I found my mother on the floor of her bedroom, wearing a sleep shirt that read, “Solid Gold Sleeper.” This would have been amusing given that she was an insomniac, except she was dead.
My mother was 78 when she died. She didn’t take care of herself beyond getting prescriptions for her myriad of ailments, which irritated me. “You can’t just pop pills, Mom. You need to make some changes,” I pleaded.
The one thing my mother did do that had a positive effect on her well-being was to get sober at 71. One night, after drinking vodka while hanging on the phone with a friend, she stood up, stumbled, and re-injured an ankle she’d broken years before. She ended up in the hospital. Since she had a heart condition, her cardiologist was called in to examine her. Her doctor told her sternly if she didn’t stop drinking, she would die. We walked down a cold hospital corridor together, my mother limping faintly. She promised me she would stop drinking.
And she did. She joined a sobriety support group and found a wonderful therapist who used DBT techniques to deal with her depression and anxiety. To my knowledge, she never took another drink.
Like many who quit drinking, my mother became a proselytizer for sobriety. She relentlessly encouraged me to stop drinking, not necessarily because she thought I had a serious problem with alcohol, but because she’d come to believe that alcohol was poison, and everyone would be better off without it.
My mother had a lot of opinions. She wanted me to quit drinking. She thought I owned too many cookbooks. She thought I was too quick to anger. She thought I should cut my hair to encourage the natural curl until I took her advice, and then she told me she preferred it straight. She chose my major in college. She often told me whom to vote for in local elections, and she always had a long list of books she thought I should read.
While she could be infuriatingly controlling, she was also an exceptionally sympathetic listener. She could console me like no other. She called it, “talking me off the ledge.” She helped me through everything from getting dumped by my first love, to the heartbreak of multiple miscarriages, to the frustrations of raising children in our world that often feels battered and hopeless.
While I didn’t always take her advice, I did try to quit drinking. Every time I gave up alcohol, I inevitably felt better, slept better, and looked better. I definitely did not miss the hangxiety I experienced after a night of too much Sancerre.
“I’ve never met a person who regretted getting sober,” my mother coaxed.
Her words influenced me. I read every memoir I could find written by a sober person. I befriended Holly Whitaker, the author of “Quit Like a Woman.” I became convinced that our country's passion for drinking was the result of being duped by Big Alcohol. We’d all been hoodwinked into believing that we needed booze for celebrating, for managing stress, for vacationing, for mourning. I started to question these messages and saw that there was another way to live.
My mother and I had long, indignant conversations about drinking. “Why is alcohol the only drug you have to justify not using?" I wondered. “If someone offered me a line of cocaine and I declined, no one would argue. But with alcohol, it’s always, ‘How about just one?’”
“It’s so true,” my mother agreed.
I stayed sober for over a year at one point. But I slipped back into drinking more times than I like to admit.
Most recently, I was on a President’s Club trip with my husband in Hawaii. An incentive trip for the sales team at a tech startup company, we were offered drinks from the moment we started our day until many stumbled off to bed at night. Sparkling mimosas were encouraged at the lavish buffet breakfast. In the afternoons, a rowdy crew was always at the swim-up bar in the adult pool. I sat on a chaise lounge in the shade and watched people, mostly the ladies, enter the pool with trepidation, self-consciously tugging at their swimsuits, sucking in their stomachs. As the day wore on and everyone was knocking back their third or fourth cocktail, the women became more comfortable. They sat on the steps of the pool, half submerged in water, their bellies soft. They were sunburned and loud. I felt alternately superior and envious. I felt like I was the only person not drinking.
It was alienating to feel so alone. One night, I impulsively decided to have some champagne. Once that seductive door was opened, it was difficult to close. On the last night, as we entered a festive luau, I grabbed a frothy cocktail being passed during happy hour, and I continued drinking wine with dinner. Later, we were led to an after party with a DJ. Everyone drank and laughed and danced under a tropical full moon.
Back home in California, I hoisted myself back on the proverbial wagon. But in the days that followed, I had what I then described as some “little spells". I’d been having these spells for a while. They started with an intense feeling of deja vu. Regardless of whom I was talking to, I had a strong sensation that I’d had the exact same conversation, with the exact same words, many times before. Then I felt spacey, almost like I was stoned, not a particularly unpleasant sensation. I had three of these spells in the span of three days.
I didn’t tell anyone about these odd occurrences. They were brief and mild, lasting maybe sixty seconds in total. I likened it to the uneasy pause one might have after their eye starts twitching and then stops. I figured they might be due to aging, or stress.
But then, one afternoon, I was volunteering at a meal for the homeless in Berkeley and I lost my ability to speak. It was my job to check people into the meal. Suddenly, I could think of the words I wanted to say, but I couldn’t talk.
The other volunteer in the kitchen pointed at the man standing in front of me. He was a bedraggled fellow, with a dirty beard, and a trucker hat that read, “I Always Swipe Right”.
“There’s someone at the window,” the other volunteer said, as she continued slicing carrots. This I could clearly see. I just couldn’t get any words to come out of my mouth.
Losing my ability to speak forced me to seek out a neurologist. In the days leading up to my appointment, I compulsively searched Google for explanations for the spells. I self-diagnosed myself as having temporal lobe seizures which are most likely caused by epilepsy, or a brain tumor.
The threat of a brain tumor was terrifying. I couldn’t sleep, and when I did, I woke up clenching my teeth as if I were trying to bite through steel. I had throbbing headaches. I went to a very dark place.
The constant refrain in my mind was, “I can’t believe I have to go through this without my mother.”
I have been married for 23 years to a kind and loving man. I have numerous friends in which to confide. My father checked on me repeatedly, as did my sister. I am also in contact with a pastor who has known me since I was 15. But all I wanted was my mom.
I needed to be talked off the ledge by the only person who could do so.
After my mother died, my pastor asked me if I’d had any dreams about her. I told him I hadn’t. “Don’t be surprised if you do,” he replied knowingly. I was skeptical.
And then, the night after I had an MRI, my mother appeared in a dream. She looked exactly as I remembered her, with her pragmatic haircut and lively eyes. “Well, have you heard what’s been going on with me?” I asked. She looked at me directly and said, “I’ve heard what might be going on with you. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”
Next, she stood up and sprinted down a long hallway. In the last years of her life, she was in constant pain from rheumatoid arthritis and was dangerously unsteady on her feet. She was spry in my dream though, running joyfully to an opening in the sky, out of which poured blinding beams of light. She zipped up towards the opening and was gone.
My mother would have scoffed at this dream. She was raised Catholic but rejected religion as an adult. She found my desire to explore spirituality exasperating. She once conceded that I’d become a more pleasant teenager after I joined a Christian youth group. But then she rolled her eyes, “Just don’t start praying for my salvation.”
Others were more open to the otherworldly. When I described my dream to my mother’s closest friend, I saw goosebumps appear on her arm. I told my neighbor about my dream. She responded excitedly, “That gave me the chills!” My friend from church, who’d lost her own mother four years before, looked at me across a table we were sitting at in the early California summer sun with tears streaming down her face as I recounted my dream.
Conversely, my best friend told a man she’d been dating, a lawyer, that my mother had come to me in my time of distress. “She had a dream,” he said perfunctorily. My friend argued, “She was telling her not to worry!” Unmoved, he repeated, “She had a dream.”
My lovely friend, who is a physician, explained as we hiked high above the stunning California coast overlooking Stinson Beach, “Your mother lives in your subconscious as a source of comfort, that you were able to access in your time of fear. In this way, she will always be with you.”
There are many ways to explain the unexplainable.
Days later, I sat in my neurologist’s office and was diagnosed. I never could have imagined being happy to hear I have epilepsy, but I was overjoyed to learn I didn’t have a brain tumor. I murmured, “Thank you,” in silent prayer.
My neurologist explained that given the three seizures I’d had after imbibing in Hawaii, alcohol was a trigger for my seizures. I knew my drinking days were over even before she told me it would be dangerous for me to drink. I imagined my mother looking down, triumphant, “I told you it was poison!” She loved to be right.