Three years after giving up drink, Jowita Bydlowska found herself throwing back a glass of champagne like it was ginger ale. “It’s a special occasion,” she said to her boyfriend. And indeed it was. It was a party celebrating the birth of their first child. It also marked Jowita’s immediate, full-blown return to alcoholism and all that entails for a new mother who is at first determined to keep her problem a secret.
Her trips to liquor stores are in-and-out missions. Perhaps she’s being paranoid, but she thinks people tend to notice the stroller. Walking home, she stays behind buildings, in alleyways, taking discreet sips from a bottle she’s stored in the diaper bag. She know she’s become a villain: a mother who drinks; a mother who endangers her child. She drinks to forget this. And then the trouble really starts.
Jowita Bydlowska’s memoir of her relapse into addiction is an extraordinary achievement. The writing is raw and immediate. It places you in the moment–saddened, appalled, nerve-wracked, but never able to look away or stop turning the pages. With brutal honesty, Bydlowska takes us through the binges and blackouts, the self-deception and less successful attempts to deceive others, the humiliations and extraordinary risk-taking. She shines a light on the endless hunger of wanting just one more drink, and one more again, while dealing with motherhood, anxiety, depression–and rehab.
Her struggle to regain her sobriety is recorded in the same unsentimental, unsparing, sometimes grimly comic way. But the happy outcome is evidenced by the existence of this brilliant book: she has lived to tell the tale.
This has been, without a doubt, the most difficult review I’ve written for this blog. I’ve started and stopped this piece at least a dozen times, simply because I wasn’t sure how to put what I wanted to say on the page. I’m still not sure I have it down, but here it is…
Let’s start with the easy stuff: this book is the memoir of a young woman who has fought many battles with alcohol in her past. She manages to surmount these issues, and eventually finds herself pregnant, then the mother of a baby boy whom she loves greatly. At a celebration party to welcome his birth, she has a drink. That leads to another, and another – and suddenly she has a problem again. The memoir deals with the time when she is drinking while caring for her young son, and how she attempted to manage her drinking and her behaviour along with the needs of caring for her son.
That sounds pretty clinical, and that’s unfortunate, because “Drunk Mom” is an intensely personal and candid memoir, written by someone who knows she is putting herself out there and opening herself up for criticism. I appreciated her honesty and her unflinching account of her return to alcoholism, although it was often difficult to separate my admiration for her candor from my distaste for her actions – and therein lies my struggle. However, what I’ve come to realize through re-reading and through conversations with friends is that it’s also the reason why I’m so affected by her story.
She speaks in clear and almost detached terms about the neglect her child goes through when she is drinking, and the lies she tells to hide her behaviour. She is constantly in battle with herself, knowing that what she is doing is wrong, but almost helpless to stop the decline back into addiction. When she does sign herself up for rehab-style classes, she mocks the other participants and distances herself from the reality of her situation, knowing all the while that she is setting herself up for failure. In these moments, there was a huge part of me that wanted to reach through the pages and shake her, and an equally huge part that wanted to wrap her up in order to take care of her.
It was only after talking with friends who have been down that road themselves that I was able to make peace with my feelings for this book. As one friend rather bluntly put it, “A lot of alcoholics are assholes. They know they are assholes, but they’re drinking, and they don’t really care. The alcohol dulls that part of the brain that warns you of that behaviour, and after a while, it shuts off. You are dimly aware that you’re doing something you shouldn’t but you’re helpless to change. It’s not who they really are, but is what the alcohol makes them.” This isn’t an excuse for bad behaviour – wrong is still wrong – but it is an explanation for why some people just can’t ‘snap out of it’ and move on. I think that is what helped me to understand that this was not a serious of passive-aggressive malicious acts against her child and partner. An addiction is a disease, and, just like cancer or arthritis, you are affected by and derailed by the effects of the disease. There are good days and bad.
When I thought about it, I could see that affliction reflected in Bydlowska’s narrative. Her love of her son is evident and the sorrow felt about her actions towards him as an infant is honest and raw. The pull of the alcohol, however, is equally painful to see; she knows it’s wrong, but she just can’t stop. Within the book, Bydlowska compares her alcohol addiction to a part of her own body, as something that cannot be removed and that she must learn to deal with. That’s a striking observation. My friends who are in recovery identified with that observation, noting that you feel the loss of that addiction every day, and when you least expect it, it can hit you hard and leave you gasping.
Having a newborn is not easy, and most struggle. The lack of sleep, the demands of breast-feeding (or the guilt of not in many cases), the feeling of disconnect from your ‘regular’ life and the issues your body itself goes through as it recovers from childbirth all place an enormous strain on both the mother and father. People deal with the stress in their lives in different ways, and when you step back to consider all the factors at that time, Bydlowska memoir inspires far more empathy than criticism. I can’t say that this is a book I liked, but it is most definitely a book that I’m very grateful to have read.
Drunk Mom was provided by Random House Canada in exchange for an honest review. It may be purchased from Indigo or your friendly indie bookstore. ISBN: 9780385677806, 304 pages.