Born on St. Patrick’s Day

When you’re born on March 17, people love to pair your birthday with drinking and debauchery. But when you grow up accompanying your parents to AA meetings, it’s all a little less charming.

Born on St. Patrick’s Day

As the N train rolls to a stop at the platform, a friend tells me in a text message that her mother relapsed with alcohol again. I hit reply and type “Do you think she’ll try to get help this time?” and then, “But tell her to not go to AA!”

I delete the last part before hitting send. Just because it didn’t work for my mom doesn’t mean it won’t work for hers. Afterwards, I feel ugly and bitter. “Jesus fucking Christ,” I think to myself on the walk home from the station. “What kind of person tells the daughter of an alcoholic to stay away from AA?”

I was born on March 17, 1990. I was my mother Maureen’s belated birthday present ― her own birthday is March 16. I’m told that we combined celebrations when I was a little kid. She looked so tall then, and slim — in my mind, the most beautiful woman in the world. March 17 is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that to most is characterized by debauchery, green face paint, half-coherent homages to the Irish and vomiting. When I was younger it meant green dresses, and later, the breakfast my roommate dyed green for me one year, milk and waffles included. As a kid I didn’t understand that March 17 is a holiday many base around alcohol, and since then I’ve never acknowledged St. Patrick’s Day as anything but the day I turn a year older.

I’ve never discussed the subject with either my mother or my father, but being born on a holiday defined by alcohol is ironic for my family. Before I was born, Mom abused both drugs and alcohol like her father did when she was a child, and as I’m sure her grandfather did, too. She relapsed when I was in high school, couldn’t go to the grocery store without a drink and lost both her driver’s license and her job to the drinking disease. And as though she needs guilt, more reason to drink, she missed my college graduation while trapped at the bottom of a bottle, no money to even take the bus let alone buy a plane ticket from Seattle to New York.

One afternoon in 2014, my godmother Judith, an old friend of my mother’s, emailed me news about my mother while I was at work at the Columbia University Alumni Center. She didn’t want to write the word “homeless,” so she wrote she “doesn’t have a place to stay” instead. I closed the message and stared at my empty computer screen for a couple minutes, then got up from my desk and headed to the building’s lobby, where I called Judith. She told me that Maureen couldn’t keep her apartment — either it was too small or she couldn’t pay the rent. I couldn’t keep track of the conversation so I let Judith’s voice slide away even when she explained that maybe Mom got mugged, and that she was still dating Alan, her boyfriend of the past few years. Judith wondered if Maureen should make a card with an emergency contact on it and keep it in her back pocket — but who would it be? I am in New York; Judith is in Munich. I agreed but I knew that Maureen wouldn’t do it, even if I asked and she promised me she would. The conversation began to wind down but I didn’t ask if she knew whether my mother was sober. She didn’t bring the subject up either. So I said goodbye and thank you. I hung up and sat on the arm of one of the red couches in the lobby. I had been away from my desk for at least fifteen minutes. I wondered if anyone had noticed.

Writer and recovering alcoholic Clancy Martin says that in AA meetings all that can be heard is laughter, but in Al-Anon meetings all you hear is crying. Al-Anon meetings are for those affected by a loved one’s drinking, referred to as a co-dependent. I went to the kid version, Alateen, just as often as I went to AA with my mom, and later with my stepdad, who was also in recovery when I was a child; he never relapsed. In both places, though, I remember lots of laughter. In Alateen I learned how to become a victim, and that I was powerless to resist the damage to my relationships that alcoholism would inevitably cause. They told us that this sickness claims children too, taught us to watch for its specter like a shark warning on a popular beach. If we weren’t careful alcoholism would swallow us up like it did our parents. Alateen taught passivity, to not fight alcoholism but instead try to find peace in the aftermath of the havoc it creates. But I remember the laughter, always the laughter: to chase away fear of the future, to dilute the hopelessness of the present.

The author as a child, with her mother. (Photo courtesy Elisabeth Sherman)
The author as a child, with her mother. (Photo courtesy Elisabeth Sherman)

Before Alateen, I was a regular in AA meetings with my mother. If I passed a church that held meetings while I was with a friend, I would inwardly acknowledge its presence but never openly admit my secret knowledge. During meetings, I sat there listening to those private stories full of domestic violence and pawned wedding rings, adults of all ages stringing their last vestiges of hope along behind them like scrawny, homeless puppies. One time, during a meeting, I sat beside my mom and ate a bag of chips, the whole time focused on chewing quietly, letting the crunching noise fill up my head, partly so that I wouldn’t interrupt the speaker, and partly to block out the adult secrets being passed around right in front of me. AA taught me about the fallibility of the “adult authority figure.” Over the course of hundreds of AA meetings, I learned that even the big kids ordering me around were fuck-ups — that my own parents were, too.

I remember yellow lights in a church basement, Styrofoam cups filled with black coffee, folding chairs, old faces alongside my lone young one, and outside on the church steps, a coffee can filled with cigarette butts. In the church kitchen, I climbed up on the countertops and opened the cabinets until I found the box of sugar cubes stacked among bags of Lipton and Sweet’N Low, which I sucked on, two at a time. Old clichés about AA meetings are all true. People told stories and stood up at the end of meeting and recited the Serenity Prayer by heart. Let me try right now… “God grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I used to be able to render the twelve steps aloud on command. One of them is to make amends to the people your disease has harmed. Apologies are implicit in my mother’s relationship with me; she’s timid and cautious whenever we talk, slouched over in person or hesitant to ask me questions over the phone, as though by allowing our interactions I’m approving her bid for forgiveness.

My most persistent memory of AA is of my stepfather on a rainy night outside a church. Halfway through the meetings the participants take a break, maybe get a cup of coffee or have a smoke. On this particular night, I went outside with Tim. The rainy Seattle evening was so dark the world looked blue. The coffee can is the most present element of the memory: sitting there on the old stone steps, the label peeled off so it was shiny sliver, slick with rain water, halfway full of soggy cigarettes. I know the church too ― the door is a stone archway, a parking lot spread out before it. The shape of the memory is vague, but I know the experience is real, like my broken recollections of the joint birthday parties with Mom.

On the way home from work after the phone call with Judith, I stopped to buy eggnog and cherry pie. Neither of my parents answered their phones when I called them while waiting in line to pay for my groceries. First I called Maureen — no surprise that she didn’t answer. Then I called Dad. His lack of response was more unusual. I tried both of them twice before I gave up. When they didn’t call me back right away I imagined that they were both dead. I imagined Judith calling to tell me. I’d have to fly home right away. I’d sleep in my dad’s bed, under the heated blanket. Friends would come by to make sure I am eating and showering and I haven’t slit my wrists.

When I got home from the grocery store, I drank the eggnog straight out of the carton. I thought about how much better it would taste with a pint of whiskey mixed in. I wanted to be drunk on my bedroom floor, which is how I imagine my mother a lot of the time and that scared me into thinking I shouldn’t drink over the weekend, a resolution that I ended up sticking to. One time I called her while drunk, and when we talked again in the morning, sober, we agreed that maybe I should slow down a little, which sounded ridiculous coming from her. Shouldn’t she slow down? She’s the homeless one eating canned food from the Lutheran church’s donation box; who can’t even leave the house to check a book out from the library because she doesn’t have two dollars for bus fare. She’s the drunk. Not me.

Now that I’m in my twenties, I always drink to celebrate my birthday. This year will be no different. First, I’ll raise a glass to old St. Patrick, and second, to youth. I’ll sit down with a whiskey and take a shot for Bill W. and his Big Book that couldn’t save my mom. Then I’ll take another shot for my mom, who remains my best friend even after a DUI and probation. Then I’ll take another shot for me because it’s my birthday. And then I’ll be drunk, wondering, as young women often do, am I becoming my mother?