“It seems like motherhood is a big source of stress for you.”
My therapist shifted in her seat as she waited for me to respond, uncrossing and re-crossing her legs. I wondered if she was starting to get that tingly feeling that happens just before a limb shuts down.
“I would say so, yes,” I said quietly.
Early recovery is, hands down, the most uncomfortable experience of my life. I have a heightened awareness of the way my thighs rub together when I walk. I feel the heaviness of my breasts. I feel empathy for other people in a way I did not before I got sober, and my mental clarity allows me to comprehend situations that I would have previously written off as impossible. I can feel every creak in my left knee and I have a deep, primal need for simple carbohydrates.
I feel changes in the air, like a golden retriever with his head hanging out the passenger window of a car, except with a lot less joy. Golden retrievers probably don’t have to take stock of, and come to terms with, their emotional baggage. Dogs don’t get addicted to mood-altering substances.
My journey from co-ed Christian boarding school — where pantyhose was not a merely a suggestion, but a requirement — to a full-blown alcohol and prescription drug addiction, was slow but steady. The thing about high-functioning alcoholics and drug addicts is that they seem so pulled together. High-performing, ambitious, gregarious, successful — all of those words described me. But eventually, with all forms of addiction, cracks began to appear.
The psychological aspects of addiction often prevent the user from being aware of or even admitting that there’s a problem. I fell into this category. I’ve long prided myself on my ability to be honest; after all, the tagline on my website reads “honesty and insanity in one fell swoop.” Honesty is kind of my thing — and I was honest about everything — except for the extent of my drinking. Oh, and the pills. No one needed to know about that.
Sobriety feels like nakedness. It feels like someone stripped away my garments and left me standing on a stage in front of everyone I know and love, and people are slowly, kindly, offering me things: a scarf here, a glove there. I’m re-dressing myself, and it’s a painstaking, humbling process. Merging motherhood — a task I don’t take lightly or for granted — and recovery feels so gargantuan, so crushingly impossible, that I can’t allow myself to think past the next 24 hours. Allowing my mind to wander too far ahead leaves me breathless and panic-stricken, and so, upon the advice of others, I just don’t do it.
I used to drink to cope with the stress of parenting. Now, without alcohol, I don’t know how to exist, and I especially don’t know how to be a mom. My default coping mechanism was always wine, and if I happened to be pregnant, I had no choice but to turn to food. Now I understand why I gained over 50 pounds in each pregnancy. I’m an alcoholic; take away the alcohol, and my body craves sugar.
If my middle son fell and busted his lip open, I’d calmly take care of him while telling myself that my reward would be a few glasses of wine after I got him patched up. If my oldest son was having an epic meltdown, I’d walk away, get a glass of wine, and return to him feeling calmer and more in control. When babies were teething and crying and fussing, I held it together until my husband got home — that was my rule, another adult had to be present — and then I would start drinking. I didn’t stop until the stress went away. Towards the end, the stress didn’t leave until I lost consciousness.
In recovery, I have to walk myself through the day like I’m a small child: What’s the next right thing to do? Take a shower. What’s the next right thing? Get dressed. And so on and so forth.
Think I’m lying? Try destroying your body for 15 years before entering a 12-step program. I literally have to retrain myself in every aspect of my life.
The big, daily question I ask myself is — how can I care for kids when I can’t even care for myself?
The answer is slowly and deliberately. Minute by minute. Thoughtfully. Carefully. I ask for help. I accept help. I breathe more deeply. I sleep better. I meditate. I laugh a lot more.
Getting sober while parenting small children is very difficult. But you know what’s worse? Trying to parent as an active addict. As hard as this journey can be, my most challenging sober day is a hundred times happier than a typical day as an alcoholic. I know this because I’ve experienced both.
“I love being a mother,” I told my therapist. “I think I just don’t know how to do it right.”
“You’re doing it,” she said.
So it’s right.