted to finally create some peace with her so I could forgive and heal.
Maybe that was the missing piece.
When I arrived in California, my mom had just gone through another surgery and was bedridden. She’d also broken her wrist a day earlier in a bad fall. This woman can’t catch a break, I thought. One morning over coffee, I told her I wanted to talk to her.
I was so nervous I was nearly shaking, but I managed to open up about the pain of my childhood, how drinking had contributed and how I wanted to be transparent. I braced myself for defensiveness, victimhood or an emotional explosion, but none of that happened.
She just listened.
“You’re right,” she said quietly. “I was horrible to you.” Wait, I thought, you already know that? I wasn’t prepared for her to speak so honestly about her own childhood, hidden pain and how she’d been drinking her whole life to self-medicate. I didn’t even know that term was in her vocabulary.
She told me she’d had extremely low self-esteem since childhood and how failed relationships and single parent‐hood led to habitually abusing alcohol.
Ouch. That sounded way too familiar.
“I never really did the things I wanted to do,” she said sadly. “I was always sabotaging myself.” I’d always heard that alcoholism was cyclical, but I’d never understood what that meant. Because I grew up in chaos, I told myself I would never make the same mistakes—but I know now that’s not true.
In many cases, it’s almost impossible not to.
My mom and I are very different people “on paper”—I’m very Type A. I color within the lines almost to a fault. She was an art student, living life as a true free spirit. Growing up, I thought she was crazy or deranged and that we were so different.
I had no idea that beneath the drinking, we were so alike.
Witnessing my mother admit to the destruction of her addiction was nothing short of surreal. I always thought she would leave this earth without validating my pain and I’d be left with a gaping hole I didn’t know how to fill. But I see the truth now: how addiction snuck up on my mother the same way it snuck up on me. Her transformation gave me perspective and hope. I knew I could keep pushing to live a sober life.
She’s proof that it’s never too late.
I no longer want to punish my mother for the past; she’s punished herself enough. All that matters to us now is that we enjoy the time we have left together…and to share the story—our story—of the pain of addiction and the healing of recovery.
Written by Jacq Maren