When I look back on my life, I see myself as a scared, sad girl. From my earliest memories through my early 20s, fear and sorrow and anxiety were an inextricable part of my identity. I moved through the world with a sense of certainty that I would be that scared, sad girl forever. I don’t know if I was born an alcoholic, if a combination of life circumstances created my disease, or if I drank myself into it until there was no way to get out. And it honestly doesn’t matter. Every alcoholic has a story, and mine is no different. Fear, anxiety, low self-esteem, never feeling like I belonged anywhere, including my own skin; finding the relief of that first drink and the warm, quiet that would seep through my brain; feeling that there was enough booze to ensure that feeling would last — they’re all markers of my story. I did, said, and thought things I was certain I’d never do, say, or think. I woke up every morning suffocating under the weight of my self-loathing, not knowing how to find my way to the surface without taking just one more drink to dull the edges of the misery of my own making. I fell down faster than I could lower my standards.
My drinking always came with consequences. Not once did I take a drink without subsequently causing harm to others or myself. But my drinking really took off at the beginning of my freshman year of college. I flunked out of school. I got pregnant. I burned bridges with all of my friends. I was sexually assaulted. I stole. I lied. And after two years of chaos, I was beat. I moved back to my hometown, hoping that changing my geography would somehow magically change me too. It didn’t work. I met someone, and for the next two years he was a lovely distraction from my brokenness. But when he left, I had nothing except heartbreak and the stark reality of my emptiness. The pain of that realization was too much to bear, so I did the only thing I knew to: I drank. That night I drank until my blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit. I blacked out and swallowed every pill in the house. My roommate found me and drove me to the emergency room. I was transferred to intensive care, where I remained in a coma for three days. My family was told I'd likely never regain consciousness, but if I did, I’d probably remain in a persistent vegetative state. But after three days, I woke up. I was OK. There was never a reason why.
No matter how horrific the consequences, I never once thought to ask for help or stop drinking. Then, one morning, ver much like every morning before it, I came to in a haze of confusion and shame. The weight of my self-loathing was so oppressive that it physically felt difficult to breathe. I knew that if I had to feel that way even one more morning, I wouldn’t survive it. I was desperate enough that I was willing to do anything to never have to feel that way again. So I made a phone call. I asked for help.
Four days later I was driving myself to a treatment center near Portland, Oregon. Every 30 minutes or so, I’d pull over to the side of the freeway to open my door and vomit onto the pavement. I arrived at the treatment campus and walked into the front office. I felt numb, walled up, shut down, and angry. I’ll never forget the receptionist who greeted me with softness in her eyes and kindness in her voice. She asked me if I'd driven myself in. I told her that I had with my jaw clenched, my arms hard across my chest, my gaze hidden and unkind.
I’d been sober for four-and-half years when I had my first child. Four-and-half years of sobriety is simultaneously an eternity and a blink of the eye. I was still learning to walk through the world, still figuring out who I was and how to engage in relationships without burning everything to the ground.
She sighed, “Oh, what a brave girl you must be,” and I felt my heart crack open and I began to sob. Huge, heaving, noisy, messy sobs. I was so tired. So done.
I haven’t had a drink or a drug since October 16, 2007. I spent 90 days in intensive inpatient treatment. I worked with a focal therapist, a family counselor, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and a spiritual counselor. They taught me about the disease of alcoholism, the mental obsession, and the physiology of craving. They broke down all of my walls and forced to me to get vulnerable and authentic.
My counselors showed me how broken I was, how drinking was but a symptom of my dis-ease in the world. They proved to me that I had no idea how to interact with people. I didn’t have relationships. I had transactions. Conscious or not, whenever I interacted with another human, I was calculating what I could get from them and how little I could get away with giving. Eventually, I had not one single excuse or justification left in me. And then my counselors began to build me back up. They worked together to make me whole. They made me take responsibility for my mistakes. They taught me how to remain compassionate to myself. They taught me how to look at just the very next task in front of me instead of seeing the world in huge, insurmountable problems.
Being an alcoholic parent has its struggles. I am self-centered by nature. I easily slip into fear of not getting what I want or losing something I have.
They told me, “The only thing you have to change is everything.” It sounded impossible. But what I found was that by just showing up, not taking a drink, and being honest to the best of my ability, everything began to change around me: opportunities to live in a new town, work at a new job, to make new friends, to live a new life.
My emotions can be like tidal waves, swallowing up my entire home and all of the people in it. I’m impatient. I’m impulsive. I’m dramatic. It’s too easy for me to swing between extremes instead of staying right-sized and in the middle of any issue.
I’d been sober for four-and-half years when I had my first child. Four-and-half years of sobriety is simultaneously an eternity and a blink of the eye. I was still learning to walk through the world, still figuring out who I was and how to engage in relationships without burning everything to the ground. I had a lot of ideas about the type of parent I’d be: kind, patient, respectful, progressive, innovative, playful, present, and loving. I am some of those things all of the time and some of those things some of the time. But I am never all of those things all of the time. The reality of my parenting is much messier. The black and white I’d expected is actually grey. Being an alcoholic parent has its struggles. I am self-centered by nature. I easily slip into fear of not getting what I want or losing something I have.
I don’t tolerate discomfort well. I'll be playing with my son and then immediately overcome with grief, fear, anger. Maybe I received a text that upset me or I remembered an uncomfortable interaction I’ve had. There have been times I’ve gone from playful to irritated and short in one second’s time, and the only thing that changed was the voice between my ears. Immediate gratification often seems like a better idea than making a sustainable, healthy choice. Sometimes I don’t want to deal with an impending tantrum, so I avoid setting a completely reasonable boundary. I give him way too many chances instead of just making my expectations clear and sticking to them. This allows him to push me and push me until I get so frustrated I yell. It’s selfish and unfair to him.
I don’t drink or use, but I numb myself to the world with the internet, spending money, and obsessing over people, places, and things. I want to control my environment to suit my needs. My emotions can be like tidal waves, swallowing up my entire home and all of the people in it. I’m impatient. I’m impulsive. I’m dramatic. It’s too easy for me to swing between extremes instead of staying right-sized and in the middle of any issue.
When I’m honest about the darkest parts of myself, as well as all of my parenting mistakes and failures, I’m still lovable, still worthy. I’m a good mom. I’m real. I’m wrong a lot.
I vacillate between being overly permissive and overly authoritarian. Sometimes I coddle my kids and then resent that they rely on me so heavily. I do everything for them, even the things they should do themselves, and then I get tired and impatient with doing everything and I snap. I shame them for not being more independent. But part of that blame lies with me. Sometimes I’ll set a firm boundary and I’ll realize that somewhere along the line I’ve stopped trying to support and educate, and I’ve started wanting my children to feel bad for misbehaving. I want them to feel bad. This realization is so terrible and painful.
Alcohol doesn’t run my life anymore and I don’t often think about it, but I am still an alcoholic.
But being a parent in recovery has its beauty, too. Ever since I got sober, I’ve had a list of “Things I’m Allowed to Drink Over” in the back of my mind. The things that sounded so painful, that if they ever happened, certainly I'd be allowed a drink. The dysfunction of this is not lost on me. What’s funny is that in the almost nine years I’ve been sober, all of these “Things I’m Allowed to Drink Over” have happened, and I’ve never had the drink. I’ve wanted to, absolutely.
Alcohol doesn’t run my life anymore and I don’t often think about it, but I am still an alcoholic. And my solution today is the same exact solution it was on day one of my recovery: Pause. Breathe. Pray (to anything or nothing). Reach out to a friend in recovery. Be honest. Play the tape through – what would really happen if I drank? What happens after the immediate relief and gratification? Remember that every morning I came to after drinking, I was awash with regret, wishing so desperately I just hadn’t taken that first drink the night before. I've woken up sober for 3,244 days in a row now and not once have I ever regretted staying sober the night before. Those are pretty good odds.
Being a human is complicated enough, let alone being a human who is in charge of creating, shaping, and protecting other tiny humans. When it all feels like too much, I do my best to remember that I’m only in control of very little. I can control my actions and my attitude, but that’s about it. Everything else is beyond my scope of practice. This is simultaneously infuriating and an immense relief. I remind myself that there is something bigger than me at work: the universe, science, fate, God; anything else for that matter. I am but a mother among mothers, a worker among workers, a human among humans.
My life has taken turns I’d never planned for or wanted, but I have enough tangible evidence from the last eight years and 10 months of sobriety to know that if I just show up, be honest, and stay sober, beautiful things will always follow. When I’m honest about the darkest parts of myself, as well as all of my parenting mistakes and failures, I’m still lovable, still worthy. I’m a good mom. I’m real. I’m wrong a lot. I’ve made massive mistakes and hurt the feelings of the little, innocent people I love more than life itself. I love fiercely and without condition. I’m willing and committed to get better at this everyday. I always do my best, and sometimes my best is just not very good.
Being an alcoholic isn’t easy. Not on me, not on my family, not on anyone. But the authenticity, humility, gratitude, trust, and boundless love I’ve found as a result of my recovery bring so much beauty to my relationships with my children. I want them to see my humanness, my faults, and my unwavering dedication to becoming the woman I want to be, because I want them to know their own humanness is beautiful, that their faults do not lessen their inherent perfection and worth, and that it’s always OK to be wrong, messy, flawed, and broken. I hope they never stop growing. Selfishly, I hope the same thing for myself.