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Grandparent Dilemmas

Boundaries in the Sand

By Amalah

Dear Amalah,

I subscribe to your general philosophy of the grandparent’s relationship with their grandchildren taking priority over the small stuff. So, here’s the thing—my mother can’t be around my daughter alone. Possibly ever. She certainly can’t stay with her alone. To shoehorn a lot of issues into as little space as possible: when I was a child, she, among other things: pointed a loaded gun at me while hallucinating (twice), slapped me, convinced me spies were watching us from the trees to kill us in our sleep, often saw double on the road while driving me home from school (for which she often didn’t show up), kidnapped me and moved across the country from my other parent (she intercepted his phone calls and his mail to me until college).

Until recently, I excused this on the basis of a supposedly chronic physical illness she claimed to have. But, while I was pregnant, I had to come to terms with her addictions and mental illness as almost everyone else in the family pulled me aside to tell me incidents I didn’t remember (hooray) that had happened when I was a baby or a toddler–such as the time my father left for a weekend and came home to find her blind drunk and alone with the baby. Between that and her increasingly obvious alcoholism, pain pill addiction, and (maybe?) Munchausen’s, I decided that I had to draw my own line in the sand. She can see my daughter, she can spend as much time with her as she would like–but another adult has to be in the room at all times. Even with those restrictions, she still showed up drunk to a visit and almost dropped her (she claims it was a new medication she was on-—ignoring, of course, that she mixed it with a bottle of vodka).

Wow. I’ve never actually had the guts to write all that on paper without excusing it all or saying it wasn’t that bad, other people have it a lot worse, before. Here’s the thing—she’s a lovely and sweet person in a lot of ways. I’m fairly certain a lot of her illness is the result of severe and early abuse. She is very financially generous and helps with our expenses. She taught me a lot of great things about how to be a woman, the value of a good education, and how to stand up for myself. I know she loves us all very much. And I don’t want my daughter’s image of her to be of this distant, drunk rich lady she was never allowed to be alone with. But I just don’t have any idea if there is any road back to a full grandparent relationship for us. I mean, seriously, Amalah, she lied to me about seeing a therapist. She sneaks vodka in her soda. Her hands shake, all the time. She had a dangerous and unnecessary medical procedure immediately after I finally womaned up and told her my decision about her and the baby.

I told her that the line here is that she can’t mix alcohol, narcotics, benzos and caffeine and still babysit. But other than asking to see blood tests before each visit, I have no idea how to enforce that when she lies to protect the addiction. And that’s not even touching the mental illness and delusions. I know there’s no easy Advice Smackdown answer for this one, other than to just keep making my peace with it, every holiday and every visit. But damn it, I did not expect it to be this hard. Which is idiotic, frankly, because what the heck else would it be. I’ve Googled around for “parent’s with Munchausen’s support” but all I get is results for Muchausen’s by proxy, which, thankfully, she doesn’t have (although a lot of my pets died mysteriously growing up).

My husband and I actually spent the holiday apart from each other this year, because I did want to see her for a short visit, but couldn’t deal with feeling like I had someone else to protect. We have a pretty nice time when it’s just me, I have mad boundaries at this point. But now I miss the damn baby like it’s going out of style, hence the angst-ridden email. (And, yay, she had another dangerous procedure right before I came out sans baby.)

Anyway. EMOTIONS. I HAVE THEM. Support and advice from fellow children of addicts appreciated.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Conflicted in Canada (ok, I am not actually in Canada, or anywhere that begins with a “C,” but I have always wanted one of those alliterative signoffs)

You’re absolutely 100% correct about a couple things here: First, there is no easy breezy answer to this one. (PUT A MIRACLE BLANKET ON IT! 2/3/4 NAP SCHEDULE! GO FULL SATTER!)

And second, the boundaries you’ve put around your daughter are justified, necessary and practically downright generous. If you wrote that your daughter simply could not be around your mom at all, even supervised, I’d say that sounded pretty damn reasonable too.

She’s showing up visibly impaired and intoxicated (possibly driving?? noooo. nonono.) for visits. She is not making any effort to face her addictions or get help for her illnesses (the mental ones, obviously, not the drug-seeking factitious ones). She’s actively lying to you. She should not be doing ANY of that if she really expects to be a part of her granddaughter’s life.

I want you to get back on the Google and this time, find an Al-Anon meeting near you. I want you to go, like, yesterday. Yes, I know your mom’s addictions and issues go way beyond “just” alcohol, but this isn’t about HER and the specifics of HER sad life trajectory. This is about YOU finally, fully escaping from the tractor beam of her decades-long downward spiral, finding strength/support to hold firm the boundaries you’ve set for your daughter…and to also take another hard look at the “mad boundaries” you’ve set for yourself and your (understandably) complicated emotional/financial ties to this woman.

Part of me wants to tell you to stop accepting money from her completely, and to call her doctors and the hospitals she’s getting prescriptions and procedures from and sound the Munchausen/drug-seeking alarm. Part of me wants to tell you to never spend another holiday away from your family because you feel guilty or sad that she can’t/won’t get well enough to spend it with anyone else. And part of me wants to tell you to downgrade her grandparent privileges to nil until…I don’t know…she’s in actual treatment for her actual problems. Until she’s able to NOT SHOW UP HIGH ON PILLS AND DRUNK ON BOOZE WHILE LYING TO YOU ABOUT IT. Maybe then you could talk about upgrading her to supervised visits. Or maybe just Skype, at first. If you can’t realistically enforce the rules you’ve set for your daughter’s safety because she’ll just lie about it, that’s really not the fault of the RULES, you know?

But I don’t think I’m really qualified to give you that advice — though if we were having coffee together and you were detailing this story to me I probably wouldn’t let that stop me from being all, that’s a Liz Lemon Dealbreaker, gurl. FOR REALZ. I really think regular meetings with Al-Anon or a similar support group are imperative for you, as the adult child of a (major, continuing, multi-substance) addict, to deal with this entire situation.

I’m so sorry this is all so hard. I’m so sorry your mom won’t step up and clean up for her sake, for yours, or for your wonderful new baby. I’m so sorry that real life is so messy and complicated, because addicts are real people and not one-dimensional movie villains who are easy to cut out of our lives because they’re “weak” or “brought it on themselves.” Of course it doesn’t work like that. Of course your mom is your MOM and has all kinds of wonderful, human qualities, which makes it hurt even more to watch her drown those qualities away in vodka and pills. And it’s hard not to make excuses for the people you love, especially when there are some damn fine excuses to make — your mom’s very real mental illness, her own childhood, the continuing cycle of abuse, etc.

Your mom raised an amazing person, obviously. An amazing person who has broken the cycle and is standing on her own two feet, healthy and sober and gaining clarity and wisdom at a breakneck pace. It’s okay to feel a little carsick about it all, and to question yourself. Because doing the RIGHT thing can still feel so dang WRONG and AWFUL sometimes.

I’m glad you reached out and wrote this email. Please keep reaching out to other adult children of addicts, in person, online, whatever. I know this sounds terribly cheesy but I’m proud of you already, lady.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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