I remember the moment I finally, truly understood what this meant. The second part of the equation wasn't hard to admit. Until the very end, the outside looked okay. The inside was a complete mess. When you are in the throes of addiction, your every waking (and sometimes sleeping) thought is preoccupied with drinking, or trying not to drink. It is like having a voice whispering in your ear every second: whatever you do, don't think about polar bears. Despite your best efforts, you spend the day thinking about polar bears, or thinking: here's me not thinking about polar bears.
When you are an active addict or alcoholic, you have robbed your mind of the ability to process emotions naturally. Anxious? Bored? Angry? Tired? Sick? Sad? I couldn't handle any of it, and because my addiction had taken over every aspect of my life I felt a lot of these emotions, pretty much all the time. I didn't have any other coping skills, so I'd think: I just need to get out of my head for a little while, turn down the volume on these crappy feelings. I would try to manufacture a feeling of normalcy by having a drink.
And then there is the biggie: Guilt. As a mother, there are ample opportunities in my day-to-day life to feel guilty, and society puts a lot of pressure on mothers to be perfect. Let's be honest, mothers put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect, too. At least I do.
Mothers get in trouble with alcohol the same way any other addict does: oftentimes slowly, over time. What starts as a way to unwind after a hard day starts to gain momentum and importance. For me, it became the only way I could turn off anxious, guilty or bored thoughts. Mothers don't own the copyright to those emotions, but when I became a mother I experienced them with a lot more frequency than I had before. I felt like good mothers didn't struggle with parenting like I did. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be examples of women wallowing in the joy of motherhood: the television, magazines, playgroups. Society doesn't leave a lot of room for mothers to be a their wits' end. I felt like I was supposed to love the job all the time, and the guilt amped up when I was overwhelmed, stressed, tired and just. plain. bored.
Drinking became, over time, the only way I could put aside those feelings of guilt and I was loathe to give it up.
So back to Step One. I could admit, at the end, that my life was unmanageable. But the first part took more time. I didn't want to admit that I was powerless over alcohol, that I no longer controlled what happened if I had one drink. That I was drinking without my own permission. To admit this, in my mind, was to admit that I was a bad mother. If I'm honest with myself, the fear of being branded a bad mother was stronger than the fear of admitting I had a problem with alcohol.
The language in Step One was freeing for me. The day I finally said it out loud: "I am powerless over alcohol," was the turning point for me. I didn't have to say: I am an alcoholic. That word was just too loaded with negative meaning for me back then.
My daughter was five when I got sober. Old enough to know something was wrong, for sure. I am determined not to hide my addiction from her; I want to explain to her that it is a disease and like any other disease it needs to be treated. When she asks me questions about it, I answer them. Overcoming the guilt and shame is a work in progress. It never completely goes away, but I want her to know a strong woman in recovery, not someone who was crushed by addiction. I described it to her like an allergy:
"You know how there are some kids at school who can't eat peanuts or they will get really sick?"
She nodded. "If they have even one peanut they can get really sick and go to the hospital."
"Well, it is that way for me with alcohol. If I have one drink I can get really sick. It is called being an alcoholic."
She thought for a moment. "So if you just don't drink alcohol, you'll be okay?"
"Yes," I smiled. "But sometimes it is hard to stay away from something you like, even if you know it will make you sick. That is why I go to meetings, to talk with other people who understand how I feel."
"I'm glad there are other people to talk to," she said.
"Me too, honey. Me too."