And now for something a little bit different. I don’t want to overshare about my own experiences here (who knows who might be reading this…my BOSS, perhaps?! Unlikely, but you never know…) – but when I was researching this story my heart bled for more than one reason. Here, ladies and gentleme,n is the story of my former collegue, Jowita.
Jowita Bydlowska had her first drink at 13. By 27 she was in Alcoholics Anonymous. She didn’t drink again until she was 31 – one month after the birth of her first child. Her memoir describes her battles with alcohol, motherhood and the darkest corners of the depression she felt.
That Jowita, now 35, seeks to create some distance between the memoir of her dark past and her present life isn’t surprising. It’s a bestseller in her adopted homeland Canada, a brilliantly written but painful-to-read account of her struggle with alcohol abuse while faced with the tedium of life with a newborn – hiding vodka bottles in the nappy bag, passing out on the nursery floor, “pumping and dumping” her toxic breast milk – and it has attracted its fair share of vitriol online.
One post on her blog suggests she “tie her tubes”; another asks, “Why don’t you go to rehab and kill yourself?” She suspects that most of these people have problems themselves, or have friends or family who are addicts.
“At book readings people show up and tell me they’ve been drinking and don’t know what to do,” she says. “That’s touching, but this is not a self-help book. I’ve no expertise to help.”
Bydlowska had her first drink on New Year’s Eve aged 13. She’s Polish and was living in Warsaw, where she was a straight-A student. Her father was an engineer. She and her younger sister, Laura, had a comfortable childhood, but Bydlowska admits that she was attracted to kids from “the wrong side of the tracks”.
Her family moved to Canada when she was 15. She drank “like most teenagers drank”, even though the legal age for drinking in Ontario, where they lived, is 19. By her twenties she was a regular at parties – “The girl who danced barefoot on tables or sometimes fell asleep with her shoes on.” Her friends drank, too, but she would prepare for nights out with a preliminary bottle of wine, then drink until she blacked out.
At 27 she went to Alcoholics Anonymous out of curiosity, and subsequently hosted a coming-out party to announce that she was sober. It would be three and a half years before she had her next drink – a glass of champagne to celebrate the birth of her son.
BOOK EXTRACT: Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska
I have no idea where I am. Or how. Or when. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m lying on a hard surface. It’s not my bed. I’m on the carpet and I’m struggling to breathe. This is the anxiety well known to blackout drunks. The more awake I am, the more I know. For example, I already know I’m at home. I can hear my boyfriend saying something somewhere in the house. If he’s talking, that means he is alive. I didn’t kill him. So, that’s good.
I have to check if the baby’s alive. I open my eyes. I’m on the floor in the baby’s room. I see his crib. Here’s his hand. Here’s the inside of his elbow, the tiny sleeves. Here’s his beautiful, chubby-cheeked face. His eyelashes so thick and long they look fake. His mouth a shade of kissed red like a kiss itself. His lovely chin, a perfect bow of a bone.
I look at his red mouth again. I hold my breath. He is breathing. I will never do this again. I promise.
What I’m never going to do again I don’t know. I don’t remember much. I remember being downstairs and watching something on TV; laughing loudly; downplaying; minimising; my boyfriend making a stupid comment. But what stupid comment? Did we have a fight?
You don’t have to sleep here. Please come to bed, my boyfriend suddenly says somewhere behind me, and the anxiety dissipates a little and instead of anxious, I’m feeling a tiny bit hopeful.
Before I turn to face him, I try to, madly, quickly – have to be very quick here, like I’m in the military or something – guess what sort of voice he’s got. Is it a mad voice, a sad voice or just a voice? Based on my assessment I’ll be able to figure out how to proceed, if there are any mines to avoid, or if we can call a truce and never talk about what happened last night.
I go for soft. I say, OK, and wait. He says, “Let’s just forget about last night.”
I have no idea what he’s talking about. Either way, I ended up sleeping on the floor in my son’s room.
“Come here,” my boyfriend says.
I say, I’m sorry, even though I don’t exactly know what I’m supposed to be sorry for, but I’m sure there are lots of reasons.
“You’re always sorry,” he says.
He’s right. I am always sorry.
He says he forgives me. He says I’ll help you. I wouldn’t help me if I were him. But now we have this baby together and I understand why he’s saying this, even though it’s destroying us. I try to breathe less noticeably.
I am aware that my boyfriend hasn’t embraced me back and that my arm just lies there across his chest, like a prop. His eyes are closed.
When I found out I was pregnant I knew right away that I wanted to have this child. I didn’t tell my boyfriend for a while because the child wasn’t planned, and I felt guilt over that as well – guilt over trapping him. I didn’t plan to trap him, but my body had other plans.
My boyfriend was a successful novelist, a newspaper columnist, 46 years old, a man who was quite vocal about not wanting children, a man who enjoyed going out with friends and having a fabulous life of semi-bachelordom.
When I finally told him (middle of the night, my eyes suddenly springing open out of fear, words spilling out: if you don’t want it, I’ll be fine on my own), he was happy and scared. I was grateful and overwhelmed that he wanted to have a family with me. Me with my imperfections, my depressions, and even me with my then-dormant addiction to alcohol hanging over us like an ever-present shadow.
All he wanted and all I wanted for me was to be normal, just to be a healthy woman who cares for her child. All I had to do was be a mother to a baby. That was all. My son Frankie was born to a sober mother. I drank alcohol twice while pregnant but it was nothing that took a hold of me; I was responsible.
A month after the birth, some friends came over. There was champagne. We celebrated. They drank. I drank. Frankie slept in his bassinet.
Not long after, I meet a friend for a drink and stop by the off-licence on the way home. By the time my boyfriend gets back, I’m unconscious on the floor. The baby is in his wicker basket. The baby is screaming, possibly trying to outdo the bombastic sounds coming out of the speakers. The baby is soaked in piss and milk, and not calming down.
After my boyfriend rocks him for a while, the baby finally falls asleep. His face remains too pink hours later, irritated by all the accumulated snot and tears. He is barely 12lb and his arms and legs remain curled up – they are still formed to fit in a womb. His eyes can’t focus yet; there are still soft spots on his skull.
When my drinking becomes a regular occurrence, I start looking up charts online to figure out how much time it takes for the alcohol to leave my body. Not a lot of alcohol from each drink gets into breast milk, but babies are small and the drinks are many. I calculate I need nine to fourteen hours before the alcohol completely clears out of my system. Sometimes more.
I let a lot of the milk into the sink in an exercise referred to as “pump and dump” by mummies online. Mummies who, I presume, would never consider integrating “pump and dump” into their daily schedule. I buy breast pumps. Yes, plural – I buy three. I also learn how to milk myself by hand.
I figure out a few magic hours during the day when I can do it and I store the milk in the nappy bag for later. I bring earlier-prepared bottles with me on my walks. I hide those, too. I hide everything. I set secret alarms on my laptop to let me know when the time is up. Once my milk is safe to be consumed, I feed my son.
Stopping breastfeeding means admitting to the fact that there is a problem. It is harder for me to deny to myself that I am a premeditated drinker. In the safe hours of the day, I breastfeed my son confidently. Those are the only times when I feel like I am the parent I expected myself to be.
And do I always succeed in not breastfeeding my son while under the influence? No. I cannot with certainty say that I always manage to wait enough time before I put him up to my breast after my mandatory nine to fourteen hours of rest.
There are a few times I breastfeed him because of my lying – I know that people around me won’t accuse me of drinking the night before if I am breastfeeding him. And I hope that maybe they are thinking: she is a mom. She wouldn’t do that to her child, would she? She would. She does. I’m guilty.
I don’t know if what I’m going through as a new mother is postpartum depression. It is suggested to me more than once, and I use the term to excuse why I’m failing so much in my new role. But even that comes with guilt. Why can’t I just snap out of it? I’m even taking medication – Prozac – to help me deal with depression, but it doesn’t seem to help because I keep deteriorating anyway and postpartum depression sounds like a luxurious term to me, too, a luxurious excuse to cover what I deeply believe to be a moral failing.
My ritual is to buy my alcohol near the end of my daily walk with my son. I go to the grocery store first to get formula, followed by a visit to the off-licence to get sparkling wine, then getting a bottle of Sprite in a convenience store. Next, I march to the nearest coffee shop and lock myself in the bathroom. I have the perfect excuse too for staying in there for a long time: I always ask about a changing table.
I fill a couple of baby bottles with formula. Next, I empty the bottle of Sprite into the sink. Then I gently tap the cork of the sparkling wine and twist it while holding it. It always makes the loud, hollow popping sound, of course, but nothing so crazy you’d have to make up stories.
The baby is fascinated by what’s going on – all those purposeful movements, the opening of formula cans, the popping of the bottle, and liquids being poured while I talk to him. I tell him he’s a very good baby. This is all for you, baby, I say, and I go on with my performance until the bottle of Sprite is filled up again.
After the bathroom I can go for a nice walk in the cold, taking big sips out of my Sprite with stiff, freezing lips until I’m ready to go home. If it gets too cold I smuggle it into a coffee shop. In the chaos of buggies, coats and boots, nobody ever notices the little sips.
People wander around like me – are they locking themselves in the bathroom, mixing their concoctions? Are they hiding things? Can they tell I do it too?
How could you tell? Because if you were to look at the evidence tape you’d see me and I look nothing like a drunk. I look good. In fact, if you’d known me before I relapsed, you might even think that I seem better than ever, and that motherhood serves me well. I’ve lost some weight. You can see my cheekbones.
Still, I watch other mums. I look in their faces and a lot of them smile back the way first-time mums do to one another when we recognise our common plight, new children.
I look for signs of secrets, but I can’t read anything into all these smiling stranger faces.
And this makes me feel as though I’m the only one. This makes me feel so alone. And so superior the way a secret makes you feel, even if it’s a bad secret, even if it’s killing you.
I stop and take a big sip from my bottle of Sprite to calm my nerves. It’s almost Christmas. My sister and my boyfriend tell me to sit down. Their voices are gentle and worried. My sister and my boyfriend say things like “sad” and “serious” and “help” and “get through this as a family”.
We will, I say. We will. For sure.
Nothing is said for a long time.
Finally, the boyfriend says, “We think you should go to rehab.”
They both nod.
I think it’s a great idea, and I can’t believe it will actually happen. To me. A little nobody. Nobody ever gets to go to rehab unless they are on TV. I don’t even own a pair of sweatpants. I make a mental note to go out and buy a pair of sweatpants. I imagine telling my friends: “When I went to rehab…” Yes, I will go, I tell my sister and my boyfriend.
Two months after my stint in rehab, I’m drunk, again. The next day, my boyfriend is silent, cold. I hold a fist to my mouth to stop myself from vomiting. I am so thirsty I would drink vinegar if it was offered to me. I have to leave the house before I fall apart completely, so I put on a dress and walk into the hottest day in May in the history of the world. I stop and retch, not so discreetly, beside the buggy.
I surface. My monster slobbery face looking at Frankie looking at me from the buggy. I’m trying to smile, trying to tell him that mummy is really OK. I also have the worst stomach cramps, so I have to run into various fast-food joints along the way. These are the indignities of a chronic drunk.