Breaking the Cycle: I Got Sober So I Won't Haunt My Children’s Memories

By Amber Leventry 04/26/18

I am scared. Balancing it all is impossible, and it was so easy to self-medicate with alcohol, to abuse myself while drinking away my feelings.

Back view of mother and two boys sitting and looking over wooded area.
In pushing away my own childhood, I realized I was at risk of pushing away my own children.

I looked in the mirror, turned from one side to the other and grabbed a handful of fat around my waist. My yoga instructor’s voice sounded in my head. What scares you? I was scared to feel trapped in a body at times I want to escape.

I will not become obese like my mother. I will not allow my body to deteriorate by faults of my own. I will not become a burden to my children. I have learned too much from her mistakes.

I went to my bookshelf, pulled down forgotten recipe books and weight loss guides and began the South Beach Diet. I tackled this popular diet fad in 2004, and went back to it like a guilty child, looking for an apology for something I did wrong. Having kids and the normal stress that accompanies them, living with OCD and PTSD, and carrying a predisposition for alcohol addiction cannot be called wrong, but I knew something wasn’t right.

I was ready to make changes; I just wasn’t ready to name all of them. I told myself this was just about weight loss. Sugar and alcohol are not allowed during the first two week phase of the South Beach Diet. A diet was the excuse I needed to eat better and to drink less. It also provided a set amount of time. I can do anything if I know what the expectations are, if I think I am in control.

The first few days were highlighted by headaches as my body adjusted to the shock of carb and alcohol deprivation while I convinced myself I was in control. It was easy to joke about hiding in the kitchen eating carrot sticks instead of chocolate while my kids made sounds only victims of horrific accidents should make. I willed away my desire for a beer with cracks about drinking diet ginger ale instead. I felt physically taxed by the work my body was doing to understand the changes being made to my diet.

After nearly a week of Phase 1, it became obvious that it wasn’t the old menu of food I missed; I missed drinking. Jokes quickly turned into admissions of alcohol cravings. I often wrote how irritable and short I was with my kids. I noted how I ached for a beer as if I was mourning the loss of an old friend. And after spending an hour on a Saturday night prepping a salad for lunch the next day, I wrote:

“We are meeting friends for lunch tomorrow and lunch with friends isn’t convenient when you are trying to lose weight and stay sober.”

Stay sober. It was hard to see the words I had typed. Yes, I wanted to lose weight, but what I really needed, what I had really been looking for, was an excuse to stop drinking. As the week went on and as the days between drinks increased, my mood grew darker. It was hard to find humor. I was becoming more short-tempered as I realized the extent of my dependence on alcohol to make myself feel better.

My yoga instructor’s voice sounded in my head again: What scares you? What would happen if you had the courage to make certain changes?

During my heated yoga classes, the instructor often encourages us to find a balance between keeping our ego in check—it’s okay to bend your knees, make accommodations for poses your body can’t do—and staying in a position that is uncomfortable—find out what happens when you allow yourself to be uncomfortable, acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that surface. Yoga is a sweaty escape from life, but not life’s thoughts.

I have been uncomfortable for a long time, and when I fold myself into child’s pose, I often think of my own three children; the way they have broken me and put me back together. They are constantly shaping me. And I think of my childhood, the one that is so different from my children’s and the one I don’t want to live again; yet I do, over and over again in my mind. I relive the more than 10 years of sexual abuse by a family member. I relive the physical abuse by my father. I relive the emotional abuse by my mother, abuse she never understood and still doesn’t.

As my young children get older I don’t just see them, I see myself as a child. Their shadows create the double image of past and present existing at the same time. My twins are four years old, the age when my memories began to not only form, but solidify. Sometimes my mind goes to the places that existed when I was six, my oldest daughter’s age. Uncomfortable is not a strong enough word to describe the feelings that overtake my mind and body. Anxiety, panic, and fear rise to the point of suffocation.

How can I protect her? How can I be sure this never happens to her?

Alcohol wasn’t giving me answers, but unlike its actual scientific properties, it always took my uncomfortable feelings from a raging fire to a slow burn. I thought I could live with a slow burn. I thought the weight gain that was caused by alcohol was what was keeping me from living.

I was wrong.

As I allowed the realization of my alcohol dependency to settle in, I forced myself to stay uncomfortable. But what about the other piece I was supposed to balance this with? How do I check my ego?

If I admit this, I am admitting I am one of them. I am just like the people who have done this to me. I am just like the alcoholics in my family who also self-medicated their way through life. If I admit alcohol gets me through, then how will I get through?

By the end of the second week on the South Beach Diet, I began to feel different, even a little better. I felt as if equilibrium had been reset and I was beginning to find a new normal. I still ached for a drink, though. I missed my anxiety reducer during the busy time when everyone gets home from school and work. I missed my dinner-making companion. I missed my fire extinguisher, the thing that kept the feelings of panic and anxiety from burning me alive. I missed alcohol.

Twenty years of therapy, daily doses of anti-anxiety medications, and a supportive partner help me understand the workings of my brain, but comprehension comes in waves, and the physical sensations of what my brain is trying to tell me seem to always come first. I break out in cold sores, my clothes never feel right, my head aches with never ending cycles of anxiety; I am always planning, always worrying, and my chest tightens with anger and irritability. The most frustrating thing is that I could give you a dozen reasons why I might be feeling this way, but the exact reason is unknown.

Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe. It’s a reminder that you are alive.

Toward the end of the two week challenge, I went to a gathering at a friend’s house. Multiple families and our kids filled the house with laughter and chaos. The smell of wine and the sounds of beer being opened filled the house too. I felt left out and jealous. I was angry at myself for knowing I cannot stop at one drink or two or three. But I promised myself I wouldn’t drink. I didn’t drink. I breathed.

I lost weight during the first two weeks of this new phase in my life, and on the surface that was the goal, that was the change I was ready to make. Now standing in front of the mirror and taking an honest look at myself, I know what I needed all along was to stop drinking. Vanity was the excuse I used to put down the bottle. Without this piece of disgust that keeps me from resembling the mother I despise, I may have allowed the numbers on the scale to grow with the number of bottles of beer and gin.

What scares me? I was scaring myself. In pushing away my own childhood, I realized I was at risk of pushing away my own children. I do not want to be their reason for memories that haunt them.

What would happen if I had the courage to make certain changes?  I am on fire.

For a few months I refused to say I would never drink again, because, as much as I like to be in control, I also have a brain that doesn’t like the boundaries of being told what I can and cannot do. But then I fell off of my mat. I drank. I did it in secret and in shame and in the solidified knowledge that I am an alcoholic. My brain doesn’t like it, but I had to come to terms with my inability to drink. My hope for moderation is not a sustainable expectation.

I don’t have many answers right now. Knowing I want to work through uncomfortable emotions and habitual motions rather than drink them away is enough, though.

I am scared. Balancing it all is impossible, and it was so easy to self-medicate with alcohol, to abuse myself while drinking away my feelings. I am afraid to deal with the stress of the kids, the weight of my own anxiety, and the strength of my desire for alcohol without actually having any alcohol. I am afraid my new success at sobriety will allow me to think I can control my drinking. I’m afraid I will go back to my unchecked habits, and I am afraid to go on without them.

But I am finally giving my life—the poses—the effort necessary to truly find the balance between accommodating my pain and finding ways to stay in it. I am stumbling my way through this, but it is my way of bending my knees through the discomfort of living without alcohol.

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Amber Leventry: Queer. Nonbinary. Writer. Parent. Credits include Longreads and Washington Post. Follow Amber on Twitter or LinkedIn.