Life As A Sober Mother

My writing is so sporadic now that I’m sober. I used to have a routine: get the kids off to school, gulp a few cups of coffee, take an amphetamine, and write. I was fast, certainly. I continued to meet deadlines under some really bizarre circumstances, which is part of why I was able to keep my addictions a secret for such a long time.

In sobriety, my urges to write are calmer and my thoughts have more clarity. I like to think that when I make it to the other side of this phase of being newly sober, I’ll actually be better at my job, but time will tell. In the meantime, I have to tell you about a man named John.

John is quirky and old and speaks metaphorically. I noticed his unusual behavior right away and identified him as an autistic even before he mentioned it. His mannerisms and verbiage gave it away – I know what to look for. John is a retired university professor. He wears suspenders and large spectacles and calls himself a feminist. Sometimes he wears ironic t-shirts and carries a briefcase. He stoops over a little.

I like John.

Part of the dilemma I face as a sober mother is the fact that I have a child who was recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and even though we already know that parenthood doesn’t come with a handbook, if it did, parenting a child on the spectrum would mean that I would have to throw that hypothetical handbook into the garbage can and set fire to it.

And also? I have no idea how to be a parent sober. I also don’t know how to be a sober wife, a friend, or a human being, because I have spent the past 15 years (with a few brief breaks known as pregnancy) numbing my feelings with alcohol. Some days, I just hug my kids a lot and feed them Pop-Tarts and call it good. A sober mother isn’t perfect, but she is present.

Maverick’s psychologist told me when he first presented us with the diagnosis that we needed to toss out everything we thought we knew about parenting. We are truly starting over from scratch, and I have a lot of wrongs that I need to make right. It’s kind of nice to just sit next to my 8-year-old and admit out loud that life is really hard but it’s also beautiful, and it’s going to be okay because we are finally on the right track. I think both of us are relieved, each in our own way, to finally have a label to attach to ourselves. There is freedom in having a concrete reason why I feel like I don’t belong anywhere, even though that reason is that I’m an alcoholic.

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I know I need to clear away the old ideas I had about what should be expected from my child (and from me), but I still feel like I’m rooted down in fear. Letting go of my old ideas means that I have to figure out what to do instead.

WHERE IS MY AUTISM PARENTING HANDBOOK?

Oh, that’s right. There isn’t one.

Today, I told John about Maverick. His eyes misted over and he leaned down intently, looked me directly in the face, and said the following words:

“You need to nurture him.

You need to let him rage and wail and say all of the things that the rest of the world will never understand. Let him feel safe with you. Be there for him. Nurture him. I can see that you’re a good mother. Forget about all the things you did wrong before today. Stop beating yourself up over the past.

Nurture your son – that’s what he needs from you.”

I’ve never talked to a man on the spectrum before about my spectrumy kid, but I am so, so glad I did. I gained so much insight from a brief conversation, and I left feeling like maybe what I’ve been doing is good enough, after all.

Nurture him. I can do that today.

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Taking Medication Does Not Make Me Weak

I’ve been on anti-anxiety medication at three different points in my life. The first time was after the birth of our first child. The second was after the birth of our second child. And the third time, is now.

I’ve always been an anxious person. As a child, I remember feeling stressed by my parent’s spontaneity. I wanted to know where we were going every time we left the house — my mind raced ahead, planning and preparing. I didn’t like surprises, which was ironic considering I was the only child of two people who have always enjoyed “winging it.”

When I was 6, I began chewing my fingernails. At 9, I started pulling out my hair. I marveled at the strands, each one a different color. Blonde, brown, red—all of them glinted in the sun. One day, I stepped out of the shower and noticed the wide, bald strip running all the way down the middle of my head.

I remember my mom telling me it was okay, that she could cover it up with a side part. I was home-schooled that year, which fortunately spared me from whatever happens to kids who bald themselves in the 3rd grade. It took the remainder of the year for my hair to grow back.

I switched to chewing my cuticles.

At 12, I turned to food. During one particularly stressful Christmas break, I spent all day, every day, at my Grandma’s house eating cheese sandwiches and homemade fudge. I ate until I felt sick. I ate to feel better.

It didn’t work.

I have never been a medicine taker. My mom used to make poultices and tinctures out of tea bags to cure whatever ailed me; we avoided the doctor unless it was absolutely necessary. In fact, until I had my first child and experienced the kind of irrational desperation that made me want to drive my car into a building just to make the pain stop, I was judgmental of people who turned to medication to help them cope. I thought they were weak.

I was wrong.

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The funny thing about people with anxiety is that the mere idea of obtaining a prescription for medication is anxiety-inducing. What if the doctor thinks I’m lying? What if she thinks I’m one of those people who fill the prescription and then sell the meds on the black market? I better dress nicely for my appointment, so I don’t look like the kind of person who engages in criminal activity…but not too nice, because I don’t want to look like I run the crime ring.

Other worries included a paralyzing fear that the apocalypse would arrive and I would not only be unable to see (because I wouldn’t be able to obtain new contact lenses), but I would also lose my fucking mind because I wouldn’t be able to get the anti-anxiety medication that I WOULD CLEARLY NEED TO TAKE IF THE WORLD WAS COMING TO AN END.

I worried about one of my kids getting their hands on my pills and eating them. I worried about turning into a unemotional shell of a person. I worried about which was worse: slowly slipping into alcoholism, or taking medication for stress. Which one would I be judged more harshly for if people found out? Why did it matter?

For a long time, I fought it: I exercised and coped as best I could, but the day finally came when too many things were stacked too high, and they all came crashing down in one fell swoop.

It was time to get help.

My doctor didn’t treat me like a liar. She didn’t judge me. She affirmed, validated and assured me that my emotions were warranted. She patted my arm kindly, a gesture that I assume meant that she didn’t think I was there to con her.

She told me I wasn’t weak. To my surprise, I believed her.

I still read the entire warning label that accompanied the drug prescribed to me, and worried that I would be one of the 1% to experience numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness in the hands or feet. I was still concerned that I was losing my mind, but decided that I no longer cared because the tightness in my chest was finally gone.

Medication freed me. I can breathe again, big gulps of air.

People say that it takes courage to ask for help, but I believe that it takes courage to admit that you needed it in the first place.

© 2015 Harmony Hobbs, as first published on Scary Mommy.

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