Mom Talk: Growing Up With A “Chardonnay Mom”

Written by

Victoria Cameron

10:30 am
11/12/20

Photo by Viktor Solomin

Especially over the past decade, the words “mom” and “wine” have become somewhat synonymous, with countless memes and even a few think pieces exploring the relationship between the two. While most of the so-called “wine moms” out there are all about tongue-in-cheek humor, for other women there’s a more serious problem behind the scenes. Today’s Mom Talk comes from the daughter of one such “Chardonnay mom” (as writer Victoria Cameron describes her) and the turbulence her mother’s addiction has caused in her own life.     

You would never think my mother was an alcoholic. Only if you saw her drinking. And even then, she had a talent at hiding it. Wine chugged alone in the kitchen or perhaps her bedroom, eventually turning to the safety of a car in an empty parking lot. But we didn’t know. And when we eventually did, we didn’t know how to stop it, instead choosing to ignore and pretend. It took years to learn of our own enabling behaviors that grabbed hold of our family, shaking us to our core.

I was the youngest of four kids growing up on the outskirts of Boston on an acre of land. Our house was always loud. You could expect to find at least one sleepover in the basement each weekend, where our friends would raid our infamous snack closet full of junk food, the kind that was forbidden in their own homes. Dinners were lavish affairs made lovingly by mom, who paid attention to everyone’s particular food preferences.

She never missed a lacrosse game or piano recital. She spent hours painstakingly creating intricate, homemade Halloween cakes complete with pumpkin patch décor to bring to the elementary school Halloween cake swap, where the majority of parents brought in desserts picked up at the grocery store. She loved us and cared for us fiercely. Our home was a refuge, a place where we knew nothing but love, a safe space to laugh and play our way through adolescence, all due to the environment that my parents created.

The first time I noticed her addiction was in 2009, when I was a recently-made only child after my third sibling went off to college in Colorado. I was seventeen. In the evenings after 8 p.m., she would emerge from the master bedroom, out of her day clothes changed into a robe, and with that wardrobe change, a new personality. My friends called her “Robe Mom.” Everything would be different. Her tone of voice increased almost by an octave, she repeated words and phrases to an insufferable degree. Her movements became jilted, like her world was off-balance. She said goodnight five times instead of one. My friends would laugh. But I didn’t find it funny at all.

At first we thought it was neurological. Perhaps in her fifties my mother developed early on-set Alzheimer’s. But it was the same routine. If she was “robe mom” that night, she would be fine the next morning, her normal bubbly and engaging self would return with no mention of the previous night’s activities, like Jekyll and Hyde. Her normal behavior would make my dad and I believe we imagined it, somehow engaging in a bizarre groupthink. Maybe because it was too painful to look at directly, we continued to copy her and ignore it. This went on for four years.

It took my godfather, whose own mother dived into alcoholism later in life, to notice. I became so used to her drinking Chardonnay that her slip into addiction was slow and steady. Looking back, I wonder how it took us so long to realize. But just like her, we too were in denial, even as the truth stared us back in the face; the physical and mental changes, the cruelty, the repetition, the mumbling, the argumentative nature, and the near constant supply of white wine in the refrigerator. She was an alcoholic. We confronted her with a homemade intervention. She denied it completely, leaving the meeting angry and hurt. And so we continued on, the crack in our family system growing larger.

They call them “Chardonnay Housewives,” the women who slide into addiction unknowingly, where one glass of chardonnay turns into two, then three, then the whole bottle. For mom, the Chardonnay then turned into vodka, sherry, and anything with an alcohol content she could get her hands on. But not beer, no, never beer.

Once I followed my siblings to college, we invented an agreement; don’t call mom after 7 p.m., because the version you would get would not be mom. Night-time mom was cruel. Once, after a particularly difficult breakup, I called her crying. Her day-time-self consoled me, calling me brave and strong. The next time, I made the mistake of calling her at night, and she was drunk.

“You’re weak,” she spewed through the phone. It felt like a punch in the stomach. Weak, for feeling heartbreak, an entirely human experience? Even though I knew her sober self wouldn’t say that, it hurt nonetheless, and the crack grew.

Addiction is a family disease. As my mom drank, I would try to control it, searching the house for a secret stash if I believed she was drunk, keeping friends away out of shame, fearing they would find out our deepest secret. Eventually, I began to feel that somehow I was to blame for her addiction. As my mother sunk deeper into her disease, I too was acting ill.

We often tried to solve the problem as to why. Was it an unresolved grief from her parents’ deaths, or because she was an empty nester, or was there something wrong in their marriage? But there’s no rhyme or reason for addiction. Nothing mom did or we did was the cause, as difficult as it was to accept that truth.

Almost every happy milestone in my life was shadowed by the addiction. On my college graduation night she was so hammered she yelled at the waitress. The night of my sister’s engagement she was so sloshed she couldn’t hold her body upright in the hot tub as we all naively drank champagne, trying so hard to be normal.

Six years after the initial intervention, we finally had enough. My dad hired an interventionist, and I flew down from New York to surprise her. Our family sat around the living room, crying, reading our heartbreaking letters. In a strange way it was cathartic, writing out ten years of pain into a letter where the overwhelming emotion coming from its pages was love.

Mom went peacefully. It was Sunday morning. She sat in her church dress, crying and finally admitting that yes, she did have a problem and yes, she needed help. Wanting the absolute best for her, we booked her a $44,000 stay at a celebrity-loved rehabilitation facility in the mountains of Arizona where she lived for thirty days.

I had high hopes of what our newly sober mom would look like. I envisioned her leaving rehab a new woman, grateful for the opportunity to get sober and excited to begin her twelve steps. She would have a newfound zest for life, and be open and honest about her sober journey. It didn’t happen.

Six months after her stint in rehab, we had another family wedding, this time my brother’s. That was where I learned that mom had been quietly drinking on and off since her return from rehab. There was a moment at his wedding when I thought she was drunk. But I was too hopeful of her sobriety to notice that she sat alone steaming bridesmaid dresses for over an hour in a champagne-filled room.

***

Our family never discussed mental health issues. Back when I was young enough to be escorted to the pediatrician, the doctor would go through a checklist. “Is there a history of anxiety? Depression? Addiction? OCD?” he would ask. “No to all!” mom would proudly reply. I used to believe we had perfect genes. Apart from the breast cancer that took my grandmother’s life in her late-seventies, our DNA was mistake-free. As a child I believed it wholeheartedly. How privileged we were, to have nothing wrong with us.

It wasn’t until I was sixteen at a Good Charlotte concert in Boston. I didn’t care much for the band, but my friend somehow got her hands on free tickets, so we went. The concert was standing room only. We stood in the middle of the floor. Soon enough it was so packed, our arms touched other stranger’s sweaty bodies, with nowhere to escape. My breathing quickened. My heart pounded. I found it difficult to take a full breath, and developed a sudden urge to escape or I would faint. So I ran for it, searching for an empty hallway. Later my friends rightly yelled at me, upon finding me alone with my hot face against the cool wall near concessions, angry that I disappeared into a crowded concert hall without an explanation. How could I explain I needed to leave, because the swelling panic inside me was ready to burst, when I couldn’t even explain it myself?

At 25, on the night of my sister’s wedding at the end of their sparkler farewell where I had one too many drinks, I succumbed to another panic attack, an alcohol and panic disorder fueled episode that felt it would never end. I sat on my bed in my parents’ guest room, my bobby pinned hair falling out of its curls, makeup smeared across my face from tears and snot, and my dusty blue dress down to my navel, wearing only my strapless bra, because I found the ability to breathe so difficult that the only relief would be to take off the flimsy chiffon fabric.

My oldest brother sat there with me in perhaps the lowest point of my life, confiding in me that he too, suffered from clinical anxiety and panic disorder. And it was in that moment I realized my mental health issues were genetic. Yet the voice inside my head disagreed.

“What happened to your perfect family medical history?” it would say, making me feel broken. But it wasn’t perfect, not even close. My family medical history went from “perfect” to “Addiction, Depression, Anxiety, and Panic Disorders.” I began to go to therapy. I made different lifestyle choices to help lessen my anxiety. Eventually, I would leave New York for good.

***

Watching a loved one in the grip of an addiction is a painful and confusing process. You begin to lose trust. You begin to wonder how often you are lied to and manipulated. On the night of her drinking, I would be infuriated, enraged, and hurt. Confronting her the next morning would often have her denying it completely, turning to tears or anger, ultimately making me feel like the bad guy.

One day after yet another denial, I was so angry I ignored her. She came to knock on my door after my sister told her I was keeping my distance. She blamed her strange actions that previous evening on an emotional upheaval. Her older brother was recently diagnosed with the early stages of cancer.

“I spoke to my sister and hearing her voice always reminds me of my mom. I’m 64, but I still want my mom.”

“I want my mom too!” I lambasted, because I knew the disease, the addiction, was slowly killing her. And I didn’t want to lose my mother so young at her own hand.

She paused, and said, “I’m trying to bring her back to you.”

And my heart burst into a million pieces as my mother sitting two feet away from me confessed that she hadn’t been there pure and whole for years.

To feel all these things; anger, betrayal, sadness, heartbreak, but staring at my mother, whose body language while talking so candidly about her addiction reminded me vaguely of a lost puppy, feeling the emotions I rightly felt instead made me feel heartless and full of guilt.

“You can’t fix me,” she said. And at those words the tears flowed. At the realization that I can’t. As much as I want to. That the only one who can fix her is herself, one day at a time.

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