Books

Book Excerpt: My terrible secret: Confessions of a drunk mom

Author Jowita Bydlowska was a raging alcoholic struggling to raise a newborn. Read about it in this excerpt from her book.

Jowita and her son in Nova Scotia last year, a sober summer

Jowita and her son in Nova Scotia last year, a sober summer

Jowita Bydlowska was a beautiful, accomplished grad student with a terrible secret. All of her friends were drinking (they were in their early 20s, after all), but she was the only one who regularly drank until she blacked out. At 27, having burned through several relationships and jobs, Jowita wound up at AA. For three and a half years she managed to stay sober, but at her best friend’s bachelorette she ordered a vodka, and within two hours she was back where she’d left off . A couple of days later, she discovered she was pregnant. Jowita “white-knuckled it” through her entire pregnancy (mostly) sober. But a month after the champagne celebration of her son’s birth, she was stashing mickeys in her diaper bag—and going to dizzying, desperate lengths to hide her problem from her partner, family and friends.

Besides drinking and thinking about how lonely I am, I devote my free time to further self-care. The baby is still sleeping a lot, and I try to keep busy so I don’t drink too much during the day now that I’ve begun that scary phase. For now, I manage to count between drinks and never go beyond my limit. I’m a day sipper, an evening drinker. I’m a night drunk.

To kill the time that stretches between my drinking rituals, I get regular haircuts and facials. I shop. Being a mother now, I finally feel entitled to small luxuries. I buy my first fur, first Marc Jacobs. I tell myself this is because I deserve it. I had the Pain. Twenty-three hours of it and 18 staples in my stomach to prove I’ve earned my place in the pantheon of being a grown-up. I’m a grown-up. I’m just like the other mothers I pass.

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Photo by Russell Smith

But it’s not about being a mother. And of course, I’ve decided, I’m nothing like the other mothers because of my awful secret.

The truth?

This is not about deserving some luxuries. It is not about being a grown-up at all. But it is with the grown-up stuff that I’m covering the rot. Underneath all this dress-up I’m falling apart. I’m gluing together all the pieces that are falling off with all that nail polish and fur and other crap. Nothing stays put. Even though it looks put.

There are less gracious looks, like the one in the middle of a snowstorm, one of those dark winter months. December, that doesn’t want to ever go away.

Again, me with the stroller. The baby inside it, warm and cozy in the blankets. Me with a lost glove, frozen right hand clutching a can, big Sorels with laces wrapped around the ankles, winter jackets flopping open: This late at night, I don’t feel cold anymore. I’m fine. I sing. I walk.

I forget how I got to nightfall, because I left the house relatively early. After I left the liquor store, I had lunch at some bar. It was still light outside. And when we came out of the bar, the sun was still hitting the snow, making everything look like an overexposed photograph.

How is it that it is suddenly late, and I’m woozy with drunkenness?

The baby wakes up and I coo to him. I love you so, so much, I tell him. You’re awesome. He is just so awesome. You’re the awesomest baby in the world, I say to him.

I want to eat him. Instead, I find a bottle of formula and stick it in his wet, rose-red mouth. He sucks on the bottle energetically, his huge brown eyes — my eyes — roaming all over my face.

Jowita with the sculpture Joy of Life by Lea Vivot. "Some days all I feel is regret."

Jowita with the sculpture Joy of Life by Lea Vivot. “Some days all I feel is regret.”

I look down at my boots, sloshing through the melting snow, and the remains of the day still sparkling, reflected in all that dirty water around my feet.

My phone rings and rings, and when I pick up it’s my boyfriend text-messaging me from the new house where he’s waiting for us. I don’t text him back.

Forward to a random side street. Now I’m pushing through the snow, which is falling harder and harder. The day is completely gone, and with it all its light. Everything is cooler, quiet, dimmer. But despite the cold, I’m hot in my big drunken Sorel boots.

I open my sweater under my coat. Even better. There’s that open tall can of Heineken in my hand too. The streets are empty. I’m singing again. Or maybe the whole time.

I’m singing because I’m really happy. We are walking toward our new house. I’ve never owned a house before. I don’t really own one now, but it’s the closest I’ve got to it. My boyfriend owns it, and I’m going to be living with him.

This is why I’m happy.

I have a few more cans in the diaper bag, enough to last me until we get to the new house. This is also why I’m happy.

Dancing on the street with a friend when she was 21 and travelling through Europe

Dancing on the street with a friend when she was 21 and travelling through Europe

The snow is getting bigger, thicker, there’s more and more of it, coming down from the sky and blowing at me from the sides. I hear my phone ringing somewhere on the bottom of my purse.

I have to stop singing, because it’s hard to in this wind, but I remain happy. I’m pushing the stroller through all this windy whiteness, and in my head I count the cans in the diaper bag: There should be four left. With this open one it’s four and a half, although more like four and one-third.

Then we are a little bit lost or maybe a little bit closer to our goal. Who can tell? The goal, the new house, is somewhere to our left; we should be turning at some point. The phone rings, and I almost answer and consider asking my boyfriend if he could tell me where we are.

It is snowing even more now, so I stop and secure the plastic stroller cover over the stroller. I close it tight to make sure the baby is okay in there, dry and warm.

I have some  trouble moving my right hand. It seems to be frozen around the can. I have no way to unbend all the fingers. I’ll unbend them later. For now, I stick the hand with the empty can in my coat pocket to warm it up.

The good thing about all this snow is that you can hide things in it so easily. My warmed-up hand lets go, I drop the empty can, kick some white over it; it’s gone. Nobody sees it. Nobody is out in this weather. Except for me — the happy woman with the stroller.

Eventually, we stop at a laundromat. There’s a man inside, and he grunts in response to my request to let us sit down and rest. Through the plastic I see that the baby is asleep inside his cozy fish tank on wheels. It’s so thick with snow outside, the street lights look like ghosts.

I buy a ginger ale from a vending machine to appease the laundry man and also to mask the smell. I don’t know if it will mask the whole day, but it’ll have to do.

I have one more can left in the diaper bag. Only one can? The liquor-store map pops up in my head. We are a good 20 minutes away from the liquor store at the nearby plaza. It’s way past eight now. In this snowstorm I won’t make it before nine, when the store closes. I’d make it by myself but not with the stroller. Maybe this is a good thing.

I open the Heineken in the diaper bag and the ginger ale simultaneously, to combine the sound. I take a small gulp from the ginger ale can, a huge gulp from the other can. I take my big furry hat off and swoosh my hair around. Next, I loudly bring down the can of pop onto the table so that the laundry man can see that I’ve no bad intentions and am just taking a little breather here, drinking my pop before I continue on through the snow.

My boyfriend calls again, and I answer and in the straightest voice I can manage, give him updates like a correspondent: We’ve already turned the corner at the main intersection, yes. We are a few blocks away. I believe. We’re almost home.

Where are you right now? Right now? Right now I’m in the laundromat. He says something, not sure what because the connection is weak, so I hang up. I get up and stick my head out and squint to see the name of the street. It’s the name of my street. Our new street.

The phone rings again. It’s my boyfriend, and he’s saying something again, who knows what.

I say I’ll see you in five and hang up. I leave the laundromat. I take a long, filling gulp from the last can and drop it and kick it into a snowbank. Drunk, I’m a disgusting litterbug.

Then we’re home. We’re home.

Home is a forest of boxes. Our entire lives are packed up inside. It’s random: picture frames with pillows and a coat in one box, a set of champagne flutes in a cardboard divider, a squeaky soft toy and my bathing suits in a plastic bag in another.

Did you have a little drinkie tonight? my boyfriend says. So he can smell it on me after all. This is our game: He can tell, and I can tell that he can tell, but I’ll say No, and he’ll say, No? Are you sure? And I’ll say, No, I am sure, even though I know that he knows that I know that he knows.

Are you sure? I’m sure. He’ll ask one more time, probably. This time, I will bare my teeth.

He will back away, Okay, okay. Sorry. Just checking. Checking what? Nothing. Forget it. I’m sorry, I’m just high-strung because of the move.

The baby is home and safe, but I don’t recall when we took him out of the stroller and where we’ve left him. He could be in one of the boxes, for all I know.

I want to move furniture. It’s too late, my boyfriend says. This house needs more space, I declare. My boyfriend — I have no idea where he is at this point. He doesn’t register. Maybe he’s in one of the boxes too, with the baby. No matter, I’m driven by the need for space but mostly by the need for destruction. The need comes on sometimes when I’ve been drinking too much. I’m usually a quiet drunk — always pretending not to be drunk — but tonight I feel fired up from all the walking and singing and all that snow.

I discover my dresser buried underneath a pile of boxes. I try to pull it out but it’s stuck. F–king thing.

I’m filled with energy and anger, thawing in the warmth of the house. It’s a physical reaction, this rage, but it’s also caused by knowing I’m this drunk. Right now I’m extra disappointed in myself. The disappointment is constant, and I get drunk because of the constant disappointment, but usually I am quiet about it. Not tonight. Tonight I am so disappointed I can barely see.

I kick the dresser and something gives, a leg buckles down or something. The whole thing is suddenly sitting legless, on the floor, and it’s puking up drawers.

F–king ridiculous thing.

My boyfriend’s voice says to leave it alone, we’ll deal with it tomorrow. The baby must be upstairs, because I hear his thin wail somewhere above me and I scream, My baby, as if someone was murdering him — and someone is, possibly  — and I plow through the boxes to rescue him. My boyfriend follows me up the stairs, because he probably knows what I know: that he knows.

The baby is fine, sleeping, quiet. Just a nightmare, I tell my boyfriend, and he nods, knowingly. Let’s just go to sleep, he says, and I almost agree, but then I remember: the dresser. The disappointment comes up again. I explain that if I don’t deal with this f–king dresser right now I will explode. I don’t know if my boyfriend hates me right now, but just in case he doesn’t, I’ve got enough disappointment to make up for it. He lets me deal with the dresser. Or do whatever. He goes to sleep or something. He disappears, again, along with the dresser and the boxes and the baby, in the vortex of my blackout.

There’s one flashback of me dragging the dresser on the sidewalk, away from our new house. The drawers are in it, I think; in this flashback I see myself pushing them back inside the dresser’s mouth once, twice, again. The dresser is a bomb about to detonate. I drag it far, in the snowstorm, drag it to the end of the street — white falling, then it’s dark again.

In the morning, on my way to the convenience store, I see the dresser. It’s sitting right on the corner of our street. Its top is covered in a thin layer of new snow. The drawers are gone. I wonder if I took them out or if someone else did.

I say nothing about the dresser or the missing drawers as my boyfriend and I walk by it later on that evening. He says nothing about it. I have no way of guessing the level of his own disappointment.

Excerpted from Drunk Mom: A Memoir. Copyright 2013 Jowita Bydlowska. Published by Doubleday Canada.

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