As a COA, Can I Honor My Parent?


Traditionally I write tributes to all of my surrogate “moms” for Mother’s Day, thanking the countless women who have impacted my life by sharing their stories, wisdom, tips, tricks, secrets, encouragement, and advice, helping me to fill in what has felt like an excessive amount of domestic and relational inadequacies. Or, I write about my gratitude for living as a sober & present mom to my own children.

 This year, Mother’s Day, 2017 is dedicated to my biological mom. 

I have been struggling with how to portray her in my upcoming, soon-to-be self-published book, Trauma Queen. As to be expected with any long-term goal, countless hours have been dedicated to this project so far.
Large portions of my writing time has been me, blankly staring, stuck in a rhythmical pattern of cognitive dissonance, torn between bursting to tell the whole truth and nothing but, and also not wanting to deliberately humiliate someone who is not well.

How can I honor someone who has elicited so much destruction?
How do I portray my truth honestly and honor my passion for truth-telling without crossing over into condescending story-telling?
How can I allow her the dignity that she deserves simply for being a human?
How do I describe her illnesses without contributing to stigma?

I began my search for answers by looking in the Bible. Honor, (as a noun) means to value a person highly. We are asked to honor specific people, and our parent’s are included in that group.
To value her highly I had to learn to respect her as a human being.

So what I have tried to do is embrace a mindset that seeks to honor her.

Not to erase what she has or hasn’t done. Not by ignoring the damaged that she has caused, or the births, baby showers, weddings, and birthday parties she has missed.

I have simply chosen to love. To love is to put someone else’s well-being on my radar screen. To love is to accept her for who she is.

For a long time I had nothing decent to say of her. Not playing a part in perpetuating social stigma wasn’t on my radar, and neither was treating her like a human being.
I habitually called her by her first name, and just so that she was absolutely sure she didn’t deserve my respect, I would laugh along with my brother, as we tried to think of as many synonyms for “crack whore” as we could.

After I got sober I began tackling my long list of amends and tallying up the destruction I had already begun to ignite in my own son’s life.
I started to see just how humany we all are as humans. God we’re all so fucked up; we are all learning as we go, and my mother was no exception.
Slowly, I began to develop empathy for her in what had been the coldest, darkest, empty parts of my heart that I had reserved for so many years before.

Because we are still estranged (in order to maintain my own mental stability, and my physical and emotional safety), the way that I honor my mother might not look or feel or be typical but there are still ways that I am trying to do live it out.

I began to learn to honor her the only way that I know how to honor anything else that I don’t fully understand: 

I starting digging.
I put pieces together.
I probed and sought and dove and asked questions until I felt sure I got close enough to the bottom to be able to propel myself back to the surface to catch my breath and reassess.
I learned and educated myself hoping to better understand the whole situation.

I believe that you can take any one thing that you feel a prejudice for, and you can dissect the whole thing until you understand your own heart that much more. It is my experience that the results will surprise you.

Learning about who she was has helped me to learn to honor her. I can separate my personal experiences with her from who she is as a person. By allowing her to break out of my box, it’s like I have set us both free.

Here’s an outline of what I have learned about her:

  • a young girl who had a mentally ill, undiagnosed biological father, and a step-father who was an abusive alcoholic
  • a rebellious, confused, pre-teen who was diagnosed with bi-polar
  • a brave fifteen-year-old pregnant girl, who considered adoption for so long, that she bonded with the adoptive parents
  • a sixteen-year-old new mother who decided that she couldn’t part with her brand-new, five-pound newborn, who walked to Sonic to work everyday to provide for her
  • an eighteen-year-old woman with two babies, trying to balance motherhood, a new crack-addiction, and mismanaged mental-illness
  • a twenty-three-year-old mom with three young children, the third who would pass away after three months
  • and a twenty-four year old who struggled with addiction, mental-illness and relationships, who became so distraught and grief-stricken and ultimately, emotionally paralyzed.

She lost the rest of the pieces of herself that had been holding her together after the death of her child, my youngest brother.

So as I continue to write, I continue to dust off my perceptions about her, hoping to help others see and feel what mental-illness does to a person. It is all very real, and it is certainly not a moral failing or a personal choice or any reason to degrade. Having a front row seat to an uncontrollable fading mind will provide you with more than enough evidence to draw certain conclusions.

I am doing my best to honor who she is in that way and am hoping to shed a light on some relevant truths about the struggles of having co-occurring disorders. I pray that if the book ever land in her hands, that she not slink down in shame, or feel overwhelmed with regret. And I hope that she knows that she has nothing to be ashamed of.

Yesterday at church I added a photo this photo of us to the slide-show. My mom doesn’t look like other mom’s. I secretly feared that people were going to judge me, or see me differently. I wondered what people would think when my photo slid across the screen.

But my anxieties and emotional investment exaggerated how awkward it would actually be for other people to see this photo. I sat smiling from ear to ear, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing all of the silly & sweet family photos that popped up on the screen.

When ours  appeared, tears immediately welled up in my eyes.
It was huge.

It was a my proclamation.

Including her solidified my desire to honor her.
It was a fist bump, between my mother and I.
It was me saying “I see you, and I am not ashamed.”
She is part of my story and I am not hiding part of me to comfort parts of other people or to serve my own fears.

I just want thank her.

I know that she did the best that she could with the resources and knowledge and ability that she had. And I have learned that is truly all that any of us can do. And for the rest of it, there is Grace.

Happy Mother’s Day, mom.

1 Comment

  1. Mark Goodson

    What a beautiful and complicated tribute. It has to be complicated, with parents. Especially parents who suffer the way yours did. I admire this piece and your journey to pick up the pieces. So much is out there of ACOA world that is all destructive. This is both destructive and reconstructive. Really powerfully done.

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