WARNING: DISTURBING STORY AHEAD
It was June 10, 2018, and Rick, my mom’s boyfriend, called me at about 8am on a Sunday morning. He couldn’t get ahold of my mom. I said keep trying and call me back if you still can’t reach her. I was planning on going to the gym for a class at 830am. I tried calling my mom, too, and it went to voicemail. While I was at the gym, Rick called again and said he still couldn’t get ahold of her. I had a key to her house, so Rick and I agreed to meet there and check on things.
I knew immediately something was severely wrong. I think I knew my mother was dead. It wasn’t only that I couldn’t get ahold of her, it wasn’t rare that my mother didn’t hear her phone ring, my mother and I have a connection that happens between mothers and daughters.
I drove to my grandma’s/mom’s house and Rick had already arrived. I unlocked the door and we walked in to see a pile of blood on the living room floor. As we walked through the living room and into the kitchen, there were more piles of blood. Then we saw the bathroom was covered in blood.
What goes on in the mind during times like these? I can truly say I have no idea what was going through my mind. How was I reacting? I was not crying. I’m not even sure I was shocked, or maybe so shocked I wasn't shocked. I also kinda knew it was coming.
Rick and I kept moving through the house and walked into my mom’s bedroom and there she was, lying in prone position. I felt for a pulse, there was none. She was cold. Her eyes were hazy and half open. Her skin was pale. She was wearing her nightgown. I immediately started CPR, just in case, and Rick called 911. I don’t know how long it took the paramedics to arrive, but during this time, I continued CPR. There were fluids coming up from my mother’s lungs and I heard the cracking of her ribs from my compressions. I exhaled directly into her mouth, it was like trying to blow into a clogged pipe.
When the paramedics arrived, they took over and confirmed after a minute she was dead and had been for a day.
After death was confirmed, the police needed to file a report. The coroner needed to do her exam and determine whether the death was accidental or a crime. The coroner determined the cause of my mother’s sudden death was eruption of the veins in her esophagus, which caused a hemorrhage, and the piles of blood were vomit from this hemorrhage. Eventually she just bled to death. I’ve heard that bleeding to death is a peaceful way to die, and I hope this is true.
Esophageal varices, or enlargement of the veins of the esophagus, are caused by high pressure in the main vein that leads to the liver, called portal hypertension. When the portal vein is overloaded, the blood goes to the veins in the esophagus. If enough pressure builds, these veins burst and most victims die from a massive hemorrhage. Esophageal varices bursting are a common cause of death from alcoholism. It’s something the police and paramedics see all the time. About 88,000 people die of alcoholism in the USA per year.
The coroner and police interrogated me regarding my mother’s drinking, and I felt a little guilty telling the truth that yes, she suffered from severe alcoholism. I was my mother’s next of kin, her power of attorney, and the executor of her will. What I told the coroner went on her death certificate, and now it is Washington State history that my mother, the best mother a daughter could ever wish for, died at 69 of alcoholism. She was supposed to live a long time, her mother died at 101 and her father died at 95. My mother never smoked a cigarette or did a drug in her life, she kept her body in shape (until the severe alcoholism kicked in) and was never obese. I remember her Jane Fonda workouts from the 80s. She even had the outfit.
My mother was not an alcoholic when I was a child. In fact, one would rarely see her drink. When people who’d lost touch with my mother learned of her cause of death, there was great surprise. My mom was a great mom, the original helicopter mom despite having somewhat daredevil children. I got in trouble for doing dangerous stuff all the time.
My grandmother had died at age 101, deaf and blind, 5 months prior to my mother’s death. During my grandmother’s death, she was in the hospital for about 5 days, my mother was so drunk she could not walk. She could not come to the hospital. When I went to her house, I found mugs of vodka and red wine hiding in window sills. My mother smelled like a dive bar, minus the cigarettes. I confronted my mother about her drunkenness, for the millionth time, and she slurred “your grandmother is dying, we can discuss this later”. OK. I discussed the problem with family members, we all brainstormed solutions, all while my grandmother was dying. It can wait, there are more pressing issues right now, we all said.
Why didn't/couldn't I do more? This is a question I asked myself profusely right after my mother’s death, and it’s a question I still ask myself to this day.
After my Grandmother’s death, in January, my cousins and I went over to my mom’s house to clean out my grandmother’s stuff. This process is very painful, yet necessary, and we wanted to take the pressure off my mom. When we showed up to my mom’s house, she was so drunk she couldn’t unlock the door. She thought the curtain was the door knob and kept trying to turn the curtain. I finally used my key to open the door and found her with only a shirt on and diarrhea running down her leg. She was plastered. It was at this moment I sat her down and firmly told her she needs help. She could barely talk. I considered hospitalization, but just didn’t have confidence that would do more good than harm. Her vitals were normal.
I’d had the alcoholism conversation with my mother many times before, but this was a stronger version. She needed to go to rehab. She needed to get sober. If she didn’t, she was going to die. Rick was agreeable, and for about 2 weeks Rick and I took turns staying with my mom, or my mom stayed with us. She stopped drinking, and acted like it was a piece of cake. “I don’t even want it” she said. I ran blood work, liver values were normal and she didn’t have low B Vitamins. It seemed she was in recovery. She went to a primary care physician, and ultrasound was normal.
My mother started executing my grandmother’s will, met with lawyers, went shopping, and when I saw her I didn’t smell alcohol nor did she seem drunk. It took a while, but I found a rehab for her in Idaho, a place for older women, but she insisted it was unnecessary. I said OK, and to this day, I feel I should have been more stern. I could never force her, but I could have pressed the issue more.
The first sign of things going awry again was in April, 3 months after the January incident. I stopped by my mom’s house at about 10am, I can’t remember why, but I smelled the tiniest whiff of alcohol. I checked her recycling bin and saw 2 bottles of that nasty cheap wine she drank. She told me it was Rick’s, and I texted Rick to confirm that he was drinking wine at her house, and he said yes, he was drinking wine. Perhaps I had nothing to worry about, but that smell worried me. It wasn’t as strong as prior to the January incident, it was just the smallest tinge. I should have paid more attention.
My mother and I continued to see each other weekly or so in April and May, and I was happy to find she did not smell like alcohol and seemed sober. We had a great Mother’s Day brunch. I thought all was OK. It was close to my 40th birthday, and I was planning a cruise to Alaska. She drove Adam and me to the ferry and we left without incident.
Just 2 weeks prior to her death, when I returned from Alaska, she came to pick us up at the ferry at 830am completely plastered. I insisted on driving and Adam found a full, unopened, bottle of vodka under the driver’s seat (he was sitting in the back). He stole it. Then, as we were leaving her house, she was stumbling around in her car looking for her bottle. Sometimes I feel a little guilty about this, because I know she got right back in her car plastered and drove to the store to buy another bottle. Stealing it would not stop her from drinking. I look back at this day and ask myself - why didn’t I stay? Why didn’t I intervene?
I consulted family, friends, etc. about solutions and we were all brainstorming ideas to help my mom get sober. We were all very worried. I asked my mom to reconsider rehab. She still refused. She had sober friends, in fact, her best friend didn’t drink any alcohol. Rick stopped having his beers and wine in her presence.
My mother’s alcoholism tarnished our relationship for about a decade. I felt like the parent and she the child. I checked her garbage, fridge, recycling bin, cabinets, attic, and all the other possible hiding places she could keep bottles. I lectured her endlessly about alcohol. I whiffed her every time I saw her. She always told me she hadn’t been and was not drinking.
In the last months of her life, she became very good at hiding things. Other than the 2 bottles in April, I never found any bottles, she must have had something figured out. In fact, after her death, I cleaned out her entire house and never found evidence of alcohol. But, of course, she was drinking; otherwise, she wouldn’t be dead. There was a 1/2 drunk glass of wine at the scene of her death. I wonder if she threw empty bottles in the lake, something the real mom I knew never would have done.
My mother hadn’t spoken to my brother in over a year because of his disgust over her alcoholism. I was sorry that Adam never met my mom, because she was drunk from the moment I met Adam.
I wonder why I’m telling this story or if this writing will always be something I keep private. I have many clients who are dealing with alcoholics/addicts who are at the same loss I was. What do we do? How do we avoid enabling or being codependent? No one can be forced into rehab, the most they’ll do is hold you for 72 hours because you’re a “danger to yourself”. What is the answer? The problem isn’t unique to my mother, and since her death, alcoholism and drug addiction has only become even more widespread.
I know one truth - in order to achieve sobriety, one must want to be sober, but becoming sober is hard. There are many walls to push through, much like running a marathon or climbing a mountain.
I do not drink alcohol and have not had any in over 3.5 years. I don’t consider myself a recovering alcoholic, I just don’t drink and it’s because of my mother. I cannot imagine ever having a drink again. It’s not hard for me, and I think it’s because I’m scared of alcohol in the same way someone is afraid of the water or of heights. I do love the book This Naked Mind by Annie Grace for recovery. I discovered it after my sobriety.
I certainly have a history of drinking alcohol, and I probably drank more than most people. I loved to tie one on with friends, family, and strangers. I’ve had hangovers, friends and I used to say “I’m hurtin’ for certain” regularly after a night of debauchery. Alcohol was a big part of my life, and I’ve only realized its enormity since I’ve become sober. I loved the warm feeling of ethanol going down my esophagus. I loved the lack of inhibition, I turned into an extrovert. Every celebration included alcohol. Christmas, New Years, Thanksgiving, Labor Day, 4th of July, everything. Even healthy stuff - what does one do after climbing a mountain? Have a delicious IPA or 3, of course. When backpacking in the wilderness, it was always a bag of wine that took up the least amount of space with the least amount of weight. A 5th of vodka fits perfectly in a Platypus.
It was a little scary to stop drinking at first, I didn’t know if my life would be as fun. There are many fears that come with sobriety, as any sober person will tell you. But the greatest fear I have is knowing what happened to my mother. Her personality changed, she did things she would otherwise never do. Furthermore, she would be mortified that her daughter found her dead from alcoholism. Adam remarked once “I have some drunk uncles, but I’ve never seen anything like your mom.”
I am a lot like my mom. I look like her, I sound like her, and I am an expert in copying her handwriting. I share her love of animals, and I feel sad when pulling a carrot from the ground. I am also up for a Bloody Mary with breakfast, and I know that is not normal.
I feel part of my purpose in life, one in which I can be an instrument of goodness, is to help people realize sobriety. I’m still figuring out how exactly I will do this, but all I can say is life is just fine without alcohol. I never have a hangover. I feel good daily. I am aware there are people who drink alcohol without a problem, but there are people who can’t. I think I fall into the latter category, and I will use the tragedy of mother’s death to help others falling into this same category.