When my daughter became a widow, I was shocked. I never expected to have so much in common with her so quickly. I lost my husband very unexpectedly after 23 years of marriage. She lost her husband after 3 months. Both passed in the same ward of the same hospital, ten years apart.
I started learning how much my daughter had hidden from me in the past decade, starting with her first husband and bleeding into her second. Her first husband was a high school sweetheart, and they’d been together for 13 years when he walked out. They started out young and in love, even if he was a little critical and never-wrong. They went off to college in another town together when he graduated a year after her, and she has never returned home. They lived together after two years of college, and she supported him for a year after she’d graduated and he went on to grad school. She had a terrible head for finance, and instead of helping her learn, as would any other dedicated partner, he simply walled “his” off from “hers.” He put off marriage for just over a decade, but finally caved when she grew adamant. By this time, I was not his biggest fan or anywhere close. He was lazy and critical and cold towards her. She bent over backwards, then tucked and rolled when she fell over, and went right back to bending over backwards.
She was extremely jealous of any female presence in his life, which I didn’t really understand, because while he was a nice, funny guy to others, he wasn’t what I would consider “a catch.” I guess he just wasn’t “a catch” towards her. Seeing as how she’d inherited her jealous streak from me, I tried to counsel moderation. She didn’t listen. I wouldn’t have either while her dad was alive. I trusted him. I also thought he was pretty fantastic and just knew other women would figure that out and felt my jealousy would be justified. It never was.
I moved back to my home state just before they moved back here. Both found jobs quickly, his in marketing and hers in online writing. She bonded with one of his female coworkers over shared distaste and distrust of another of his women coworkers. Her new-found friend was newly married and fairly shy, and my daughter would consider it her duty to draw her out to a more comfortable social presence. One December, my daughter and her husband drove up for Christmas dinner. She stayed the weekend; he went home the same day to work. When she got back that Sunday, he told her he was leaving. They were divorced in a matter of months, and he was in a public relationship with her “friend” from his work not long after. It’s anyone’s guess when the private relationship began. I now know her jealousy had some foundation.
It devastated her. He was her life. I was beyond furious on one hand at how he had hurt her. On the other hand, I was dancing a jig. She never would have left him…never. She needed to leave him years before, or he should have had the balls to admit he was no longer in love with her and at least forgone the wedding. He verbally corrected her constantly in public. He belittled her constantly in private. He ridiculed her writing, her job, her appearance. I was starting to see that my confident, outgoing high-schooler was now a self-conscious, anxiety-ridden woman with no self-esteem, a gigantic need for confirmation, and a habit for drinking.
As she could not live without male affection in her life, she immediately turned to a high school boyfriend who had moved back into town sometime in the year before all this happened. She had been head over heels for him; he had used her and then verbally put her down as he broke up with her to move on to his grand life in New York. He was off to be a great director; he was sure she would remain a small-town nobody for the rest of her life. I detested him then. I was no fonder of him now. They both knew it. It didn’t matter; she needed him to rebuild her heart and he needed her to rebuild his life. He came back just as pompous as ever, but with a cemented status as an active alcoholic. While he did appear to love her in his own way, it included a healthy dose of manipulation. She moved him into her house in January, regardless. I tried to bite my lip, and we grew even further apart.
She let me know they were getting married in September. I went, with my youngest and my sister. I was determined to be happy for her. They did seem so happy that day. She looked better than I had seen her in quite some time. Him, not so much. They came for Thanksgiving but didn’t stay long. I was surprised they even came.
Then came the late night phone call from the hospital in December. When I got up to the room, I was again in shock. He was in a coma. She was dirty and either drunk or hungover and babbling constantly. She was hearing music, at first, and then voices talking, and then voices saying terrible things to her. She had a seizure in his room and was taken to the ER. As she was coming back around, I had to explain why she was there, why her husband wasn’t, and why the hospital staff wouldn’t just let her get up and leave. She became very angry and said some very cruel things to me. Even the nurse was shocked and tried to steer her anger towards the hospital. I knew she had no idea what she was saying, and only got angry when she just wouldn’t shut up. I was still trying to process who this person was that used to be my daughter; the words coming out of her mouth were incidental.
He passed away the second morning, and I took her home. I actually bought her vodka on the way, as she said she really needed something to help her sleep. I wasn’t sure, but didn’t want to cause a scene in Walgreen’s. I’ll never forget her reasoning that “the 750 is a better deal here so let’s get that one, that way I won’t have to leave the house too soon.” Alarm bells that were already shrilling in my head just grew louder. The mental and physical exhaustion just wanted to get her home so I could get some sleep.
Her house was a mess. The dog was a mess. She casually explained that she didn’t get around to cleaning because her husband wanted her to spend time with him when she was home, not working around the house. As we sat on the couch while she medicated herself towards sleep, the rest of the news started filtering out. He hadn’t worked for months. He’d been on house arrest for awhile. The car was wrecked. The key fob was broken. The staff at the ER knew them personally. It wasn’t unusual for the ambulance to be at their place to take him in. She drank right along with him so he wouldn’t have quite so much to drink. He’d gotten her to start smoking cigarettes a few months before. She didn’t have hot water. The boiler had stopped working that winter. The kitchen faucet was broken so no dishes were done. There were mice running anywhere they wanted. She hadn’t bathed in a while because she wasn’t sure if she’d be able to stay upright that long. I could barely stand to sit on the couch.
I called my youngest then, due to exhaustion and shock, and some well-hidden idea that maybe I should be better functioning before I opened my mouth about any of this. She stayed the night, and I’ll never forgive myself for putting my youngest in that situation. It was a nightmare of a night, with my oldest drinking steadily, falling steadily, and eventually trying to push her sister out the door at 3:00 am because “You’re not my sister; you’re wearing her face but you’re not my sister. Who are you?”
My animosity towards her late husband grew daily. I felt nothing but sympathy for his family, especially his parents. I tried to feel both sympathy and empathy for my daughter, but I could feel nothing but relief, personally, that he was out of her life. The funeral was a place for her friends to reveal more and more of the hole in which she was literally drowning. I gave my phone number to her neighbor in case something happened. It was used several times. I met her coworkers, which was helpful when I talked her into going into rehab about a month later. She had stopped drinking only because I got to her house at 10:30 one night in January. By the time she was admitted to the hospital the next day around 12:30 pm, she still blew over the legal limit on the breathalyzer. She was sweating vodka out of her pores. She stayed a week, came home to a house I had cleaned from top to bottom, and stayed sober for almost ten days. Then she took right back up from where she’d left, and lost her job.
As I said before, she never had a head for finances. Her dad and I supported her financially throughout college, and I continued after his death, partially due to guilt at being the parent that lived. Also, I just couldn’t let her drown if I could help it. We, then I, paid for college. I paid the odd bill here and there. I paid the house rent now and then. After her divorce, I paid the rent more often. After her husband’s death, I paid it even more. I bought her a car right after her dad died, then the uninsured car they wrecked, and at least had the presence of mind to take it back within days of his death. I started getting tickets from around the area where she worked, as she had never transferred the plates from the first car to the second, over a year prior. Both her sister and I had been getting calls from collection agencies for years. They had quieted for awhile, but they returned with a vengeance.
I started attending Al-Anon meetings, sporadically.
I knew this problem was bigger than me, and I knew I couldn’t fix it for her or even help her fix it because she simply refused to listen to me. I learned one of the worst parts of having children was when you were still the mother but no longer the parent. I tried to accept that this was completely out of my hands, and I tried to practice detachment. I failed spectacularly.
Oh, I cut off the flow of money. I refused to buy cigarettes or alcohol, but I would get groceries when she needed them. I’d given the car back to her at one point, when she’d gotten a new job, but that was faltering, she had not insured it or gotten it registered in her name, so I took it back. I’d opened a joint checking account with her so she could have her paycheck deposited, and ended up closing that when the balance went negative. I stopped paying her rent. We communicated almost exclusively via FB messenger or text. This way, I couldn’t hear if she was drunk or hungover, and she couldn’t hear my anger or disappointment. I tried not to talk to her when she was drunk; she was rambling and irrational and mean. I would try to stay calm, but one barb too many would send me into overdrive. It was better not to talk at all. I sunk into a great depression that summer, and spent days on the couch in the same pajamas, only moving when I absolutely had to. I was sure I would be burying my daughter before the year was out. While my heart screamed I could never survive that, my head knew I would have no choice. I’d already done it once before.
Even though I was really bad at it, the little detachment I could manage did help. While I did pull out of my depression, my adrenaline spiked every time my phone dinged. She would cycle between sobriety and binge drinking. We rarely saw each other. She started dating almost as soon as she had hot water again, once I’d paid the bill. We had lunch on her birthday, where she detailed the three guys she was currently dating. Two were exactly her type: fun-loving and out for themselves, due to no fault of their own other than youth. The third was way too nice to be someone she would usually have chosen. I’m not sure how they actually started, but there was some part of her that felt pulled toward him. I silently, or maybe not so silently, cheered for him from the sidelines. The more time they spent together, the more I heard from her.
My husband had been a recovered alcoholic for 13 years. It saved our marriage. He started drinking “a little” right before his death. While it would eventually have become a big problem again (I have no doubt), I’m glad he had the chance to try it again before he passed. I would never begrudge him that. Had he lived, I would have drawn the line in the sand one more time. I lived with active alcoholism for eight years before his drying out. I knew the signs and the excuses. I knew the sleight of hand maneuvers and the subterfuge and the outright lies. I also knew the absolute transformation that occurred when he stopped drinking.
I have discussed all this with my daughter over and over. She insisted she wasn’t an alcoholic, and she couldn’t stand the thought of never, ever having another drink. She didn’t see the oxymoron-status of those statements. She got better at controlling it, but I knew it was a cycle, at best, until she admitted there was a problem. She has yet to admit it.
They are now exclusive, and I am starting to see glimpses of my daughter reappear. By last winter, they were moving in together, and she was finally getting out of the house from hell. By this summer, they were buying a house and planning for their future.
I am happy for her; I am happy for her chance at her own happiness. I am thrilled she has found someone who loves her and respects her and supports her for who she is. She is learning that she deserves that kind of man. There are doors opening for her right and left. She has choices upon choices upon choices.
I also know that not all doors lead to good things. Bad things know how to hide themselves very well until the last possible second, slamming their own door shut with you on the wrong side.
I also know those doors don’t usually lock. If you can’t get that one open, you can always look for another one. There are any number of entrances and exits along the paths of our life, but you have to be willing to look. While I am really hoping that my daughter understands the power of looking, I am well aware of the doors along my own path. I have opened many right ones, and many wrong ones. I think I have more right ones opened at this point, but who knows?
My lesson appears to be, at this moment, learning that if I’m watching too closely which doors my daughter is contemplating, I run the risk of slamming my own hand in the wrong door. On the other hand, if I completely ignore which door my daughter is wandering through, it can be exhausting to be pulling frantically on that wrong door that’s trying to shut her in. I’m still going to be pulling on it, until it either shuts completely or I can drag her through it backwards.
As a mother, I know I’ll never stop watching. As a parent, I’d prefer to take the damn doors off their hinges and be done with it.