Broken Things

This post is about my mother-in-law who died on Monday. It is published with my husband’s permission in hopes that is might speak to families who struggle to find a way through a loved one’s alcoholism. There are no right answers. These are simply thoughts and ideas I struggle with while respecting whatever choices give people peace.

Lying in a hospice bed, at last she seemed at peace drifting through opiate dreams, calmed by Ativan and Valium that now she could have without judgment. These drugs treated the pain and agitation that came with her acute illness and quenched her thirst for alcohol. 

For years, my mother-in-law Julie presented as the beautiful–great clothes, perfect haircut, fabulous cook, musically gifted, and intellectually curious–or the damned, riddled by trauma and secrets, in thrall to a powerful addiction, and yoked to powerful men to whom she gave too much of her own autonomy. In her final days, as I fed her mouthful after mouthful of a russet piled high with sour cream, she said she’d spent her life avoiding baked potatoes. Only as she died, could she allow herself the pleasure of a potato without tiptoeing to the toilet to throw up. 

Most of us defined her as an alcoholic, with a touch of bulimia, and depression or anxiety not otherwise specified (NOS, as the psychiatry manual puts it). Mastery over alcohol was the agreed upon key to improving her life. After being brought low by falls, grief for a long-term partner, and difficulties where she lived, at age 74 she went into long-term, high quality, substance abuse treatment for the first time. Upon release, she did well until the pandemic, which provided the perfect recipe for relapse as anxiety ran high and isolation even higher. The result led to repeated bursts of relapse, short-term treatment, and sobriety spiraling ever downward.  

We only have the tools we have, and in the realm of substance abuse, they are inadequate. The average number of times in treatment before sobriety sticks is most recently estimated at 5 plus on average**, skewing lower for those with less severe and long-standing problems and higher for those more deeply entrenched. Most people get treatment that is not nearly commensurate to their level of addiction – like getting aspirin for a tumor. Alcoholics Anonymous works for about 50% of people who try it – no better than a coin flip*. If they keep trying, the statistics improve. 

In 20 years, will we look back aghast at how little we knew and how blunt the treatment instruments were? I don’t claim to know a better way, but I hold deep suspicion with the prevailing ethos that says the only way for an alcoholic to recover is for everyone around them to abandon them for their bad behavior. Indeed, lack of support and a lack of a reason to get better is a prime cause of relapse. And regardless of the science, what kind of love is that? I love you but… but to have my company, my respect, my affection you must be fixed or at least demonstrate your efforts, efforts I can see and with which I agree. 

Of course, this analysis comes easier when someone is dying, when you know that no more teary, drunken phone calls will interrupt dinner with friends, that you won’t hear from an ER doc at midnight, and concerns about whether her finances will hold are gone. But I can’t help but wonder what the addicted person sees in the detached postures families cling to: You cannot be broken. Broken things, after all, are to be fixed or thrown away.

For years my mother-in-law promised me she would help me, only child that I am, when my parents declined, and I believed her. Yet when the time came, she was incapacitated, and I sifted through my mother’s closet alone. I did everything that summer – saw my mother safely to the other side, took care of my grieving father, got my children to camp, flew to clean up my mother-in-law’s vomit as she detoxed herself, tried, unsuccessfully, to get her to treatment, was at her bedside after she fell and broke her hip, then rang in the new year by helping her decorate her new apartment when she recovered from the hip fracture. When she finally entered long-term treatment when her housing was threatened, it was a relief for her to be safely in someone else’s charge; I had permission to abandon someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t be fixed. 

In death all things become new. And in her dying, my mother-in-law became new too. Over many years, she had told me sad stories of her life, things she wished she had done differently, mistakes, roads not taken, events she could not control but that scarred her. But she never talked about the drinking. Indeed, it was if it didn’t exist at all as a problem, as an event, in any capacity whatsoever, ignored if anyone else spoke openly about it. Yet now, she brought it up, making what seemed like new connections. She talked with a nurse about the year she spent caring for a sister with AIDS early in that epidemic, a brutal experience in which she was probably at her best, but after which she felt she was never the same. She seemed to be seeing a hidden architecture made up of each wound, including those that were self-inflicted, that scaffolded a reality too painful to face without a numbing agent. 

“Maybe it’s time to let yourself off the hook. You’ve been punishing yourself for so long,” I said to her, surprising myself as the words came out of my mouth. Her family had suffered so much because of her. Were those words fair to them, honoring their very real suffering? I don’t know. But in those moments I saw her alcoholism for what it was: a self-created prison, something that kept her locked out of loving relationships and meaningful activity, a constant way to remind herself that she was undeserving, an ongoing chastisement for all she thought she should’ve been but was not, a mechanism that deepened her self-loathing, providing constant proof that she was not disciplined enough, not strong enough, too broken to be worthy of others’ time or attention.  

Moments later a chaplain arrived, entering the red-hot waters of the conversation with a voice so sweet I wrongly thought she might melt. She could hear Julie’s self-recrimination, and guilt, as well as a desire she couldn’t quite give up to put blame on others. She spoke of the trap of perfectionism, the longing for absolution, the need for grace. As the chaplain began to pray for Julie’s peace–“when two or more are gathered…” — a chill swept up my arm. Julie, so frustrating, so full of possibility and disappointment, was broken, broken by life, and healed only in death. These were the facts, the realities, that we, who have tried to love her, have fought so hard against. She was never an either/or: broken-healed, victim-victimizer, addicted-sober. She was something in between, beautiful and damned, something worth keeping even if we didn’t know what to do with her, something not to be thrown away.  



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Copyright: 2022 Mimi V. Chapman

One comment

  1. This was hard to read. My father was broken in this way. Instead of asking him about his pain or trying to help, I ran. He taught me that…To run away when abused or frightened or ashamed. Like he ran to alcohol. Only now after he’s passed away so long ago have I stopped running long enough to talk to him. And I do. He was a nice man and even kind sometimes. That’s the father I try to remember. I talk to THAT guy often. The one I didn’t try to save. So this is hard…

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