I felt compassion for a stranger, but not my own mother

Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I would stop for coffee and a donut every day on the way to work. There was a coffee shop right at the corner where I caught my second bus, and I could usually time it so that I had my order and was back at the bus stop right as my connection was pulling up.

There was an older woman who hung out on the corner. She asked me to buy her coffee a few times, and I did. Eventually it got to the point where I would check with her and offer to get her a cup if someone else hadn’t already bought one for her. She would coo at Ayva who was a baby then, and tell me how much she appreciated me. If my bus was running late, she would stand under the bus shelter with us asking me questions about Ayva’s eating and sleeping habits and giving me tips.

This woman was obviously an addict, but something about her personable nature reminded me of someone I knew. Even though I didn’t have a lot to give, I was grateful to at least be able to buy her a cup of coffee a few days a week.

One day, my coffee buddy had apparently asked another woman to buy her coffee. As I walked up, I heard the woman cursing my buddy out. She told her that she needed to get her life together, and that it wasn’t everyone else’s responsibility to take care of her. The woman mentioned her own bills and needing to take care of her family and their needs, and that my buddy needed to do something other than beg on the corner. My coffee buddy was clearly embarrassed, and was yelling back, “You can just say no! You can just say no!” as she walked away quickly up the street.

The next day, my buddy was back out there again. I felt bad for what she had went through the day before, so I offered to buy her a breakfast sandwich as well as a coffee. Her order was big, and I spent my entire week’s coffee budget on it. I was frustrated, but I did offer. I wanted her to get what she wanted, but at the same time I couldn’t believe that she would assume that it was okay to order as much as she did.

It was then that I realized exactly who she reminded me of.

My mother.

Why is it so easy to show compassion to strangers?

My mother is an alcoholic. She had been sober for over a decade when she started drinking again right before my daughter was born. She wasn’t there for most of my adolescent years due to her struggle, but we were able to start building a relationship once I became a young adult.

Whenever I would call my mom and hear her slurring, or stop by her house and smell the beer coming out of her pores, I was disgusted. I know (and knew) that addiction is a disease, but it made me sick to my stomach to see her like that. If we were on the phone, I would hang up. If I was at her house, I would cut my visit short. I had no patience at all for my drunk mother.

The woman on the corner, though? Even though she was clearly high or drunk every single morning? Not only was I not disgusted, but I actually felt compassion towards her. I prayed many times on that second bus on my way to work, that she would get well and be healed one day.

I barely ever prayed for my mom.

A couple of times I kicked her out of my house.

I yelled at her. Screamed at her. Didn’t talk to her for months and months. Not even on Mother’s Day.

Why was it so easy to show compassion to this woman who I didn’t know and I couldn’t even show it to my own mother?

Pain. Disappointment. Sadness.

Personal history makes understanding difficult

My mother and I have a deep and complicated history that colors the way that I feel about her, and the way that I treat her. It’s easy to treat strangers kindly and feel empathy for their situation when they haven’t wronged you.

I wanted my mother to be different. There were so many instances when I was a child and as an adult, when I needed her to be there and she just wasn’t. I felt like she didn’t honor her role to me as a mom. In return, I didn’t play the role that most daughters play.

The day that my coffee buddy busted my budget with her upscale breakfast taste, I was reminded of my mom. When she was (is) drinking, she isn’t thinking about anyone but herself. She’s a changed person. She takes what she can get from people and is only focused on getting what she needs. I realized that, just like I did with that woman every morning, I needed to separate the human being that my mom is from the addict.

How to love an addict

It’s still not easy for me to engage with my mom when she’s drinking. It’s embarrassing to me that my mom is still struggling after all these years. That’s not her issue, though. I know now that she can’t be worried about how I’m feeling. Her energy needs to be focused on getting well and staying sober.

The choosing to forgive / love / accept her part is all on me. In order to be able to love my mother, I have to see her as a person. As much as I wish that she could be the mom that bakes cookies and babysits and is always there for me, she isn’t. If I can’t love her just as she is, then there’s work that I need to do.

To love an addict doesn’t mean that I have to be responsible to her needs. I started buying coffee for that woman at the bus stop, but I didn’t have to. Spending my coffee money on her breakfast was my choice. I can’t be mad at my mom if I’m choosing to allow her in my life.

Learning to see the addict as a person

I’ve learned that each day is a new day. One day I might call and she’s not doing okay. Instead of berating her, I know that I can’t manage her sickness, and I offer to call her another time. If I call back and she’s not drinking and we have a great conversation, I thank God.

I have no expectations of her, and don’t want to saddle her down with any responsibilities for me. When she’s good, I’m happy. On days that I get my mom and not the addict, I’m ecstatic. My heart isn’t broken as much, and I’m sure my mom appreciates the space to get better without having to worry about me.

Who would have thought that a small gesture towards a stranger would lead me to this huge discovery? Now, I pray for my mother every night. And I still send one up every now and then for the woman on the corner who helped me to see my mom as a person again.

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