It happened again this morning, and as usual, I wasn’t prepared.
The kids and I were hanging out in the living room – well, actually, I was drinking coffee in order to be coherent enough to drive them to school, and they were waiting on me to drink it – when we arrived on the topic of the Chinese Zodiac. Maverick, my oldest, is the one who broached the subject. He’s nine, and reading a series of books that I’m not entirely sure is age-appropriate, so he had questions.
“What animal am I in the Chinese zodiac?” he asked, patiently waiting for me to put down my coffee so I could look it up on my phone. “I was born in 2008, so that would make me a …”
All three children squealed as they crowded around my phone, trying to find their birth year and the corresponding animal. My 6-year-old was delighted to learn that he’s a rabbit, but my 4-year-old daughter cried actual tears when she found out that she’s a snake.
Maverick was still laughing at his own animal when he asked about mine. “I’m a sheep,” I told him. My husband is a dog, and according to the internet, we are a horrible match. I was going down a dark hole of pointless information about our supposed (not factual) incompatibility when I heard my son say in his very loud voice:
“So Mom, what are the traits of a sheep? OH WAIT! I KNOW – alcohol and drug addiction!”
He cackled at his own joke as I struggled to keep my expression and demeanor smooth. I announced that it was time to put their shoes on for school as I excused myself to the bathroom to pull myself together, both literally and figuratively.
He’s nine. My husband thinks he says this stuff out loud because he’s processing adult knowledge that’s been cooped up in his brilliant brain, and he’s trying to make sense of it. Well, join the club, kid. He’s the only one of my three who remembers what I was like before I got sober; he will remember for the rest of his life, a thought that saddens and terrifies me when I allow myself to dwell on it.
I wasn’t a bad mother. On the surface, addiction and motherhood seem like polar opposite conditions – as though when a woman suddenly finds herself with child, addiction should automatically disappear from the picture. For me, alcohol was the answer to the stresses of parenthood, marriage, and life in general. The more stressful life became, the deeper I fell into the black hole of addiction.
Most people didn’t know. I’m a high-functioning person, and I rarely drank before late afternoon – but Maverick knew. He was always there, right in the middle of it all. Every day, he watched me transform from hung over mom in the morning to stressed out mom at pick up time, to reaching-for-the-wine mom at dinner time, to drunk mom by the time I tucked him into bed.
“You smell like wine,” he would say to me occasionally, but the guilt was never enough to make me stop. All it did was fuel my self-loathing, and what’s the cure for self-loathing? MORE VODKA.
Sometimes, I was an angry drunk – but overall, I think I was just sad. The thing about alcoholism is that the person drinking the alcohol has no clue how depressed she really is. She just drinks more and more to wash the heaviness away.
I don’t want my children to see me fail. I want them to know that it’s possible to overcome addiction, as long as the addict is willing. Maverick has watched me closely, almost suspiciously, for the past year and a half. He has never once complained when he’s shuttled from grandparent to grandparent so I can go to therapy and 12-step meetings. He’s watched me slowly improve in both behavior and attitude. He’s noticed that we no longer have alcohol in the house, and I avoid walking through the liquor aisles in the grocery store.
He sees it all, and files it away.
“Do you ever miss drinking?” His question startles me from thought; I turned around with my toothbrush in my hand, to see him standing in my bathroom with his backpack in hand.
“Yes. Sometimes, I miss it a whole lot. But it’s not good for me, so it’s best for me not to do it. I’m learning better ways to deal with life, you know? It’s important to be healthy. But yeah … it’s really hard. It takes a lot of work.”
He’s quiet, and I feel like I can see him thinking, multiple wheels whirring behind a head full of thick, brown hair.
“I’m proud of you.” That sentence is worth every tough moment, every early alarm I’ve had to set to fit a meeting in to an already packed schedule, every difficult conversation I’ve had to have in order to stay sober, every deep breath I’ve had to inhale in order to keep my temper in check. My son’s pride is worth it all, because at the end of the day, if I can show him what it means to be willing to change then I will have done a damn good job.
So I said what any normal mother in recovery would say to her eldest son at 8:00 a.m. on a Tuesday.
“BAAAAAAAAAAAA.” (Because I’m a sheep.)