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ISBN: 9781935552185
Rising Above Alcohol Addiction
Erica Harrigan-Orr

I was 8 years old when I first understood that my mom had a drinking problem. I overheard my older sister say, “Go on, drink yourself to death, but not at our expense.” I assumed that the arguments were based on money and my mom’s drinking habits. My mother did her best to hide her substance abuse problem from me and so did my sister, but the walls were thin and I heard a lot.

It was just my sister, my mom, our six cats, and me in the apartment. My dad lived in New Jersey, but he supported us financially and would visit or we’d go visit him. My mom and my dad never split up; they were still a couple. But my dad was comfortable living close to his family, and my mom was comfortable in New York. They stayed together but lived separately until he died last year.

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My mother would come back from New Jersey with black eyes. I didn’t believe that my father hit her at first because he was nice to me. He bought candy and toys for my sister and me, even though my sister wasn’t his child.

But when I was 15, I first witnessed his Hulk side. He punched a hole in the wall in anger and then went to hug me like the hole was invisible. It was scary to see him go from being calm one minute to lashing out the next and then calming down as if he’d never lashed out. (I struggle with a Hulk side of myself, just one of my father’s traits I inherited.)

It wasn’t until I was older that I understood my father’s tactics of so-called “keeping the family together.” When he didn’t have full control over my mother he beat her, and to keep her under his control, he gave her all the alcohol she wanted.

She was frequently out drinking—she never drank at home. I don’t like calling her a “bad mom” because my sister and I had a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. My mom kept us in school and took us to our appointments. But she wasn’t emotionally available and she didn’t give stability or the nurturing care that children need.

I really appreciated whenever she was sober because then it was mommy and me time. We did everything together; we even slept together. Sleeping all snuggled up with my mom made me feel safe.

But then she’d go off to my father or to drink, leaving my sister and me alone, and I’d cry myself to sleep.


My mother was more like my friend than a parent—when she was around. I had no rules to follow. When I did well in school, I got no response at all, no reward or praise. But when I got into trouble at school and she got a letter regarding my behavior, my mother defended me. She took my side and blamed the teachers, and it made me feel loved.

She drank outside, away from me. I would visit her on the bench in the back building park with her drinking buddies and she would hide her bottle behind her. But everyone knew she drank. I got teased about her being a drunk all the time.

The more she drank the more distant our connection became. Her disappearing acts went from hours to days. I was about to turn 9 years old when she started to disappear for weeks at a time. I felt empty inside.

When I was almost 10, my father got sick and she went to help him for about four weeks. She left me with my sister, who was 16. Four weeks later, she returned with a big box of toys and money for rent, food, and our allowances.

I ended up in care the first time I saw her come home drunk. I was 11, and it was Christmas Eve. I was downstairs at my aunt’s house, and I went upstairs to ask my sister if I could stay the night at my aunt’s. My mother had returned all wobbly and asking questions in a sluggish voice: “Where have you been? Who told you to leave the house?” She continued rambling on, saying she wanted me to help her stack the gifts under the tree, and before I could answer, she whipped out a yellow plastic baseball bat and went to hit me with it. I ran downstairs and told my aunt and she called ACS. I was a ward of the state until I aged out 10 years later.

While in foster care the love for my mom and the urge to connect with her stayed alive in my dreams. I didn’t see her often when I was in care; losing her kids to foster care seemed to give her even more of a reason to drink.

Now I feel that the best thing for me was going into foster care. I needed to be cared for, I couldn’t care for myself, and it wasn’t my responsibility to look after my mom. I was just a child. In foster care, I learned how to cook, clean, and budget my money.

How Do You Mother?

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Then I had my own children and I realized it was harder than I thought to love my daughter because of what I didn’t get from my mom. I knew what not to do or what not to be like and not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. But I didn’t know what to do or how to be a mother because I didn’t receive proper mothering myself.

Now I’m 28, with four kids of my own, but the urge to receive mothering from my mother never goes away. Because of her alcoholism, I still have traumatic fears and obsessive stress. But the upside is I stay away from liquor. I never drink because I’m afraid I’ll become addicted. That memory of being abandoned by my mom because of her addiction keeps me clean and sober.

I did explore drinking as a teenager. I felt like people had more interest in being friends with me when I was drinking. But I ended up in risky situations—waking up in strange places and with strange faces. I’d have no idea what went on the night before, just that I had a huge headache, and I felt worse than before.

I stopped drinking more than eight years ago when I found out I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. I have urges to drink when I am under stress. But knowing that my mom, my dad, my grandmamma, and other relatives have alcoholism, plus the risk of losing my kids, keeps me away from the bottle.

When I aged out of care, I went looking for my mother. I searched for her in the crack neighborhood I grew up in and came up empty. I finally found her in New Jersey; she was back with my father. I wrote her a letter and she wrote back, and we reconnected that way and finally took the next step—meeting. I hadn’t seen her in seven years.

Meeting my mom again after so long out took me right back to being 11 again. I still feel like that 11-year-old holding on tight to my mom, keeping tabs on her whereabouts, worrying about her well-being and that if I let her go too far she’ll disappear again.

But we don’t have that mother and daughter bonding I longed for. I was already an adult, and I had to treat my mom as if she were a child because of her drinking problem. I had to supervise her when she would visit to make sure she wasn’t sneaking drinks in the house. Twice I had to kick her out and send her back to my father when she drank and started bugging out in the house, disrupting my husband, kids, and me while we were sleeping.

I try not to hold it against her because I know parenting is not easy: I also had a Children’s Services (ACS) case opened on me. I was lucky that ACS intervened earlier rather than too late. They kept my kids all together, and in less than four weeks, they were returned to me. Everything I do now is for the best interest of my kids and I am no longer running off to hang out with friends.

Illness Behind the Illness?

After my father died in August 2013, my mom came to New York to stay with me. She is in recovery for drinking for the first time. She is regularly going to treatment. Besides her substance recovery outpatient day treatment center, she’s attending AA meetings, and her case manager is giving her drug tests. It is a happy feeling to witness my mom sober.

But I’m not ready yet to leave her alone with my kids. Because of her past history of sneaking bottles into our home, I keep my guard up with her. She shows me her recovery papers showing that her urine and blood tested negative for drugs and alcohol. She’s had negative results for eight months. This month, she’s completing the detox program (something she refused to do when I was a child to get me back from foster care).

Mood swings are a symptom of alcohol withdrawal, but in my mom’s case, I think it’s more than that. She swings from angry one minute to anxious, panicking, and confused the next. She’s been diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder and she takes Wellbutrin. I think she was self-medicating mental illness by drinking. I have to stay on her about taking her medication and not skipping days. Sometimes she says defensive things about her meds like, “I’m not crazy; they’re to help me sleep at night.”

Other times, she gets offensive, saying I’m the crazy one, and I need to stop focusing on her and take my own medication. She gets angry and jumbles her words, and then I have to threaten to kick her out of my house unless she takes her medicine. Twenty minutes after she takes it, she cools down and we can hold a civilized conversation.

It’s not easy having to count her pills and track her appointments and basically hold her hand through the process of getting the proper mental health treatment she needs, but it’s better than her relapsing and self-medicating with alcohol again.

I know what it’s like to have mental illness and to need an escape. When I first realized I had a mental illness, I was a pre-teen drinking and partying to make myself feel better. But drinking made my symptoms worse. It wasn’t until I ended up hospitalized for out-of-control behavior and placed into a residential treatment center that I started healing myself in healthy ways—therapy groups, taking my medication, talking and writing about my feelings.

That’s how I rise above alcohol addiction and how I mother my kids better than I was mothered. Even though I have terrible disappointment in my mom, it’s a proud feeling that I am not an alcoholic when alcoholics run down my family tree. I stay sober and responsible for my kids.

Part of me still longs for my mother to finally mother me the way she never did. She probably can’t do that for me at this point in our lives, and so I have to try to do it for myself. By attending therapy, writing for Represent and Rise, a magazine for parents involved in the child welfare system, and advocating for myself and my kids, I have learned to give myself that love that I was missing as a child. By giving the love to my kids, providing them with a safe home, and embracing the love that my husband gives me, I become a better mom.

Meanwhile, I have forgiven my mother and continue to love her despite her history of substance abuse and bad parenting. I hope she’ll stick with her sobriety.