IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Found My Mother’s Body Three Days Dead From Alcohol-Induced Pancreatitis

As a child, I became convinced that I held the key to my mother’s well-being. Somehow, keeping her alive became my responsibility.
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Publish date:
October 27, 2015
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death, alcoholism, addiction, loss, grief

My mother was a literal genius, with an IQ of 145. My mother funneled that intelligence into interpersonal skills, excelling as a social worker, as people would flock to her, recognizing her empathy and understanding. My mother was an artist, from painting to interior design.

My mother also had an unfortunate tendency to hide bottles of vodka in the drawers under her bed. And in the laundry room behind the storage. And in the bathroom, in the bottom cabinet we never used. And in the shelves she knew I couldn’t reach. And, well, you get the picture.

My mother — the genius, the social worker, the artist — was also a severe alcoholic.

When it comes up, I tell people that my earliest memory is of my mother and I crying on the kitchen floor. I was five; she was (I realize retrospectively) drunk; she was shoving a paper with phone numbers written on it into my hands, telling me to call my uncle or my father, because she was going to die.

Way to set a precedent for the rest of my life, right?

But while I tell people this is my earliest memory, there’s a part that I alway leave out. Before the drunken kitchen sobbing, we had been at the park.

I don’t recall many details, and I remember it more as a feeling than as anything concrete, but I was walking through the local botanical gardens with her, through the neighboring parks, and just being in her company, happy, and alive.

This memory sums up the dichotomy that was my mother.

On the one hand, she was a vibrant presence — a big personality that was unequivocally bright and alive. On the other hand, she was very dark, haunted by demons I don’t think I’ll ever fully know the extent of.

I have never met anyone who hated being alive more than my mother. Her addiction cast a shadow over her entire world, and the worse it got, the harder it became for her to see a way out.

There were moments — sometimes several-month-long moments — of sobriety, where she would seem to brighten; where she would become creative again, and would come up with new ideas on what she wanted to do with her life, imagining the future. The higher she built herself up, however, the harder each fall down became.

As is typical with trauma, it’s much easier for me to recall the bad memories than the good ones. My childhood, starting from the first memory, was littered with similar instances.

My mother’s drinking was cyclical. She would start off sober, and then would gradually start drinking more and more, until it finally culminated into a breakdown, where she would cry into my hair and beg me to let her die.

I was assured more than once that the only reason she hadn’t just offed herself was because of me — she even had jagged scars on her wrists from years prior to my birth to prove it.

At the time, I took this to be an act of love on her part, but I have since learned that being someone’s sole purpose for living sucks. Not only that — it’s incredibly selfish.

As a child, I became convinced that I held the key to my mother’s well-being. Somehow, keeping her alive became my responsibility. (Talk about having a fucking complex.)

Just to clarify the obvious, (which wasn’t obvious to me at the time), but a child cannot keep a grown woman from self-destructing. But damnit, I tried.

My mother — without a very strong support system, and a hatred of the general idea of existing — had a hard time controlling her addiction. And if she couldn’t control it, there was no way I, just a child, could either.

So I started to develop other ways of having control. My anxiety and OCD, which I have dealt with now for years, initially started as a means to keep my mother from dying.

The compulsions manifested themselves as phrases and actions. (“If I say 'See you in the morning’ three times, and mom replies with ‘Yes’ each time, then she’ll live until tomorrow.”)

The obsessions were all-consuming, causing me to get up at night to check on her to see if she was still breathing, or to go through and smell every cup in the house for hints of alcohol multiple times.

I couldn’t even listen to my iPod on shuffle without falling into a pit of intrusive thought despair. (“If such-and-such song comes on next, it means mom is going to die.”)

The months preceding her actual death were some of the hardest I have ever had to endure.

I was 15, and my mother was going off the rails. Her drinking was no longer cyclical. She was low-key drunk pretty much constantly. She had chronic pain, and no insurance, so she couldn’t hold onto a job, and we were suffering financially.

At night, she would scream in her sleep — and I mean, she’d scream on the top of her lungs, as though someone were stabbing her. (Once I got used to it, I actually preferred it when she screamed, because it meant that she was still breathing.)

Near the very end, her legs swelled up like balloons, and she was yellow in the skin and eyes — later determined to be jaundice caused by liver cirrhosis and pancreatitis.

My concern about all this fell to deaf ears. My father, who had dealt with my mother’s alcoholism longer than I had, chalked it up to her usual rigamarole. In fact, that was pretty much everyone’s reaction. My mother had cried wolf too often, and I was dismissed.

(As she actually started dying, she never once told me. So many times before, she had cried into my hair, telling me she was going to die — and yet, when she actually did, I got no warning. This leads me to believe that all those other times were cries for help. By the end, she had given up on help, and just wanted to be gone.)

I knew my mother was dead before we found her.

My parents had joint custody, and when she failed to pick me up one Sunday morning, I knew.

My dad drove me to her house, and I wouldn’t go inside without him, because I knew.

She was — according to later autopsy reports — three days dead of alcohol-induced pancreatitis. She was in her room, but our home was small, and I could see her body from where I stood at the front door, lying in her bed, one leg bent, completely nude, and white as a sheet.

My dad called 911, but I knew it was pointless. Without even getting close enough to check for a pulse, I knew that the thing I had spent most of my life worrying about, and dreading, had happened, and I had just stumbled in on it like a bad dream.

They say exposure therapy is supposed to help anxiety, but this was a bit much.

The rest of that summer was spent in a mixture of denial and mourning. I tried to convince myself that I could overcome grief instantaneously, but of course that was the foolish wish of a 15-year-old who didn’t want to hurt anymore.

Seven years later, I’m still unpacking the ways I was impacted by my mother’s addiction, and subsequent death. I imagine I probably will be for some time to come.

To that same end, I can’t be sure what the takeaway from this story is supposed to be. I’m not big on moral lessons, and even if I were, I’m not sure there’s one here, except that maybe addiction has many faces. Or that sometimes people are actually asking for help when it seems like they’re pushing you away. Or maybe that, for the love of God, you shouldn’t put the entire weight of your existence on the shoulders of someone else — especially if that person is a child.

Then again, maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe this is just a story of something that happened to me, and these are the facts: I love(d) my mother. My mother was a brilliant person. My mother was a broken person. My mother, in a lot of ways, broke me.

But I don’t know what sort of grand conclusion that all culminates to. Probably nothing, maybe more, but I’ll leave it at this:

I miss her. And I think I always will.