My mother has been a teetotaler since before I was born. When I was a small child, she told me, "We're teetotalers," and when I asked what that meant, she said it meant the strongest thing we drink is tea. What teetotaler actually stands for is someone who believes in "Total Abstinence" with a capital T -- someone who never imbibes any kind of alcohol (thank you, PBS documentary on Prohibition). Being a teetotaler seemed to be a big part of my mother's identity, alongside being a mother, a volunteer, and a virgin (more on that another time).
My family is not, in fact, made up entirely of teetotalers. One of my uncles was an alcoholic and another had a cocaine problem. Both were good men, but they are dead now. My mother started abusing prescription drugs when I was about 14, but it took me over a decade to realize what was happening.
My mother and I took a trip together the summer I turned 14. That was the first time I remember her talking about how much her hip hurt. She complained of the pain any time she was expected to walk for any distance. She took one of my dad's handicapped placards and started using it in her own car so that she wouldn't have to use the regular parking spaces. She visited multiple doctors, but the only thing anyone could find wrong with her was something one doctor mentioned to do with her heel. She said the doctor told her she could have surgery on her heel and it might fix the pain in her hip, but that it was very expensive and not likely to work. She opted to forgo surgery (this was several years after she'd canceled our medical insurance) and simply take muscle relaxants and pain killers while continuing to walk as little as possible.
Her first muscle relaxant was called Soma. I remember this because I was reading Brave New World in school at the time, and Soma was the name of the hallucinogenic drug in the book. There was something weird about how she acted when she took Soma. For as long as I've known her, my mother has been chronically miserable and easy to upset. Sometimes back then she was happy and fun -- I don't want you to think she wasn't, and I adored her like a duckling loves its mother -- but she was also volatile and usually had several large mood swings per day. It was the only way I'd ever known her. My dad was the same way.
On the Soma, she laughed easily, even at home when there was no one to impress. Things that might normally set her off just rolled off her shoulder. She reminisced about how she'd once gotten drunk on wine coolers with a boyfriend at a New Year's Eve party, and when I quickly did the math and pointed out that she must've been underage at the time, she said, "Oh yeah. I guess I was," and laughed wildly.
I remember thinking, "I should be happy. I should be relieved she's relaxed and not upset," but I felt scared. She hadn't approved of drinking even in moderation even for full adults at any point in my life. She'd tried to shame her one friend for drinking white wine; she'd warned her that she'd give herself breast cancer like her sister had. On Soma, my mother seemed like an entirely different person, which maybe should have been a good thing in this instance, but it felt like more of an "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" level of change. Years later, I looked up the drug online and read that this sort of change in behavior is a symptom of overdose. I had been scared because my mother was high. I hadn't realized the drug wasn't meant to make her that way.
I remember telling my mother that I didn't like how she seemed so different on the Soma, that it weirded me out. She said I just didn't want her to feel better.
If I were to make a timeline of my life, I would include a mark at age 15 labeled "Mother Starts to Go Crazy." I don't know a better way to word what was happening because I don't know what was happening, but it was one of my life's important landmarks. A doctor told her she was "perimenopausal" and gave her some pills to make her stop menstruating. I don't know what else she was taking at the time or even if the pills were relevant, but that was when she started accusing me of "changing," which I probably did at 15, though I tried my hardest not to appear any different to her. Physically I was already full grown, and it was hard to hide that fact, no matter how much I tried to act like I was still a child at home. She became increasingly unpredictable. I became increasingly terrified of doing anything wrong. Nothing about her or her reactions seemed to make sense anymore.
I only know a handful of the prescription drugs that followed. There were more muscle relaxants and pain killers. Sleeping pills became a favorite since she often napped all day, leaving her wired at night, when the anxiety attacks took hold. When she freaked out at her doctor's insistence that she cut back on the sleeping pills -- that he didn't want her taking them every single day -- I suggested she cut back on the naps and go outside and move around a little during the day so that she would be more tired at night. I thought I was helping. "Stop trying to solve my problems! I just want you to listen!" she said, and her doctor kept prescribing the pills. Or maybe she found another doctor. She had a knack for finding ones who would prescribe what she wanted. Later came the anti-depressants and I'm not sure what else, and that was when things got really bad.