My mom was diagnosed with MS 10 years ago, around the same time my parents divorced and my childhood home in New Jersey was sold. MS is short for multiple sclerosis, in which myelin is damaged, nerve fiber conduction is faulty and nerve cell death occurs, resulting in impaired bodily functions, like numbness, trouble walking and cognitive abilities. The disease affects the mind, and for all I know, has been playing tricks on my mom from before I was born. Most people are diagnosed between their 20s and 40s, so it’s very possible my mom had this disease well before her diagnosis. Why so long to find? Because my mother’s also an alcoholic, and like MS, the disease ravages the mind and body alike.
It’s the chicken and the egg to me sometimes. Did my mom’s drinking ’cause or bring on MS? Or was she suffering so badly from MS, that drinking was her self-medication, not knowing there was something else going on, something treatable? In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter.
My mom kept her drinking a secret, like most alcoholics. I didn’t know she had a problem at all until after I brought home a small bottle of wine from a trip overseas as a gift and my dad had a troubling look on his face. Through their divorce, I learned a great many things about my mom, and in a way, it all seemed like a story. This wasn’t the mom I knew growing up. My mom drove me to gymnastics, to work at the library, to the mall so I could window shop with my friends, she cooked me dinners (spaghetti for the win) and taught me simple life lessons like being a good person, saying thank you and holding doors for others. This other mom, the one who drank away her problems, she didn’t seem real to me.
After my mom moved to Florida, I noticed subtle changes. Her gait was off and a walker was needed. The MS of course, I thought. And it might have been that, but something else was also at play. I started noticing empty wine bottles and beer cans, and having found out about her alcoholism, I decided to talk to her about my concerns. Well… I have never known someone in such great denial. Even to this day, my mom has never admitted to me she drinks or has drank.
With a beer cup in her hand, my mom growled “I don’t drink! Who told you that?”
I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but you know, there it is, right in your hand, I wanted to say.
After years of concern, we finally hired aides in the house, to make sure mom was taking her meds (which she wasn’t) and to curtail her drinking. But they could only do so much. Mom didn’t want to see a therapist or get any help. Part of me was pissed off but a larger part of me pitied her. My mom had lost so much- her independence to MS, her family (her mom, dad and sister had all passed), she lost a marriage, and with her kids away in college, she was an empty nester, losing that routine of motherhood. In a time of loss, I assume alcohol numbed her pain, filled a void and otherwise, just passed the time.
Problem is, alcohol continues the loss process. From what I’ve witnessed, you lose sense of self, sense of time and sense of humanity for other people. You care more about dulling your own pain than those around you. I think my mom was a functional alcoholic for most her life, able to numb the pain just enough but not completely lose sense of self. It wasn’t until her pain increased, physically from the MS and with life circumstances, that the alcohol intake skyrocketed.
It’s been nearly a year since my mom has drank, but the effects, early onset dementia and physical damage to the brain, cannot be undone. MS also causes cognitive difficulties- so at times, I do not know which is to blame. Again, does it matter? Maybe. With MS, it’s not my mom’s fault she is where she is. With alcohol, there is an underlying sense of anger, that they did it to themselves.
This past week, I visited my mom in her new Assisted Living home. She’s now taking her meds, eating well, is around other people and is no longer isolating herself from the world. A weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders, that burden of care and duty to her safety. But some other weight still lingers. The weight of forgiveness.
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