By Rowen Wilson*
It is a school night, and my daughter, in first grade, tries to set the table in the cute way that first graders try to help. She sets the silverware all around, then the plates and napkins, and the glasses. “And for you, Mama,” she smiles, setting the wine glass at my place. An unsettling thought rises in the back of my mind and I push it back.
I am a high functioning person. I am a teacher, a distance runner, a book reader. I have a Master’s degree and I teach graduate courses. I read to my three children daily and I help my daughter practice the violin each morning before school starts. I don’t smoke and I eat healthy foods. I enjoy my wine.
I am not an alcoholic. I can control my drinking. I don’t drink until after five. I drink chilled Chardonnay while I prep dinner at night on autumn evenings, a couple of glasses during dinner and while we move through bedtime. I read to my kids every single night. I bathe them and brush their teeth, and I often get up to run five miles or more before they wake up for breakfast.
The hours between when I pick up the kids from school and when Andy gets home from work are long. The kids are tired and wild. I try not to turn on the television, to help with the math homework, to negotiate peace between my three and six year old, to keep my toddler busy, to make something resembling dinner. I reward myself with the bottle of wine and a plan for a nice meal. The package store sells pretzels; the children call it the pretzel store.
I do go through a lot of wine. My husband drinks less beer. My empty bottles pile up in the recycling bin. Sometimes I throw a few soda cans on top. My husband suggests we switch to drinking only on the weekends. I agree. Bath time is long and the kids slop the water out of the tub.
Winter drags on. The winter coats are dingy now and the sky is dull. I can’t drink only on the weekends. Eventually, I go underground. I start to hide my wine. I drink before he gets home. I pour wine into a water bottle and leave it behind the house. I pay in cash so there is no record of the sale. I have a secret now.
Something takes control of me in spring. It is cunning. It begins planning our day. It plans when we will get wine, how much we will need, how we will hide it, when we will drink it, how we will hide our drunk. This becomes the priority of our life. It is getting warmer; daffodils coming up through the earth. On weekends I am drinking much more. Sometimes I can barely read the words of my kids’ books at night; the letters spin.
One morning I wake up and I cannot remember putting the kids to bed. I look in on them. There they are, in their footsie pajamas, tucked in and sleeping with their sweet flushed cheeks and peaceful mouths. At breakfast I ask my daughter what books we had read, hoping it will spark my memory. “Mama, why did you ask me that?” she says.
Near the end, I have blackouts. I hide wine in my closet. I have to be careful to remember to throw it away when I am out. Sometimes I drink in the morning. One summer day my husband comes home to find me and the kids in the yard. We are playing “Drive-in Movie.” I have blown up a camping mattress and set it up behind the mini-van and let them jump on it and watch DVD’s in the car. I am there on the mattress with a smile on my face and my eyes closed and the kids are climbing all around me. I have been drinking all day.
I am afraid now. I wake up in the morning sick. I feel sick until I have something to drink. I look in the mirror and I feel panic rise and I tell myself it is not going to happen again. But it does. I do not have control anymore. I have lost control. I am not the driver. Alcohol is the driver. I have not been the driver for a long time and now it is too late.
One of the last times I drink I almost die. I go to the liquor store alone at ten o’clock in the morning. I buy a bottle of wine and a bottle of brandy and I drink both of most in my car right there in the parking lot. I do not know why. A small voice inside me asks me to stop but we push it back.
I went into a store. That’s all I remember. I was very, very drunk. Somehow, a clerk in the store helped me. She called my husband with my cell phone. He got me to his car using a shopping cart because I was too drunk to walk. He thought I might die. I was forty years old, the mother of three. He thought that I might die. And I got drunk again all the rest of that week, just as soon as we got the chance.
Alcoholism is a terminal disease. According to the World Health Organization, it is the third leading cause of premature death. There is no cure. However, people who seek treatment and stop drinking can fully recover.
I am powerless over alcohol. I cannot manage my own life. I must admit defeat or die. I pick defeat. I let my husband take my car keys, my cell phone, my credit cards. I let my father leave me at High Watch Recovery Center in Kent, Connecticut, where I spend three weeks in treatment. I let the therapists and counselors tell me what to do. I don’t fight.
I stop with the rationalization. I stop comparing. I begin to identify with who I am.
In rehab, I have the profound experience of sharing a secret with a room full of strangers that I had not shared with myself. Out loud, I say I am alcoholic. I say I can’t drink safely. I say I lied so I could drink and say I schemed so I could drink and say I drank around my children. I shake and I cry and I rail and other women meet my eye, they don’t look away and they say “Me too,” and they say “I know,” and they say “oh, that was me.” I see I am them. I identify. I see I am a million other women, alcoholic women suffering from this disease, keeping this awful secret and dying from it alone and hating themselves for it silently while loving their children like all mothers do, all while alcohol wants them nothing else but dead.
We sit in a circle and we say our names. We say we are alcoholic. To hear so many others say these words aloud is an affirmation. I begin to breathe. We begin to speak.
The communion I experience among these women saves my life. I learn that in fact I am not alone. I learn that lies and secrets corrode my self-esteem and waste my dignity. I learn that damage to my self-respect fuels my disease to drink. I hear their stories, and in listening I see the cycle. In their stories I become awake.
Today, I consider myself pretty lucky. In the U.S, only 11% of alcoholics seek treatment. Only 11% of the people in this country who have this disease, from which more than 75,000 people will die from every year, will seek treatment. I am in that 11% and alcoholism is not going to take me down. But my God, did it try.
One of the darkest factors of this disease is the stigma that is attached to it, and particularly to those who are parents. People who have diseases like diabetes or heart disease do not develop resulting behaviors that cause them to drive recklessly, act belligerently, black out, or engage in other types of socially inappropriate and dangerous conduct. People don’t worry about letting their kids sleep over the girl’s house whose mom has diabetes. Nobody wants to carpool with the alcoholic mom.
Alcoholism is a disease of the mind and the body. The shame that comes with this disease makes it difficult for the alcoholic to talk about her disease with doctors, friends, and loved ones. To make matters worse, her disease tells her brain not to, because her disease doesn’t want her to stop.
I can’t be left alone with the whispering voice perched on my shoulder and I shouldn’t be. I enter into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and I am no longer alone; I break my silence; I find communion; I hold the hands of my sisters. I do the next right thing.
I will always be an alcoholic, just like I will always be a redhead and I will always be a mom. My disease is a part of who I am. There are many things that I am still afraid of. I am afraid that one day I will slip and drink again. I am afraid for my three young children, who will have to navigate their own course through life, with its many liquor stores, its college days, its interstate miles. I am afraid they might inherit my disease and be alcoholic like me. There are plenty of things to fear. More important, though, for me to focus on today and watch my seven year old set the table for supper, fully present. She smiles at me, gap-toothed, the way that second-graders are. What a gift. What an incredible gift life is.
About the author: Rowen Wilson is a pen name. The photo used here is stock photography.
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