The morning of May 23, 2009, I woke up on my sofa around 6 a.m., fully dressed, severely hungover, and possessing only a hazy recollection of the night before—a night when I'd done nothing special. I rolled off the couch, nausea hitting me full force, and headed for my kids' rooms. Sadie and Matilda, my then 1-year-old twins, thankfully were asleep in their cribs, and my 4-year-old daughter, Elby, was still snuggled under her covers. I had no idea if my husband, Jon, was speaking to me. But before I could more fully assess the situation, I needed to puke. As I shakily stood back up, I caught a glimpse of my puffy face in the bathroom mirror; I was appalled and ashamed. “When had things gotten this bad?” I wondered. And then I leaned over the toilet bowl again.
I'd always been an alcohol enthusiast, using the sweet buzzy veil of booze to get me through countless rites of passage. Fast-forward through my 30s to the birth of my first child and her nerve-racking infancy. During that first year, my drinking ratcheted up to an evening ritual, the thing I looked forward to as a reward for getting through a long day of diaper duty, dishes, and Elmo. To be honest, I still clung to the idea of myself as amusing, cool, and edgy—someone for whom being a mommy was only one aspect of her identity, not the sum of all her parts. Wine helped me do that and, for a while, I didn't feel particularly guilty about it.
One evening when Elby was only a couple months old, fueled by a potent mixture of pinot grigio, sleep deprivation, and desperation to connect with other mothers, I started my blog: Baby On Bored. Motherhood for me wasn't quite living up to my expectations, but I felt embarrassed to admit it. The moms I knew in real life added their offspring's name to their voicemail greeting the second they got home from the hospital, and they constantly told me how “amazing” it was to be a mommy. I could hardly admit to these women that I'd found breastfeeding torturous and had only lasted a month (fine, three weeks), or that I was way too lazy to teach my baby sign language.
But I could say these things on the Internet. To my surprise, the blog brought book deals (Sippy Cups Are Not for Chardonnay and Naptime Is the New Happy Hour), and a support system of like-minded moms—my virtual drinking buddies. I began to feel like a part of something bigger, a worldwide happy hour, if you will. One of my followers, Jane, from Boston, summed it up for all of us: “Many moms I know count down the minutes to cocktail time. Is it five yet? Is four-thirty too early, too desperate, too lushbag? I look forward to my end-of-day couch party, to unplug with wine and TV.”
Meanwhile, my online experience was beginning to play out in headlines: In 2009 Diane Schuler tragically drove her minivan the wrong way on a breathtakingly beautiful Sunday afternoon on New York's Taconic State Parkway, killing herself and seven other people, including her daughter and three nieces. Her blood-alcohol level was more than twice the legal limit. Carmen Huertas, also under the influence of alcohol, was sentenced last fall to 4 to 12 years in prison for flipping her car on a highway, killing her friend's daughter and injuring six other children, including her own. The FBI is reporting that DUI arrests among women rose 28.8 percent between 1998 and 2007. And a recent poll by our sister magazine Working Mother found that the number of women ages 30 to 40 who abuse alcohol has doubled in the past decade.
Los Angeles addiction expert Jennifer Ginsberg says the stress of modern motherhood certainly contributes to this trend. Many women today have their kids after they've gone to college and established themselves in careers. The rules that applied to their pre-mom lives are irrelevant now. There are no gold stars, promotions, or “attagirls” when we make it through a challenging day. It's no surprise that many moms feel the need to “take the edge off,” Ginsberg says, as they juggle the pressures of having and doing it all.
Yet we all know plenty of women who can relax with just one cocktail. “Anybody can use, or even abuse, alcohol to deal with stress or certain life situations without it crossing the line into addiction,” explains Susan K. Blank, M.D., director of medical and clinical services at Foundations Recovery Network, in Roswell, GA. Brain chemistry is what separates the average drinker from the addict, she notes. An unaddicted brain registers when it's becoming impaired, and the pleasure pathway stops releasing dopamine. Drinking no longer feels good, so they walk away from half a glass of wine. The opposite is true for those people with a tendency toward addiction. Dopamine continues to be released, which in turn continues to reinforce their drinking. They never get the message to stop, so they don't.
Of course, having the DNA for addiction doesn't mean you're doomed. Other risk factors contribute to the disease, such as struggles with depression or a family history of substance abuse. My mother and stepfather modeled moderate drinking, but my biological father had a longtime battle with prescription drugs, which may have had a part in my alcoholism.
My drinking remained in a gray area for a few years. I stopped completely during each of my pregnancies, but then my twins were born prematurely, at two and four pounds. Between the neonatal intensive care unit stay, the colic, and the failure to thrive, it's a wonder I wasn't shipped off to Shady Acres. My drinking reached a whole new level, as I began sucking down two to five glasses of wine a night, every single night without a break. I'd gone from drinking to unwind, to drinking to self-medicate, to just drinking—and rarely finding a reason not to.
That May morning, I found myself at a crossroads: I could apologize to Jon and promise not to drink like that anymore. Or I could admit to myself that it seemed only a matter of time before my drinking got me in real trouble. I'd tried numerous times to cut down, “only drink on weekends,” and other such deals, and I'd failed miserably. As a wife who loved her husband and three very young children, I had an awful lot to lose. And I knew it that morning as I hung my head over the toilet bowl. Right then and there, I made the scary but ultimately freeing decision to ask for help.
A few days later, I revealed to my blog followers and sisters in drinking that I'd abandoned the sauce, thinking I'd be crucified for renouncing my position as head cocktail mommy. Instead, support poured in, with comments like “You are doing great already, just by knowing you want to change” and “I battle the same demons. Good for you for taking control.” Shockingly, only one person was disappointed, writing, “No! Come on, I quote your book, I've told all my friends to read it. It is totally fine to have a few drinks as long as you are not hurting your children or driving drunk.”
But I knew that was no longer possible for me. So I joined a support group and discovered that I wasn't alone in knowing my drinking had crossed the line. One new friend I made told me her wakeup call happened when her daughter, who was 5 years old at the time, asked her a simple question: “Mommy, why do you drink so much wine all the time?” “It was lunch-time and I was drinking white wine out of a juice glass, but I kept going back to refill it because juice glasses are, what, four ounces maybe? It was such a charade. I really thought I was pulling something over on her.”
In making my choice, everything had to change—most important, my expectations of myself. I had to acknowledge that sometimes life isn't great, and that there is no shame in driving a minivan (but I still love my badass flames on the sides). When life felt drab, alcohol didn't add any color, it just washed me out more. And when I feel tempted to drink, I remember that. Being honest didn't just change my behavior, it also changed my attitude. I am now fully present for my kids. When I read them a bedtime story, I'm not rushing through it so I can get started on my buzz. When they wake in the middle of the night, I don't have to push it off on my husband because I'm “too tired.” Most of all, I know that if I remain on this path, my children will never have to see me drunk, and the joy in that is so much sweeter than any amount of pinot grigio. And when it's not, there's always Ben & Jerry's Half Baked Fro Yo.
Don't get me wrong, there have been plenty of times when I wanted badly to reach for a glass of wine. Once, I told a friend that I couldn't believe I still wanted to drink so much, and she said, “Of course you do. You're an alcoholic. But that's a short-term solution, and all it will do is set your addiction back in motion.”
One Maryland mom wrote me these lovely words of encouragement: “On the other side of the fence you will meet a group of moms that you want to go out with in the evening; moms who have a drink now and then but remember where they were after a night out; moms who can safely preach to their teens about drinking in moderation because they do; moms who don't feel the need to take a cooler of beer to a Brownie campout; moms who are fun to be around because of who they are and not because of the number of drinks they've had.” I look forward to being that mom.