How Motherhood Keeps Me Sober

If I drank, I would eventually fail my son.
John Manno via Getty Images

I was in a bar last night. A grimy, gross bar –- the kind of bar where you’d shudder to see daylight hit the upholstery. I went to use the bathroom and my first thought was that I can’t BELIEVE I used to do cocaine off those surfaces.

Now that I have eight years clean and sober, I am able to go to bars on occasion. I don’t treat it lightly –- I’m not in one without a purpose (a friend’s birthday party, perhaps), or for very long. I usually know to leave when people begin to reach the level of drunkenness where they are circling and retelling the same stories over and over.

But on this particular night, the bar was feeling a little too inviting. I was remembering the pleasant burn of that first cocktail on a cold night, and the memory wasn’t scaring me like it should. I wasn’t in danger of drinking, exactly. But a drink sounded good.

I did what I was taught when I got sober, and played out the tape. Yet none of it ― the fight I’d surely get into with my boyfriend, the way I knew I would want to keep on drinking and drinking after everyone had else had had their two drinks and gone home ― seemed so awfully bad after all. None of it was the thing that stopped me from heading up to that bar and ordering something with vodka in it, the expensive stuff because why not relapse in style?

What does stop me from drinking is knowing that I would eventually fail my son.

I am an alcoholic. For me, that means that when I drink alcohol, I never want to stop. Because of that, I lose the ability to keep myself safe. As soon as that first sip of alcohol hits my lips, my primary objective becomes to consume more alcohol. In pursuit of that goal, I’d go anywhere with anyone, get into cars with strangers, lie to people I love.

I’d drink until I fell down a flight of stairs, stumble down a dark and empty New York City street like a wounded gazelle, puke onto the subway tracks with little regard for my limited balance.

When I am drinking, I can’t be trusted with my own precious bones, much less another helpless life.

And yet, when I got sober, I thought at first that the good times were over. I lamented the pretty party dresses I’d surely never have the chance to wear again, wondered how I’d ever fill up the empty, friendless hours.

That turned out to be more untrue than I could have imagined –- being sober, believe it or not, has been more fun than being drunk.

But even more amazingly, in sobriety, I started to see a road unfurling before me. A road filled with limitless choices –- things I could never do before because I was pretty sure that everyone had gotten an instruction manual I’d missed. Things like join a gym and actually attend it. Things like go to a movie or a museum on a Sunday afternoon instead of soaking my hangover in greasy takeout.

And one of those things that I realized I could do, something I’d been clear-eyed enough about my condition to never truly consider before, was to be a mother some day. It wasn’t even that I wanted to be a mother, necessarily, but ― done with partying ― I suddenly had the option.

Two years later, I became a foster and later an adoptive mom to my wonderful son. And there are moments when I still have flashes of a different reality. Walking away from a restaurant lunch when my son was a baby I wore strapped to my chest, I imagined my non-sober self drunkenly falling and smashing his face into the concrete. A famous addict with kids passes away and I know that could have been me. If I was actively using, my son’s mere presence wouldn’t be enough to stop me.

My sobriety is the only thing that makes my life with my son possible.

But just as my sobriety makes motherhood possible, motherhood makes my sobriety non-negotiable.

Being a sober mom isn’t always easy – like at the end of a long day with my kid when I can never ever unwind with a glass of wine. (Like, EVER.) Issues with my partner can’t be sipped away either, nor can the underlying issues of anxiety and ADD that my sobriety uncovered. I’ve gotta show up, and I’ve got to be present. Every moment of every day.

They say what you put in front of your sobriety you will lose. I was willing to lose a lot of things – jobs, my health and safety, relationships, my dignity. The only thing I’ve never been willing to lose is my son, and my ability to be a good mother to him.

In recovery, we talk about a higher power, about something bigger than ourselves. It doesn’t have to be God –- in my time in recovery, I’ve met people whose higher powers are a strawberry, Tom Waits, Dolly Parton, a tree and the recovery group itself. My higher power is some ever-shifting hybrid of nature and the universe and my own better nature. (And, yes, Dolly Parton.)

But my child, and motherhood, is also something bigger than myself –- something ancient and primal, with deep roots.

I know not all mothers are able to stay sober for their children. I don’t judge them –- this disease is a bitch and it compels us to violate our values systems again and again. And my sobriety does not come effortlessly ― I utilize recovery groups and therapy and antidepressants, to start with.

But when I ask myself why I left that bar, got in a cab and went home last night, the answer is that I’m a mom. One day at a time.

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