Vail Valley Voices: Ask mom, It’s never too late
Vail, CO Colorado
Every so often, you hear people say things like “I’m too old to change” or “It’s too late for me.” If you ever hear that, tell them, “Poop!”
My mom recently turned 79, and for most of my life, she was a pretty severe alcoholic.
My parents divorced when I was 7, and from then on, she raised me and my sister on her own back in Chicago. My father moved to Florida, remarried and committed suicide when I was 11.
She was virtually a single mother who worked as a secretary. And in those days, that wasn’t much money, but she always managed to see that we never wanted for anything.
We were lucky because my grandmother lived a block and a half from our school. Mom would drop us at school in the morning, we’d go to Grandma’s for lunch, go back to school for the afternoon and then back to Grandma’s until Mom got off of work and came to pick us up. Once home, we always had a home-cooked meal and had dinner together every night.
We lived in a two-bedroom apartment, and my sister and I always had our own rooms. Mom slept on a sleeper sofa in the living room. It wasn’t always easy, but we were a family, and we always got through the hard times together.
Throughout the years, though, I rarely knew a time when Mom was not drunk at night. She was what they call a “functional drunk.” Functional drunks are very reliable and professional during the workday, but once they’re home, out comes the booze.
And with the booze came a distinct change in personality.
Mom was always very emotional. This is a lady who would cry watching a dog-food commercial when the puppy grows up. And when one adds alcohol to that temperament, it is near to unbearable. The solid, responsible woman everyone saw during the day became a maudlin, sloppy, volatile and often angry mess in the evening until she would finally pass out.
In later years, it was no better. Family get-togethers always started well and ended badly. I was afraid to bring friends home from college for fear of Mom embarrassing me. It put unbelievable stress on any relationship I would have.
When I tried to block her extreme behaviors out, I’d get angry phone calls at 3 a.m. accusing me of not loving her, followed by four or five hang-ups, and that was hard to take. But that is how we lived for decades.
Years later, I found out that my mother had attempted suicide a couple of times in my childhood and had also spent her share of time in psychiatric wards. Periods during which we had been told she was ill were actually spent receiving shock treatments after “nervous breakdowns.” It could be a pretty rocky existence.
But no matter how hard the demons were thrashing within her, there was never an instant in which my sister and I ever doubted how much we were loved. And that says a lot.
Anyway, fade out on my childhood, and fade in 18 years ago.
My mother was on her third marriage. After my father, she remarried twice and has now outlived all three of her husbands. Two of those deaths were from long, lingering illnesses. In her defense, it wasn’t the cushiest or easiest of lives.
She and her third husband lived in the western suburbs of Chicago. The drinking was as bad as it had ever been, and things came to a head on the eve of Mom’s birthday, which is April 8. After an argument with my stepdad, Mom decided to end it all and locked herself in the garage with the car running, and all hell ensued.
The next morning, my sister called me to discuss our options. It was our belief that the attempted suicide was half-hearted, a cry for attention. But it accomplished one thing Mom had not considered.
Because she had demonstrated that she posed a potential threat to herself, it gave us the legal grounds to have her committed.
We knew that we would be taking a terrible chance. It was possible she might never forgive us and it would destroy our relationships with her forever. But it also meant that she might finally get well, and that was worth the chance.
So that morning, on her birthday, we had her forcibly committed. I say forcibly not just as a reference to it being decreed legally. I say it literally, as well. She did not go gently into that good morning.
Now, anyone who knows my mother now knows only a big-hearted, sweet and wonderful woman. They would never believe the image of her that morning. It took duo teams of EMTs and police to strap her down and cart her away. The entire time, she was kicking, screaming, cursing, spitting and scratching. It was like Linda Blair had taken possession of my mother.
She was taken to an alcohol-treatment center, and we didn’t see her for several days. But we were asked to write her letters telling her how her alcoholism had affected our lives. Never one to mince words, I let loose. It was with love, but it held nothing back.
It took awhile for her to release the anger she felt toward us and embrace treatment, but that she did.
Once she left the treatment center, she became Little Miss AA. Over the years, she has helped countless others in their early and continuing struggles to beat their demons.
Back in Chicago as well as here, she has had an impact on more lives than most of us could ever dream of. She counsels and sponsors others, she has been a guest speaker telling her story, and she spends hours every week listening to whomever needs a caring, wise and loving ear.
Most surprising perhaps is that at 79, she runs the AA meetings for the female inmates at the county jail.
So, on April 8, we celebrated her birthday. On April 9, she received her 18-year coin from AA for that many years of sobriety. And on Mother’s Day, we were all reminded of how lucky we are to have such a wonderful mother and grandmother.
I could not be more proud of her. I have never in all my travels known a more purely good human being. Her heart is big, and she carries well the wisdom of age and the peace and fortitude that come from being a true survivor. She has a wonderful sense of humor and a bawdy side I relish. She has known pain, but she gives only joy. She is a true inspiration to all who know her.
Besides boasting, my purpose in writing this is to showcase an example for us all. It took her until she was 61 years old to figure out her life, but she did it and has never turned back.
It is indeed never too late to change.
So to those who are fighting their demons or who cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, I say that you only have to look hard to see that the light is always right there waiting for you to grasp it whether you know it or not.
Just ask Mom.
David Dillon lives in Eagle.