Frisky Q&A: Drunk Mom Author Jowita Bydlowska On Alcoholism, Parenthood & Writing
Motherhood. We all have a vision in mind of what it’s supposed to look like: warm, nurturing, saccharine, even beatific. Even the messier versions we allow — frazzled new parent anxiety, daylight zombies — still position the mother as with-it and in control. But what about the mothers who are anything but in control? What about the mothers who have an addiction in control of them?
Jowita Bydlowska is the author of a searing memoir, Drunk Mom, about her 11-month relapse into alcoholism after her son’s birth. A sober alcoholic, Bydlowska toasted her son’s birth with a glass of champagne. Then she began drinking regularly in the overwhelming new days of parenthood. At first her relapse was easy to hide, especially home alone on maternity leave with a newborn. But soon, the addiction metastasized into full-blown alcoholism once again, causing her to make dangerous decisions about her own and her baby’s safety and shrouding her relationship with her baby’s father in lies. When she finally makes it to rehab, the reader is relieved everyone is still alive.
Drunk Mom, which will be published in America on May 27th, is a discomforting read. It’s bare-naked honesty about addiction and families will make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially those with idealized versions of what motherhood and womanhood “should” mean. It’s by far one of the best memoirs that I’ve ever read (and yes, I’m including Wild in that) both for it’s candor and bravery and for her narration. I understand addiction all the better with once-again-sober Jowita Bydlowska as the Charon to this Hades, our guide to the underworld.
I called Bydlowska in Canada where she lives with her now-five-year-old son.
Drunk Mom lays bare your relapse into alcoholism, lying to your boyfriend and family, your time in rehab — all difficult moments of your life that addicts usually keep private because they feel ashamed. How did you decide to write this memoir and open these experiences up to people?
It started off as a work of fiction. I think that’s part of a denial that I was in when I was active in my addiction, because I’m a writer so I always write and work on projects. During that time after I relapsed, I was working on a novel that wasn’t going very well and then I had this brilliant idea to write a novel about a mom who drinks. I thought it was really a new thing I would write about, so I talked to my literary agent and he thought it was a great idea as well and so I kind of went around and almost used what was happening to me as research. That was also just one more way of removing myself from what was really going on.
So, to give you an example, when I went to rehab I brought a notebook with me to kind of take notes, because I was there to do research on my novel — not because I needed to be. So [there was] just a lot of sort of playing games with myself in that regard. Then after I got sober I talked to my agent again, and we talked about the project and I told him that it was actually based on a true story. So we discussed the possibility of making it into a memoir and the consequences I may have from doing that, because it would no longer be a work of fiction, it would be something I would have to be responsible for and talk about.
What has the reaction from readers been? I saw some extremely nasty comments on blog posts about your mothering.
[Drunk Mom] came out last year in Canada and the reaction was mixed. There was a major profile done the day before it came out in our national paper here called The Globe And Mail and it was a hard to read profile because I didn’t really expect what was written. But it was really good training ground for what would happen after that. I’m just trying to diplomatically say it was not a very flattering profile. But reviews were great, and I would say 70 percent of responses here in Canada were positive. I got a lot of personal emails and had a lot of support in media as well, and there were a few pieces that weren’t so positive and of course those ones are the ones that a person tends to remember, so I’m trying to not remember them. But overall, it’s been a really interesting reaction and I think it sparked a lot of discussion about addictions and about the things like being a parent for the first time and the sort of isolation that involved. I had responses from people I didn’t expect to have responses from, adult children of alcoholics and addicts that said “You helped me to understand how my mom was.”
I’ve done a fair amount of reading about addiction and your memoir was the best explanation I’ve read about how an alcoholic thinks. From the outside looking in, one tries to rationalize an addict’s behavior and appeal to reason. But it’s a waste of time because addiction is a disease and it’s not rational. Trying to make sense of an addict’s behavior will just drive you crazy. And yet as someone who doesn’t have an addiction, your point of view was actually relatable to me. You made it understandable, sort of. And I’m also a writer, so I understand completely about people making judgmental, mean and anonymous comments and thinking it’s okay because “you put yourself out there.” But I, for one, thought that you were so self-aware about your mistakes and things that you’ve done that you’re not proud of. You are just completely honest about it and that’s so helpful to other people who need help.
Well, thank you for saying that. … I think part of the reason [that I could explain it] was because I was surrounded by a lot of loving people who are not alcoholics, not addicts. I heard this comment sort of repeatedly: “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you snap out of it?” I remember writing this thing also thinking it could be like a letter of explanation. I have a lot of friends who are addicts, so I understand people’s anger and their negative reaction because it is absolutely baffling and frustrating and horrible. It goes against every single life instinct that we have to do this self-destruction and also destroy those around you.
How do you feel that alcoholism, even in sobriety, affects your parenting today? You were drunk or in rehab for a period of your son’s early life. Do you have a different perspective on being a mom now that you’re sober?
Yeah, I really regret [the early period] … it was 11 months of his life and that’s something I’m not going to get back, ever. As all parents, I do have a lot of photos which are quite beautiful of things that we had done together as a family and I can’t look at them. I don’t know if I ever will be able to, because I look at them and I think, It’s all a lie. So that time is there, and it’s going to, I’m sure, take years for me to come to terms with what happened. But in terms of being a sober parent, I think it’s so hard to be a parent but it’s such a — I’m going to sound like a New Age-y person, but it’s a gift. It’s great to be able to be present for my son and even the really frustrating moments are kind of a gift. I just like being there.
It’s funny, I was reading something about kids growing up differently nowadays because parents use their iPhones all the time and they don’t pay attention to [their children]. So it’s like, [technology is] not an addiction like alcoholism, but I just thought we do miss a lot of our children growing up because we have all these other distractions. So I’m very aware of that and that’s what I think sobriety awarded me. B
What kind of advice would you give other female alcoholics and addicts about sobriety and relapsing? Because it doesn’t just happen once. I don’t know if a “cycle” is the right word, but it’s a continuous thing. Addiction is a lifelong disease.
I don’t want to be in a position where I give advice because I can only speak from my own experience. I don’t have expertise as an addiction counselor. But I would say that one of the things that was crucial in my own recovery was becoming honest with what was happening. So you know, writing a work of fiction and sort of using that as a denial tactic, that was my way, but also I got to the point where it was less painful to be honest and to tell the truth than it was to try to hide. There was a moment where I still could make more lies and try to talk myself out of the trouble that I was in, but it just seemed way heavier than just telling the truth and risking all the consequences. So, I think just becoming honest with yourself is kind of a step before the first step. And we have tons of resources. What works for me? I’m open about my membership, [so] going to AA [helps] but that’s just because that’s the first thing I encountered when I tried to get sober. But there are all kinds of things.
Have you thought about how you’re going to explain alcoholism to your son someday?
Yeah. It’s interesting, because that question was coming up a lot in the past year in interviews and I would bristle and I would say “I don’t know, how does one know what’s going to happen in the future?” So that would be sort of my smartass answer. But I have an idea, I talked to someone about possibly doing a kid’s book about explaining addiction to kids. Because it’s one of these things where I was talking to a friend who’s in publishing and she said “What are you going to tell your son?” and I said “I have no idea!” and she said “Well, you have to come up with something!” so we talked about how it’s one of those things where there are [not good resources for children]. I don’t think there are books or a lot of tools. There’s places where families of addicts can go, but other than that — a lot of it is secret [for children].
I want to be open with my son and I’m preparing myself for the worst and for actually no reaction at all. One doesn’t know. I was talking to another woman who wrote a memoir and hers was about family situations that I think involved sexual abuse or something — not her kids — but she had this long speech. She wanted to explain to her son, and he said “Okay, Mom, I want some milk.” So it was kind of like you can get any reaction, right? I feel like my kid is going to ask a lot of questions, though
Can I give you my two cents? The thing with addiction is that because there’s patterns of behaviors associated with it, you can know what the label means because it gets explained to you in health class at some point, but you don’t necessarily know what it’s like to be around an addict until you experience it. It takes the maturity of adolescence and young adulthood to understand more completely. I do think a kids’ book is a really good idea, but I guess I’m just saying you should realize that kids still aren’t going to get it, because addiction is really complicated.
I talked to an addiction specialist and I asked what’s the age where [children] become aware, and they said it’s eight to 13 or something. Past 13, you know things from media and from other places. … Hopefully, knock on wood, my son won’t grow up with me being active in my addiction. I certainly don’t plan on it and I hope to God that it will never happen. But it’s still that whole period in his life where I was a pretty crappy mom, so I don’t know.
Do you have any other plans for books other than this idea?
Yeah, I write fiction primarily, and not usually fiction that turns into memoirs, so yeah I had a recent offer on a novel but that’s not until 2016. I’m kind of happy to be moving away, slowly but surely, from the personal.