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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Will my book destroy my relationship with my mother?

Five years ago, I was really anxious about having a conversation with my mother. I'd been planning it for weeks, talking to professionals and researching inpatient rehab facilities online. At the advice of someone on a rehab hotline, I'd planned to keep it a small and intimate conversation between my mom, my brother, and me, as opposed to a more formal intervention with a professional, which I knew would set her off. This was the only way to do it and it was (finally) time. Her drinking had become a problem, particularly after she fell down the stairs drunk and sustained a traumatic brain injury. Since then, she'd fallen several other times, once breaking her wrist. She blamed it on a rug, but we all knew the truth: she was killing herself. I couldn't stand by any longer and let this happen, couldn't wait for that phone call to tell me she'd again landed in the hospital and, this time, we wouldn't be as lucky.

The conversation did not go well. When I said I wanted her to get help, she replied with a cold, "Thank you for your opinion, but I decline the opportunity." (Has there ever been a more lawerly response?) At the advice of a friend (a recovering addict herself), I told my mom I refused to be around her when she was drinking, which meant I didn't see a lot of her the next few years. I worried that maybe I was making a bigger deal of it than I needed to, that maybe things were better, but, every time I did see her, it became apparent that was not the case.

I'm pleased to say that, now, she is doing much better. She's taken to drinking non-alcoholic wine during the week and recently came over and didn't drink. Sober, the same monsters lurking below the surface don't seem to come out. I'm told that, when she does drink, it's just as bad, but still, it's progress. She's recognizing there's a problem and taking concrete steps to do something about it. I'm proud of her. But I know she'll never get the professional help I believe she needs. She's told me mental health professionals are a bunch of quacks and psychotherapy is pseudo-science (a bit of an insult to her bipolar daughter whom she once sent to a teen psych ward). Maybe it's not fair that I bring up all the stuff she's put us through, the pain of seeing her in the hospital, not sure if she'd walk again or remember anything. But those things did happen and they did affect me. The stress of our relationship and my fears for her are, at least in part, responsible for a series of manic episodes I had. Anyway, they didn't help.

I wrote a book that's coming out next Spring. When writing the story of growing up bipolar with an eating disorder, I couldn't not mention my mother's drinking and our complicated relationship. One of the things I wanted most to convey was my love and respect for the brilliant, stunning woman who gave me life, my gratitude for all the opportunities and support she'd given me, even if it wasn't always exactly the support I needed, as well as my frustration and anxiety around her. She can't talk about feelings. She has no patience for emotions. I needed help and she didn't know how to give it. I was be doing a disservice to readers and myself if I didn't show how deeply that had affected me.

"You're writing your story, not hers, right?" My brother asked when we had a drink (well, I had a drink and he had a kombucha. He'd taken a break from drinking. "Because of Mom," he'd said). "Right, it's my story," I said. "She just plays kind of a big role in it."

After consulting with several friends, I decided not to show it to her much before it comes out, when no more changes can be made. It's my story and I'm going to tell it how I need to. I need to be vulnerable. I need to be honest. I do worry about what this will do to our relationship, but it's all stuff that needs to be spoken about more, mental illness and addiction and the things we don't like to talk about. Not talking about them stigmatizes them, buries the pain deep. I hope my story can give someone else courage and support. I want my mom to know how much I love her, as well as how she has hurt me, how we've hurt each other.

I recently re-watched the movie "Lady Bird" (love), which is about a wonderfully rich and complex and, at times, hurtful relationship between mother and daughter. It perfectly captures the complexity of that particular relationship. "If it's not one thing, it's the mother," my professor Jill McCorkle used to say. Mothers are wonderful, heroic, flawed human beings, just as daughters are. I know there are ways we've disappointed each other, caused stress and worry. It's a two-way street. Neither of us is perfect, though we both put pressure on ourselves to be.

Yes, this book will shake things up and expose some uncomfortable truths. I know there are parts my mother really won't like. "You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better,” writer Ann Lamott said. It's my story. And I'm telling it.

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