When My Child Got Cancer, I Couldn't Cope. Then I Started Smuggling Vodka Into The Hospital.

"I kept two water bottles filled with vodka in my hospital suitcase. Every night at 7 o’clock, I pulled one from my bag."
The author and her daughter Emily during a stem cell transplant at Boston Children's Hospital in 2009.
The author and her daughter Emily during a stem cell transplant at Boston Children's Hospital in 2009.
Credit Amy McHugh

When Emily, my 4-year-old, was diagnosed with stage IV high-risk cancer, I kept two water bottles filled with vodka in my hospital suitcase. Every night at 7 o’clock, I pulled one from my bag and rested it next to the stack of books that my daughter and I read before bed. In between pages of “Goodnight Gorilla,” I took little sips.

Drinking was magic. After a few sips, the worry of Emily’s chemo, blood counts, line infections, organ trouble and unexplained rashes drifted from my mind. For the first time all day, I could breathe.

As if I needed a reason, drinking was easy to justify. My kid had neuroblastoma, an aggressive disease with 50-50 odds of survival. A tumor the size of a softball rested on her adrenal gland and cancer cells floated from the top of her head to the tips of her toes.

For most minutes of the day, I beat myself up for not realizing Emily had cancer sooner. I scrolled through old pictures and thought, How did you not know? When I couldn’t take it anymore, I became fixated on Isabelle, my healthy 6-year-old daughter, who asked me, “Is Emily going to die?” after a boy in her class told her his grandfather died from cancer and that Emily would, too.

Drinking allowed the thoughts to stop ― or at least slow down. It helped me sleep and be a better mother. My edges softened and the wild thoughts of Emily living and dying subsided. I liked myself better. For an hour or two, I forgave myself.

To keep myself in check, I established ground rules: not drinking before 7 o’clock, only having enough to get a buzz, and not telling anyone what mingled with my Diet Coke in the plastic hospital cup. It was a system that worked.

Every parent on the pediatric oncology floor had a system. I watched a mom chain-smoke by the valets and a dad eat McDonald’s three times a day. We all needed something to get us through ― without it, we’d crash.

“Healthy” alternatives to cancel out the drinking weren’t lost on me. When my father came to the hospital to relieve me, I ran the city streets. Midday, I rolled my yoga mat onto Emily’s hospital room floor and went through a sequence from a yoga class. Movement distracted my mind during the day and booze allowed it to be still at night.

I had no desire, nor the time, to go to my doctor and tell her that I was struggling. She’d write me a prescription for something and tell me to talk to a therapist. Unless a therapist could promise me that Emily wasn’t going to die, I didn’t want to talk to her. Vodka was taking good care of me. My dose of three capfuls, twice nightly, was doing the job.

Like any relationship, there were a few bumps. On the Fourth of July, in an act of rebellion, I didn’t measure out capfuls ― I swigged from the bottle. The “supposed tos” of the day took over my mind. Instead of watching the parade, going to the beach, making s’mores and waving sparklers, we were locked in hospital jail watching bad cartoons.

That night, I fell asleep reading books to Emily. When I woke up, an infomercial for skin cream was playing on the television. My head throbbed and my throat was dry and scratchy. Sunlight poked through the curtains.

I sat up and swung my legs off the side of the bed. A wave of nausea and the spins made me grab the bedside rail. My water bottle was half-empty and made my heart sink. Did I really drink all of that?

The author with her husband, Shane and daughters Isabelle (left) and Emily at Boston Children's Hospital in 2010.
The author with her husband, Shane and daughters Isabelle (left) and Emily at Boston Children's Hospital in 2010.
Courtesy of Amy McHugh

When Emily was discharged early a few hours later, I popped four ibuprofen and ate a bag of pita chips. On the way home, I pulled over and threw up on the side of the highway. At 7 o’clock that night, after lying on the couch and struggling to make my girls macaroni and cheese for lunch, I drank ― and it made me feel better.

A few days later I Googled, “What is an alcoholic?” A million results generated with links to AA and charts with alcohol guidelines. One asked me to rethink my drinking. But I didn’t want to rethink my drinking, so I closed my laptop and walked away. I’d stop when Emily was better and my life was easier.

But at the end of 18 months, when Emily was better, life wasn’t easier. Doctor’s appointments and navigating our new normal kept my mind racing. I worried about her relapsing and the occasional rogue bruise on her body. I’ll stop later... later... later, I told myself. This went on for years.

On hard days, which most of them felt like, I asked myself, Why do I have to stop? My life was hard, drinking was easy, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to muster the strength to stop. Plenty of people drank every night and their kids weren’t recovering from cancer. I was going to work and showing up at my girls’ soccer games. Who cared if I drank at the end of it all?

But slowly over time, I started to care. I had complete control and no control. I loved the way drinking made me feel and hated the way it made me feel. It took up a lot of space in my head. The dependency and secrecy started to weigh on my Irish Catholic guilt.

I kept waiting for “the thing” to show up that would make my life easier. An epiphany or some sort of promise that Emily wouldn’t die so I could unclench my jaw and stop complaining that my back hurt. “The thing” that would give me strength at night and allow me to say, “I’m good. I don’t need to drink” ― and actually mean it.

While I waited for it to show up, tiny things put me back together, ones so small I didn’t notice. A passage in a book, a conversation with a friend and laughing at things that once infuriated me all settled deep into the part of me that yearned for something more than vodka.

Acupuncture, off-the-grid healers and keeping a gratitude journal (which I wanted to discount the merit of, but worked when I woke up and hated the world) helped too. The good days started to beat out the bad days. When the dog pooped in the house, I didn’t scream in the backyard that I hated him.

On my drive to work one day, I thought, You have the choice to drink or not drink. I scrunched my eyes. I had a choice. Something had shifted. I felt slightly powerful. Not enough to stop drinking that night, but enough to consider it before I pulled the bottle from the freezer.

Around the holidays, eight years after Emily was diagnosed, I got sick. The reasonable voice in my head told me that drinking wasn’t going to help me feel better. I wanted it to be wrong, yet knew it was right.

That night in the shower, I was filled with rage. The anticipation of not drinking set off a battle between the two mes: one adamant that it was the night to stop and the other insisting that one more day was best.

Just for tonight, I told myself. If it’s awful, I can drink tomorrow. I couldn’t stand to be around myself, so I ate a pint of Oreo cookie ice cream and went to bed. I read a book and fell asleep. When I woke up, my first thought was I fell asleep without vodka. My second thought was Do I want to try this again?

For me, quitting cold turkey was the only way. Moderation and I have never been friends. I’m either all in or all out. That mindset is what kept me drinking and what I knew was my only way out.

For weeks, I hated taking a shower because I had nothing to look forward to afterward. With nothing to distract me, I had to pay attention. I was convinced it might kill me.

The author with Isabelle and Emily on Cape Cod in 2019.
The author with Isabelle and Emily on Cape Cod in 2019.
Courtesy of Amy McHugh

With all of me present, I realized I left my kids all alone when I escaped with vodka. To be with them, really with them, I had to be still and allow feelings to flood my body. A mess of joy and grief, anger and angst, fear and gratitude swirled from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It took all of my strength to not race downstairs for a drink to make them stop. Surrendering felt dangerous, but it also felt like the most loving act I could give myself. I was tired of fighting myself.

While my feelings did their job and informed all of the parts of me, I stayed and waited. Sometimes it took two minutes, sometimes 20. Eventually, the discomfort passed.

At night, I listened to my older daughter tell a story about a squirrel at recess or helped my younger one study for a spelling test. I wasn’t consumed by how much vodka was left in my glass. I didn’t nod off while they read books to me. Little moments of joy sustained me enough to keep me sober.

But don’t let me fool you, some days I hung on by a thread. In hindsight, I wish I’d joined a group. Being seen and heard by others would have made me feel less alone. I reasoned that getting help made me an alcoholic, a label I didn’t want. Now I realize that my ego and fear kept me from reaching out. It was foolish.

Online support and other modalities like counseling, medications, support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and/or brief interventions offer clear-cut steps and a range of options, according to Alcohol Screening. A baseline quiz can be a great first step.

I still think about drinking. The early days of the pandemic tested all of my strength. More than once I justified why it would be OK to drink.

On those days, I got a little excited, then annoyed. And then I read the note my acupuncturist made me write:

Dear Vodka,

Thank you for your service. You helped me through an unimaginable time. Without you, I wouldn’t have been able to show up and care for myself and family. It’s time for me to move on. I will be ok without you.

I’d sit on the edge of my bed and say, “You are OK. You are OK. You are OK,” until I grew tired of it and myself. Sometimes I thought the note was crap. On those nights, I didn’t allow myself to go downstairs. I stayed in my room to wait it out. There was no magic. Just waiting for the wild thoughts to grow tired.

Over and over, I’ve had to make the choice not to drink. For many of us, we always will. Yoga, acupuncture, walking, cold plunging, binging series on Netflix, reading, texting, baking banana bread and eating ice cream have helped me keep the voices at bay. I remind myself to feel my feelings and realize I’m not going to die.

Now water, not vodka, rests on my bedside. It sits next to a sound machine that drowns out the noise of the world and allows me to surrender.

Amy McHugh is a freelance writer on Cape Cod. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Oprah Daily, NBC News and Shondaland. She is writing a memoir about parenting, mental health, and new beginnings. You can see more of her work at www.amymchughwriter.com.

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Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

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