Learning To Swim

Every rental we’ve lived in since we left Alabama came with a disappointing bath tub.

Our town home, although small, had a large garden tub that I kept scrubbed clean. A hot bath with Epsom salts is the only thing that relaxes me the way wine does. When I was pregnant with Maverick, and later, Asher, I soaked in that tub almost every night to relax the muscles wrapping around my midsection.  As I floated, belly protruding, I could breathe.

Weightlessness. That’s what I am always searching for.

After we walked away from our mortgage in 2012 like so many other young couples who found themselves trapped in real estate in the market crash, I either drank myself to oblivion or crammed my body into the dingy tub of an overpriced rental home to relax. Sometimes, I did both.

A few days into sobriety, my brain still fogged over from detox, I wondered what would happen if I sank under the murky water and inhaled.

The dense fog has lifted now, and most days, being sober feels like a heavy weight. Drinking was like a weight, too, but this is different. Life is what feels heavy. Alcohol let me block it out but did not provide an escape from my problems. Sobriety opens up the curtains and lets the light in: painful, but promising.

I voluntarily opted to birth my middle child without any pain medication whatsoever. It was an amazing, horrifying, terrible, awesome experience. There were a few points when I was absolutely certain that I was going to die, but I had no choice but to keep going. With the help of my support system, my son and I made it to the other side alive.

It was exhilarating.

That is what it feels like to be in recovery. As terribly uncomfortable as it is, I just have to keep moving forward. Neither stopping nor going backwards is an option for me.

Some days I really wish I hadn’t made the choice to get better. At this particular time in my life, with small kids who have a lot of needs, true recovery can feel like an impossible undertaking. But, just like childbirth, I have to remind myself that I’m not the first woman to do this and I certainly won’t be the last.

Recovery from addiction is painful, but it’s not going to kill me.

My addiction is what will kill me.

Merriam-Webster defines heartbreak as “crushing grief, anguish, or distress.” I define it as something I worked really, really hard for a very long time to avoid. I thought if I moved on fast enough, planned well enough, and accomplished enough, I could somehow escape it. I ran, literally and figuratively; I recoiled from it like someone might turn away from a thing that has the potential to kill you.

I thought it would crush me if I allowed myself to feel it, so I refused to. I masked the pain with a number of relationships, walled myself, off, and became an alcoholic. I met my husband and we built a life, but as much as I love him I never allowed him to truly love me.

We can’t ever truly escape the past. My story will never go away, no matter how many times I try to pretend it didn’t happen. On January 9, 1999, I suffered emotional and physical trauma followed by a heartbreak so profound that I never allowed myself to address it at all. I smashed myself back together like a car wreck survivor might if lost in the woods without access to medical care, and I never healed properly.

Just like a broken arm that never healed correctly, I have to re-break my heart in order to allow it to fully mend. There is never, ever an ideal time for heartache. I procrastinated for 18 years, but now, if I want to remain sober from alcohol, and I do, I have no other choice but to surrender.

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I am learning to swim.

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A Very Sober Halloween

This is the first Halloween that I’ve been sober for as long as I can remember, and I have a lot of feelings about it.

Part of what grieves me about the absence of alcohol in my life is all the fun I used to have while drinking. Clearly, there was lots of bad stuff too, or I’d still be doing it, but when I’m feeling sorry for myself I only remember the good times.

Before Robbie and I had kids, we went to Halloween parties every year, sometimes more than one in a night. We were the people who meandered from party to party — no curfew, no babysitter to worry about, and very few responsibilities to wake up to the next morning.  Because of this, I equate drinking to having very few responsibilities, which isn’t accurate at all, but that’s my way of romanticizing the past. As time went on and our family grew, my sense of responsibility, worry, and fear grew as well. Escaping responsibility and worry was one of the biggest reasons why I drank — and the more I drank, the more I drank, because I’m an alcoholic and my body craves it.

Also? My responsibilities did not go away. At all.

Last year, I was excited about the kid’s costumes — it was the first time in years that I’d planned ahead far enough in advance to avoid making a very last-minute trip to the store — but by that time in my drinking career, I was pretty much a miserable person, wracked with anxiety, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of dread. None of that is evident in the photos, but I remember.

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I carried a cup of wine with me the entire time the kids were trick-or-treating, ducking back into my friend’s house to refill without telling anyone. Today, as I was feeling sorry for myself thinking about all the carefree, happy parents who will be able to enjoy a beer or cocktail tonight, I remembered being drunk last year, after dark, with all three of my kids scattered in different parts of an unfamiliar neighborhood. I didn’t allow myself to consciously feel shame at the time, and it certainly wasn’t problematic enough for me to consider stopping my habit, but today, I let myself go there.

I’m ashamed that I was so deep in addiction that I couldn’t stomach the thought of taking my kids trick-or-treating sober. I’m ashamed that I have missed out on so much of their lives because I was either drunk, or miserable, or both. I’m ashamed that I wasn’t able to fully appreciate my life because I was too busy running from it.

Thankfully, this year will be different. Although we are all far from perfect, I no longer feel like running away. I’m learning how to embrace the good and the bad, and although it’s really, really hard, it’s better than trying to escape.

For the first time in my adult life, I’m not trying to escape reality, or my emotions, or my fears. How appropriate that this Halloween night, the scariest thing I’ll have to face is myself.

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When Did Authenticity Become Brave?

People keep telling me that I’m brave, but I feel like they’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

They tell me things like “You’re so brave to be living sober,” or, “It’s so brave of you to talk so openly about your problem with alcohol.” For the record, people have been calling me brave ever since I started writing publicly 7 years ago, and back then I was just talking about motherhood. I thought it was weird then, and I think it’s even weirder now.

Since when did living authentically become synonymous with bravery? Are we that out of whack as a society that the simple act of owning one’s shit is considered courageous? I’ll tell you what I think is courageous. Joining the Army.

Walking into a room full of uptight, conservative, Bible-thumping church goers and announcing that you identify as a gay male.

Adoption.

Opting not to pee when there’s a clean restroom available in New Orleans.

Skydiving.

Fostering children over and over again, knowing that you’ll grow attached and feel sad when they leave, but doing it anyway.

Standing up to a person who scares you, even if that person is yourself.

Cloth diapering.

Leaving.

Staying.

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This chick walks away from situations a LOT.

Getting sober is brave. Talking about getting sober is not, at least not for me. It’s part of what keeps me well, and it’s a win-win — I raise awareness, and I keep myself from listening to that little voice that talks to me all day, every day, telling me that I should take up smoking, or that one glass of wine won’t hurt me, or that getting one bottle of Phentermine would knock this extra weight right off and THEN MY LIFE WOULD BE BETTER.

My therapist told me, when I was lamenting to her about how many messages I get from people who seem to think that sobriety is easy for me, as if I’m some kind of unicorn who is magically able to abstain from drinking without any effort whatsoever, that I should write about how it actually feels to stay sober for 24 hours at a time. So here goes.

Staying sober is a 24 hour cycle of ups and downs. I enjoy waking up and feeling awake instead of foggy. I appreciate that about sobriety, the clarity. I’m grateful for it, because without it, around 10 a.m. every morning, when that little voice starts telling me things like you should just stop eating, go get some pills to kill your appetite and the gnawing need to do something, anything, to stop the voice sets in, I need clarity in order to remain in control. I call someone and I talk about it. I go to rooms full of people and I talk about it. I write about it.

I have had to tell strangers about how hard it is for me to give my son his ADHD medication without throwing one into my mouth. I’ve admitted the deepest, darkest parts of me that lurk under the surface, the addiction that wants nothing more than to kill me, and I’ve learned that speaking the words into the air takes away their power.

When I say it, the compulsion to do it lessens, just a little. I do this over and over and over again.

After I work through one issue, another wave will come — this time, the voice will tell me, as my kids shout and paint with toothpaste and fight with each other the way that kids do, that I need something to numb myself from wanting to put my hands over my ears and scream. The voice says, What kind of mother can’t handle a little yelling from three children? What kind of parent doesn’t get ahead of the situation and send her kids outside to play, before she comes unhinged? You aren’t good enough. You need to take something so that you will be better.

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Eating breakfast with the cat.

The self-loathing and the shame creeps in, telling me that I’m deficient, my kids deserve better, and I should just drink. Thankfully, we don’t keep alcohol in the house.

There is something about my brain that is different. There’s an undercurrent there — one that I can’t completely eradicate — that actually makes me want to park my butt somewhere with an enormous bottle of something and drink it or snort it until I feel nothingness. I don’t want to die. I just don’t want to feel. That’s what makes me an addict, and it’s actually the opposite of bravery. It’s cowardice, a fear of feeling.

It’s not bravery or luck or some kind of upper crust morality that keeps me sober. Working a program keeps me sober. Talking about recovery is something that I hope more people start doing, because whether you think so or not, A LOT OF PEOPLE YOU KNOW ARE IN RECOVERY OF SOME SORT.

So, yes. Getting help is brave. Talking about getting help is not.

All of us should talk more.

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7 months sober! Photo credit: 4-year-old child.

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That Feeling When You Kind Of Want The Earth To Swallow You Whole

Robbie and I are very open with our kids. Children are smart — even if they don’t know you’re lying now, they’ll figure it out eventually. And then what? They’ll know you lied. They won’t trust you, and why should they? You didn’t earn it.

Our oldest child is especially perceptive. He’s likely the only one out of my three who will remember what it was like when I was still drinking; there were many nights that an issue with him is what drove me directly to the bottle. I know that he noticed, and when I stopped drinking, I told him the truth: I don’t drink anymore. Alcohol is not good for me.

“Oh,” he said. “I know what you have.”

“You do?”

 “Yep. You have … what’s that thing called that [name removed for confidentiality] has?”

“Alcoholism?”

“Yeah! Alcoholism.”

And there it was. A handful of days after I threw out my wine rack, my kid was calling me on my shit.

When my article about addiction was published in a local magazine this summer, he read it. I wasn’t planning to let him, but I had the kids with me when the publisher called to say that there was a package waiting for me at their office. We all went inside, took an elevator to the third floor, and retrieved the envelope full of magazines. I opened it on the ride back down and audibly gasped — I had no idea that I was going to be on the cover, and Maverick was the first to see it.

I’ll never forget how excited he was, shouting “MOM! MOM! THAT’S YOU!” and jumping up and down so hard that the elevator shook. Before I knew what was happening, he had a copy in his hands and refused to give it back.

“HOLD ON, I’M READING,” he yelled from the third row seat of our van. I finally gave up and let him.

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My oldest and my youngest. They’re beautiful.

Last weekend, it occurred to me that I’ve never taken the time to explain to him the difference between an alcoholic who is still drinking and an alcoholic who is in recovery. I pulled him away from the other kids to have a chat. About 5 seconds into our conversation, he interrupted my explanation about what it means to be in recovery.

“Mom! I wish I would have known this before now!”

I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.

He started talking, and as I listened in horror, he told me all about how his teacher had each member of the class stand up and talk about their mother. I knew what was coming, and I was pretty sure I was going to die a little bit inside when I heard the words. I braced myself.

“So when it was my turn, I got up and said — ”

He took a deep breath.

“My mom’s an ALCOHOLIC!”

And he beamed.

He said it with such pride. He really is proud, though. My whole family is, not because I was lying half-naked in a gutter and they had to save me from myself, but because they mostly had no idea how bad it was and I made the decision to get help without being forced to. And sometimes, I’m proud of me too — but on that day, when I found out that my son had announced to his entire 4th grade class “MY MOM’S AN ALCOHOLIC,” I felt like the Earth fell out from under me.

I mean … you know. That sucked.

Most people die laughing when I tell this story, and I understand why — it’s something you might see on a sitcom — but Robbie didn’t laugh. He looked as horrified as I felt, and when I crawled under the covers at 8 p.m. that night and whispered, “I just want to go to sleep,” he smoothed my hair away from my face and told me he loved me.

I would be lying if I told this story and left out the part where I fell into a pretty major depression afterward, like I always do when it hits me like a ton of bricks that I brought alcoholism into my husband’s life and our children’s lives and now we all have to deal with it. I like to think it will make us all better people, but sometimes, I question what affect this will have on my kids. Sometimes, I worry that one or more of them will inherit it from me, or, like a catching disease, someone close to me will die from it.

The truth is that I can’t control what other people think about me or my journey, and I can’t control what my children say to their friends or what those friends will say to their parents. That scares me. When I talk about these issues, I control the conversation and it feels not scary. When MY CHILD TELLS HIS CLASS THAT HIS MOTHER IS AN ALKIE?

That’s scary.

The good news is, I walked through that experience — the shame, the sadness, the guilt, and every other awful feeling one feels when one has this kind of thing happen — and I’ve made it out on the other side.

And I’m still sober.

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Marriage In Recovery

I’ve been married to Robbie for 12 years this October, and for almost our entire relationship, I didn’t believe that he truly loved me.

I mean, I thought he thought he did, and if someone thinks they love me, as has been the case in 95% of my relationships, that has always been good enough. I didn’t believe that I was worthy of genuine love, but I wasn’t fully aware of that belief. It lingered in the back of my subconscious, manifesting in the nagging voice that tells me I’m not pretty enough, smart enough, talented enough, or good enough to amount to much of anything.

I built a wall.

The wall was up when I met Robbie, and as far as I know, parts of it are still there. Alcohol gave me the courage I needed to step out from behind it on occasion, and quite honestly, I miss the ease that comes with drinking. Sobriety is a lot of work. So is overcoming obstacles. I am effing exhausted.

Sometimes, I really, really think it would be easier just to keep the wall up, smear some extra concrete on it, and stay in hiding forever.

When a person goes through trauma, it literally rewires the brain. Addiction rewires it, too, which means that my brain has a lot of overdue healing to do. For a very long time, I functioned at what I considered to be a high capacity; looking back, I can see that I’ve never allowed myself or my marriage to reach its full potential. I assumed my husband thought he loved me, which was good enough because I really could not stand myself, and I drank to cope with the feelings that go along with self-loathing.

That is no way to live. I am allowing myself to get better because I want to LIVE.

It’s a weird thing to have to look in the mirror every morning and tell my reflection, “You are good enough.” This was an assignment given to me by my therapist.

“You’ll feel weird doing it,” she said. “But it’s important.”

“FINE,” I said.

But I haven’t followed through, not yet. The words sound hollow because I still don’t believe them, and I always cringe, because ew, affirmations.

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Robbie + Harmony on a date.

***

I sit on the couch next to Robbie. There’s a dip in the spot where he always parks himself — I call it The Hole — and my body slides over next to his by sheer force of gravity.

“Hi,” I say, smushing my left shoulder into his right armpit.

“Hi.” I think he feels crowded, but like I’ve told him a thousand times before, maybe he should consider sitting in another spot on the couch, a spot that is less like a giant hole.

“You love me,” I say, not like I’m testing his reaction or fishing for something. I say it with reverence. I’m stating a fact.

“Yes, I do.”

I no longer think he thinks he loves me. I know that he knows that he does.

I’ve given him a lot of reasons to excuse himself from the relationship. The cat’s out of the bag — I’m not the perfect wife or mother — I am an alcoholic. I’m flawed, I’m aware of my flaws, and I’m working on improving them. I’m not pretending anymore. And as screwed up as I may be, he won’t leave. Not today. Not ever.

And for the first time, I actually believe that I’m safe with him.

I know that I am.

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Progress Report

It probably means something that the intake form I printed and filled out in preparation for my therapy appointment has a big ol’ wine ring on it.

This was something I wrote last year, when I was floundering in depression and didn’t know how to get better. The intake paperwork sent to me from a potential therapist in town overwhelmed me, because everything overwhelmed me: the laundry, my kids, money, unforeseen circumstances, forms sent home to me in my children’s backpacks.

I found life overwhelming.

So, I tried therapy. But the thing about therapy — and self-help in general — is that if you aren’t completely honest about what’s really going on, how is anyone supposed to be able to truly help you? I sat in several different, very nice offices in town and spoke about my difficulties; those sitting across from me were kind, albeit confused, about why I was struggling so hard to cope.

No one asked me if I was an alcoholic. Why would they? I clearly have my shit together. (Sidenote: I clearly do not have my shit together.)

I kept the truth about the scale of my drinking to myself — after all, the thought of giving up alcohol was more overwhelming that anything life was throwing at me. It simply was not an option.

The biggest lesson I’m learning in recovery is that when people are in addiction of any kind, they don’t know how to stop doing that thing that they’ve been doing for so long. Asking an addict to stop drinking or using is a lot like asking someone to stop breathing or eating or sleeping. How is that done? How will we survive?

My last drink was on February 28, 2017, and I still have to talk myself through taking a shower, blow drying my hair, and putting on clothes every day. Some days are worse that others. Sometimes, I require a nap in the afternoon or a good cry mid-day. I have gained 12 pounds from eating my feelings. THERE ARE SO MANY FEELINGS.

I started exercising because I need the endorphins, and then it occurred to me that I haven’t fed myself normally, meaning in a non-disordered way, since high school. It’s time for me to re-learn how to care for myself: the care and feeding of a 37-year-old woman. It’s amazing how eating the right things at the right time can pep a person right up.

Amazing.

We — and I’m talking about myself as well as other people who struggle with substance abuse — are brain-damaged people. We’ve re-wired our brains in our addiction, and reversing brain damage is no easy task, but the miracle is that it can be done.

Today is day 138.

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A Beautiful Destination

I’m 100 days sober today.

I’ve reached a point in my recovery that is notorious for relapse, and now that I’m in it, I can understand why. I’m unearthing years worth of emotional hurt that I’ve spent half of my life distracting myself from fully addressing, with no way to numb the pain other than to keep pressing through it.

Recovery isn’t just about not drinking or using. It’s not as simple as that. All of us have reasons why we are driven to drink or shoplift or lie or sleep with total strangers or whatever that thing is that keeps you from feeling that thing that you don’t want to feel.

I would go to almost any length to avoid feeling those things that I don’t want to feel, and now that I’m sober, I’ve been sitting in them for awhile. That’s why I’ve found myself doing things like baking cookies and eating the entire batch (on two separate occasions) and then being angry that I’ve gained weight, or working out like a crazy person because I have anger that I don’t know how to process, or calling a friend and just sitting in silence on the phone because the simple act of calling someone reminds me that I’m not alone.

It tethers me to something real. It reminds me that I have support, and even if the person on the other line doesn’t always know what to say to me because she isn’t an alcoholic, she is saving my life simply by being there.

As difficult as experiencing the hard stuff is, the good stuff makes the bad stuff almost forgettable. Just like childbirth made me feel like I was literally dying right there on the table — rationally, I figured I wasn’t actually going to die, but my body felt like it was shutting down and my soul was floating away — but the joy of seeing that little face made me immediately forget. All I can remember is that childbirth is unpleasant. This makes me hope that one day I’ll recall 100 days sober as unpleasant, but not bad enough to kill me.

Drinking would kill me.

As I keep inching forward, the pain lessens little by little. Every day, a tiny piece of my soul is restored … I think. Sometimes I can’t tell if my soul is healing, or if I’m simply losing my mind, but I do know one thing: I can’t go back.

The terrified part of me wants to say “NEVER MIND, I WAS JUST KIDDING!” and go right back to drinking, but the tiny shred of sane self I have left knows that I could never un-know that I’m an alcoholic and that there are things in my past that drove me to this point. I could never un-know that my coping mechanisms will send me to an early grave unless I retrain myself how to cope differently. I could never un-know the joy and peace I feel in my good sober moments.

They say it gets better. I believe them. I have to.

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Ninety Days Sober And I’m Still Here

I’m 90 days sober. This has been the longest, most painful, humbling, frightening, and eye-opening experience of my life.

When I first became a mother, I remember thinking that childbirth was the most painful, humbling, frightening and eye-opening experience of my life. It’s empowering to bring life into the world. The fragility and toughness of babies and vaginas and just the whole motherhood thing really blows my mind. But this.

This.

I was so walled over with addiction, resentment, and pride, so deep into self-medicating to avoid reality, that I had no idea how messed up I was. I still don’t know how messed up I still am, even 2,160 hours into recovery. I don’t know how long or for what reasons I stayed there, hiding from my life, avoiding the discomfort of uncomfortable emotions. I liked it there, in the dark. It felt safe. I mean, a baby feels safe cocooned in utero, but for the sake of her own life, she must eventually experience birth.

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Maya Angelou is my jam.

I’ve had 90 nights of going to bed sober, falling asleep peacefully, knowing exactly where I am and without fear of needing to jump out of bed to throw up.

I’ve opened my eyes on 90 mornings without a hangover. For 90 evenings I have been able to put my kids to bed sober, without stumbling down the hall, dropping my phone because I’m too drunk to find the light switch, or spilling wine all over my pajamas. I ruined a lot of pajamas, because the thing about me when I’d been drinking is that I drank to not care about things like spilling wine on my pajamas. I certainly never had the foresight to spray stain remover on anything.

I am 10 pounds heavier because sobriety is a cold-hearted bitch. She’s not cutting me any slack, and that’s okay, because right now it’s better for me to be fat and sober than not as fat, but also drunk. Please excuse me while I try not to think about Dark Chocolate M&M’s.

Motherhood used to feel hard.

It’s really not that hard.

Sobriety is hard, but it’s making everything else easier.

Day 90

Photo credit: Maverick Hobbs, age 8

Hells yeah.

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The Miracle of Breathing

All this time I thought I was a highly-driven person, because I throw myself 100% into everything I do, but the truth is, I’m really just an addict.

The most gung-ho, passionate, charismatic, caring people in this world are probably addicts, too.  But don’t worry, we have a lot of redeemable qualities. I have an addictive personality. I prefer to call myself “passionate,” but what it really is, is that I LIKE WHAT I LIKE.

I’m a little over a month into sobriety and I am happy and calm for the first time in a really long time. Like, longer than I can remember. In fact, my entire household is happier and calmer, which means that the chaos I was drinking to cope with was largely MY OWN FUCKING FAULT.

Let that sink in for a moment.

It’s really sad, insane, shocking, and embarrassing how big of an effect my addictions had on the people around me. I may not have gotten arrested, lost my marriage, or had my children taken away from me like some people that I’ve encountered, but my actions still changed the tone of my home. I told myself that what I was doing wasn’t hurting anyone else, but that was a lie.

It was.

Out of all my attempts at getting parenting right, getting sober is the most important thing I’ve done. After all, I have to put my oxygen mask on before I can help anyone else learn to breathe.

I took a picture of myself today, day 37. I look better. I feel better.

Here’s to breathing.

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What I Treasure

I had my first drink on December 26, 1992, on my 13th birthday. I was wearing a black velvet dress with a satin bow at the waist. We were in San Antonio for a wedding, and someone handed me a mimosa.

On February 26, 2017, I had my last drink. I didn’t know it was my last drink. It makes me sad that I didn’t make an occasion out of it, honestly. It was just what was left of a bottle of red, poured into a high ball glass with a unicorn on it. If I’d known it would be my last drink, I may have savored it more. Or, maybe I would have gone to the store for a bottle of vodka and really thrown down. It’s hard to say.

Nine days later, I went to my first 12-step meeting. I did not want to go. I’ve felt feelings of shame and dread before, but nothing like this. I am ashamed that I’m an alcoholic. I am ashamed that I’m an alcoholic who has not had that bad of a life. I’m ashamed that I am an alcoholic who has not had that bad of a life, who also has a beautiful family to come home to every day.

I dread the process of getting better, because I know it’s going to be hard.

I dread the pain of shifting relationships.

And I’ll just come right out and say it: I dread the discomfort of growing as a person. I dread the arduous process of self-evaluation and feeling all the feelings I’ve stuffed down for so long. I dread fully knowing what I have done to my body and soul for the past 15 years.

 

How did I get here and what changed? That’s a story I’m not ready to tell. The important thing is, I do not look or act like an alcoholic. I’m well put-together. I have a home. I have a family. I put makeup on every day. I’m a good parent and friend. I have a successful writing career and a happy marriage.

There is no way to know what people are struggling with in the quiet.

I’ve always been the kind of person who is picky about her friendships, preferring quality over quantity, and announcing via social media that I’m in a 12-step program has weeded out a LOT of undesirable people. I can practically hear the whispers from here: Harmony’s an ALCOHOLIC. Did you see that?! I neeeeeeeever would have imagined she was … you know … an alkie.

THAT’S RIGHT, BITCHES. I can hear you talking, so I’m going to answer you. I am a full-fledged, raging alcoholic. Alcohol dulls my pain like nothing else, but it also damn near ruined my life. I’m approaching my recovery by taking full ownership of all of it. The ugly, the funny, the sad, the embarrassing and the foolish.

What kind of mother allows herself to become an alcoholic?

Me. I did.

This afternoon, I was going through my son’s school papers when I came across this essay he wrote. I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting my favorite parts.

Essay

I really needed this today.

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