A letter to mom | Translation
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Translated by MC Editorial
[Daniel Alarcón]: A word of caution: this episode contains descriptions of child abuse and substance abuse, not suitable for children.
This is Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
We get proposals for stories almost every day. But on April 23, 2021, we received a slightly different proposal from the ones we normally receive. A very personal one. It looked more like a letter.
The first sentence read:
“Hello! I can’t believe I’m writing this email. My name is Carla and I live in Argentina . . .”
[Carla]: Hello, I can’t believe I’m writing this email. My name is Carla and I live in Argentina. I grew up being the mother of my alcoholic and narcotics-addict mother, coming home from school to find her on the floor passed out from mixing muscle relaxants with vodka.
[Daniel]: I’m not going to tell you now everything Carla said in her letter. She’ll do that herself. But I can tell you that everyone on the team was impacted by her sincerity and how lucidly she analyzed what she had experienced . . . Also, her courage in wanting to tell it.
[Carla]: And I experienced a lot of violence, abuse and mistreatment both from her and from her environment. The situation got to such an extreme that after years of trying to get away and not being able to, and the pain it caused me, I managed to leave for good.
[Daniel]: However, at the end of her letter Carla told us something that surprised us. That a few months earlier, she had decided to talk to her mother again. She wanted to understand why. Why the alcohol, why the violence. Why so much pain.
Carla needed to understand what had happened to her, and also her feelings toward her mother. She needed to know, above all, if she would be able to forgive her.
[Carla]: Many people do not understand it; they judge me for reconnecting with the person who tortured me for years. I did the same, at first.
[Daniel]: And that’s what this story is going to be about: the limits of forgiveness and reconciliation. Can you heal a relationship between two people—a daughter and a mother—who have experienced things that seem irreparable? Can someone who has been violent change?
We’ll accompany Carla to find out.
We’ll be back after a short break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. Fernanda Guzmán and Nicolás Alonso investigated this story. Fernanda picks up the story.
[Fernanda Guzmán]: When I read Carla’s letter, I felt something strange: I also have a very difficult history with my mother, and, in a way, it was like reading an alternate version of my own life. With some big differences, of course. But I could understand perfectly those feelings she was describing, those questions. I had asked them myself many times.
I knew right away that this was a story I wanted to produce. Mostly because it touches one of the great common sayings that we repeat daily: “There is only one mother.” “Nothing can be stronger than mother’s love.” It’s something that cannot be questioned, that seems automatic: a mother must be loved, no matter what. You have to be with her, whatever happens. It’s a message that comes to us from everywhere.
But for many people the relationship with their mother is much more complex than that. And that’s how it was for Carla ever since she was a child. In the early years of her life, she saw very little of her mother, who worked late hours at a gas plant.
But still, she made efforts to be present in her life.
[Carla]: I noticed that she would come home very tired, but despite everything, she would come for dinner and tell us a story. She would tell us the whole story until we fell asleep. And that was her way of showing us that she was present.
[Fernanda]: Her father was always very distant, both with her and with her older brother. But her mother showed those loving gestures that remained etched in her memory. Years later, when Carla tried to understand how everything had collapsed, she would remember them again.
[Carla]: In general, very affectionate, very much so. All the physical affection I have received came from her. Up to that moment, my mom was just fine.
[Fernanda]: Carla couldn’t say exactly when her mother stopped being well. But she is sure of one thing: When she was about ten years old, she began to have the strange feeling that her mother was no longer with her. Not fully.
She felt it at night, when they sat down to watch television as a family.
[Carla]: And my mom was just there. With her gaze fixed on the TV . . . But she was kind of lost. And I remember I would stare at her sometimes because she surprised me . . . I don’t know why I used to look at my mother a lot when I was little.
[Fernanda]: She watched her eat, she watched her face, her eyes.
[Carla]: I kind of wanted . . . I don’t know, to look for her eyes. And it is precisely because I wanted to find her eyes that I realized that her gaze was not there.
[Fernanda]: But that wasn’t all.
[Carla]: When she . . . recovered, let’s say, when she came back, she would yell at me. And it bothered her a lot. ”Why are you looking at me? Stop looking at me.”
[Fernanda]: Carla didn’t know what to say. Sometimes it seemed to her as if her mother had multiple personalities. And for a ten-year-old girl, there was only one explanation for those abrupt changes.
She wrote it down constantly.
[Carla]: My mom is crazy, mom is crazy, my mom is crazy. In all my books there is “my mom is crazy,” because sometimes she had this super-nice personality and, OK, good, mom. But other times she was like, “get out of here, and don’t talk to me, and I don’t want to have anything to do with you.”
[Fernanda]: Nor could she find refuge in her father, who was sick with diabetes and sometimes aggressive towards her too. He got irritated if she spoke or made any noise. She walked around the apartment trying not to wake him up from his nap, trying not to disturb her mother in the kitchen. Trying not to cross anyone.
[Carla]: I always felt like a nuisance, that I was in the way, that I was annoying all the time, and I thought, “Well, what am I doing here then?”
[Fernanda]: The day her father was hospitalized in intensive care after suffering a heart attack due to the severity of his diabetes, the situation became even worse. From that moment on, the silence in the house grew thicker, loaded with anguish. Her father spent almost two weeks in the hospital. Her older brother spent all day on the street. She had no one but her mother.
But she saw her slide farther and farther away from this world.
[Carla]: The few times I saw her, my mother was like more lost than usual, in a deeper crisis, and it was reasonable. It was understandable; the whole situation was very stressful.
[Fernanda]: It was understandable that she was like this . . . in addition to the home, her children, she had to start being a nurse to her husband, who left the hospital in very poor health and would eventually have to get dialysis in the afternoons, every other day.
But for Carla, stress didn’t come just from her family. She had just been transferred to a new school. She had no friends, the classes were tough . . . When she was there, all she wanted was to go home. But when she went home, it made her want to run somewhere else.
One afternoon, when she returned from school, Carla opened the door and found her mother lying on the floor.
[Carla]: At that moment I thought she was dead and I was desperate. So I was like running around and I saw there was some kind of puddle around her, which at that moment I thought it was water- A puddle near her head.
[Fernanda]: Scared, she tried to get her mom to react.
[Carla]: And . . . and then I started to slap her . . . shake her, trying to see if she would wake up or if there was some way to revive her. Because I thought she was dead, because I didn’t even see her breathing. And suddenly, when she woke up . . . the first thing she said to me was, “I hate you, I should have aborted you.”
[Fernanda]: That scene became an everyday thing: coming home from school to find her mother passed out. As well as the insults.
[Carla]: Since there was nothing else I could do, I said, “Yes, ma, you’re right. Yes, well, but it’s OK now, it’s OK. You’re right, I won’t do it again.” Or things like that, like admitting guilt, which is something that has nothing to do with what . . . what I was doing.
[Fernanda]: When she said those things, her mom seemed to calm down. Then Carla would take advantage of the moment and drag her down the hall to her room. She barely managed to lay her down on the bed, cover her up, and let her sleep.
I asked Carla if she remembered what she used to think at that time, after leaving her mother sleeping, as the afternoon wore on. What explanation did she give herself, at ten years old, for those fainting spells and for the fury that followed.
[Carla]: That she was possessed. I had never seen anything like what I saw in her: she became absent, she became someone else . . . Her face changed completely, the way she looked at me changed. She didn’t see me as a daughter, and she didn’t treat me like a daughter. She looked at me like a . . . a, I don’t know . . . I don’t know, like a stranger, an enemy.
[Fernanda]: But when she woke up . . . she was her mother again.
[Carla]: At that point I imagined the demon had left her. That what she needed was to sleep and . . . and the devil would go away, and she would get up to the bathroom and speak to me normally . . . kind of tired . . . as if she had a headache, I could tell because she would grab her head. And just as if nothing had happened, which made it worse for me. We didn’t speak, we didn’t talk about it.
[Fernanda]: Although her mother did say something to her: never to say anything about that to her grandparents or to anyone who visited them. Carla could think of only one thing.
[Carla]: The only thing in my head at the time was that I had to save her and help her recover.
[Fernanda]: As Carla told us in her letter, the roles between them changed. Although she was only a child, she had to start being a mother, in a sense. Trying to protect her, make her feel good. But as time went on, she began to understand what was happening to her mother. She began to realize that, when she picked her up, she was unable to walk well. That she spoke nonsense, she stumbled . . .
[Carla]: From a young age you know what a drunk person is like because we see it all the time. We know how they move, how they talk; we know what more or less a drunkard is. So I kind of saw her like that, but at the same time I didn’t identify it clearly. And later I began to realize—obviously because of that, I realized that she was drunk. But I didn’t understand why so much, why like that.
[Fernanda]: Over time, she found some mechanisms to survive what was happening to her. Blaming herself, putting her mother to bed, waiting for her to be herself again. But one day, at age 11, that was no longer enough.
Her drunken mother took a kitchen knife and began to make threats, saying she was going to kill herself and that she would hurt her.
[Carla]: And I remember screaming at her: “MAAAAAAAA!” Like that, but with a . . . with such a scream that my throat was ripping with despair. And I remember that I even fell from . . . from the effort my body made. I don’t know, when I yelled, I fell to the floor.
[Fernanda]: The scream seemed to bring her mother out of her trance.
[Carla]: She said, “Carla, Carla, Carla!” And she approached me and hugged me, she hugged me and said, “It’s OK, it’s OK, it’s OK. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. It was a joke, it was a joke, it was a joke.” It was like she came back, her gaze returned for a few seconds, but after a while it vanished again.
[Fernanda]: But those seconds were not enough for her to drop the knife. And she immediately threatened to hurt Carla again.
Carla ran to the phone to call her brother.
[Carla]: And I said, “Please come, mother is doing such and such.” And I don’t know how, but he arrived in a matter of minutes.
[Fernanda]: Her brother was able to quickly take the knife away. Carla slept terrified that night. And the next night, and many more, for years.
I think it doesn’t make much sense to continue recounting in detail everything that Carla suffered during her teenage years, while her mother continued to descend in a spiral of alcohol and violence from which she never, ever thought she could come back.
And one she never understood the reasons for.
Suffice it to say that at the age of 18, while saving up to be able to leave home, the moment came when she understood that she could no longer delay her departure. One morning, after returning from work, she found the usual: alcohol, screaming. Her mother threw herself on top of her, and once again Carla thought she was going to die. When she finally managed to get loose, Carla not only called her brother, but also the police, who came to the apartment right away to see what was going on.
That night, her dad was hospitalized again. Her brother convinced her not to bring charges against her mother, but that was the last straw.
[Carla]: And she woke up the next day saying, “How are you, Carlita? How was work yesterday?” I didn’t . . . I looked at her like this, with fear, I couldn’t believe her. And I remember she came a little closer and she said, “What’s wrong?” And I was like, “No, don’t come near, don’t come near.” I was scared to death. That’s when leaving my house became an urgent need. My house was never a home.
[Fernanda]: She started looking for a place to go. But still, Carla didn’t stop worrying about her mother. She told her that it would be the best for both of them, she tried to involve her in her move. She didn’t have much money, but she could afford to rent something small. She was afraid her mother would have a big crisis about her leaving, but she also felt she had no other options.
By then, it was a matter of survival.
When she got to her new apartment, small and almost unfurnished, she felt in a safe place, for the first time in a long time.
[Carla]: I wanted no more misery or sadness. So, lots of color in my house. Just incense, incense, lots of scents. And music, my music playing all the time. And then I also realized that I didn’t know who I was, and that was like wow! I didn’t know who I was for basic things, like, I don’t know . . . what I was like with other people, or what it was like thinking about things I wanted. That was crazy for me—thinking about myself, because my life had always been thinking about my mom.
[Fernanda]: The day Carla left, her mother felt more lost than ever. For years, she had felt a strong disconnect from the world around her. She barely remembered what she had done the past few days, the past few weeks, the previous months. But she knew that Carla was gone, and that she had done this to get away from her.
[Jaquelina]: A feeling of anguish, of despair. My world fell apart, but I couldn’t tell my daughter not to leave, because I know the kind of hell she was experiencing here.
[Fernanda]: This is Jaquelina, Carla’s mother.
When I started producing this story, I asked Carla if she was okay with my talking to her mom. She said it was fine, and she gave me her phone number. It seemed important to me to understand when Jaquelina’s life had started to go wrong.
I wrote to her on WhatsApp and she said to call her on a Thursday afternoon. When we connected, one of the things she explained was that she reached a point when she drank herself to oblivion.
[Jaquelina]: I got to a point where I would get up, eat, go to bed because I was drunk all day. I would get up, make dinner, go back to bed, and that was it. That was my whole life . . .
[Fernanda]: Jaquelina says alcohol became a problem after she lost her job, when Carla was a child, with her sick husband and an anxiety that began to grow in her like a force.
Although, in reality, her anxiety came long before.
When Jaquelina was born, her mother was 18 years old. The following year, her first sister was born, with cerebral palsy. Then there would be six more.
[Jaquelina]: And I had to be the . . . the older sister, the one who took care of the others, and so on. And my mom was always pregnant, having children, having children. And with a very violent man.
[Fernanda]: Jaquelina told us about her father’s violence against her mother and . . . well, a childhood like the one she had leaves scars.
She tried to protect her siblings from what was going on at home.
When her sister with cerebral palsy passed away, at the age of 8, her mother fell into a depression from which she would no longer emerge. She spent entire days in bed and Jaquelina had to take care of everything: cleaning the house, cooking, taking care of her siblings. When she took on that new role, as her mother’s replacement, she also inherited the beatings from her father.
Then Jaquelina began to replicate that violence.
[Jaquelina]: I had problems . . . I was violent. I mean, I was hitting boys on the street. I had to take care of my own siblings, so I . . . I could hit them, too. They beat me, so I beat my siblings. And so, it was a never-ending cycle.
[Fernanda]: When she turned 14 years old, her parents took her to a psychiatrist, who prescribed Lexotanil, a strong anxiolytic that she started taking regularly.
This is how her relationship with narcotics began.
[Jaquelina]: There came a time that for whatever little thing I . . . I took meds . . .
[Fernanda]: She started taking pills uncontrollably, while she got used to being the mother of her siblings and her own mother. She felt that she had to protect them, but at the same time, she was becoming increasingly aggressive.
At 23, when she became pregnant with her first child, she decided she would raise him on her own. The father had no desire to be there, nor did she want him to. She had the feeling that this way, alone with the baby, she would be able to give him what she never had: a healthy childhood, free of violence.
[Jaquelina]: And I said: “My son will never in his life see me as depressed as I have seen my mother. My son will never see such a thing.” And after some years, look what happened to me, falling into an addiction so deep that he not only saw me depressed, he saw me in much worse, more painful situations.
[Fernanda]: Almost two years later, she met the man who would become her husband, and forgot about her plan to live alone with her child. She decided to start a family, and for a while, that life seemed to work. Jaquelina felt that she had never been so happy.
[Jaquelina]: I learned there was another way to live, other than yelling and fighting and arguing all the time, and all that violence that was going on at my house.
[Fernanda]: It didn’t take long for her to get pregnant. Then Carla arrived.
[Jaquelina]: And the pregnancy was beautiful because my husband was by my side, because we were expecting her. We were all happy.
[Fernanda]: That happiness lasted several years. The point when it became apparent to her that her family was falling apart was when her husband was hospitalized in 2006.
But she was already ill before, from the moment she was fired from her job at the plant . . . It was the early 2000s, and the worst economic crisis in the history of Argentina was beginning to unfold.
Jaquelina would go out early to look for work, but she would sit in a corner all day, alone. She can’t explain why. Except that she was terrified of going to interviews. And it was then that she began to drink . . .
[Jaquelina]: I started gradually, which was to have lunch and relax.
[Fernanda]: She had never liked alcohol much, but felt that something in that little ritual reassured her.
As time went on, she started needing it more and more.
[Jaquelina]: I never thought that I be unable to handle it; I would say, “Well, I’ll drink less tomorrow,” and so on. And I wouldn’t stop. And I was desperate to get home and drink.
[Fernanda]: She would get a job here and there to raise some money for her husband’s medical expenses, school supplies, and food. But she spent more and more of her money on alcohol.
When she managed to stay sober for a while, all the guilt fell on her.
[Jaquelina]: Shame, depression. A lot of anxiety. Having everyone angry at me, my children, my husband . . . It made me . . . it made me very sick, but that led me to drinking again.
[Fernanda]: She hid the bottles in corners of the house where she thought Carla and her brother would never check. And she tried not to talk much, so they wouldn’t notice the odor. She managed to hide it during the morning, but by the afternoon, when Carla came home from school, she had already passed out.
Jaquelina hated her own smell.
[Jaquelina]: You have that smell of alcohol that comes out of your pores, which is a very particular smell when you have been alcoholic for a long time. No matter how much you bathe, no matter what you do . . . you use perfume and everything, and it mixes together and is a smell that stays in your memory. I have it engraved—it is the smell of decadence, the smell of sadness. The pain you feel.
[Fernanda]: She tried to convince herself that Carla, being so young, would not notice anything.
But we already know that Carla did notice.
When Carla left home at the age of 19, she did not cut off her relationship with Jaquelina entirely. She kept coming to visit from time to time. She realized that her mother was not doing better, but she could leave if she felt she was in danger.
Carla paid for her apartment by working in call centers, saving to make ends meet. Jaquelina was trying to convince her to come back; she told her she was afraid that something would happen to her because she was alone, but Carla refused. In fact, she wanted to get away from her more and more. That feeling grew during those years. To get far away from her family, from her city, from her country. Away from it all.
[Carla]: I was looking for a home. I think I grew up always looking for a home.
[Fernanda]: When she turned 24, she finally made up her mind. She would look for her home in Santiago de Chile, a capital where no one would know her and she could start a new life. But things didn’t turn out the way she expected.
When she was about to leave, a friend joined the plan, and Carla couldn’t say no. They rented two rooms in downtown Santiago, and Carla began to pay for both. They sold sweets on the street, but after a few months, they had barely anything to eat. Then her friend said that she would return to Argentina and send the money she owed her.
Carla waited, but she never came back. At that point, she had lost a lot of weight and felt so weak that she would get dizzy in the middle of the street.
Desperate, she had to ask for help. A friend bought her a plane ticket back to Argentina, and her parents told her that she could live with them again. At least for a while, until she settled in and could find work again. When she got off the plane, she saw her parents waiting for her among the people. She approached her mother.
And then she smelled the odor.
[Carla]: After not seeing me for a long time, she showed up completely drunk. So, it was like welcome to your life . . . to your life! To this hole that you can’t get out of ever again.
[Fernanda]: But Carla was no longer a child and would not stay in the hole for long.
One evening, she and Jaquelina were making ravioli, and her mother told her that she had to go out to see a client from work. Carla knew immediately what it was all about.
[Carla]: That day I got fed up, because it happened so many times that she played dumb, but what do you mean, are you kidding me?
[Jaquelina]: And my daughter followed me.
[Carla]: In another situation I would not have followed her, but that day I felt like doing it, because it made me angry. So, I waited for her.
[Jaquelina]: So she saw that I was buying alcohol and drinking it. And she looked at me as if to say, I knew you were doing this.
[Carla]: And when she saw me, I just looked at her with the beer can and I said, “Weren’t you going to see a client?”
[Jaquelina]: I got mad at her. “Why do you intrude in my life, why, do you have to persecute me? You jerk, what do you have to do . . . ?”
[Fernanda]: Carla left her mother shouting and ran to the apartment. She felt different from the other times, more hurt, especially since they had had a great time together that afternoon. She had felt that they had a special connection again.
[Carla]: That is what I have always wanted the most—that closeness, that connection with my mother. And . . . and it hurt a lot.
[Fernanda]: Jaquelina arrived shortly afterwards, and the fight continued at home. But this time it was Carla who was furious.
[Carla]: She managed to sort of touch me, because I was pushing her. And in my head, something happened. In a split second, a microsecond, something clicked, and I heard myself say, “No, this is not going to happen again.”
[Fernanda]: Like a flash, Carla saw the image of that night, at age 18, when she’d had to call the police.
[Carla]: And something in my head told me, “No, I’m going to defend myself. This time I’m going to defend myself. I’m not going to allow it.” And it was like . . . that . . . that thought, that memory, everything that happened in that split second, it drove me completely out of my mind. And that’s when I started hitting.
[Fernanda]: Hitting her mother, the walls, everything that was near. Carla still has a hard time understanding how she reacted that day.
[Carla]: I cannot recognize myself. I really felt that I had gone out of my body and it was like not being there any longer. My body moved by itself; it was something that blinded me completely.
[Fernanda]: It was the only time their father got in between them to separate them.
Carla had a strange feeling, as if she had finally received a violent inheritance that, for years, had not been able to touch her.
[Carla]: So, shaking, feeling very bad, because it was like . . . something had come over me and I . . . At the same time, I was afraid. Because I thought, “What happened? What did I do? Why did I do all this?”
[Fernanda]: Frightened, Carla started packing all her things. She closed the apartment door as she left, and she told herself it would be the last time.
Never again in her life would she set foot there.
She settled into the house of her then-boyfriend, who also lived with his parents. She was in shock, but little by little she took her life back. She blocked Jaquelina and her father from all social networks. She did not call or write to them again. And when they called her, she didn’t answer.
She had decided to cut them out of her life forever, but the city where she lived was not that big either. She was so afraid to see them again that she took different paths to and from work.
But it was clear that she would run into them sooner or later. And one day it happened, when she went to an environmental march in her city . . .
[Carla]: And I realized that they were following me, that . . . that they were walking close to me, in front of me. And it was very threatening because even my dad stood in front of me and began to read the poster that I had, and I was frozen with fear . . . And then he went on walking. And for me it was worse because they didn’t even face me; they . . . stalked me.
[Fernanda]: She decided to go to court and ask for a restraining order so that her parents could not approach her. She had to tell it all, over and over again: the drunkenness, the shouting, the threats. The officials couldn’t believe she was placing a restraining order on her own mother. They questioned why she hadn’t done it before, why now, how she could do such a thing. Anyway, they notified her parents.
[Jaquelina]: One day I came home and they had left the restraining order under the door. At that point, I got so mad, so, so mad. I was furious.
[Fernanda]: According to Jaquelina, the reason they went to the march that day was because they knew Carla would be there, they had heard that there might be disturbances, and they wanted to make sure nothing happened to her.
That’s why she got so mad when the order came.
[Jaquelina]: I was so angry at times that I thought. . . If my sisters asked me, “How’s Carla?” I would say, “I have only one child.”
[Fernanda]: Carla found out from relatives that her mother had said that, and it hurt. On the one hand, she had decided to erase her from her life and she knew it was for the best. But on the other hand, she couldn’t stop thinking about how much her mother had changed because of her addiction to alcohol, how different she used to be before that.
Almost two years passed, without hearing from her again.
Until the pandemic hit, and with it, the confinement. Carla was still living with her boyfriend, but the relationship had deteriorated a lot. He became more possessive and more violent. It was as if her life was a circle. Again, she had to keep escaping. From another house, from another person.
In a last attempt to take refuge, she went to her aunts’ house and then, somewhat more composed, to a shared apartment that she saw in a Facebook ad. The month of October 2020 was beginning and, although she did not quite understand why, she was thinking more and more about her mother, and all the things she had always wanted to tell her.
One day, without giving it too much thought, she picked up the computer and began to write. To write to her. She didn’t know if it was a letter or something that would stay there forever on her hard drive, but three pages came out of it, addressed to her mother.
[Carla]: I remember I was shaking. I was very nervous.
[Fernanda]: But at the same time, it was a catharsis . . .
[Carla]: Sort of liberated because, for the first time, I was not shy about saying anything to her. I told her everything, without thinking, “Oh, no, but if I tell her this, it can cause a relapse.” Or, “If I tell her this, that will make her go into a crisis and I don’t know what . . .”
[Fernanda]: What she wanted was to blurt out everything that had been suffocating her for years. At the end, she added one last line . . .
[Carla]: “This is your chance for things to change for real, but seriously. I mean, there really isn’t going to be another opportunity.”
[Fernanda]: She attached the document to an email, wrote Jaquelina’s email and without giving herself time to regret it, she pressed “send.”
[Carla]: So I sent her the email and I waited a little while and wrote to her on WhatsApp: “I sent you such and such a thing to your email. Please read it.”
[Daniel]: Carla knew those could be her last words to her mother. If Jaquelina didn’t say something that would change things, that would begin to repair all the suffering she had cause her, then she would never speak to her again.
We’ll be back after a short break.
[Promo Reveal – After Ayotzinapa]
[Daniel]: Before the break, we heard how Carla decided to give her mother, Jaquelina, one last chance, almost two years after placing a restraining order on her. She wrote her everything she had never told her, about her alcoholism and her assaults, and she waited for her answer.
Fernanda Guzmán continues the story.
[Jaquelina]: When Carla’s message showed up on Jaquelina’s phone, she was sitting in the dim light of her sewing workshop. It had been a difficult day, like so many others. Or more difficult—she had been struggling all day not to drink.
She had her cell phone in her hand because every afternoon, for months, she had connected via WhatsApp with an Alcoholics Anonymous group who told her about their experiences,. about how, because of that disease, they had ended up without work, without family, without friends. And how they struggled on a daily basis to try to regain some part of what they had lost.
And Jaquelina also told her story—how she lost her daughter.
[Jaquelina]: And at first, the only thing that happened to me, that also happens to many others, is that we want to talk, but what we do is cry. I’m not so much into crying, but I would go there to cry and cry and cry and cry all the time. Sometimes I could speak, but sometimes I couldn’t.
[Fernanda]: That day, after more than a year without drinking alcohol, she had been closer than ever to a relapse. Carla’s absence hurt her more and more.
But she knew she had to endure, and the only thing that calmed her was connecting with her Alcoholics Anonymous group.
Early in 2019, after Carla’s disappearance from her life, Jaquelina had started, little by little, to come out of her hell.
[Jaquelina]: For me it was like hitting rock bottom and feeling like I was losing what I loved most in the world. Feeling that she is my daughter and that . . . and all the damage I had done her.
[Fernanda]: She did not react immediately when Carla left. She was immersed in alcohol for about six more months, locking herself in the basement of her house, where she had all her bottles. Distraught, drinking until she passed out.
Until one morning, without warning, something felt different.
[Jaquelina]: I woke up one day and said, “No, I don’t want this anymore.” It’s like there was a click; I don’t want to get into . . . the spiritual, but I think it was . . . it was a miracle, because I woke up with that idea: “I don’t want this for myself anymore.”
[Fernanda]: She was surprised to feel that strength, which she had lost so long ago.
[Jaquelina]: I thought that I would never be able to get out of it because I did not imagine my life any other way. I woke up and told my husband, who was lying next to me, I said, “I’m going to AA. No, I’m not going to go on like this.” And my husband, who had also asked me several times to go, said, “Then I’ll go with you.” He accompanied me and that’s when I said, “OK, this is enough.”
[Fernanda]: And that’s when her process to get out of 20 years of alcoholism began.
[Jaquelina]: I went back and forth, back and forth. I would try for a few days to . . . to be fine, and I would relapse again, and the relapses are worse each time. At first, it’s all as if it were a vortex, fighting every day for . . . I was so into the thing of “I will not drink for 24 hours, I will not drink for 12 hours,” and so on, that . . . I couldn’t see anything else.
[Fernanda]: And so it went, every day, for months. The Alcoholics Anonymous group helped her hold herself together, and warned her that it was normal for her to feel worse than ever, and not just because of the withdrawal syndrome. When they stop drinking after years, many alcoholics begin to have a real awareness, for the first time, of the damage their disease has caused around them.
Jaquelina began to force herself to do things that would get her out of it. To take care of her grandchildren, the children of Carla’s brother, since they had never been able to leave her in charge before. To get into online self-help courses, to read.
[Jaquelina]: And later, when your blood is sort of cleaned and also your head, you begin to . . . to have a life where you know what you are talking about, you understand the things that are happening.
[Fernanda]: As we said before, the day Carla wrote the email telling her everything she had never told her, Jaquelina had been feeling an anxiety that she hadn’t felt in a long time. At the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she had found herself unable to speak.
She felt sad, tired, angry. She had been told many times that the objective of her process could not be to get her daughter back, because that was something that was not in her power. Something that could lead to a relapse.
She agreed, because she knew it was true. But she couldn’t help it. Almost every day, she wondered if she could get Carla back some day.
It was nine in the evening when the message arrived on her WhatsApp.
[Carla]: “I sent something to your email. Please read it.”
Words that made her burst into tears.
[Jaquelina]: I couldn’t believe it; I couldn’t believe it. It was . . . It was what I always . . . what I was waiting for so long . . . and it had happened at the moment when I was worst, it was then it happened. That she contacted me and . . .
[Carla]: And she replied, “OK, daughter, now . . . I will log in right now.”
[Fernanda]: At first, Jaquelina didn’t even manage to answer anything else. She ran, shouting, to tell Carla’s father.
Then she took a few minutes to read what her daughter had written to her.
Carla, meanwhile, kept seeing her mother “online.”
[Carla]: Again the anxiety. Again, ah, the nervousness, waiting to see what she’s going to say. Because I said very strong things to her, and things which I knew she thought I would not remember . . .
[Fernanda]: Carla didn’t know how much Jaquelina’s life had changed in those two years. She didn’t even know that she no longer drank. She didn’t know what to expect. Perhaps an aggressive reaction, like so many others in the past, but she got something very different.
[Carla]: Then a series of audios begin. She answered me like crying, her voice was shaking and everything. Oh! She answered me like, “Daughter, you are right, Please forgive me.”
[Fernanda]: Those audios have been lost, but in them, Jaquelina told her all about her years of silence.
[Carla]: And she sounded very different, more down-to-earth. I didn’t remember her, in fact, like that. And then she began to tell me that she was going to . . . to Alcoholics Anonymous. And that it was helping her a lot, that she had been going for a long time.
[Fernanda]: They went on like that for hours, not wanting to end the conversation.
[Jaquelina]: Until 1:30 in the morning, I think, sending audios back and forth, telling each other what we had done, as if . . . I don’t know, as if nothing had happened.
[Fernanda]: Before saying goodbye, Jaquelina said one more thing to her daughter: Yes, she wanted to take the opportunity—her last opportunity—to get her back.
Carla still remembers the words her mother said to her:
[Carla]: “Our relationship is in intensive care, but we will see that between the two of us, we are going to heal it and we are going to mend it.” I agreed absolutely.
[Fernanda]: But Jaquelina was not the only one who had changed in those two years. That night, Carla also told her about all the new things in her life. That her relationship with her boyfriend had ended badly but she had left in time, that now she was living with friends, that she had other interests, other tastes. And, also, other rules. If she wanted to try to resume the relationship, she told her mother, they were going to go step by step, go to therapy together and talk, for a while, only on the phone. If things went well, they could see each other.
[Carla]: I had to set many boundaries so she understood that I was not going to do everything at once. I could not and should not.
[Jaquelina]: I . . . I wanted to accept whatever . . . whatever she had asked me, I would have accepted because I just wanted to see her. And that night I remember I went to bed and I think I slept straight through without . . . like . . . I slept like a baby.
[Fernanda]: But a few days later, it would be Carla who would break her own rules. She was working as a salesperson at the time, and received an order from someone who lived right next to her mother’s apartment. She couldn’t resist.
[Carla]: I told her, “I have to do something right by your house. Ah . . . do you want me to . . . do want to come down and say hello?”
[Fernanda]: Jaquelina ran out and got on the elevator.
[Jaquelina]: It went down slowly; it had never gone down so slowly . . .
[Jaquelina]: When I got there and saw her coming on the bike, when I got off . . . Oh my God, I wanted to hug her, I wanted to kiss her. I no longer cared about Covid, or contagion or anything . . .
[Fernanda]: Carla put her bike down and received the hug.
[Jaquelina]: A strong, strong hug. It seemed to me that . . . I had to hold her tight so she would not escape. I looked at her everywhere, I looked at her hands . . . I counted the fingers of her hand, like when she was born, just the same, the same, the same as when she was born.
[Fernanda]: When they managed to let go, Jaquelina convinced Carla to go upstairs for lunch as a family, for the first time in a long time. It was noon on a Saturday, and her brother happened to be visiting.
[Jaquelina]: We had an improvised lunch that was the best of my life . . .
[Fernanda]: Carla could hardly believe that the person she was seeing was her mother.
[Carla]: I felt she was finally acting like a mother. At the same time, today I understand that saying this is like, well . . . how does a mother act? In reality, each mother acts as it comes out, because mothers are also women and they are people and it is not . . . But acting like what I expected a mother to act like.
[Fernanda]: When I heard Carla say that, I recalled that for a long time, I also waited for my mother to behave that way towards me. And I wondered how many women are under the pressure of being an ideal mother, protecting, caring, always being loving. And so many times, they don’t ask for help because they believe it’s their role, and their obligation is to face it alone. To what extent can carrying that weight lead them to darker places, from which it is harder to get out.
This is something I hadn’t given much thought to in relation to my own mother, and it helped me gain a better understanding of my relationship with her.
But let’s get back to Carla.
That day, she had broken her first rule in order to heal her relationship with Jaquelina, and it didn’t take her long to break them all. She wanted to make up for the time they had lost, and her mother swore that everything would be different, so a month later she made the decision to live with her again.
It was February, 2021. Carla told me that from the beginning, things were totally different. They watched series together, sometimes they cooked, they talked about their lives and personal problems for hours.
And they talked about the past, although they didn’t get too deep. It was as if they feared that by talking about it too much, it would come back. But that made Carla feel more and more uncomfortable. It seemed to her that if they didn’t face it, a part of her could never truly forgive her mom.
It was something she thought about all the time.
[Carla]: I knew that one day, when I was ready, I was going to tell her let’s go to a park, to a specific place . . . that is, I already had everything planned, and I knew the things that I was going to say to her.
[Fernanda]: Although the thought of that conversation also scared her . . .
[Carla]: The biggest fear at that time for me was hurting her. Making her open a . . . A dark door to remember everything she did and everything she didn’t do. And I didn’t want her to think that I was blaming her.
[Fernanda]: And that that could cause her to relapse . . . But she felt that was something she had to do, even if it was difficult.
It was around that time, in April 2021, when she sent us the letter in which she told us her story. And she told us, when we started talking with her, that she wanted to have a conversation with her mother. One that would help her repair the wounds, the silences, everything that hadn’t had any closure.
When we asked her to do it for this episode, Carla asked Jaquelina if she would be willing. After thinking about it a bit, they decided to do it, and we set a date and time. When the day came, Carla and Jaquelina made coffee and sat at the kitchen table. They wanted to feel that it was an afternoon like any other they spent together.
Then the conversation started.
[Carla]: Well, are you ready?
[Carla]: Do you feel like it? (laughs)
[Jaquelina]: Yes. I am ready.
[Carla]: Are you sure you want to do this?
[Carla]: Telling the story and all that?
[Jaquelina]: Yes, yes, no problem.
[Carla]: All right.
[Fernanda]: What you are going to hear are excerpts from a conversation that lasted almost two hours. One in which Carla did not spare any questions.
Nor did Jaquelina any answers.
One of the first things Carla wanted to know was what she had thought when she read her letter. What surprised her. And Jaquelina told her only one thing: She was surprised that Carla thought that she didn’t love her, that she hated her so much.
But she also said that she understood, because this is how addiction works: You hurt yourself, but everyone around you is affected.
And what Jaquelina felt at that moment was anger at the world.
[Carla]: And do you know why you were mad at the world?
[Jaquelina]: Oh . . . yes. Because I felt alone, because I was afraid. Because my serious problems, for example, come from fear. Fear of not being able to get out of a situation, of . . . of feeling responsible for too many things that I am not able to handle. And, well, and I could not handle everything.
Besides, I remember exactly the day I started drinking. I made homemade cannelloni, and I say: “I’m going to have them with some wine.” The worst moment of my life, and it was a very bad idea to start having lunch with wine and always looking for excuses . . .
[Carla]: And how old were we? We were very little then, if you were doing that.
[Jaquelina]: I was 34 years old, and you were six, right? No, I mean, it’s not that I started there . . .
[Carla]: But you remember it as the moment . . .
[Jaquelina]: Of course, because at the time I said, “Well, I’ll have a glass of wine and then I’m going to have another one, and so on . . . When I wanted to remember that I would drink again later because I needed to sleep or because I needed to relax, or whatever . . . when I wanted to remember, it was already uncontrollable, and I do not know when the habit became morning to evening and all the time . . .
[Jaquelina]: No matter how much I . . . when you said, “You don’t love me, how can you hate me so much?” I didn’t hate you; I didn’t hate you. The addiction was much stronger. It was like in those horror movies when you’re possessed.
[Carla]: Well, I thought the same about you.
[Jaquelina]: For me, alcohol was that. I was possessed.
[Carla]: I was thinking exactly the same thing. What do you think it was that made you change?
[Jaquelina]: I changed everything; I changed my life. Now I think, now I enjoy. I did not enjoy it before, because it was a terrible anxiety. I was nowhere, I was never anywhere. I was here, I was there, but my head was pointing to a bottle. That fear, that tension, that . . . that anxiety, I no longer have that. And that for me is paradise. Hm . . .
[Carla]: Because you have nothing to hide.
[Jaquelina]: Because I have nothing to hide. In other words, I feel clean, clean for the first time. This is me. To be able to feel love. I can feel the love I feel for you when I hug you, when I kiss you, I can feel it. You don’t know how many people I love, and I truly love them. And I don’t know where all that love inside of me was, because I was totally numb.
[Fernanda]: Carla told her that she did remember that love. The one she had felt when she was a child. Although remembering it did not make it any less painful.
[Carla]: Whenever I went into a big anxiety crisis, I said, “It can’t be, because I swear to you that I know that person. I know we had a special connection”.
[Jaquelina]: We did.
[Carla]: And later I learned, thanks to the groups of family and friends, that it is normal to have very confusing messages, because you have a person who on the one hand can be a tremendous mom . . . I remember she always told me to fight for my dreams, I remember she always supported me and things like that. And at the same time, she is the same person who seemed to wake up wanting to hurt me. “What the hell, then what? Is it me?” That’s the first thing . . . the worst mistake. Because if that person was good and suddenly she started to be shit to me, it’s because I’m the problem. Well, later I learned I wasn’t, but it took me a million years, a lot of time.
[Fernanda]: Jaquelina listened attentively to her daughter. Several times during the conversation, they talked about how difficult it is to deal with that kind of feelings, to understand what happens to you when someone who loved you hurts you. Or who still loves you. And what is the minimum you need to be able to forgive.
At one point, Carla thought she’d found an answer:
[Carla]: In you we see that effort of saying, so we don’t have to come and tell you, “Ma, you did this to me, this, this.” You already knew you were doing something wrong. I mean, you always had… That’s exactly what made you feel so guilty and all. For me that is the difference that makes you want to approach a person. For me, speaking of forgiveness. That’s one of the main things. For me, the first thing someone has to do is that: show you that they recognize your pain, at least. From then on, well, we’ll see. It is not enough. But for the other person to say, “I understand it . . . I am aware.” Because that’s what hurts the most. That’s what hurt me the most. I didn’t need you to just come and say I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, like you always did. I truly needed you to show me that you were able to understand and come to terms with what you had done.
[Fernanda]: Carla saw that in Jaquelina. And that was what allowed her to get close to her, try to understand her, find each other again.
And she also wanted to know what Jaquelina thought of the new relationship they were building.
[Carla]: After everything we’ve been through, despite all the pain and everything, what makes it possible for us to be in a better place now?
[Jaquelina]: You love me very much, God has blessed me with you because anyone else would have kicked me.
[Carla]: We did kick you.
[Carla]: But then we said, we’d better not.
[Carla]: Love, then.
[Carla]: But it is mutual, because you showed us your essence. Because that’s what I told you before: If you had always been mean, then why try? It’s much easier. You cannot want what you don’t know.
And how do you feel about me today?
[Jaquelina]: The love I felt ever since you were born. Just that, the same love, the same deep, deep love. That you are my baby.
[Carla]: Now you are going to make me cry.
[Fernanda]: During the conversation, Carla was moved several times by Jaquelina’s words. By the love that she now was able to express.
Although, if she had asked to have this conversation, it was in part because she felt that not everything was great. They had regained the relationship, yes, and they were living together in a way they had never been able to do before. But sometimes when Jaquelina came to hug her, a part of Carla felt a strong rejection. She couldn’t help it. And she knew that Jaquelina saw that.
That’s why there was a question she had been asking herself from the moment she returned to live with her mother. And she herself was doubtful about the answer.
[Carla]: Do you feel that I have fully forgiven you?
[Carla]: That came out easy! (laughs).
[Jaquelina]: (laughs) No.
[Carla]: OK, fine. Why is that?
[Jaquelina]: Hm . . . because I feel there has been so much damage . . . But I cannot change the past, and that is clear to me. I can change who I am now, from now on. And from now on I am the mother who protects you, even if you are 26 years old; who protects and cares for you. I am that mother now. If I get tangled up in the past, I’m going to get stuck and . . . and I’m going to have a relapse, I don’t know how . . . Even the same mistakes, because it’s not just alcohol. Alcohol is not the . . . the real problem. Behind the alcohol, there are a lot of things.
[Carla]: But hold my hand. (laughs).
[Fernanda]: Carla had asked her mother everything she had never dared ask before, and had managed to get answers. But when the conversation was coming to an end, she still hadn’t told her everything. Until she finally did.
[Carla]: The issue is that . . . I realized it very recently. But I thought that I had forgiven you, and that everything was fine, and with time I realized that I had not forgiven you.
[Jaquelina]: I already know that; you don’t forgive me completely.
[Carla]: But I don’t do it on purpose.
[Jaquelina]: No, I understand you.
[Carla]: So, I don’t want to act like an idiot at times. I do not want to talk back to you, I do not want to reject you when you approach me. I don’t do it on purpose, and feeling that way makes me feel bad.
[Jaquelina]: I understand you.
[Carla]: But it makes me feel bad. I don’t like it because I’m not like that. I a not a standoffish person or any of that, but there are days when I don’t, I don’t do it intentionally. My body rejects that. You come and you get very close and I don’t do it on purpose. But my mind still has to process that . . . you were on top of me, you were choking me . . . So now I have to try to convince my whole mind and my whole body that I am living with a person who did that to me, and convince myself that it is okay for that person to get close . . . and that I still . . . and I can’t do it, sometimes I can’t do it.
[Jaquelina]: But I understand what is going on, and you have you own pace, and I’m not going to pressure you.
[Carla]: Well, even so, I . . . I am going to see how . . . But it was very important for me to ask you all these questions that I’m asking you now.
[Jaquelina]: Forgiveness is very difficult. It is not about waking up one day and saying “I am going to forgive.” No, because in your head there are still memories.
[Carla]: Although you are the memory of all the beautiful things that I am living and all the beauty that we have achieved, you are also the memory of all the ugly things that happened to me. So, it’s kind of difficult. It’s a lot of work . . . There is a part of me that is a girl who is afraid because she already trusted you many times, and many times things happened again, so I could never trust you—and that is something that stayed with me.
[Jaquelina]: You have to forgive that also, for feeling those things. It is not something bad; it is a process, and it will take time, and it is a process. And the time will come when, without you realizing it, that will all go away.
[Carla]: I hope . . . I hope so, I guess that is so.
[Jaquelina]: I want you to feel like this: I will always protect you and I will always be with you. You will always be able to count on me. Whatever happens, you will always be able to count on me, unconditionally.
[Carla]: Well, I wish I can also believe that sometime.
[Fernanda]: When she said that, and saw that Jaquelina understood—that from the beginning, she had understood—, she felt liberated. As if something that had been separating them for months was finally beginning to give way. Even if it was a little.
[Carla]: What things do you like about our new life?
[Jaquelina]: Seeing you every morning in my house.
[Carla]: Oh, how cute (they kiss).
[Jaquelina]: Walking around with your mate.
[Carla]: Is there something you would like to ask or say to me?
[Jaquelina]: What do you want to ask me? (laughs)
[Carla]: Nothing (laughs). Kisses . . . hugs . . . I have to translate what is happening. Well then, there is nothing more to say . . . and this has helped me a lot.
[Daniel]: Carla and Jaquelina continue to live together, working on their relationship one day at a time.
Jaquelina still attends Alcoholics Anonymous and for the first time, she has a group of friends. She says that, with them, she feels like a 13-year-old girl again.
Carla plans to become independent as soon as possible, and this time her mother is happy with that plan. She says that wherever they are, they will stay together.
This story was produced by Fernanda Guzmán and Nicolás Alonso. Fernanda is a production assistant and lives in Mexico City. Nicolás is an editor and lives in Santiago de Chile.
This episode was edited by Camila Segura and me. Desirée Yépez did the fact-checking. The sound design and the music are by Andrés Azpiri.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Paola Alean, Lisette Arévalo, Aneris Casassus, Emilia Erbetta, Xochitl Fabián, Camilo Jiménez Santofimio, Laura Rojas Aponte, Ana Pais, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Luis Fernando Vargas.
Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, produced and mixed on the Hindenburg PRO program.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.