How I learnt to love my alcoholic mother - and myself

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Annaliese Constable

Stocksy.

Stocksy. Photo: Gillian van Niekerk

I grew up in a house where I walked on corkscrews. Both metaphorically and physically. I walked on metaphorical corkscrews because Mum was a depressive alcoholic. I also walked on corkscrews because we had heaps and Mum was messy. 

When Mum was unwell it was up to me to tuck her into bed or call in sick to work because she was drunk. I was Mum's ill-equipped child counsellor, which is like a child soldier, but instead of a gun, I had dissociation. 

"Now I understand it's not about me. It was never about me." 

As adults Mum and I have had long periods of estrangement. Growing up I was injured – physically and emotionally. Mum and I have shared a lot of conflict and pain. 

Annaliese Constable.

Annaliese Constable.

Although at the base of all of this pain is an endless well of love and respect. We may not like some of the things the other one does but the love does not end.

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As a child I felt abandoned. To be left by a parent, the person who is supposedly biologically programmed to love, care and nurture you is hard. Now I understand it's not about me. It was never about me.

In its simplest form Mum had poor mental health and wasn't able to get the help she needed. Mum showed initiative and tried to make the harsh world she existed in more bearable, unfortunately the solution Mum found - alcohol - turned into an addiction. 

I like to think of Mum and me as co-parents. We both raised me.

I like to think of Mum and me as co-parents. We both raised me.

Mum has been endlessly judged for her illnesses and parenting. As a young adult I definitely judged her. Judging someone else for being distressed and trying to find a solution is not the answer. Getting angry at someone for being desperate is desperate. 

The more Mum is judged the less likely she is to find her way back into a connected sober life. If Mum chooses to never be sober, that's hard but it's okay. It's her body, it's her life and these are her decisions. The world is a harsh place and I can understand wanting to escape. 

I like to think of Mum and I as co-parents. We co-raised me. We're both proud to have a gay daughter – me. I've just had my first Mother's Day as my own parent and it was a delight. I gave myself a massage and woke myself up with breakfast in bed (Tim Tams). 

Growing up with Mum I was largely left to my own devices so I learnt to be independent, resourceful and resilient. My childhood context has meant that I always treat anyone in authority with suspicion. That's not a bad thing.

I've grown to feel pride. I'm proud to be working class and proud to have survived what I have in the same way that I am proud of being a queer woman. 

It's another aspect of who I am and without my Mum I wouldn't have that. Sure I was nudged out of the nest earlier than expected but once I spread my wings and got rid of my lice the view was shamelessly fantastic.  

I spent most of the early years of my life thinking that I could save my Mum. I also spent a lot of time thinking I was the cause of the issues she faced. I constantly tried to make sense of what was happening around me. The problem is that when it comes to mental illness and addiction there is no sense. I would try to apply logic to situations that weren't about logic. Mental illness and addiction are so deep rooted in emotion that logic is not useful in this context. 

Mum has picked one thing that she is good at and has committed to it for over 25 years. I respect Mum's honesty when she says things like, "I like being a drunk. It's what I do."  

The thing I respect the most about Mum is that she is a fighter. Every step of the way she has been told she isn't enough. Every step of the way she hasn't had enough. Enough money, enough love, enough understanding. I know that mental illness and addiction talk loudly and that sometimes the person with the addiction, the person you love, almost becomes invisible. The hardest part of loving someone with an active addiction is figuring out how you can love that person and continue to keep your wellbeing in check. I've really struggled with this. 

Ostensibly there is a person in my life who has perpetrated abuse against me yet I still love them. Instinctively and objectively I say, "Well they can get stuffed." However, when I really consider the context of my Mum I see that she has always done her best. She has always done what she thought was right. Maybe sometimes she was off the mark. It's hard to know what the mark is when you're sick. Mum can only teach what she knows. Mum has not failed. She has been failed.

Annaliese Constable is a writer, performer and queer-rights activist from Sydney. Her new show Mummy Dearest premieres as part of Next Wave Festival at Arts House, Melbourne from May 5-21.