A Mother Under the Influence
I brought a bottle of champagne with me to the hospital when I delivered my first child. I'd been looking forward to a drink for the eight months or so I'd known I was pregnant. Champagne wasn't my drink of choice, but I figured the nurses might frown on finding a jug of vodka in the communal fridge.
It took my husband, William, and me four years to conceivePolly, and during that time I had cut back on my drinking the second half of each month when I thought I could be pregnant. After three IVF attempts, though, my infertility doctor advised me to consider adoption. "I don't want to waste any more of your time and money," he said. "You're not producing quality eggs." The next month I was astonished -- and elated -- to discover that I had unexpectedly become pregnant.
I didn't pick up another drink until the celebratory champagne. Having been dry for so long, those sips of bubbly gave me an instant buzz. I welcomed the familiar warmth of the alcohol as it dulled the edges of worry and regret -- a particularly comforting sensation now that I was embarking on the stress-strewn path of motherhood.
Since I planned to breastfeed, I resigned myself to another few months of sobriety. But things didn't go well from the beginning.
Breastfeeding was painful, and Polly didn't seem to be latching on. When she went almost 12 hours without wetting a diaper, I went to see a lactation specialist. After three hours, three pairs of hands (mine, my mother's, a nurse's), and a complicated contraption that involved taping a tube to my nipple, we got Polly to take in half an ounce. Needless to say, I couldn't replicate the results at home.
After a weekend of guilt that was fueled by well-meant but anxiety-inducing calls from the lactation nurse, I retired my breasts. At least now, I thought to myself, I can drink.
Almost immediately, I was back to my prepregnancy drinking levels. Every night I downed a couple of supersized cocktails, each containing two one-ounce shots of vodka, topped with a splash of tonic. Before bed I'd take a swig out of a shot glass -- for medicinal purposes, I told myself, so I could fall asleep. William saw me drink, but he was in the dark about my alcoholism. Denial and complicity probably played a part. While he's not an alcoholic, he enjoys a beer or two each night, so my drinking seemed less egregious. But also, I was pretty good at holding my liquor. I took care of things at home without any obvious blunders. While I could be distracted and distant, I was never sloppy or maudlin.
Less than a year later I found out I was pregnant again, with our second daughter, Louise, and stopped drinking. Once more, I was foiled in my attempts to nurse. This time a uterine infection required in-patient treatment at the hospital, and Louise wasn't allowed to stay with me. I remember William saying, kiddingly, "The things you'll do to avoid breastfeeding." Little did he know how relieved I was to be able to drink again.
A downward spiral
From my skewed perspective, it seemed that for a long time, my children's lives were unaffected by my drinking. After all, they went to bed by 7:30 p.m., and I didn't pour my first cocktail until 7 p.m. I knew I drank too much, but I figured, hey, I'm not hurting anyone.
But by the time the girls started school, and were going to bed later, I could no longer deny that my drinking was making me a rotten parent. I rarely remembered what page we were on when we read bedtime stories, and I hiccuped through readings on more occasions than I care to admit. I remember trying to help Louise with her kindergarten homework one night -- something about counting all the pillows in the house -- and being too drunk to figure it out. I couldn't make phone calls after 8 p.m. (when most moms arrange playdates) because I might slur my words. And while I rarely had hangovers -- I drank just enough that I'd feel decent the next day -- there were many times when I was overly tired and cranky.
The most appalling part is that I wasn't there emotionally for my children. Kids tend to share what's going on in their lives at the dinner table and when you're tucking them into bed at night. I didn't want to eat with my girls because I got a bigger buzz when I drank on an empty stomach. At bedtime I was always in a hurry to get to that second cocktail. They'd tell me about a new friend or a favorite book and I'd be thinking, Yeah, yeah, yeah, get to the point. If one of the girls wanted me to snuggle in bed with her, I'd decline, even if there was a thunderstorm or she'd had a bad dream. It wasn't that I didn't want to, I'd lie to myself, it's just that I needed to enforce a strict bedtime ritual.
No doubt William saw some of this, but because he usually got home from work after the kids were already in bed, my behavior went largely unnoticed by him. Still, it was becoming increasingly difficult to convince myself that I could be a good mother and wife and continue to drink. So slowly, ever so slowly, I allowed the fact that I had a drinking problem to sink in. Every Sunday when I took Polly and Louise to church, I would check the program schedule for the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that took place there. I wasn't ready to join, but it was comforting to know that help was available. Often during services, I'd weep silently. Sometimes I'd be thinking about what a worthless lush I was; other times I wasn't sure why I was crying.
Moving towards sobriety
The defining moment, the one that catapulted me toward sobriety, happened when Polly was 6 and Louise, 5. I had a stomach flu, which I hid from my husband because I didn't want him telling me not to drink. When he saw me draped over the toilet, he asked me, "How much did you have to drink?" I looked up at him and, without thinking, said, "I'm an alcoholic." For years I'd been silently berating myself for being a drunk, but it wasn't until I spoke those three words out loud that I felt compelled to take action.
At first I tried to quit drinking on my own. I made it only two weeks. I'll never forget the look in Polly's eyes when I started up again. She heard the tinkling of the ice in my glass and looked from me, to the glass, and back to me. She may have been too young to understand what was in the glass, but she knew she didn't like what it did to her mother.
Several weeks after that, I went to my first AA meeting. I was shamelessly haughty about the ragtag mix of people there, including a schizophrenic and an octogenarian with a speech impediment. Surely I wasn't as bad off as these losers. Still, I did as the group suggested -- I kept going back. Over the next few weeks I found that I did, in fact, belong. I even became proud to belong. I learned that whether you are a suburban mom, a factory worker, or a soap opera star, when you're an alcoholic you're powerless against alcohol, and you have an insular and joyless life.
Alcoholism is an equal opportunity destroyer. It is also a disease. And my medicine was to attend meetings, much the same way a diabetic takes insulin.
I was also reminded of a crucial fact: Alcoholism runs in families. Both my mother's and father's sides, I realized, are blessed in spades, including, I suspect, my parents, aunts, uncles, and a sibling or two. None of them was or is in recovery. I wanted to stop the chain. If I couldn't help passing along my faulty genes, at least I could set a sober -- and sane -- example for my kids. I could prevent them from seeing the devastating effect alcohol has on a family.
I grew up watching the adults in my life drink. I thought it was normal to live your life around cocktail hour, to rage when you didn't get your way, to retreat into a bottle. Even when my father was on his deathbed suffering from prostate cancer, he and my mother had cocktails every night. I remember thinking, I don't want to die like that. I don't want to die a drunk. And I don't want my girls growing up doing imitations of me clink-clinking through the house clutching a cocktail like my siblings and I do when we mimic my mother.
Being sober was a daily struggle in the beginning. It wasn't so much that I wanted a drink, although I did want one, badly. It was more that I wanted to step out of my life, to stop being me, at least for an hour. I felt raw and vulnerable, as if I didn't have any skin. I'd wake up in the morning and think, What's there to look forward to if I can't drink? Before parties, I'd get panicky. How could I socialize without being at least a little tipsy? I worried whether I would ever laugh or have fun again.
I managed to make it through the first few months with support from William and close friends whom I'd told about my addiction, and from my burgeoning faith in God. But things were rocky on the home front. William seemed threatened by my not drinking, or, at least, he missed having someone to party with. And it didn't help that I was unfailingly selfish about getting sober -- I thought my spiritual growth was the most exciting news on the planet, and I expected William to cater to my rigorous AA schedule. And then we had to deal with the pain and resentment from years of my taking out my unhappiness on William. It was a rough few months, but we slowly let go of the past and learned to trust each other. Today he's every bit as committed to -- and grateful for -- my sobriety as I am. He's not crazy about having to drink his beers where I can't see him, but we both feel blessed that my abstinence has restored our exuberant marriage to its original luster.
As for Louise and Polly, I now take them to swim meets without cutting the evening short to rush home and drink. I make postdinner library runs if they need a book for school. I remember what bedtime story we're reading and soothe away their nightmares. And I am a decent role model. I used to feel disingenuous discussing the perils of underage drinking and drugs. But recently we drove by a smashed-up car that was parked in front of the local high school, and when Polly and Louise asked why it was there, I explained that it was to discourage teenage prom-goers from driving drunk. It was a relief not to feel like a hypocrite.
Because I don't want my kids to think that recovering from alcoholism is shameful, I've always been open with them about it. But although Polly and Louise are growing up surrounded by AA, I still worry that one or both of them will become an alcoholic. If you have the genetic predisposition, it doesn't take much to tip the balance in favor of substance abuse.
I know I can't control my daughters' futures, though. All I can do is explain that their family is riddled with alcoholism, and that the earlier they take a drink the more likely they are to wind up addicted. And I can continue to be a good example by staying sober. The other day I took my kids with me to an AA meeting (something I've done over the years when they've been on school break). Afterward, my littlest one said, "Those meetings look like fun. How come you're always laughing and hugging each other?" If my girls ever need Alcoholics Anonymous, I pray that they'll remember the strength, love, and hope they've seen there.
* All names have been changed.