That Kind of Mother

Special challenges for mothers in recovery

At a recent social gathering, a telling conversation occurred. A few people were speaking about an acquaintance that was struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. The person in question happened to be a mother.
"What kind of mother doesn't put her kids first? She should have been thinking of them before she started getting out of control."
Clearly, these commenters were disgusted. How could a mom have let herself get to this point?

There is a special kind of stigma reserved for women who struggle with the disease of addiction; it is even worse for mothers. I have heard some version of this conversation many times. I was acutely aware of the judgment when I was a young girl. Already reeling from the news that my parents were divorcing, I couldn't help overhear the disdainful comments about my mother (whose crime was having a problem in the first place and now attending AA).

I vaguely remember, early on in my teen and young adult years, wanting to learn more about my mom's struggles. I had a sneaking suspicion that perhaps her focus on recovery was not only good for her, but for the rest of us as well. As any child does, I wanted to feel proud of her—and secretly I was. But I was also cognizant of the message I was getting about her unacceptable disease. Instead of talking or asking questions, I shut down.

This shut-down was caused by the comments and judgment from other people.
"Did you hear? Her mother is an alcoholic. What kind of mother is that?"
Well-meaning adults would look at me with pity, shaking their head. I lived in a small town and was well aware of the social stigma surrounding addiction. It seemed my mother's effort at recovery mattered little. What defined her was that she was a mother with a drinking problem who had hurt her family. At age thirteen, I felt ashamed and exposed.

Yes, addiction hurts everyone, but the social stigma that accompanies it does more damage to the sufferer and their family members than the disease itself. This is especially true for women.

The fact is that women experience more barriers to treatment than men. These roadblocks consist of economic issues, transportation issues, and family responsibilities. Women report more shame and embarrassment, take longer to seek help, and are particularly more susceptible to the stigma surrounding their disease.By extension, these realities cause more damage to family members, especially children. Because kids are developmentally egocentric, the logical conclusion becomes this: if it is so unheard of that a mother should have this problem, what does that say about me? What kind of kid am I?

Though my mother got sober years ago, the stigma has not faded. While there is stronger support for treatment services in the general public, there has been little reduction of the stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness.2

I have witnessed this in action. When I (proudly) tell people that my mother is in recovery for alcoholism, I rarely get more questions. Often people shake their head and make a comment about how difficult that must have been for the family while she was drinking. I feel anger when this happens, and an urge to keep talking, to explain to the listener that I am proud of her, not ashamed.

If she had suffered from a more 'acceptable' disease, the tone of the conversation would be much different. Even in recovery the stigma is still there. Many families struggle with illness and come out stronger; ours is no less resilient because of the kind of disease that my mother fought.

May is Women's Health Month. I would ask that we offer women struggling with addiction our compassion and understanding rather than scorn. Let's stop requiring mothers to be perfect and be a support when they need it the most. I would encourage people to understand that addiction is an illness that can be treated more frequently and effectively if only we would provide people who suffer from it with the same amount of empathy we afford to other diseases. I would implore anyone talking with family members to be mindful of the language they use; if it implies judgment, don't verbalize it. When talking about addiction and recovery, we can (and should) focus on the positives. The fact that people are even brave enough to ask for help is something to be celebrated.

May is also the month that my mother celebrates the anniversary of her sobriety. 32 years ago she made a commitment to do the difficult work of recovery from alcoholism, regardless of the stigma and the sacrifices that she had to make. I invite people to ask more questions about her (and our) recovery, instead of avoiding the topic. I would be glad to tell them about what a strong person she is, intelligent, introspective, creative and successful. She is an example of resilience in action.

I did not have a "perfect" mother...nor would I have wanted one. What I do have is the perfect mother for me.

Happy anniversary, Mom. I am proud to be your daughter.

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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