Last week we observed “I Regret Everything Week” at TheGloss, where contributors shared their greatest regrets. In case you couldn’t get enough, here’s one more.
When I was a kid my family was upper-middle-class to a T. My mom was vibrant and enthusiastic. I spent my first ten years playing under a variegated maple behind our red-brick three story while my corporate Dad pulled in solid paychecks. It could have been any number of things that triggered our suburban bubble to pop, but pop it did, when I was about 13. I entered a phase of impenetrable adolescent self-involvement, and the scenery was not the same when I finally came up for air.
I realized I no longer knew my mother – the woman who used to put cinnamon on my apple slices was now a hollow-cheeked alcoholic. I found liquor all over our house, stashed with unpaid bills and reminders of the responsibilities she was shirking by being constantly drunk. My dad spent a lot of years trying to ignore his wife’s descent into the pits of addiction, succeeding for many of them. Then the economy tanked, his job headed straight to Mexico, and shut at home, he ignored her harder than ever.
I wasn’t a good person in that period, either. I’d like to heap the blame on my mom while preserving my own identity as an only child caught in the crossfire, but that wasn’t the case. I felt an electric jolt every time I found her stash, pleased that my prediction of her fucking up again was coming true. I liked yelling at her, I liked being right, and at a certain point I liked her addiction for bringing me those things. I was bitter, judgmental and worked hard to alienate almost everyone I knew.
I berated my mom daily for failing to live up to the expectations I had of her as my mom. I called her every name in the book, and she did the same to me – she was an angry drunk with impossibly high standards and low tolerance. Eventually I stopped talking, started working as much as time allowed, and got as many 90s in high school as I could in a desperate attempt at escape.
The summer I left the house I’d grown up in was the summer my mother went to rehab. After a particularly rough fight at the end of a particularly violent downward spiral, I called my mom’s mom to try to coerce her into treatment. It worked.
I didn’t ask about her when she left, and I never called. When she returned, the change was jarring. She looked just as she had when I was a kid – healthy and tanned, with flushed cheeks and a wide smile. She’d amassed an overwhelming air of calm and stability, being outside of the environment which had undone her. Conversely, I hadn’t changed a bit.
I barely acknowledged her in the three weeks I had left at home. I packed my teenage room the night before I was supposed to leave, threw my clothes in my dad’s Camry, and was gone. I didn’t talk to her for months after that – I didn’t even give my parents my phone number. I wore my distance from my family as a badge of honor, some twisted sign of strength. I did that for a long time.
Real regret is completely unshakeable. It’s a wound you let turn into a scar. Only the slow passage of time and deliberate concentration on anything but that which burned you in the first place. It’s been two years since my mom went to rehab, and in that time I’ve realized the full gravity of both of our actions. I did more than allow my mom to succumb to the ugliest of diseases – part of the time I pushed her into it. I let it define me, and her, and the parameters in which we could exist. I was the kid in the crossfire, until I started contributing to it.
Our story has a happy ending – my parents are 33 years married, and my mom is still sober. She has a job, volunteers at a retirement community, and goes to AA meetings. Has she slipped up? Of course. The temptation to succumb to your addiction is impossible to deny, as anyone with a substance problem can attest. The crux is not that her recovery has been perfect, it’s that it’s continuing. She bounces back every time, and I know she always will. I’m prouder of her than I can express.
We don’t really talk about what happened – our relationship feels too tentative to stress, the memory of that black pit too new to revisit. But, we get a little stronger with every e-mail and phone call. I’ve slowly let go of the myriad of little regrets – specific instances where I wish I’d acted differently, or acted at all. Now, I just have one, and it’s the most regrettable of them all: I let my hurt be the only thing that kept me warm.