Being an alcoholic made me a better mother

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Before you get defensive about how awful that sounds, let me explain a few things. If you have followed my previous stories you will know that my drinking career didn’t start until I was divorced and about 25 years old. I spent my high school years as an outspoken, probably annoying, high school Jesus freak. That passion followed me to college, and naturally reflected Evangel University. I loved my four years at Evangel and still maintain incredible friendships. You have to sign a covenant to attend a faith-based school, which I did — no sex, alcohol or dancing, and I stayed true to that. Though I wish I tested the waters a little bit; but don’t tell anybody, I could get fined (Evangel joke).

I digress.

I think Tenley was maybe two or three when I decided I would start drinking. I drank Moscato , the sweetest kind you could find. I never felt odd, or buzzed and in hindsight that should have been an indication of tolerance, but if you are surrounded by drinkers, active drinkers , everyone’s truth is a little distorted.

Tenley at two years old.

The last three years have been a whirlwind. I hit the lowest of lows. Imagine seeing a grown woman clinging to her pillow in a nightgown, with fuzzy socks on and a missing tooth. That is who I was, walking through the doors as an inpatient. Luckily I have been able to have a pretty kick-ass, stellar recovery process that has been tiresome but so worthy.

You’re probably asking how being an alcoholic made me a better mother. There are few key reasons that all sort of tie in with the theory of ‘desirable disadvantages’.

I was a very loving and kind mother. Most women naturally fill that role. But then I began to fill my nights with drinking and the nights turned into days which turned into months and, before I knew it, everything was unraveling.

Tenley has always been a child of bright curiosity and she radiates joy wherever she flutters. I was tired, irritable, half-assing my way through a job I loved but couldn’t find any additional strength for. I was disengaged, always planning my next stop for alcohol and/or planning to have care on the weekends I did have her, because ‘it’s normal to drink with friends’. Her joyful mother became sad, tired and uninterested.

That is one of the hardest truths I will ever have to swallow. To admit that when it came down to Tenley or alcohol, I would have chosen alcohol. It took me years to figure out why and what that meant and I accept that it isn’t a choice. Once you are at that point, you are a passenger on the train.

The last year and a half of sobriety have been the hardest moments in my life. I was broken, poor, unhealthy, starting my career over again. But I got creative. I saved everything I could, learned to budget correctly, attended night classes and rode the bus two hours every morning (a consequence of an OWI/DUI).

The first year of my change, I white-knuckled it all — I was happy to be alive, but did not yet appreciate what that entailed. I found myself jealous of my old life prior to sobriety but when I really put forth the effort that this deserved , my whole life shifted.

I believe the statement above with every fibre in my being. One of the hardest things for any parent to do is admit they failed their children.

And I did it. I failed Tenley. I wasn’t the mother she deserved or needed or asked for. I scared and worried my daughter and the shame kept me spiralling out of control. I didn’t want to accept that I had done this to her as I love Tenley more than anything. When I am drinking I am not choosing to not be the best mother, I cannot choose. I see so many excellent parents weighted with defeat. I see the stress, the sagging shoulders and bloodshot eyes.

YOU CAN GET BETTER. YOU CAN BE BETTER. YOUR CHILD WILL RESPECT YOUR FIGHT, AND LOVE YOU FIERCELY FOR IT.

Tenley at age eight.

Tenley and I are closer than ever, we talk openly about my past and my choices. She isn’t walking forward with a mum that hides or shames horrible behaviour or consequences or alcoholism, she is walking forward with my recovery, hand in hand with me. She is learning to overcome the worst case scenario and be the best version of herself she can.

Your children are your biggest fans, they love unconditionally and will forgive you in a heartbeat (but do not take advantage of a soft heart, they become adults who remember). They want you to be YOU and if that means taking time to go to rehab, DO IT, if that means changing jobs, DO IT, if that means getting medication to help curb chemical imbalances, DO IT. Your children are watching you fall, but more importantly, watching you stand back up and dust your knees and shoulders off, before grabbing them too, brushing the dirt from their knees, walking forward together because you are worth it and it is never too late. Ever.

I now have better relationships. It took me a long time to understand the ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’ concept. I need someone who loves me as is and can share that love with a smaller version of me. Tenley is watching me in a relationship with a recovering drinker who put sobriety first. Thankfully, my partner emits so many qualities that I would want for her to experience. She sees love practiced and given without condition, she sees a disagreement become a solution and finally she sees me valuing myself first and knowing that I can’t be a partner or mother if I am drinking.

Tenley at six — the week I was able to see her after 57 days of treatment, meetings and rehab.

I am financially stable. Drinking took a LOT of money from me, but also taught me how to plan a budget when my one source of debt was rejected. She watches me budget, and I now think about where my money is going.

I have a supportive job. I was able to be candid about my drinking past, and that makes me better prepared if I begin to feel stressed or anxious. In the past, drinking on the job became very easy and it usually does for most addicts. It’s not purposeful, it’s to survive at that point. When you stop drinking you shake, you crave, your body does everything it can to get you temporary relief. I shared my past openly with my boss in the first interview, because for me, it’s life or death. I don’t suggest that you share intimate details of your life if they aren’t necessary but for this position I needed to be candid and was respected for it.

Here is the takeaway. I am a better mother now because I have fought hard to be one again. My moments with Tenley are an adventure that strayed off track for a few years. I am a better mother because I value the little moments, even the bad moments, because when you are accepting of death, you become very much alive if you are given a second chance. Joy is more joyful, silence is more warming, love is bigger and louder.

This isn’t to say I live without pain. Fifty percent of my time is spent without my little radiant pixie and it’s in those times that I find myself sinking into that dark hole of loneliness and hurt, wondering how I made it through the past few years. It’s simple, I made it because I wasn’t feeling anything: my goal was to not feel. But my god, does the joy feel joyful.

Parents , if anything sticks with you , please let it be this: continue to fight for what is good and true. You are giving your children an incredible gift and that is showing them when you fail, there is a chance to do it right.

If you find yourself in a similar situation and are feeling alone, you are not. Tenley and I are rooting for you, hand in hand.

Personal reflections on freedom and alcohol

An open cage represents freedom and alcohol on Hello Sunday Morning

How context frames the things we rely on

It’s been three months now of my first ever prolonged alcohol-free experience, so I’ve decided to write down some thoughts about it. The following reflections are not from someone with a dependence, nor from a party animal or binge drinker. It is not a personal alcohol problem that has triggered this alcohol-free experience, but a simple medical treatment. You might think, “well, what’s the big deal then?” — but these three months without a drop of alcohol have made me question how we draw the line on what we call dependence.

Why is it a big deal?

Being a teenager — an average one, I believe — I was avid to break free from adult rules that decided what I could and couldn’t do. Being a not-yet-adult was so confining! Not being able to work and earn your own money, needing permission to go out with friends, not being allowed to drink or smoke (although, of course, most of us did these long before the legal age). Even though I had relatively liberal parents compared to my friends back then, those limitations were everywhere, and it bothered me that I couldn’t decide when I felt responsible enough to do or try certain things. I think a lot about freedom since those teenage times. I praise it, chase it, and even avoid some commitments. The ability to do what I please at any time and make my own decisions is precious to me.

Teenage-hood is arguably the most socially busy time of our lives, and that’s the time when we are finally allowed to drink. It is not a coincidence that social life goes so hand in hand with alcohol and tobacco, the two hugely advertised drugs that mark our breaking free from our repressed childhoods. No more allowing adults to make decisions for us on how to have fun! Besides, it’s from adults that we’d learned to associate alcohol with friends and fun.

The irony is that, although we become free to choose alcohol or cigarettes when we reach the age of independence (which most of us do, as with anything that has been denied to us previously), choosing drugs as social enablers actually leads many of us to the complete opposite of freedom.

“Anyone can see that a child is not free when he desires milk, nor the drunken man when he says things which he later regrets.” — Rudolf Steiner

I love Steiner’s quote as it illustrates very well how, when we are under the effects of alcohol, even at a moderately tipsy level, we lose control of our will. Free will is the capacity to act and decide independently, without influences. As you might guess, being so paranoid about my freedom, I have always been a bit uncomfortable about losing my free will. I believe that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never drunk too much alcohol. Being tipsy is already distressing for me, besides associating it with sickness, which I believe is one of the most terrible natural opponents of freedom.

Still, I’ve never had anything against alcohol itself. I do enjoy a fresh bitter ale at a sunny terrace, and lately, since living in Australia, I love a glass of Shiraz with a tasty local dinner. And I carry the pride of tequila in my veins as a good Mexican, so for over 11 years living abroad, I’ve been pouring my sweet roots to friends from different places around the world, teaching them how a good tequila shouldn’t be drunk as a shot, but rather slowly, tasting it!

A better understanding

For over nine months now, I’ve been listening, reading and following stories, news, and theories about drinking. Funnily enough, my four months of alcohol-free experience comes at a time when empathising with people who want to drink less is part of my daily life. I’ll give you a bit of background on this.

Less than a year ago, my boyfriend and I moved to Australia: the second-ranked of OECD countries on (pure) alcohol consumption per capita, as ranked by the World Health Organization in 2015. Quite a shocking fact when you’ve lived in Finland, thinking that no other country could beat them!

We lived for over a year in Vietnam in between Finland and Australia, where we were fascinated by always having a fridge full of beer at the office (it was an Australian company). The interesting part was not that we had those beers at work, but that it remained full! There was no need to refill with beer very often. Fridays came, when we had a small get-together at the office, and we foreigners were almost always the only ones with beers in our hands. This isn’t to say that Vietnamese wouldn’t ever drink, but local guys would rather play games, ride their scooters back home safely (or relatively safely), and avoid having their wives angry at them. The women, meanwhile, would take care of their figure by avoiding the calories from alcoholic drinks.

When we moved to Sydney, I was already looking forward to becoming a freelancer working on ethical projects. I didn’t want to work any longer for large enterprises where design was a mere tool to increase profit. I had long awaited the opportunity to use my skills for a cause to make this world a better place. Freedom and inspiration were going to be my drivers from now on. After about a month in beautiful Sydney I was dealing with my lack of leadership and contacts to turn my saving-the-world ideas into a living; then, serendipity hit me, and I joined the inspiring team of Hello Sunday Morning, a small charity with a mission to help people change their relationships with alcohol.

The thing that drove me to Hello Sunday Morning was the organisation’s mindset around alcohol and drug consumption. It conveyed a very positive view where openness, motivation, and support were the tools to help people free themselves from habit. The aim was to use state of the art psychology and technology to help people change their habits to healthier ones.

I’ve been learning a lot since becoming part of the team. Listening to my colleagues’ knowledge, plus interviewing very diverse people from our focus groups and reading about addiction, habits, and behaviour change has been renovating my view of alcohol in society.

I didn’t ever suspect that helping people rise above dependence would be my way to make this world a better place. I didn’t ever consider alcohol as something to worry or care much about. I would often avoid drunk people, even family or friends, and sometimes blamed them for not “controlling” themselves. I would ignorantly assume that people with addictions didn’t want nor appreciated help or concern. We tend to generalise, and I had been doing so for many years. When I was still of a young age, wondering about the reasoning behind those strange things adults did, I would see my dad now and then behave in an odd and embarrassing way after a meet up with his friends, and I would only feel pity, shame — and, a few times, even disgust. I had learned to relate alcohol to grumpy, annoying and careless behaviour. In a way, as Ellen J. Langer explains it in her book Mindfulness, I had a limited view of alcohol dependence during my youth and didn’t consider all the different reasons behind alcohol consumption, nor the possibilities to improve things. The truth is, all of us can do a lot to help people free themselves from dependence and habits, and even prevent it to a certain point. We can all do this with a bit of behaviour change.

From my early views about alcohol, you may assume I would reject it and avoid drinking myself, but that was not so. I was always free to choose what I would see as the non-stupid, non-annoying way, of course. But going out with friends to have fun is rarely an alcohol-free situation, and wherever there’s alcohol, especially when you’re young, there’s a good amount of social pressure to drink to a point where you start to lose that sense of free will.

I have indeed chosen stupidity many times. Once or twice as a teenager I drove a bit tipsy, noticing I had drunk more than I meant when my calculations for driving through a narrow space were not good enough (and later lying to a trustful parent who lent me the car). Luckily for me, a small car scratch was as far as it went. I have never drunk to the point that I lost memory of it, nor have I experienced those terrible hangovers one will often hear about from friends. But we don’t usually realise when freedom disappears. Freedom to enjoy a social life with or without alcohol, to decide whether drinking or not when under pressure, to choose when to have the last drink.

We usually understand alcohol dependence as the point when a person cannot stop drinking on a daily or almost daily basis. But on a normal outing with friends, a simple dinner with your partner, or a Christmas festivity, are we really free from depending on alcohol to feel like we fit in or have fun?

Because I currently don’t have the freedom to choose to have a drink, I realise how easy it is to enjoy life without falling to the pressure of having one. Perhaps I will appreciate that freedom of choice even more after I am allowed to drink again, and may understand better the reason behind choosing to have a beer or a glass of wine instead of water and lime. I will probably savour whatever I pick with more delight and decide based on taste and what makes me feel good.

Originally posted on Hello Sunday Morning’s Medium page by our wonderful Design Lead, Brenda.