Mother’s Day: Recovery, Love, and Light

By Kerry Neville 05/12/19

At night, tucking my kids into bed, I would make a deal with myself: hold on just a little longer until they needed me a little less and then I could go through with my suicide plan.

Mother and daughter at sunset, mother's day in recovery
Stay here and love us, forever: this was the sacred directive given to me by my children. Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

Mother's Day is Mothering Day, isn't it? A day that honors all of us who mother our children—loving, caretaking, nurturing, offering our time and energy, setting aside more selfish pursuits and pleasures to help support our children’s journeys. Of course, we love receiving the homemade, crayoned cards, the store-bought roses or dandelion bouquets, and the pancakes delivered in bed (even with kitchen disasters). These gifts remind us of our essential role in our children's lives. But for me? Mother’s Day is my chance to offer my gratitude that I am now a sober and stable force of love, hope, and healing for my children.

Almost 10 years ago, I started writing my blog, Momma May Be Mad, during a complete bipolar collapse: I was anorexic, alcoholic, in and out of psychiatric hospitals and rehabs, and determined to die. But what anchored me to this world were words; more specifically, my blog, a public journal that allowed me to wrestle openly with the lies and the truths of illness and wellness, of despair and hope, of isolation and community.

At the time, recovery seemed an impossible and cruel promise: light and hope and love would always be just out of reach and I believed it would be better for my children if I died. In the morning, I woke up too early and at night went to bed too late because of a ruminative argument that forced this point: How could I ever be a safe and loving harbor for my children when I was the storm threatening to smash us all against the rocks? I did not believe that I could get sober and stable and well enough to mother my children into their own growing, complex, miraculous lives.Rather than feeling like a mother, a source of creative nurturing power, I felt like one of the furies, a toxic destructive cyclone.

Do you know that “mother” also refers to the thick scummy substance in liquor, the filthy dregs? This truly was how I thought of myself. At night, tucking my kids into bed, I would make a deal with myself: hold on just a little longer until they needed me a little less and then I could go through with my suicide plan.

My first post was a manifesto to truth. For years I’d been lying about how much I drank, how often I cut myself, how little I’d eaten, and how I was planning to die. It was a way to hold myself accountable to a deliberate, intentional, and public directive: to recover my health, my balance, and most importantly my integrity. My aim was nothing less than radical transparency:

March 1, 2010: Truth: Here I am, Self and the Blank Page, fingers nervously typing. Time to write this down, to deal with the shame and the self-loathing, and turn it around. This is the story of IT: ‘IT’ is my abstract pronoun, the catch-all for my variety of afflictions. IT inhabits capital letters, an impassive, unfeeling monolith. In contrast, ‘I,’ (or for your sake, ‘me,’) who lives in love, in forgiveness, and in the shrieks of pleasure I hear coming from my kids right now in their playroom. I am thirty-seven years old, the Momma of two, the wife of one, and I have bipolar disorder, and eating disorder. Oh yes, and the nasty habit of cutting myself. And drinking, too much. I am in therapy, on mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics, and sleep meds. But what I must accept: Life on Life's Terms. No mere 12 Step cliché, but practical truth. I'm ragged and frayed and scattered, fractured and splintered by shame. I want to be whole for my children.

My essential sacred directive was to stay alive. Short-term goals at first. Stay alive for my son’s cookie crumb, sloppy kisses, his warm hand on my cheek, his tiny body finding mine at night, spooning up against me. He needed me in the primal way four-year-olds need their Mommas, close and tight. He is my son, and, at the time, I was his sun—the one he revolved around. When I picked him up from preschool, he would tackle me and say, “I love you Momma. Will you marry me?” A sincere proposal—live together forever.

And to stay alive for my daughter who needed me more and differently as she navigated the intricacies of being a seven-year-old who preferred dragons, bugs, and furry creatures over Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers, and boyfriend-girlfriend role playing. And then there were the rapid-fire, shifting friendships that often relegated her to third-in-line best friend. My heart broke over and over as she tearfully told me that she had “a funny feeling in her belly all day long,” and wanted to move far away. “Vermont,” she said, “or Greece.”In her Mother’s Day Card from that year, she wrote that I made yummy muffins, was, contrary to fact, good at mathematics, loved when I tickled, hugged, and kissed her, and that she “relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly relly” loved me.

Twelve relly’s.

Stay here and love us, forever: this was the sacred directive given to me by my children.

In the years since that public declaration, I’ve done the hard work in therapy, I take my meds, respect my body (no cutting, no starving), got sober, and continue to write my way out of hell and into health. Sobriety and stability are clarifying and being a Mother in recovery means showing our children that they don't have to stay stuck in a bad situation. By our own example one day at a time, we show them how to persevere, to stay hopeful, to recover and thrive after what seems insurmountable failure. 

I am mostly happy these days and can hardly remember those years foundering at the bottom of the dark well, the years I believed I would never find joy again, never be the mother I wanted to be for my children again, never write another word that mattered again, never look forward to the next day and the day after that again. Now? I know that I am not (and never was) the scummy, filthy dreg at the bottom of a bottle of booze, and that while I might have been a mad Momma for a time, I have always been loved. Now? I am the safe harbor, my steady beacon blinking: Here-Here-Here-Always Here-Always Here-Always Here.

Bipolar disorder is not curable, but it is manageable; sobriety is hard even on the easy days; and I fought to regain my life and my life with my children.

Know this to be true: if you are where I was, please do not despair because you are worth fighting for, skinned knuckles and scraped knees, bruises and blood. Fight for your life, your joy, your own self-love. The world wants you back, the light is waiting, and your children are here.

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Kerry Neville was raised on Long Island, New York and now lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. She is the author of two collections of short fiction, Remember to Forget Me and Necessary Lies, which received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in various journals, including The Gettysburg ReviewEpoch, and TriQuarterly, and online in publications such as The Washington PostThe Huffington Post, and The Fix. Follow Kerry on Twitter and LinkedIn.