No matter how much I loved my newborn son, it was never enough to get me to stop drinking. Not even when, at rock bottom, I feared my drinking might kill him.
I often imagined I would fall down the stairs with my son in my arms when I was in a blackout. There were many ways to cause him injury but it was the stairs my brain kept going back to. And yet picturing that didn’t halt my drinking.
This is what I say to my friend, Gina, when she asks me about my rock bottom. I search her face for traces of shock—a twitch, a shutter-speed blink of an eye—but her face is still.
“It’s not that I made peace with it,” I say, suddenly self-conscious. Gina nods. “But I couldn’t stop. And nobody or nothing could stop me.” Gina nods. She nods and she nods because she’s an alcoholic just like me and she knows about not being able to stop.
I recalled this conversation recently, when I heard about Toni Medrano accidentally killing her three-week old baby when she crushed him after drunkenly rolling over him. Eight months later, she set herself on fire and died. Medrano’s family suggested she killed herself after watching Nancy Grace’s histrionic blame-game on CNN, where Grace called for murder charges, acted out Medrano’s drinking and coined the term “Vodka mom” to possibly further dehumanize Medrano.
Upstairs, I was a good mom but downstairs I was a drunk.
I saw Medrano’s suicide as a non-surprising ending to a tragic event that began with the first sip of vodka on that November 21st, 2011. I imagined myself in her place and thought that the suicide wasn’t just because of Grace’s predictable idiocy, although it may have helped push her over the edge. I think that Medrano was standing at that edge, looking down for a long time—perhaps even before her son died. When I drank, I thought about suicide too. I thought it would be a way to prevent the tragedy I was sure I was courting. I was lucky nothing happened when I drank after my son was born. I was lucky I got sober, not dead. Lucky. Not better, smarter than Medrano or even more responsible. Just lucky.
I first got sober at 27 and relapsed when I was 31, after my son was born.
When I drank, I had a routine worked out. I would put the baby to sleep in his crib and wait until my husband would go to bed. Then I would go downstairs to the living room and watch movies on my laptop and drink in secret. My husband never caught me with a drink. He knew that I was at it again but he had no idea about the extent of it. I hid bottles in the closet, in the inside lining of my purse. I hid them behind the potted plants on the deck and behind the baby’s diaper drawer and in the stroller. I hid them in my shoes. I lied. I made sure I looked well put-together. I never asked for help. It’s true that sometimes, I thought I should probably kill myself to prevent something bad from happening but, again, planning a suicide would mean admitting that something was going to happen.
I knew, too, that my drinking would catch up with me. It would be only a matter of time before I got sloppy, before my brain got too fogged up by too much booze, before I threw routines out the window. As I drank, I kept looking at the stairs. They felt symbolic. Upstairs, I was a good mom but downstairs I was a drunk. I imagined myself in a blackout, climbing up, taking my son out of the crib. And carrying my son as I walked down those tall, polished-white, slippery oak stairs.
There is the famous story that New York Times writer David Carr tells in his memoir The Night of the Gun about driving to his dealer’s house (Kenny’s) with his baby daughters and leaving them in a car for hours as he did drugs. He wrote, “God had looked after the twins, and by proxy me, but I realized at that moment that I was in the midst of a transgression He could not easily forgive. I made a decision never to be that man again.” This is the famous story but the part that I can relate to best is this short passage: “Sometime soon after that night at Kenny’s…I became convinced that something brutal and unspeakable was about to land on all of us, including the kids.” Carr entered treatment shortly afterwards.
Like Carr, I, too, was in the midst of a transgression watching those stairs. I could picture what could happen but I still couldn’t admit it. And the truth is, if anyone asked me if I needed help, I’d say, “I’m fine, there’s nothing wrong.” Yes, I realized I was in the midst of a transgression but no epiphany followed. There was no God to intervene; no clear-cut insight that would make me stop. I was unstoppable. The only hope I had left was that I might also be wrong about that.
See, foresight doesn’t always work. And even people trying to stop you are weaker than the addiction. Toni Medrano’s husband found her passed out on the couch on that fateful night and warned her about falling asleep with the baby next to her. Who knows what she said but she probably told him things were fine—that’s what I often said to my husband too. Everything is fine. (Help.) Everything is fine. Or maybe she even told him she wasn’t going to do it and she did it anyway. In the morning, her husband woke up to her yelling, "The baby is dead!"
I wrote a book about my experience as a drunk mom, which will be published in the spring. I wrote it for all kinds of reasons, the main one being so that I could try to understand how my love for my son was no match for addiction. My husband, who read the manuscript recently, said he would have had my son removed from my care right in the beginning of my relapse, had he known. Had he looked inside of the lining of my purse, the potted plants on the deck? Behind the baby’s diaper drawer? The lining of the stroller canopy? The point is, he wouldn’t have known, he wouldn’t have stood a chance against my hiding. As for me, there was no way I would’ve confessed out loud to the screaming in my head.
I eventually got sober under rather mundane circumstances: I broke a toe, my husband asked me to move out, it was summer. There was no voice from the sky, no decisions. The hope came over me simply and suddenly, completely unprovoked as I limped toward the park with my son in the stroller one sunny morning. My husband will tell you I got sober because he threatened to kick me out. But really? It could’ve been the nice weather, it could’ve been the little toe. It was not my son in my stroller. He was just lucky. I was just lucky. We lived. The epiphanies came only after I got sober.
Jowita Bydlowska is a Toronto-based writer who has previously published articles about such topics as addiction, motherhood, sex, mental illness and healthy eating in various publications such as Salon, The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post, Oxygen and more. She has a book coming out in 2013 about being a drunk mom. She also wrote about her agnostic version of AA for The Fix.