This story is by Jem Rogers and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Entering the living room, Janie sighed, removed her sunglasses, and pulled out blocks for her small daughters to play with. She hoped the conversation from the walk was finished, but as usual her mother was not done. “Janie, you know when YOU were little I bathed you and washed your long hair EVERY DAY,” Maria called from the kitchen.
Janie tensed, and her voice rose as she called back, “Mama, the girls are 1 and 3. How much can they sweat?” Shaking her head, she wondered, “Why can’t she ever tell me I’m doing a good job? Why can’t I do anything to meet with her approval?”
“I’m just saying,” continued Maria, walking into the living room with a large glass of wine “you have to make good habits now while your children are little…”
“Maria, you already raised your children,” interrupted Hector, peeking out from behind the newspaper in the easy chair. “Janie can handle things. Her kids are great.” He smiled lovingly at the toddlers playing on the floor, then warmly at his daughter.
As Maria took a deep breath to respond to Hector, Janie quickly said, “I’m going to the car to get diapers,” and as she hurried down the stairs to escape outside, she heard the bickering begin. Maria complained about what Janie should be doing, Hector told her to mind her own business. On the back sidewalk heading to the car Janie recalled loud arguing through the windows since her teenage years. “By now I should be used to it,” she thought. Opening the car door she stopped, shoulders slumped, and stared up at the sky. “Why isn’t what I do good enough?” she whispered. “What is WRONG with me?”
It’s not you.
Was that a voice? A feeling? Wishful thinking? Was it God or the universe? Janie didn’t know, but her brow furrowed and she puzzled over the words for a moment until the sound of Hector’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
Janie’s parenting skills were no longer an issue. Now it was that supper was late. And how come suppertime came at the same time every day but Maria couldn’t get it on the table on time? Now Janie could hear Maria crying through the window as she headed back to the house. “Why don’t you have another glass of wine?!” Hector yelled. Sighing as she opened the door to the house, Janie felt the familiar knot in her stomach yet called out, “Mama, why don’t I help you and set the table.”
* * * * *
“I just can’t take it, Lindsey,” Janie began. “Nothing is good enough. I try and try. I’m 32 years old and I can’t please my mother. I shouldn’t be worried about her approval, or my father’s anger. And it’s always been my job to get in the middle to calm things down. I’m so tired, but I feel guilty if I don’t jump in.”
Lindsey shifted in her seat, listening intently. “Janie, I’ve been a social worker for 15 years and I’m seeing a pattern.” Cocking her head slightly, leaning forward, she said, “Janie, tell me about the wine.”
“The wine?” Janie repeated, pressing back in her chair, confused and repelled by the request.
“Yes,” continued Lindsey. “Tell me about the alcohol in the house. Does your mother drink a lot?” she asked.
“No, not really,” Janie reflected. “I mean she and my father have always had a glass of wine with dinner. Well, now my mother fills up their glasses before dinner and gives one to my father. Actually, she fills hers up before she starts cooking. My mother grew up on a farm and there are grape vineyards. My grandfather makes wine.”
“And what about your father? What is your relationship with him? What is your mother’s relationship with him?” Lindsey pressed.
“Well,” Janie paused, looking at the ceiling, then back at Lindsey, exhaling loudly, “my father and I have a pretty good relationship. He’s pretty good-natured and emotionally available for me, compared to my mother. But he can be…uh…verbally abusive when he gets upset. I’m sort of afraid of his anger,” Janie mused. “But he’s never been physically abusive,” she continued quickly, looking at Lindsey. “He and my mom argue all the time. Dinnertime and after dinner is the worst. When I was younger I thought for sure they would divorce. I usually escaped upstairs until dinner was done and then I’d come downstairs to clean off the table and take care of my little brother.”
“Janie,” Lindsey looked solemn and asked gently, “have you ever considered that you may be an adult child of an alcoholic—an ACOA?”
“A what?” Janie questioned. “No,” she shook her head. “No, of course not. My mother has never had a DWI, she has a job, she’s never passed out or anything like that…” her voice trailed.
“People can be very functional in their daily living,” Lindsey said. “You’re speaking of the stereotypical homeless fall-down drunk person who drinks from a bottle in a paper bag. Between now and our next session, why don’t you consider looking up qualities of an ACOA online and we can see what you think.”
* * * * *
“Hey, babe, how’d it go with Lindsey today? Did you vent about your mother?” Rodney chuckled as he unpacked his lunchbox.
“Do you think my mom drinks too much?” Janie asked cautiously. “Like…do you think she could be dependent on her wine? Or, maybe…be…an alcoholic?”
“Probably,” her husband shrugged, rinsing a glass.
“Seriously? How can that be? How can I not have noticed it?” Janie questioned.
“I have NO idea,” replied Rodney, turning. “It’s pretty obvious. She gets cranky and has to be home by 4 to make supper. She takes a bottle of wine to every family picnic. By the end of dinner whenever we’re there things deteriorate into her babbling and arguing about stupid things and then your dad gets mad. Then the crying starts,” he rolled his eyes. “And she tells the same stories over again after your dad storms away from the table.” He put his cup in the dish drainer. “Yep. Totally obvious.”
“Not to me,” Janie said quietly. “I’m going to look up some stuff online,” she said, taking her reading glasses from the counter.
* * * * *
It was Tuesday night and Janie was at her weekly ACOA meeting. It was her turn to start reading “The Laundry List” as it was called, and as she read aloud she reflected on her journey. “We became isolated and afraid of people and authority figures.” She felt imprisoned by fear and had lived life small, hoping to gain approval from others because she didn’t trust her instincts.
“We judge ourselves harshly…” the man next to her began. Now she knew that fateful night outside her car that “It’s not you” meant that she was playing a role in a sick family system, and she could change her path.
“Alcoholism is a family disease…” read the woman across the table. Janie had a choice. Rather than live in denial or get pulled into drama, she could learn from the experience, strength and hope of others and make a different choice. She could change the pattern passed down in her family of origin.
Reflecting back on the 10 months, Janie recalled the first time she asked Lindsey if she should confront her mother about her drinking. Lindsey’s reply at first surprised Janie. “You have the right to, but you need to figure out what you are hoping to gain from it, if anything.” In her compulsive overthinking Janie tuned over her options in her mind. Finally realizing that she wanted to make her mother change, and that she was powerless to make that happen, Janie made a decision. She would set healthy boundaries and work on improving herself, and the life of her children so as not to pass along the dysfunction that she grew up with. Finally, peace crept into her heart little by little as she began to intentionally walk her own path instead of worrying about what she “should” be doing.
As Janie removed her reading glasses and cleaned them, she realized that she could see her shortcomings more clearly. Everyone views reality through their own lens, she realized. Hers had been dirty for so long, but with support, she could courageously journey beyond her limits. All it took was patience, self-acceptance, and continuing to clean her lens.
***For more information on Adult Children of Alcoholics see: https://adultchildren.org/literature/laundry-list/