“Yet.” Every time she entered a rehabilitation center the word would appear on the wall. “Yet” meant if you haven’t hit your bottom—yet—just go out and try again until you make it. “You just keep going down until you finally get to ‘yet,’ and hit bottom,” she says.
My name is Ashley and my grandmother is an alcoholic. I spent 17 years of my not knowing her, and that would have been even longer if she had not found that bottom.[ashley]
– – –
After 18 years of marriage, my dad’s parents divorced and my grandma was struggling to hold things together. Dad was 12 at the time and his sister Pat, 17.
As the youngest, my dad was mostly shielded from knowing anything was wrong. “Not then, I didn’t know,” he says. “Not until I was about 15, and it didn’t get real obvious until I was almost 17.”
But his sister witnessed almost everything. “She became very withdrawn and wanted to get away from the world. She spent a lot of time in her room. The ability to communicate that had been her strength almost disappeared,” the sister—my aunt Pat—recalls.
And that began for the nearly 30 years that follows my grandmother’s life as an alcoholic. Vodka was the drink of choice. The descent began slowly; she had always been a social drinker, but eventually it got worse. “I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me, I would be in the hospital a few days, and I would come home—of course it was much worse than that,” she says.
She remarried three years after the divorce and lived with her husband on the tree farm where they still live today. Her husband would tell my dad about the alcohol she had hidden when we visited, but there wasn’t anything anyone could do. Each day she would wake up and spend the day drinking, but no one could stop her.
Growing up I didn’t know anything about this part of my grandmother’s life. My dad had moved to Kentucky when he was 18 and raised his family there; grandma lived in Michigan. We went up to visit once a year, and my aunt, who lives in California, brought her to visit us every spring.
As a child I was always embarrassed by the way grandma looked; polyester made up the majority of her wardrobe, and she always held her hair back with brightly colored scarves—quite the contrast to my other grandmother who was always perfectly put together, and what I thought of as the norm.
Today, Grandma Phyllis looks like any other grandma. Her silver is always pulled back and held in place by barrettes above each ear. She no longer dresses in polyester, but has replaced it with fashion more suitable for the times. But the changes go deeper than her outer appearance—she is a more confident person and has her life back in order.
Dad had told her when we were young that if she was ever drunk near us he wouldn’t let her see us, so she was able to pull herself together for those few days a year.
“I could tell it was hard for her, because I would notice her shaking,” my mom says. “But she wanted to be able to see you, so she managed to stay sober for a few days.”
The bottom came one day in May, 2001, when she passed out in her home and ended up at the hospital in a coma. “My mind wasn’t right,” she says, “I couldn’t walk.” Finally, this was Yet.
She couldn’t do much else. She was paralyzed from the waist down, and could barely use her arms. From the hospital she was moved to a nursing home and had to begin therapy so she could learn how to walk and regain the motor skills of everyday life.
It was hard for my Aunt Pat to see her in the nursing home, she could barely use her hands. “We went there and she was coherent, she was very weak, and I think very embarrassed, but we didn’t care.”
At this point, my own life changed more than I ever could have imagined. My grandmother was going to move from Michigan to Kentucky so my family could support her during her recovery, and I’ll be the first to admit I wasn’t all that thrilled. The grandmother I never really knew, the one I had seen probably twice a year, and even then only for weekends, was moving into our lives.
I’m supposed to be the favorite of the four kids in our family because I’m always willing to help my parents, so I wanted to be as supportive as I could in this situation. Mom and I spent our time looking at assisted living facilities and rehabilitation centers while dad was in Michigan getting everything in order. Each place we found seemed to produce a new problem: they were already full, too far away, or had reservations with her health care.
Eventually we found a place, a little further from our house than we would have liked, but otherwise a good fit. That fell through; it turned out to be a total care facility, more than she really needed, and we had to search again.
My parents were finally able to get her into an assisted living community, only five minutes from our house. It was a lot like a hotel, except everyone had walkers and canes.
“It was good for her to be there,” Mom said. They remind the residents to take pills and prepare their meals for them, but they can still have their independence.”
While she was there she began her alcohol rehabilitation at a nearby hospital. The job of getting her to and from these meetings every day fell to my mom. Not only did she take her to the meetings, she attended them too, something grandma says is probably one of the things that helped her with getting through them initially.
“I don’t think I could’ve done it because I didn’t know anybody,” she says. “But as a stranger it was also easier for me to become involved.”
Mom admits she sometimes worried that someone she knew would see her at the meetings, and think she had a problem, but she soon got over that. At every Alcoholics Anonymous meeting the members introduce themselves and say their name and add after their names “I’m an alcoholic.” When it got to mom, she would say her name, and explain she was there to support her mother-in-law.
It wasn’t an easy time for the rest of us either. My older brother was 19 at the time, and wasn’t spending much time at home, but my youngest brother was 13 years old and my sister was 15, both were very involved in sports and neither could drive. I was often put in charge of transporting my sister, and that left Mom with my brother and grandma. Dad was always working or doing something for others because he can’t seem to turn anyone down who needs help.
At first mom was taking grandma to AA meetings six times a week. “Some days I was okay with it, and other days I got aggravated,” she says. “If I had other things to do, I didn’t feel like I had time for it, but I knew it was important.”
Dad spent as much time as he could with grandma. He visited her every morning before work, and otherwise as often as he could. We kids we weren’t as supportive; our school, sports and friends took up the majority of our time, and as teenagers, we weren’t as concerned with anything outside our lives.
To my brothers and sister she was Beer-ma, a nickname my brother came up with when she first moved to Kentucky. We would be prodded into visiting her, and occasionally my brother and I would drive her to meetings, but otherwise we tried to avoid the situation as much as possible. Most of my friends knew grandma was sick and living in Kentucky, but I didn’t tell most of them anything else.
Alcoholism is something that happened to other people, not me; it didn’t fit in the world of private schools and well-to-do lives of everyone around me. But alcoholism has attacked more than just my grandmother’s life. It is a worldwide plague that can destroy the lives of not only an alcoholic, but the lives of their families as well. Alcoholics Anonymous alone has more than 2,000,000 members more than 150 countries.
After four months of assisted living, grandmother had regained the skills she needed to truly live on her own. She moved into an apartment a few blocks from our house to continue her recovery.
One Saturday my parents were out of town for business, and called to suggest we drive over and visit grandma. It wasn’t a long trip, but we didn’t want to go. After an hour of pretending that we couldn’t go, my sister and younger brother piled into my car and off we went. To our surprise grandma was up and ready for the day. She offered us a drink, and we sat around her table talking about the weather and what everyone had been doing. She told us of some new friends she had made, and how she liked to walk outdoors every day, discovering the area around her new home. This was nothing like the frail person she had been when she first moved to Kentucky.
“In hindsight I can see I couldn’t have coped with what I have now,” my Grandma says. “I never could’ve coped with it. Even though I wanted to come home real bad then I couldn’t have taken it. I had to have just me to learn how to handle things, everyday stuff.”
Things around our own house continued on as usual. I began my last semester of high school, and was busy thinking about prom, graduation and my last summer before college.
It then became apparent the number of people who should be invited to attend graduation was greater than the number of tickets the school allotted to each senior; I had eight tickets and nine family members in my immediate family.
“Why should I tell someone who has been a part of my entire life that they can’t come when I haven’t even known grandma until now?” I screamed at mom as we were driving home one night.
“If that is how you feel, then you can tell her yourself,” mom told me, knowing that I would never bring myself to say such a thing.
But it wasn’t fair. I wanted both of my brothers and my sister to be there, along with my parents, my mom’s parents, and my aunt Pat. These were the people who had seen me grow up, who had been there for all of my young life’s tragedies and triumphs. My grandma wasn’t on that list, but I knew I was acting like a spoiled brat.
The solution was simple because my little brother had a baseball game that same day anyhow, but he would have skipped the game if I’d asked him too. I was angry, but there wasn’t anything I could say.
“I knew at the time what you were saying to me,” my Mom remembers. “But I had to do what I knew was right. She wanted to become a part of your lives.”
– – –
On May 24, 2002, my grandmother celebrated her first year of sobriety. It has been almost four years since that date, and she is still sober. She moved back to Michigan right after her first anniversary, and continued with her recovery.
Grandma was at first going to AA meetings every day, “now I go four times a week, but church also counts so that’s five. I thought when I got to two years I’d cut down, but I kept thinking that’s just kind of hurrying things—maybe three years. Then I got to three years and I thought the same thing. Now I’m so used to four times plus church on Sunday that it would seem funny to miss them.”
AA has changed her life: not only has it helped her stay sober, but she is really interested in the work they do there. “I think that’s what keeps me going,” she says. “Most all their stories are a lot worse than mine. They’ve lost family, they’ve lost jobs, you name it they’ve lost it. A lot have been in jail, some in prison. The meetings are an eye opener for me; I didn’t have it so bad as I thought it did.”
She said she also realized that she could never take another drink again, unless she was ready to repeat what others around her had gone through.
“It’s a disease, it’s an incurable disease. You have to decide if you want to die from it, or if you want to live.”
Grandma has made her decision and has the courage to go to meetings and say “I am an alcoholic,” and then help others around her. Her strength is what makes me most proud of her. It has also brought back the mother my dad and aunt grew up with.
My aunt says that, “Seeing her now reminds me of how she was when we were kids. My mother has a gift and she is realizing she can share that with others, and she is doing that again. She is getting involved in a lot of different things, and she is enjoying it.”
Grandma’s latest venture was to the 154th Annual Kentucky Alcoholism Convention. The convention took place at a hotel near our home, so she traveled with members of her Michigan group and was able to see my family and attend with friends she made at meetings.
“Seeing her this weekend is the best. She was so happy and energetic,” My dad says with a smile.
As for me, I have slowly been building a relationship with Grandma. After my graduation I followed her up to Michigan for college and now we live only an hour apart.
The first few visits were awkward, both of us searching for things to talk about with many long gaping silences. But slowly we have grown to know one another, and have created new memories of our own. I drive to see her when I can abandon the piles of work I let stack up for the weekend, and she finds a new restaurant to take me to each time.
We’ve also had our share of trips back to Kentucky together. The last trip was an adventure of its own. We were on a back highway in Ohio when I was pulled over for the first time in my life. After frantically searching through my cluttered glove-box for my registration the officer told me she could just issue the ticket without it. I was so rattled by the cop and my own lack of organization that I started to cry.
My grandma just kept knitting in the seat next to me, and put her arm on my shoulder to comfort me. She didn’t say anything, but just let me knew she was there, and I appreciated it. She doesn’t give her opinion unless asked, and she never, ever judges me.
“She’ll never be pushy, but she will be there, and there is nothing better than that,” my aunt tells me when I share the story of my ticket.
Grandma told me the same thing about having family around to support her during her recovery. “That was important to me, knowing I was being looked after by my family. They showed me with their love and their caring what was the best thing, but they didn’t say you have to do this, they just suggested that we have looked into this, and maybe this is something that will help you,” she says about all the housing and rehabilitation programs my parents and aunt suggested for her.
There were tears in her eyes as she told me she no longer has to worry about ‘yet’; she’s seen the bottom and knows what it’s like there. Now her only worries are meetings, knitting, and making sure I’m well fed when I visit.

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