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Sorrow for what will never be

This is how it felt for me when my mum lost herself into a world of addiction.

The person I should have trusted the most lied to me and about me constantly, in order to protect herself. The person that should have protected me but calls me ugly, stupid and weird. This is how it still feels for me when I have to speak to her and see the haze of narcotics unfocusing her eyes and slurring her words.

I first became aware my mum had a drug problem when I was 13. I remember it clearly as the year everything fell apart.

There were signs before of course but I was too young to know what they were saying. When I was 5 I found her slumped over the toilet, needle in arm, unable to open her eyes. I can still picture the way her hair fell over her face, the slump in her body, like she had given up. My dad called an ambulance. I thought she had tried to kill herself, I’m still not sure if she had. The locks on the bedroom door. The sleeping for days. The car crashes where she had fallen asleep at the wheel, most minor, one resulting in weeks in hospital. The fire she started when she forgot she was cooking bacon and I was woken up by a fireman. The underlying sense of confusion.

It wasn’t until I was 13 though when I really knew what was happening, when everything escalated and my world broke apart. By that point my parents had divorced. My Mum disappeared into a world of lies and my Dad disappeared into a world of sadness.

Lying seems to come naturally to her, so it is difficult to know where the truth fits in, I’m not sure she knows. What is reality and what is a part of her fiction. She says it started before I was born. She says it’s always happened. She says it’s not a problem. She says she knows what she is doing. She says she will get help. She says it has stopped. She says it’s not her fault.

I don’t know where she always got them from. The morphine given to my Grandad when he had cancer, which I found her surrounded by when I tried to wake her one morning. The hospital she worked at. From the prescription pad she stole from the doctor. Then the infinite availability of the internet. Always legal drugs in the sense that they had some technical Latin name. Something your doctor would prescribe, not the ones brought off the street.

Sometimes swallowing was enough but at the really dark stages injected: into her arms so bruises tattooed her sleeves. Then into her legs, where they caused large infected abscess’s that meant long spells in hospital where they were drained and left deep, empty pockets in her thighs, taking her ability to walk unaided. Then her feet, which left blood trickling through her toes.

Throughout my teenage years I was filled with an anger and confusion so intense it soaked into every thought, every dream. I couldn’t really be a friend to anyone, with the jealousy of their uncomplicated lives coursing through me.

I tried to tell people but could never sufficiently articulate something I didn’t understand myself. How could I make them understand I had to clean my mums urine out the carpet when she was so out of it she couldn’t control her legs or her bladder. Crawling along the floor to get to that box under her bed where her soul lived, the ubiquitous medication.

The blood on the walls, bed sheets, towels from where she had hit a vein.

That I was tired and couldn’t concentrate at school because I was up all night feeling helpless, wondering if she was going to wake up. Watching her chest to make sure that she wasn’t dead. That every time I turned the corner at the end of the road and our house came into view I was never sure if it was fear or want that there would be an ambulance or police car or social services. That the reason I worked multiple jobs was because I didn’t want to be at home. That the reason I seemed sad was because I thought about killing myself everyday to escape a situation I didn’t want to continue but couldn’t escape. That the reason I seemed angry was because I was afraid and I didn’t know what to do.

Worse than the physical signs was the mental torment. The lies so convincing that I began to doubt my sanity. The denials so voracious that she made herself sick. The anger so intense when I confronted her I had to lock myself in my bedroom while she pounded on the door. The sharp disappointment at the disbelief in other peoples eyes when you tried to tell them what was happening and they didn’t believe you because you were ‘just a kid’. The feeling of exceeding loneliness.

At least when you are alone you have yourself. I didn’t even feel like I had that. Was I wrong about what was happening? Was I really the problem like she said? If I confronted her she would get in her car and tell me that she was going to kill herself. I’d spend the next several hours reminding my lungs that they needed to draw in air, while she got drunk at a pub. She would return on wobbly legs and slink into her room, then pretend the next day that nothing had happened.

If I didn’t say anything I felt complicit in her destruction, I may have well as slid the needle into her arm myself.

The bubbling anxiety of who she would be when she came out her bedroom. The desperate and frantic women who would do anything to get the ravenous drug demon inside her to quieten down for a few moments. That would push through any obstacle getting in her way, including her own daughter. The spaced and withdrawn look of the recently dossed, tripping over her own feet, unable to maintain eye contact. Pupils so dilated they look like they might explode, but at least she would be calm then.

The weeping, self-pity of remorse that comes after the initial high. The furious clinging to any part of me, to any part of her that might forget what had just happened. The need to be validated over and over again. And rarely, very very rarely a glimpse of what it might be like to not be in this position.

The apprehension of when you would next find her blacked out. The inevitability when you do. The fear when you phone the ambulance. The relief when they tell you she is going to be ok. That she didn’t take too much. This time. The hope that she would complete her promise of getting help, of stopping. The anger when she doesn’t. The failure in yourself that you don’t know the magic combination of words to help her.

The anxiety of when the next time would be. The powerlessness that you don’t know the escape route. The recklessness you have with other peoples’ feelings as yours are so burned and swollen that you don’t know what it right. The desire to get love through any avenue, no matter the cost. The self-contempt when she tells you it’s your fault. The undirected resentment that life has to be this hard. The longing for the pain to be visible, because maybe then people would notice it.

The embarrassment of having to explain why your mother is passed out naked in the living room when you have invited a friend over. When you have to turn to friends parents for a bed for the night because she has kicked you out again, as you dared to talk to her about what was going on. Of being the only one in parents evening without a parent there. Of feeling like the fuck up that she is telling everyone you are.

The grief that comes after two decades of trying to get her help. The grief for the relationship that you would have had if drugs hadn’t been loved more than you. The regret that the years have drained all the emotion out of you so that there is nothing left for this person who should be the closet but is the furthest. No hate. No love. The ugly loathing that you’re not able to be more compassionate.

The shame that you have nothing left to give. That in order to protect yourself you’ve built a wall so high superhero’s couldn’t climb it. The stabbing hurt that when she phones sobbing you can’t make exceptions and let her in. The shame that you aren’t normal. That your mother doesn’t care enough about you to stop. The guilt that you have a mother who wastes her day in bed in oblivion, while friends have lost theirs and so desperately want them back.

Finally acceptance that this is not your situation to change. That you can’t control someone’s choices. All that you can do is offer the help. If someone doesn’t take it that’s not your fault. All you can do is make your choices.

Except that as much as I try…

Except that as much as I try to convince myself that I’m at a place of acceptance, something will always come along to stir the swampy pond of emotions I’m trying to keep as still as possible.

There has been a year or two lull where our relationship had been at a blissfully boring level. Conversations short and stilted but free from the sharp corners of old wounds. Then, as always happens, a phone call saying that mum had been taken into hospital with seizures and it wasn’t looking good. A few days went past where tests were ordered and panic started to creep in. My mother sounded distant, like talking to her behind a glass wall.

There was sadness in my body that grew each night and I felt this mix of relief that it might finally be over, and emptiness that it might finally be over and there was never a resolution. I didn’t want to do anything, did want that to be the last thing I did while she took her last breath. Of course, one again, my pity was misplaced. The nurses suspected withdrawal. My mother confirmed it after she had nowhere left to turn, with the qualification that it was a mistake. It wouldn’t happen again. It really wasn’t her fault this time. She begged the doctors for more drugs. Used tears. Used anger. Used threats.

And once again the cycle begins. Anger that I had let my guard down. Anger that the lies hurt as much as they always had. Then numb. Exhausted. Sorrow for what will never be. No matter how many times this happens, no matter how may floors I’ve scooped her off, no matter how many calls I’ve taken from the hospital, I always feel like this time will be different. Maybe, just maybe, there is hope.

Our relationships swings through this dichotomy, where she pulls away from me and I ache for her to love me. Then she desperately wants to be close to me and I pull away in distress. The embarrassment that the relationship of mother and daughter, the one that should be so natural, so unconditional, is one that hangs together with the faintest thread.

Now I have my own daughter and I want her to feel the love I didn’t. To never feel second best to a chemical. That oblivion isn’t a better choice than her company. That loving her makes life easier, not harder. That she is my tether to the reality, not an annoyance that stops me escaping it.

All drawings by Liana Finck, whose incredible new book Passing for Human you should order immediately!

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