Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Step 1: Hello, My Name is Mommy, and I’m an Alcoholic


Step 1: I admitted I was powerless — that my life had become unmanageable.

At 19, after a violent night with a DUI on the side, a judge ordered me to do 28 days in the black hole of an alcohol treatment center. After I got sprung, I joined Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) where I found another drunk, who had been a cowboy thief out West and had crashed his truck into a bus full of debutantes (you couldn't tell they'd sewed his scalp back on.) I took him hostage, and married him. Thus began our happily-ever-afters -- after school, after careers, after travel, after home building. Fifteen years later, we were still sowing our wild oats sober, postponing a family. Then I lost my rhythm.

I thought I'd been in a car wreck or had a million paper cuts doused in alcohol. After two days of back labor, after being sent home to dilate some more (ugh), after a morphine-drip that I wasn't supposed to have and that didn't even take the edge off, I thought I might as well die now. I cursed my genetics for being tall and wide enough to deliver vaginally. (Everyone else I knew had had a scheduled C-section -- a baby simply plucked out of them like the magic trick where the bunny appears from the empty top hat.) But my open wound would not heal. My son had no sense of direction, could not navigate in the dark fluid with his buttoned-up pout, sucking on apron strings that dangled, soon to be cut. He pulled back, faced the wrong way as the doctor tugged. I cursed my last beach trip and the wave that had thrown me, and probably my son, wrong side up. Daniel was finally born, or, at least, sucked out -- awesome, perfect, and mad as hell. He began screaming like a lunatic -- he was not done plotting ways to push my buttons. He was definitely my son.

In the post-partum fugue, I came to that morning with a babe on my breast and what felt like a year-long hangover; I was also passing blood clots the size of golf balls. Through the haze, I imagined my son had two deformed arms and was not crying. Then he let loose with "Eew wah!! Eew wah!!" loud as a siren, and never stopped. That first night in the hospital, the nurse returned Daniel to my room because he was keeping the other babies awake in the nursery.

I feared I'd given birth to another alcoholic at that point, because he too hungered for something, was restless, irritable, and already discontent with life. The next time I came to in the hospital, a man with a thick Spanish accent told me, "I have just circumcised your son." It wasn't a dream. I pushed my wailing son to my breast and cursed the nurses, the butcher, the fact that I'd laid off cigarettes. Where was the masseuse, the nanny, the bartender, my husband? Oh, there he was in the recliner, the only one sleeping like a baby.

I held God's plan in my hands and got it. God is hysterical, sarcastic, and mysterious. I shake apple trees and oranges rain down on me. How could He think I could handle this, that a recovered alcoholic could stay sober as a new mother? I had prayed for acceptance into a graduate program, a mere piece of paper, not a birth certificate. I guess He wanted to step up my game. I was back at the point of surrender I'd reached with alcohol fifteen years earlier -- Step One. But this time I had to "work the program" on baby and on myself as a mother. I admitted that I was powerless over my son (instead of over alcohol) and that my life had become unmanageable. Daniel was all of five minutes alive.

I pulled the too-tight-size-six-month maternity clothes on and took my baby home. He nursed every two hours, for 45 minutes each feeding, which left an hour to sleep. All day and all night long for weeks on end. No one prepared me for this, except one wise non-alkie friend, who said, "It's hard. It's really, really hard." I remember her words most vividly, to this day. She didn't sugar coat it, she didn't solve it, she didn't say, "It's worth it, buck up, kiddo." She held her hand out in the darkness and said, "You're not crazy. It is that hard. Good luck with that." She had the luxury of downing a bottle of wine and some antidepressants when she left, after she'd dropped off a milk-sucking machine that never worked for me.

This is powerlessness: being responsible for creating life, a personality, health and happiness. I learned I could not control or evade or ignore or deny his sleeping and eating habits. It was time to "face Life on Life's terms," pithy program lingo I had never really had to apply to anything as challenging as my baby. I was wrapped too tightly, and the old alcoholic feeling of egomania with an inferiority complex returned and raged, heavy on the inferiority part. Too much time alone, too little sleep, too much crying, too house-bound, too little help, too few medications. I called the nurse helpline, cursing, read all the baby books, journaled incessantly his feedings and excretions. Nightmares of being unable to feed my baby haunted me. No help came.

The first year of Daniel's life, I lived by the slogan "HALT", much like I did in my first year of abstinence from alcohol: "Don't get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired." How can a new mom not be those things? Of course I was all of those things, and more. It's all I could focus on. Eat. Take up new addictions like M & Ms. Rant and rave on the phone to understanding friends. Release the toxins from the body. Nap in 5-minute intervals. Pray. "Live and let live. One day at a time." These slogans were all this new mom could wrap her mushy mind around -- much like a new drunk just sobering up.

New motherhood is akin to the mental, emotional, and physical anguish of sobering up. We need a detox, a 28-day rehab, for new moms. We'd whisk them away with the clothes on their backs, remove blunt instruments and lighters, shut them up in a spa with crusty old mothers to teach them what life will now be like with baby. We'd force group therapy on them, B12 shots in the behind, bad movies, crappy cafeteria food, and scare them with horror stories. We'd make them grateful to see the outside again. We'd invoke rule 63, the most important gift of recovery: "Don't take yourself too seriously."

Like the newly sober, I felt everything so intensely with no buffer and no out. Love and hate crashed together, with fear on its heels. My obsession with my miracle baby consumed me. I couldn't get enough of him, yet I was simultaneously sick of him. I couldn't seem to live with him or imagine life without him, much as it was with alcohol. One day, out of the baby blues, Motherdom hit me. I admitted it, and I'm still accepting what that means. Forever is too long for me, so I do the baby steps "I'm-a-Mom-one-day-at-a-time" treatment. Sometimes it's one minute at a time.

I'm powerless over so much more now -- over making my son grow, behave, and love me when I'm old. It helps to admit to you who I am now, and state my new life promise and challenge. Hi, I'm 12-Step Mama. So help me God. And thank God.

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Welcome, 12-Step Mama! Your introduction grabbed me, and did not let go until the very end. I look forward to reading more. Best, ~Deesha
Yes, welcome! And thanks for this terrific column. I, too, needed to be allowed to think, to know, it was hard. Glad you had a friend to say that for you.
Bravo! Your dry wit, humour, and heartfelt prose once again touched me with laughter and tears -- Quite a feat! It really warms my heart to see your work published! It is well deserved and, as always, can't wait to see what you will come up with next! Well done and God speed 12-Step Mama!
What a terrific column, and a good reminder for us all. We're all taking it one day, one hour, one minute at a time. I look forward to reading more of your journey.
Great writing. I love how you connect the dots between motherhood and early recovery. You nailed it. It's Rule #62 though. Probably a typo not to be taken seriously. :) Look forward to more. Easy does it. Pam who has been a friend of Bill W's since 12.23.81
12-step program member or no - new 1st time motherhood is really hard. really really really hard. And why didn't anyone tell me this either? That is what struck me in your column - how well and concise you spoke this truth. It is a truth that giving birth at 42 for the first time does give one some advantages - of knowing too much; of having seen many others go through the process; of having a few more resources after working for 20+ years. And yet, no one - not one of the zillions of books and articles I read; no family member; no friend or foe - chose to inform me of the mental and physical challenges that is to be endured. I came to conclude I must do two things after learning of this 'secret' of the Mother's Club. 1) Tell ALL - in a quiet yet poignent and helpful way - to any pregnant woman who asks. 2) Prepare a care package of the 'mother's little helpers' that you need immediately following birth at the hospital - items you do not wish to send anyone out, especially your husband, to purchase for you. No drugs or liquor included - just those feminine toiletries that will make one's first few days after birth so much more civilized. I also have concluded why no one tells this little secret... Because the population would dramatically be reduced, and Grandma wouldn't get her grandchildren! Congrats on an articulate column and sane reporting. Robin ps more please!
Thank you all for the kind comments! Pam, you're keeping me honest! Robin, at 37 I was shocked at both my ignorance and my lack of stamina! I believe in telling the good the bad and the ugly too. I wish I had started in my twenties, with a strong back and a nice care package.
You have completely captured the crazy, hazy first days of motherhood to a tee. Thanks for reminding me why two girls are quite enough and the courgage to yell at the next person who says "Oh, you gotta try for a boy!" Forget about it!
Fantastic. New parenthood brings out all of our mental illnesses and most ingrained freakiness. Great to have a familiar program to bouy us during this time. After my first child was born is when I finally started going to Al-Anon because I really, really, really didn't have the space left in my life to continue my old behaviors and thinking around my alcoholic family. What a life saver! See more about new mom detox on my blog It's under "What's Your Apgar Score?" I really love your approach. Thanks. -Susie
Great article! I'm also a 12 step mama and I can relate to how you really used the program in this new area of your life. That's what is so great about the program. It's universal. Without the help of our Higher Power where would we be? Thanks
Well spoken. It's like that. I remember the crushing inescapability of it -- especially in the first couple weeks when nursing felt like my nipples were being sawed off. There was no getting away from the need need need.
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