Oops. Make that three and a half years of sobriety—gone in the space of a split-second and not to return anytime soon.
Her frankly titled memoir—Drunk Mom (Viking Penguin, $16)—doesn’t begin on that day, but during a much later one, an evening when she’s at a museum and finds a baggie of coke in the women’s restroom. This baggie is perched on top of the toilet paper container, no less. Bydlowska sets the tone for her story that will underlie nearly every decision:
“So what do I do?” she asks, then answers: “I pour the powder down the toilet.” Pause. “No, no I don’t.” She gets out her makeup mirror, cuts “a slug of a line,” snorts it, and returns to a party. Immediately, she’s overcome by an appetite for more, “no ordinary wanting.”
This wanting is more like a giant baby, “a wet hungry baby that no one is picking up to soothe.” Like the one she left at home, with her sister babysitting him: her few-months-old baby, whose appetites will now compete with her own throughout a book that reads like Augusten Burroughs’ Dry, but with a baby in it.
Out of respect, I thought I’d wait until well after Mother’s Day to talk about Drunk Mom, which is appalling, irreverent, irresistible, and crushingly honest—with good reason. As Bydlowska has said, part of getting over an addiction is admitting it. And she does. For 320 pages.
Although some might disagree, the woman we meet in her memoir is a careful mother, if a relapsing, crazed and risk-taking addict. After her cocaine spree, she Googles cocaine + breast milk, to find out how long the drug will stay in her system. She doesn’t want to hurt her baby. She just wants to use his stroller to hide her empties in.
For the next eleven months, the book boldly goes where few moms have gone before, as Bydlowska documents in raw, unhurried detail her lethal downward spiral, one that includes waking up repeatedly in places she doesn’t remember going to sleep, unsure of what happened, sometimes injured and bloody. She hides her bottles, she hides her drugs, she pretends to her boyfriend that everything is fine.
In between the lying, cover-ups, carefully considered trips to the liquor store, and drug scores from strangers, are moments in which Bydlowska reminds us that the story of her addiction is also one about an inexperienced young mother.
“He starts to cry as soon as I lie down in the bathtub. He has the worst sense of timing. He cries as soon as I sit down to a meal, when I need to shit, do my makeup, have sex, when the doorbell rings, when I take baths. He stays silent and content when I surf the Net in boredom, does nothing when hours stretch into megahours.”
Everything takes place in the present, placing us smack in the midst of Bydlowska’s unending dilemma of how to stop drinking and at the same time, not ever really have to stop.
When she admits to her sister and boyfriend that she’s had a relapse, the three of them agree she should see her family doctor. How often do you drink? the woman asks her. Bydlowski immediately hedges: “I don’t drink every day,” she says to herself. “Every other day. Well, no more than six days a week. I lie: Maybe once a week.” How many drinks, the doctor asks. “Maybe two,” she lies again. As she draws the doctor in with half truths, she has a revelation: “My problem is barely my problem now—there are more and more people getting involved and we’re all going to make me stop drinking.” Before leaving the doctor’s office, she is already plotting the location, in her head, of the two closest liquor stores.
Born in Warsaw, Bydlowska emigrated from Poland as a teenager and now lives in Toronto. Reactions to and against this book began a year ago when it came out in Canada and ended up a bestseller. Bydlowka has been accused of over-sharing, among other things, and reviewers have expressed concern about what will happen when her son is old enough to read about what she did.
Sarah Hampson, of Canada’s Globe and Mail, said that “Bydlowska is very honest in her writing. Let me be as well then. There’s self-harm in choosing to publish this memoir. It’s just like alcoholism: the recklessness of it; the abandonment of responsibility to her partner, to their relationship, to her child, now almost 4, and also, most painfully, to herself. And because of that, I feel both protective of her and annoyed by her…”
Julie Rak, professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, countered Hampson’s article in “Memoir, Ethics, and Shame: the reaction to Drunk Mom,” advising “what happens when a memoir is seen to go TOO far in telling truths about the memoirist’s life.” The problem, Rak says, is that Bydlowska has refused “to create a moral from her story which makes everything alright.”
But Bydlowska’s refusal to glamorize her addiction or to feel sorry for herself is exactly what won me over—an addict who doesn’t bullshit their audience is a rare thing. So is an alcoholic who doesn’t make excuses.
Alcoholism, maintains Bydlowska, “is not a disease. Disease implies you can maybe cure it. In my opinion, it’s closer to a condition or, perhaps, a habit you can’t unlearn completely once you stop it.” People confuse it with drinking, she says, promising to slow down, cut back. That isn’t possible, she explains, because alcoholism is “not drinking, just like hemophilia is not bleeding.”
In a chapter called Archaeology, Bydlowska lists the reasons she drank, one by one: “Because I’m a first child,” she says, who cried a lot, fell off a table and hit her head, bit other children, was ashamed of being sickly, compensated by identifying with Jim Morrison, “wanted to be tragic,” lost her way when her family moved to the U.S., and, in one spectacularly casual reference, “because I got raped.”
The reasons add up to a toxic rage that she admits to eventually turning on herself, “because I couldn’t handle all the love” she felt for her son when he was born. And also for her partner and sister. It’s the most critical element of her survival, this awareness that love and happiness overwhelmed her back to addiction: “Happiness puts you at too much risk—what if you were to lose it?” When she finally understood how to breast-feed her baby, for instance, Bydlowska finally re-established her connection with her son, “the most intimate, sacred relationship I’ve ever had,” one during which she, an agnostic, says she heard angels singing. “So I went ahead and I destroyed that connection.”
At times, I studied the way Bydlowska uses her adopted language and how much this bears on the candor of her writing. Her determination to get it right is especially poignant in a flashback to high school in which she gets drunk in her new country in order to communicate with a boy. But it’s “drunk talk,” the kind that “made it seem as if I had the language tamed and manipulated to serve me.” It made her brave, though she couldn’t understand what was said to her, “as if I were underwater and he was above it, on the safe surface. The sudden realization that I couldn’t understand him and that I wasn’t really talking either. It was nonsense falling out of my mouth as I tried to put my mouth on his to make myself shut up.” So much of Drunk Mom, of Bydlowska’s recovery, is an effort to end that habit of slurring her reality.
There is what could be called a happy, or happier, ending, in which Bydlowska gets her shit together and stops drinking. She hopes her baby has not been unduly affected by this negative, destructive cycle; she and partner Russell Smith do not split up. She urges readers not to confuse this with “the part where I talk about how difficult but wonderful things became after I got sober.”
She admits that she’s not sure what wonderful even is, that although she’d like to say she found “true happiness,” she’s not sure what that feels like, because she only knew it when she was high. “This is no self-help book,” she adds. Keenly self-aware, always one jump ahead of herself, even as she sits with her baby in an ER awaiting treatment for a broken toe, Bydlowska scans herself for BS, the kind she’s used to shoveling, as she imagines a life as a single mom, perhaps stripping to support herself and the baby.
Just kidding. “I don’t take myself so seriously that I completely believe myself,” she notes. “I am so used to me. But this is the state of an addict’s mind. It’s a fantasyland.” It’s that state that Drunk Mom attempts to relay, to sustain for as long as it takes to tell the tale.
Bydloska has been sober now for three years.
In an article that ran last year on The Fix, “Mommy Drunkest,” Bydlowska talks at length about looking over the edge, asking for help, and luck. For more information about her book and life, see her website. Read an excerpt from Drunk Mom here.