The Enormous Backlash I Endured for Going Public About Being a Relapsing Alcoholic Mother of a Newborn
“I’d imagine that people would hiss at you on the street,” the journalist said on the phone. She was calling to talk to me about the memoir I had just published, Drunk Mom, about relapsing on alcohol a month after giving birth to my son—after three years of sobriety. Her statement made me imagine people like snakes on the street, their snarly-snake faces, hissing, hissing. I wanted to laugh, but that would’ve been a mistake: “Bydlowska laughs at the suggestion that people would be upset over her memoir.” Instead, I said, “It sounds as if you have this story written already,” which is what ended up in the first paragraph of the story when it came out three days later.
And perhaps she was right that there were, indeed, many reasons to be found in Drunk Mom for me to get hissed at:
"The formula is pricey. I think of how pricey it is when I buy it. I don’t think about my checking account being near zero when I’m in the liquor store. I don’t think how pricey vodka is when I buy it. Priorities. There are empties everywhere. Empties in plastic bags. On the bottom of the stroller. Breeding in my closet. I can’t keep away from bottles. I obsess over them. I am the Howard Hughes of bottles. I am the Howard Hughes of secrets."
It was my mistake to get defensive. I’m not an idiot, so it’s not like I didn’t expect to get some negative responses. I knew that writing my story was admitting publicly to not only being a hopeless addict but also to being a crappy parent. But the pitch of hysteria was a surprise.
Since the memoir came out in April, I’ve been frequently reprimanded (and worse) for “oversharing,” for writing about what should be private publicly, and for exposing and victimizing my family. “There’s self-harm in choosing to publish this memoir. It’s just like alcoholism: the recklessness of it; the abandonment of responsibility to her partner, to their relationship, to her child, now almost four years old, and also, most painfully, to herself,” read the first article on Drunk Mom in Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail. My diagnosis of bipolar disorder (not mentioned in the book itself) was dragged out more than once.
At the same time, some of the media came to my defense: I was on a national TV show to talk about the negative reaction (and I’m writing this piece, too), so I can’t complain about being “oppressed,” but the severity of the attacks is indicative of the widely held negative attitudes about addiction. Stigma is alive and thriving.
We don’t have a lot of addiction memoirs in Canada. We are polite over here. I didn’t intend to be impolite, although, I admit, I’m happy to have caused a reaction because it has forced people at least to raise the issue of addiction. I wrote the memoir because I wanted to tell a true—or as close to true as possible—story of an addict. One reason we tell stories is to give insight into what might be foreign to many but is familiar to us. Addiction is such a thing—a terrifying thing that addicts are often as baffled by just as much as nonaddicts are. My addiction was an obsessive, demanding overlord fueled by secrets. Shame and guilt made me hide it, and it was my belief that it needed to stay hidden. In this way, I was exactly like my critics—pretending that ugliness wasn’t there.
As a drunken mom of an infant, I was digging under the pantheon that is Motherhood and shaking its foundation with my troubling admissions.
I’ve learned from being the focus of negativity that there’s still a lot of fear around addiction, around what addicts are. Our stories are never pretty. In the beginning, yes, we may be pretty with our shooting-star eyes, our adorable sexy slurring, our long-limbed tumbles and two-day makeup. But as time goes on, the alcoholism catches up with us. The pretty gives way to trembling hands, and it gets quiet, serious, dimmed, like when you need a fix in order to make it through the day. And then it’s just plain ugly and sad, and it’s the middle of the night again, and I am in a blackout, and my husband is rocking our baby back to sleep.
Addicts are not exactly a sympathy-evoking bunch. In addition, as a drunken mom—of an infant, no less—I was digging under the pantheon that is Motherhood and shaking its foundation with my troubling admissions. Feminism or not, mothers are still held up to society’s highest scrutiny and expectations. After all, mother love is supposed to be the one sure thing we have in this world; mothers are supposed to be the closest thing we have to saints, right? Right? (A few years back a memoir was published by a father of two who was addicted to crack cocaine—Superdad by Christopher Shulgan—and the waves it made were like throwing a small pebble in water.)
When my baby was born, I felt love so intense that it made everything else up to that point seem like a rehearsal. The love opened me like a wound.
“Like the uncatchable moment of clarity in the midst of addiction, happiness is a glimpse, a flash going off. As an addict…I want to see it as a platform, a way of going even further, beyond happy. I want ecstatic, euphoric. I want godly. Meeting my son for the first time when I gave birth gave me a surge of godly. But it didn’t last long enough. And, of course, I wanted more.”
That vulnerability may have been partly responsible for my relapse, my addiction pulsing underneath that wound, demanding air. Maybe I felt that I couldn’t meet the unrealistic expectations of motherhood, and being an addict, I couldn’t self-regulate my anxiety and depression in response to the pressure I felt. I don’t know the reason I relapsed because I’m not an addiction expert—I’m just an addict. But the one thing I do know is that once I relapsed, not even my love for my child could stop the obsession. This is what I’ve been trying to explain to interviewers, to nonaddicts. But it probably cannot be understood unless you suspend your moral judgments and try to imagine a place where a helpless, beautiful baby is not enough to keep a mother trying.
I got sober days after my son turned one, after my partner had kicked me out of our house, after I started going to 12-step meetings:
“If you’ve read other addiction memoirs, you know that this is the part where I talk about how difficult but wonderful things became after I got sober. Things got very difficult indeed after I got sober. The reality is that often I’m not sure if they got anything else. I’m not sure if they really got that wonderful and, really, what this wonderful is supposed to be.”
But there have been wonderful moments.
At a reading in Winnipeg, Manitoba, a young woman approached my table and introduced herself. She was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and was herself an addict, still struggling. We squeezed each other’s hands and hugged. She came back later with an elderly couple who bought her my book—it turned out the young woman couldn’t afford it. The elderly couple bought their own book, too, for their daughter who is currently drinking herself to death. The young woman was trying to stay sober, the elderly couple were trying to keep their daughter sober. We talked, the four of us, and came to no enlightening conclusions other than that all we could do was try. And, honestly, that meeting made up for any critical reaction, any possible hissing on the street.
Jowita Bydlowska is a Toronto-based writer whose work appears in Salon, the Huffington Post,Random House Hazlitt magazine, Elle, Fashion, Chatelaine and other publications. Her memoir, Drunk Mom, was published by Doubleday Canada. She is currently working on a novel.