In Her Closet

walk-in+closetLast week, I prepared to enter my mother’s walk-in closet. Over the past several months, I’ve been going to her house—my childhood home—a couple of times a week, sifting through piles of papers, plastic containers and desk drawers. Discarding trivial things, such as my school bus form from seventh grade and dried out pens, is a snap. Figuring out what to keep is not.

When I was growing up, my mom kept her closet locked and alarmed—the kind that would alert the police if someone tripped it. She showed me regularly where she kept the key and how to disarm the alarm (there was a small hidden switch in a different closet), meant to protect her precious jewelry inside. There were shelves too, with old Lord & Taylor boxes overflowing with piles of papers—newspaper and magazine articles, old theater Playbills, etc.—and lucite boxes holding an abundance of photo envelopes stacked from front to back. On the highest shelf, there was a row of large round hat boxes, housing those wide-brimmed beauties that my mom sported only at special events, like springtime weddings (mine) and bar mitzvahs (my brother’s).

Born in France, my mother was the epitome of chic. A business executive by day, she dressed for work in a tailored skirt or slacks, with long strands of pearls strewn over a blouse or sweater. She favored dresses for evenings out, particularly those with a plunging neckline to highlight her décolleté. She rarely emerged from the house without her preferred fashion accessory, a silk scarf tied around her neck or the strap of her handbag.

Her closet still contains all of these things—not to mention dozens of Charles Jourdan shoes—and being inside those four walls stirs up childhood souvenirs of my lying on her bed, watching her primp and prepare for a Saturday night on the town with my dad. She’d come out of her closet, looking like a movie star, and make her way to her vanity table to put on her maquillage. There was always red lipstick. And perfume.

Life was in rapid motion for her then—busy with kids, husband, work, a home, a dog, and aging parents. Those IMG_2747hectic and happy days are long gone, and now in her late 70s, my mom suffers from acute anxiety and depression. My father’s death in 2006 voided her of vitality, leaving her lost and sad, and I can’t get her back. My mother has tried therapy and medication, but a different sort of French accessory—wine—became her choice for self-soothing. Eventually it became vodka.

When my father was sick in the hospital, my mother used to lie beside him in his hospital bed. He would talk to me and occasionally rest his eyes; hers were closed too because she was passed out and drunk. During that time, I went to their house and into her closet to move her jewelry out and into a bank safe. When my arm touched the wall, I heard a clank. I reached over to the side of the safe, a beige metal box bolted to the floor, and felt a round piece of glass. It was an empty bottle. I reached back again, further this time, and pulled out a half dozen more. She hid the wine bottles in the safety of her closet, where I imagine she escaped to take a swig or ten, and left the empties behind.

It’s been seven years since I found those bottles. My mom now lives in an assisted living facility just ten minutes away from her house. She no longer has access to alcohol and instead takes a daily cocktail of meds, yet she still suffers from anxiety and depression.

In my effort to clean out her house and ready it for the real estate market, I knew I’d have to spend time in that closet. Fearful of how I may feel in there, even with the comforting presence of my shaggy goldendoodle, I decided to bring a glass of wine along with me. I knew it was bad to drive there with open wine in my car, but I did it anyway, saving those few ounces of liquid courage it for the hours I’d need to sift through her things while enduring the memories they would trigger. I realized the irony—here I was bringing wine into the tiny room where I found my mother’s empty bottles, once replete with the substance in which I was now seeking solace. But I did it anyway.

Cleaning out my mother’s house has been both painful and eye opening. Her photos, keepsakes, and written words remind me of the amazing woman she once was, and highlight the glaring contrast between her then and now. It won’t be much longer until her closet is clean, her clothes donated, her photos digitized. But the next time I go, I’ll leave the wine behind. Because no amount of alcohol can strip away the memories, not hers or mine.

–Caren Osten Gerszberg is a co-editor of Drinking Diaries. You can read a selection of her work at www.carenosten.com

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Guest Post by Jody Lamb, Author of “Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool,” a Novel for Tweens About Friendship, Fitting In, Parental Alcoholism, and the Power of Hope

jody lambBy Jody Lamb

Jody Lamb is the author of Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool, a novel for tweens. Her experience in a family with alcoholics has made her a passionate advocate for children with alcoholic loved ones, a fan of life and a lady on a mission to change the world. By day, Jody is a corporate public relations manager. She earned a journalism degree from Michigan State University. Jody lives in metro Detroit in the beautiful Michigan mitten.

As a young girl, I thought my loved ones’ excessive, destructive drinking was a problem unique to our family. No one spoke of it, for it was a secret that once told, would surely shame us.

Finally, at 22, when my loved ones hit rock bottom in their struggles, I read everything I could find about alcoholism and its effects on families. When I discovered estimates that 10 to 25 percent of American kids live with at least one parent who abuses alcohol, I cried.

How can it remain such a family secret in the 21st century? I looked for contemporary, relatable books for children on the subject, particularly for tweens. I found few. No wonder the cycle continues, I thought. That bothered me.

I found so many posts by tweens and teens on forums about loved ones’ drinking. They were desperate for answers and facts about addiction. What I read kept me up at night.

At age 26, with a pasted-on smile, I crashed into the waiting arms of depression. It was a bona-fide, serious quarter-life crisis. I longed for a sense of purpose and satisfaction in my robotic days.

One weekend, I read my childhood diaries. I cried recalling the grand plans and dreams little-kid me had for grownup me. The only thing I could think to do to make myself feel better was to write for fun, like I did as a girl. I enrolled in a creative writing course at my local community college.

Out quickly came a short story about a 12-year-old girl’s plan to make seventh grade awesome that’s derailed as she copes with and helps her depressed, alcoholic mother in a tiny lakeside town.

I realized I was meant to write for kids with alcoholic loved ones. On the weekends and at night, I wrote like crazy and was a sponge to everything that would help me create a better story. Before long, I had a whole novel manuscript. It is the story I would have been moved by as a child. Writing it was cathartic for me. My relationship with my alcoholic loved ones dramatically improved.

Over next two and a half years, I wrote three more whole drafts.easter ann peters book cover

The novel was rejected 30 times by agents and editors. Then I met the founder of a small publishing company. She believed in the story and in me. Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool was released on November 6, 2012.

It’s the story of 12-year-old Easter Ann Peters who has a plan—Operation Cool—to make her seventh grade year awesome and erase years of being known only as a quiet, straight-A student who can’t think of a comeback to her bully. When the confident new girl, Wreni, becomes her long-needed best friend, Easter lets her personality shine. The coolest guy in school takes a sudden interest. But as tough times at school fade away, so does a happy life at home. Easter’s mother is drinking a lot, and Easter works double overtime to keep their secret in the tiny lakeside town. Operation Cool derails, fast, and Easter must discover a solution.

Here’s an excerpt from Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool:

At two thirty three a.m., my bedroom door creaks and opens halfway, sending a thick band of hallway light into my room.

I’m out of half-sleep land right away; I rub eyes so I can see in the light.

“Mom?” I whisper, even though I already know it’s her.

She takes a few steps forward, and from the way she moves—steady and gentle—I know she’s not drunk anymore.

Yoplait’s snoring stops and beside me, she flops her body over to confirm that it’s Mom and not some intruder like Drama Chihuahua or someone else not welcome here.

“Mmm hmm,” Mom says. It sounds like her. Nice Mom. The Mom I love.

I move my legs a bit so that there’s enough space for her to sit on my bed.

Mom runs her fingers over the spot and sits.

“What’s wrong, Mom?”

After about ten seconds, she says, “Nothing, sweetheart.” Though she tries to make it convincing, the words feel empty and untrue. “Just making sure you’re warm enough. Temps went down tonight.”

She pulls my comforter up over my shoulders.

“I’m fine,” I say as upbeat as I can. “But I haven’t been able to sleep real well lately.”

“Sometimes,” she says, looking away from me now. “It’s difficult to tell your body what to do. Sometimes you lose control.”

I have no idea what that means, so I don’t say anything.

“I’ll sit here until you fall asleep,” she says.

It’s just like when I was little.

So I turn on my side and face Yoplait, who’s already back to sleep. I can tell because her tail is wagging—just a little. That means she’s dreaming of yogurt cups and running Chihuahuas out of town.

Mom leans forward and draws on my back, just like she always did.

Hearts. Trees. Butterflies. Flowers. Ice cream. Everything happy drawn gently on my t-shirt.

And I sleep.”

Right now, my first young adult novel is in progress. I’m also currently writing non-fiction books for kids related to coping when loved ones are addicted to alcohol or other drugs. I hope to find a way to provide these books to young people for free.

If a kid ever says to me, “Hey, thanks for this,” well, those four words alone will be infinitely more meaningful to me than fifty years of success in the business world.

For readers with alcoholics in their lives, I hope my books remind them that they are not alone and inspire hope. For readers who do not have alcoholics in their lives, I hope they’ll gain a more solid understanding of what alcoholism is, how it affects others and sensitivity to what their classmates, teammates and neighbors may be coping with at home.

***

Keep in touch with Jody through FacebookTwitter, and her blog. Have a tween in your life or are you a tween at heart? Pick up a copy of Easter Ann Peters’ Operation Cool at Amazon or BN.com or in the Kindle store.

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The Book That Let Me Know I Was Not Alone

By Leah Odze Epstein

As the daughter of an alcoholic mother, I often wondered if there was anyone else out there in the world like me. None of my friends had alcoholic parents and I felt like a freak. I was the only girl not invited to a neighborhood friend’s birthday party because her mom worried that I came from a bad family. I knew this because my best friend tried to console me by telling me that the girl said it wasn’t her fault I wasn’t invited–it was her mother’s.

Eventually my mom got sober, went to Alcoholics Anonymous, and explained how she could never tell who else attended the meetings at the local church. It was a secret, but trust her, some of our neighbors were there. How would I ever find someone like me out in the real world when alcoholism was a big secret that everyone kept?

My solution was to read everything I could get my hands on, to see if I could find someone like me.  I devoured all the realistic fiction in the library–Freaky Friday, Harriet the Spy, From the Mixed Up Files, Bridge to Terabithia, The Brothers Lionheart. I loved that many of the adults and kids in these books were the opposite of  the sparkly, perky perfectly put-together TV people in shows like Father Knows Best and The Brady Bunch. Parents in books were inattentive, harsh, insensitive or otherwise flawed. Kids were complicated creatures whose problems were existential or monumental and couldn’t be solved in the literary equivalent of one episode.

I’m sure I read books with a drunk father or a town drunk (always a man) lurking in the background, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I first read Robin F. Brancato’s Something Left to Lose, a novel featuring the daughter of an alcoholic mother.

The book’s main character, Jane Ann, likes to play it safe, but she is drawn to the charismatic Rebbie, who has an alcoholic mother and a highly successful father who is never around.

Finally, here were girls just like me! Jane Ann’s mother disapproves of her daughter’s friendship with Rebbie, just like that neighborhood mom didn’t want her daughter to invite me to her birthday party. I, too, had a rebellious best friend who drew me into situations that thrilled and scared me.

A book doesn’t have to mirror your life exactly to change it. Unlike Rebbie, I never felt like I had nothing left to lose. My older sister had already taken that route.

I’d always pigeonholed myself into the role of the good, safe, responsible girl–the “Jane Ann”–but while reading Something Left to Lose, I found bits and pieces of myself in all the different characters: Rebbie, the confused rebel; Jane Ann, the artsy dreamer; and Lydia, the perfectionist peacekeeper.

Eighth grade, the year I read the book, marked the year I broke out of my shell. Previously, I had a habit of slumping down in my seat and shrugging my shoulders if anyone spoke to me. If the teacher called on me, I’d say, “Sorry,” before I spoke, and then when I answered the question, I’d turn bright red.

Something Left to Lose made me bolder, made me feel less ashamed because it gave me a model of a bad-ass girl who experienced the same thing as I did and instead of internalizing everything and shrinking inward, used her anger, disappointment and upset as fuel.

At the end of the book, Jane Ann’s family decides to move to another state, but she is forever changed by her friends.

She carries some of Rebbie’s boldness inside her. “How’s your mother?” she asks Rebbie. When Rebbie answers, “O.K.,” Jane Ann presses on. “Is she drinking?”

Brancato writes: “[Jane Ann] is surprised by how easily the question came out–no substitute word–just the question, pure and simple.”

Jane Ann dares to ask Rebbie about her mom’s drinking. It is no longer a secret.

As long as we continue to hide the dark parts of our lives and present a one-sided story to the outside world, there will be girls and boys like I was, aching to find characters that show them all the different ways of dealing with life’s actual problems.

Here are some additional books for daughters of alcoholic mothers:

My Mama’s Waltz: A Book For Daughters of Alcoholic Mothers (nonfiction)

A Door Near Here, by Heather Quarles (young adult fiction)

Once Was Lost by Sara Zarr (young adult fiction)

Teens Talk About Alcohol and Alcoholism (nonfiction)

I’d welcome any additional book suggestions. Was there a book that saved your life when you were a kid?

Leah Odze Epstein is the co-editor of Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up (Seal Press). Her essay in the book is about growing us as the daughter of an alcoholic.

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In Case You Didn’t Think That Women’s Drinking Is Loaded…A New Study Appoints Moms as God of Their Children’s Future Drinking

Mom–you might want to put down that glass of chardonnay! In case you didn’t already feel guilty enough about the damages you’re unwittingly inflicting on your kids–helicopter mom? Tiger mom? Cocktail mom? Slacker mom? Nature versus nurture?–along comes a new study from Demos, a think tank in England, which concludes that when it comes to their adult drinking lives, your kids can blame (or thank) their mom.

No, you might not think that your chardonnay is harming your child (after all, you’re the one drinking it), but as Jonathan Birdwell, head of Demos’ Citizens Programme, said to The Telegraph: “What we found really interesting was this delayed effect; the impact of what teenagers perceived about their mothers’ drinking habits doesn’t show an impact at the time, but decades later.”

Great. Thanks.

And in case you didn’t already think women’s drinking was loaded–according to this study, if you think your mom drank a lot, then you’ll eventually drink a lot (note the use of the word “think”). So what about dad? According to this research, he could have been a falling down drunk and it wouldn’t effect your adult drinking.

For the study, 18,000 people born in 1970 were asked about their drinking habits at the age of 16, and then again at 34. They were also asked if their parents drank never, sometimes, often or always.

It should come as no surprise that the drinking habits of 16-year-olds were largely influenced by their peers. But the 34-year-olds were a different story. The more they thought their mothers drank on the never, sometimes, often or always scale, the more they themselves drank as adults. In other words, according to The Telegraph, “with each step that mothers rose on the four-point scale, the chance that their adult children were drinking above the Government recommended limits rose 1.3 times.”

So why don’t dads’ drinking habits matter?

The researchers speculated that fathers are more likely to drink outside the home (in pubs–remember, the study was in England), while moms drink at home, in front of their ever-vigilant kids.

Also, the guys at the Demos think tank said that since men’s drinking is more culturally “acceptable,” it doesn’t imprint itself on their kids the way mom’s drinking does.

But here’s the problem I have with studies. The nuances are left behind. Let’s take a case study of a real person: me. If a researcher had asked me at 16, how often do you drink, I would have answered (truthfully): Never. To the question, how often does your mother drink, I would have answered: Never. At that point, she was a recovered alcoholic, so she abstained from drinking. Would my answer tell the whole story? No.

At age 34, the researcher would ask me again. How often do you drink? My answer would have been: Sometimes. You see, at that age, I was in the throes of child-rearing, and often too sleep-deprived to even want to indulge in a glass of wine. How often did your mother drink, the researchers would have asked me, and I would have said–it depends. When I was zero to 9, she drank always (as I said, she was an alcoholic). Starting when I was 9,  she drank never. If they asked me, at 16, how much my mother drank, I would have answered (correctly): Never.

The researchers would never have gotten the nuanced answers from me by asking these cut-and-dry questions.

At 16, I was an adamant non-drinker, in large part as a reaction to my wild-child older sister and my alcoholic mother. My peers had no influence on me, as this study suggests they do at age 16. They drank–I didn’t. I was immune to peer pressure, at that point, precisely because of the negative associations I had as a result of my mother’s drinking.

If they asked me at 34 how much I drank (sometimes), which I could apparently attribute to my mother’s drinking when I was 16 (Never), the researchers would miss out on all those years that came before and after. During college and into my twenties, I often binge drank (A result of my mother’s alcoholic influence?) But what about now, when I drink in moderation, and responsibly? Can they really discount the influence of my moderate-drinking father? I think not.

Next time you’re tempted to beat yourself up over the latest findings–Drinking is good! Drinking is bad! Mothers are God! Fathers don’t matter!–look to your own story instead, to the actual details of a real person’s life, which can’t be reduced to numbers and statistics.

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Why I Made (An Unwritten) Drinking Contract

Recently, Caren & I were interviewed by Paula Derrow for Self Magazine online. In the interview, Paula asked us the insightful question—How has  editing the book (Drinking Diaries: Women Serve Their Stories Straight Up) and doing the blog changed your own drinking habits?

As the daughter of a recovered alcoholic, I will always be vigilant when it comes to my own drinking—that’s just the way it is. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), I will never have the carefree attitude towards alcohol that some of my friends and acquaintances have—one where they feel comfortable sipping a glass of wine while they’re cooking dinner every night, and then maybe having another glass with dinner.

So here’s how I answered Paula’s question:

“I’ve learned that you have to create a conscious drinking life. In my head, I have a contract with myself when it comes to drinking. Because I’m the daughter of an alcoholic, I don’t feel comfortable drinking alone during the week, say, while I’m making dinner. I also don’t do hard liquor. But I love to have a glass of wine when I’m out with friends or have people over to dinner. I had to set those boundaries for myself.”

Caren, on the other hand, comes from a different background, so her (unwritten) contract is entirely different from mine (and has involved alcohol-free Mondays, which she wrote about for this blog).

None of this is written in stone, or is written down at all. It is subject to change, although it seems to work well for me, so why would I change it?

Something I’ve learned working on this blog and on the book is that everyone has to navigate their own relationship with alcohol–it’s personal. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

We’d love to hear from you, dear readers: Do you have a drinking contract, written or unwritten, spoken or unspoken? What is it, and why did you make one?

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