Addiction: a love story

My daughter was an alcoholic.

We might as well start there, because it’s the central point in this story, my family’s story. Writing is a way of thinking for me; I’ve been trying to write about this off and on for a while now. My first attempts consisted of the stuff you spew to get it out of your system. As time has passed, I hoped the skies would clear. 

My husband’s kids moved in with us as young teens, a few years apart: my son at 12, then my daughter at 13. 

At first they’re your stepchildren; you sort of see them as extensions of their dad—if you want the man, he comes with children. At first, not having had kids yet, I foolishly asked myself if they needed another mother. Though quickly you open up to their unique personalities, the fact is, they start out as part of the bargain. Even as you grow to love them, in part of your brain you know if you ever lost their dad, there’s no question you’d lose them too.

My son was an amiable child, a little shy, so good-hearted. Morphing into adolescence there was back-talk, but as it turned out, he was my training-wheels stepkid. My daughter came roaring in a few years later, marking her territory. She was fun, sweet, a bit lost and trying to hide it, with a sly, lovable laugh. She was the kid who elbows her way into the world and into your affection. 

But let’s be honest: 13-year-old girls are not designed to make you love them. They want your attention but not your boundaries. They want your love but tell you they hate you. They’re mercurial and needy and messy. Plus, it’s every adolescent’s job to push you. A stepchild will test you further, shoving you away until you prove you’re not going away.

Being a stepmom is a circuitous way to motherhood. It’s a test: can I see past the talk-back and the rumpled room and the running out and slamming the door, to the unsettled and lovable child inside? Frankly, it was sometimes uphill for me. But time went by, we learned each other, learned how to love each other.

And then I brought a baby into the world, with renewed appreciation for where the love comes from.

This roundabout love story gets complicated. She was a sensitive girl, starting ninth grade in a new town. She struggled with making friends, with self-esteem; she fell in with some kids who drank. There were ups and downs and a lot of counseling. Over time, we’d think the worst was over, then it wasn’t. More ups, more downs. Healthy living, jobs, an apartment, a boyfriend. Then sliding, drinking more, rehab. She got married, had a beautiful son. Then sliding, then more rehab.

My husband is the father every woman wants for her children. He was tender, playful, intensely committed and involved with all our kids. As our daughter spiraled down, her loving dad helped her up when she stumbled, until an AA leader told him he couldn’t keep doing that. I won’t detail how excruciating it was, for how many long years.

As time unwound, I careened from trying to understand and reaching out, to frustration, fear, wanting to give up. She’d fall off the wagon, then celebrate a year of sobriety. During these years we all lurched through parallel cycles of hope and despair. My husband never stopped hoping she could kick it. 

Neither did she. She died after moving into another sober support house. Trying to purge her system of alcohol caused an imbalance of the electrolytes that regulate the heart. Her beautiful, dear, loving and self-hating heart stopped working. 

Why am I sharing this painful history with you? It comes down to this. Alcoholism isn’t a disease someone suffers from alone. It infects the whole family; none of us are immune to the pain it inflicts. We’ve all learned more about addiction than we ever wanted to know (so many families have). After we lost her, it was a strange, mixed up time of grief and relief. My ache wasn’t only about love and loss, it was also guilt. A sense of failure, from here to the horizon. 

Is there any truth at all to the “older but wiser” adage? Someone said we suffer our way to wisdom; I still struggle to reconcile my failings and feelings about my role as a stepmom. If wisdom consists of perspective, nuanced understanding, reflection and compassion, after all this time, I confess to still sometimes feeling a little raw.

In talking and reading and writing, I aim to reframe my not-good-enough feeling as: I did my best. There are all kinds of love; there are many ways to show it. I cherish my kids and grandkids, and have a lot to give them. What more can one hope and strive for?

I don’t really expect to fully let it go, but it’s right to remember: If you do your best, you must try to forgive the rest. Perhaps my beautiful daughter (doesn’t this photo make your heart ache?) has forgiven me already.


© 2019 Susan Cummings. All rights reserved.

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