the death of my abusive mother

By Dannielle Owens-Reid

A few weeks ago my mother died. 

She died of a lithium overdose and no one knows whether or not it was intentional. I feel completely uncomfortable around the rest of my family. I feel very isolated, like I’m not allowed to comment because I haven’t had a relationship with my mother for the past year.

My mother’s husband told me point-blank that I had to live with myself knowing I was the cause of her mental health issues. His words didn’t effect me that much because my mother has been ill since I was a child (long before he knew her) and they were the same words my mother said to me when she was alive. 

I know it’s not my fault. I know no one person can cause another person’s mental illness. I know that I did what I had to do to preserve myself, protect myself, free myself. 

It’s funny because all I did was say “I’m not going to respond to anything you send me unless it’s positive.” It was her choice to only reach out to me with the negative. I set a clear boundary, to no longer accept emotional abuse from her. I am proud of what I did and I wouldn’t take it back for anything in the world - including one more year of abuse (before she ultimately died). It would not bring me peace, it would not make me feel better. In fact, taking space from my mother is the only reason I was able to find any compassion for her. It wasn’t until August of this year that I finally felt like I truly appreciated the things she’d done for me. She taught me so much. She was strong, she stood up for herself. She followed her passions. She forced honesty out of me. A lot of my best qualities I now see were hers first, I’m forever grateful to her for those and equally grateful to the space that I took, giving me the opportunity to have this new perspective. 

I learned from her mistakes, too. The codependence that kept her in abusive relationships, the dependency on alcohol, the pathological lies, the unsafe driving, the ability to give up on herself at the drop of a hat. I see those creep up in myself and because I saw how they destroyed my mother, I work on them.

I don’t drink. I have become the most honest individual I know. I am the safest driver I know. There are times when I want to give up on myself, but always find a way not to. I was in a bout of depression and anxiety from which I never thought I would escape. But I did. I forced my way out of it. I believe in freedom from mental illness, I believe it takes honesty and a lot of hard work. Emphasis on the hard work. To stop myself, breathe, and interrupt my anxious spin outs – it takes a lot of fucking work. And the only reason I know to do that work is because I saw what it could do to a person if they didn’t know how. 

My mother and my (adoptive) dad (her third husband) separated when I was 17 years old because her drinking had gotten so out of hand. He begged her, saved her life, tried to help her, but she refused to do anything about it. They fought constantly and I watched the bff-single-mom that I grew up loving more than life turn into the kind of person that screams at a cashier for no reason at all. I, of course, never knew what to do in those situations. I’d spent my life learning that she was always right, always in charge, and when she was screaming it was time to get small. I still do that, I get small when people scream. I would love to be the person that stands tall and calmly asks someone to quiet their voice, and sometimes I can be that person, but inside I’m still just fucking terrified of what will happen next. Maybe it’s just a screaming fit, but maybe the scream is accompanied by a punch in the side of my arm that I’ll feel for weeks. Maybe the scream is accompanied by a full sobbing breakdown that I – as a six year old – have to figure out how to fix. 

When my parents separated, my mother had already totaled more than one car. She used to drive drunk and either get pulled over or run into a tree, a fence, a building. Once a man asked for a ride and when they reached his destination he showed her a knife and said “I could do whatever I want to you right now, but I’m not going to because I believe that you’ll never pick up a stranger off the street and drive while you’re drunk ever again.” It didn’t stop her, didn’t even pause her.

She called me downstairs on more than one occasion and begged me to give her a reason not to kill herself. Don’t think for one second I didn’t think of that the moment I found out she died. 

My mother’s immediate family wasn’t around very much during my teens and early 20s. My best friend Ryan would come to her house and force her to let me leave. He saved me from her on a number of occasions. My best friend Brynn would come get me at 2am when my mom locked me out. My family wasn’t around until they showed up, in August of 2007. When I was just 21 years old we tried to have an intervention and I did all of the talking. Everyone thought it was best coming from me because she loved me so much. Such a fucked up thing, now that I think about it. During the intervention she was scream-singing “Rehab” by Amy Winehouse and I still hate that song. I brought up the crushed wine boxes her husband and I had found hidden, more than once. I brought up the lies about her adoptive father, she made up some story about stealing a gun from my Nana’s closet and having to fight him off of her. My nana didn’t have a gun. She yelled and yelled until we all left. 

She didn’t speak to any of us for a few months. In late December called me to say she would go to therapy if I went with her. So I did. I drove my mother to therapy and sat in the room with her, watching while she lied to a professional. It was the day after New Year's hit and she promised she hadn’t a drink in days, not even on New Years Eve.  She was sick all the whole time, kept leaving the session to go to the bathroom because of nausea which she claimed was caused (along with her mood swings) by premenopause. When we were alone the therapist asked me if my mother was being honest. I said no. At this point in the conversation (it was the beginning) she had already told so many minuscule lies it was hard to keep up: “Well, she said she had one sister and one stepsister, but really she has two half-sisters and one stepsister” – it was the most blatant one I could remember and the easiest to correct. The therapist told me I should speak up when my mother was in the room, but I grew up knowing better than to tell my mother when she was lying. And the looks she gave me when I called her out were looks I’d seen before, looks I knew to be afraid of. The therapist said that she really wanted to help my mom, but could do nothing for her until she got her drinking under control. My mom said "no problem, what do I do," and the therapist gave us an address for a rehab center. 

I think at this point my mother had not anything to drink in maybe six to eight hours, twelve tops. I drove her to the rehab center and we sat in the waiting room. I remember being annoyed. My girlfriend was on her way to meet me so that we could drive up to Chicago together – I was supposed to move there the next day and I didn’t want to be doing this... All of a sudden I felt my mom slump over onto me. She was convulsing and foaming at the mouth. I’d never seen anything so terrifying. I just shouted for help and people rushed in. I moved a table out of the way as people pulled her onto the floor and started to do whatever you do in that situation. A woman with long red hair pulled me into a side room and asked me how I was. I think I just said “I don’t know...”  This was not the first time something traumatic happened and I didn’t know how I felt about it, and it would also not be the last time. She rubbed my arm and said it was really confusing and frightening. I told her I was supposed to move to Chicago the next day, but I obviously couldn’t do that now. She grabbed both of my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “Go to Chicago. If you put your life on hold every time something like this happens, it will continue to happen forever. Trust me, my dad was the same way and look at me. I’m here. I dedicated my life to it. Promise me you’ll go.” And I did. I promised her, and I went. 

That woman saved my life. 

And she was right. Things with my mother never got better. They got much, much worse and I’m realizing for the first time that I can’t believe how alone I was in dealing with it. She was rushed to the hospital after that collapse and my family wasn’t there, her husband wasn’t there. I was there and, as fast as he could make it, my dad was there, too. 

She claimed sobriety in 2008 and I got a tattoo. On her (4th) wedding day I found out she’d been lying to me. I knew, not because she told me, but because I walked in on her drinking. We would talk and sometimes she would be so unbelievably mean to me that I didn’t know what to say, so I would just apologize. She would plan trips to visit me and  never show up. Or she would come to visit and leave early. When I was studying abroad in Spain she came to stay with me and kept me locked in a hotel room for a week. She wasn’t drinking, but became unbearably ill (I now realize she was probably going through withdrawals) and since she didn’t feel well enough to leave the room I wasn’t allowed to go either. I pleaded with her to let me walk down the street, I’d been in this city for two months and I knew it well, but even that wasn’t allowed. 

She was in and out of rehab four times, claimed sobriety more than once and I only ever found out she was lying by a stroke of luck. She and a friend came to stay at my apartment in Brooklyn in 2011. Her friend let it slip that she was not only drinking, but was the life of the party at every party in their hometown. My gf and I went out of town for the weekend and came home to two broken glasses and three missing plates, which we found shards of later. My mom never responded to my questions about them, but texted my gf to tell her I was planning to break up with her. The woman who told me about my mom’s drinking was soon banished from their small town for stealing from my mom. My mom fired at least four different people for stealing (that I can think of off the top of my head).

My family started to get more involved around 2012 when my Aunt’s father was on his deathbed. My mother had a sudden vested interest in him. She’d stopped speaking to him because of the stories she’d made up, but he was dying and she seemed to really care. Both of my mom’s sisters dropped everything for him, visited him 9 hours away every week, moved him into their houses, did everything. My mother visited once in a while and would send a text to the entire family to let us know she’d done so. She locked herself in his hospital room and got him to sign a new Will that included her moreso than her sisters. My Aunt Missy called me and begged me to try and talk to her. She was in tears because my mother had just told her she was a worthless mom and we all knew it, and that I, in particular, always thought she was shitty. That obviously wasn’t true, which is why Missy was talking to me. I did call my mom, I asked her to stop being involved. She called me Paris Hilton and said I didn’t understand because I always got what I wanted. 

All along the way I’d try to talk myself into feeling okay with what was going on. I couldn’t control it and she wasn’t hitting me so it wasn’t that bad.  

When I hear people use that excuse now it absolutely slaughters me. I want to scream ‘GET OUT GET OUT PLEASE SAVE YOURSELF’ but a lot of the time people don’t understand my point of view. It almost doesn’t matter what my mom has said or done, because she’s my mom. It means even less to people now that my mom is gone. I really should have stuck it out because if I put up with the abuse for just one or two more years, she would have died peacefully knowing I loved her. 

But I didn’t. I didn’t love her anymore because she abused me and the Stockholm syndrome wore off.  I saw a light at the end of the tunnel and I ran like hell until I finally felt the sun on my cold, pasty skin. I still received purely hateful messages from her, but since I was in the sun now, I could see that the rest of the world was there and it had much more to offer.  I could read a text message about what a worthless, shameful daughter I was and how I’d caused her bipolar downspin, and instead, the message felt like she was saying, “You made the right decision, I am not well, save yourself.” And I did, I had to over and over and over. 

When I learned of my mother’s death, I felt a lot of things. I felt sad for my nana, her mother that tried so hard, wanted to save her, and took a beating for no reason other than being a kind woman with a huge heart. I felt sad for my mother’s husband, who believed every word she said and truly thought she would be better one day. I felt afraid because I knew he hated me. On my birthday two years ago he texted me to say I was despicable and should be ashamed of who I am. I was afraid because the last interaction I’d had with my aunt Missy was her texting me to say I’d be the reason my mother committed suicide. I also felt things I’d never even thought about. Like the fact that I’m the only one in my family who fucks with meditation, yoga, awareness, eating well - what if I could have saved my mother? I know people who have curbed mental and physical illness just by the food they eat. What if that was the answer and I was the only person around her who knew it? Of course, I’d only gotten meditation to become routine about 10 days before my mother died, so I didn’t have the time to feel the benefits myself, much less save her. And anyway, you can’t save someone. People are only capable of saving themselves. 

My mother died of an overdose. She was in the middle of a seizure and never came out of it. I think I’m the only person in my family that knows what that looks like and the image has been haunting me for weeks now. 

I am not angry or resentful, and I have no regrets. I’m grateful I removed the abusive people from my life and if any one of them died I would be able to stand by my decisions with strength and gratitude. Which is exactly how I feel about my mother. I also feel a huge sense of relief for her and the rest of my family. She was struggling with some of the toughest, most painful, dreadful shit and I’m so happy she’s finally free. I’m so happy for my family to be free from the pain of loving someone who is living the way my mother lived. 

I’m sure this was hard for some people to read, it was hard to live. But what I takeaway from my mother’s life is not negative, it’s not hard. 

I had a relationship with my mother that no one else will ever know or understand. When she was a single mom, working three jobs and finishing college, she was coming home to me. She had me when she was 19 years old - we grew up together. I learned to harmonize by singing along with her to Shania Twain’s “Who’s Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” and because of her I understand the remarkable importance of Tracey Chapman. She was so funny and she thought I was so funny, which is now a requirement in all of my relationships. She was a great singer, painter, photographer, she loved to travel and she cared about etiquette. My mom was really fucking cool. 

I think the stress and anxiety around interacting with her made it so that I didn’t even realize the coolest woman I knew disappeared when I was 14 years old. I’d forgotten about how we grew up and how much I loved her. For the first time in 16 years, I miss my mom. I am so grateful for that feeling.

Grieving for an addict / bi-polar / emotionally abusive mother is confusing and hard. I don’t feel like I knew the woman who died, but I knew the real her better than anyone in this world. I’ve been crying often and out of nowhere, I usually don’t know why. I roller coaster between furious, guilty, numb, relieved, grateful, nostalgic and generally overwhelmed. Furious because I’ve spent a large part of my adult life being afraid she would show up at my house with a gun, and I can’t believe I had to feel that way about my own mother. Guilty because maybe I could have done something. Numb because I just started recognizing my own emotions two years ago, and this is all new to me. Relieved because I don’t have to be afraid of her anymore. Grateful and Nostalgic because I can finally access the positive memories of her. And generally overwhelmed because I don’t expect a single person to understand, but I wish more than anything on earth that someone did. 

If you recognize yourself in me, please know you are not alone, your emotional health matters, and sometimes the best decisions we can make for ourselves are the hardest. If you recognize yourself in my mother, please know you are not alone, your emotional health matters, and sometimes the best decisions we can make for ourselves are the hardest. 

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A few things that have helped me:

Ways To Support Someone Who Has Lost An Addicted Loved One
- This was a good read for myself, too. It helped me verbalize some of the things I needed from friends / family. 

What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Lost An Addicted Loved One
- This was really nice to read. It validated some of the feelings I was having about the way people responded to me. I don’t like to dictate what people can and can’t say, but some of it didn’t feel right and it was nice to read this and know that what I was feeling was legit.

Mourning My Abuser: BUST 
- This really resonated with me.

Paradigm Malibu & San Francisco
- Adolescent treatment center. I’ve worked with the youth here and it’s a treatment center different from any center I’ve seen. They focus on empowering each individual through self-love and compassion. My mother was in and out of rehab four times. I’ve always felt like these centers were bullshit and it was hard for me to accept work here, but I did. And I was so moved, I was so grateful, I am so hopeful that more and more centers like this become easily accessible. I believe in looking beyond yourself, I believe in asking for help, I also believe you must be actively participating in your search for help. Research, ask around, call a few places, seek the kind of guidance that could change your life for the better.