I pulled up at a red light the other day behind a newish Lexus SUV with a license plate frame that read, “Love my Life as Mom and Wife.” I had to fight the urge to bash my 10 year-old Volvo into the stupid thing. First of all, those frames (and personalized plates, don’t get me started on those) are just desperate and tacky. Like declaring your cute nickname, profession or philosophy of life on your car is going to gain the respect of fellow motorists or wrap you in a veil of protection against road rage. Second, in that moment, I really did not love my life as mom and wife.
Maybe that too simplistic—maybe it would be more accurate to say that I was having a hard day and felt envious of the lady driving that SUV. Not for her car (although I wouldn’t mind a newish SUV) but for my perception of her life in that split second. For the fact that she was okay driving around in a car bearing that trite sentiment. The first thought I had was, “Mom and wife—is that all she is?” and then I was immediately torn between jealousy and pity. I will never just be a mom and wife. My life is far more complicated than that. I’m a writer, a dreamer, a singer, a master of the art of communication (according to my diploma) and a weirdo who collects abandoned furniture and doll heads. I’m also a mom in recovery, a wife in recovery. I’m one of those people who truly believes she was born an addict. That means wherever I go in life and whatever I do, my title “recovering addict” will always come first.
Don’t get me wrong. My life is not limited because I’m an addict. If anything, it’s the opposite. My recovery has opened doors for me and inspired me to live my life with more love, sincerity and compassion than I ever thought possible. And I don’t regret getting married and having a kid. I’m fortunate that I stopped drinking and doing drugs long before I did either. Being clean gave me back the power of choice and today my life is largely crafted by careful decisions. It’s no longer a helter-skelter knee-jerk mishmash of fuck-ups, reactions and cover-ups. That’s probably why I haven’t murdered or run over anybody (yet). I’m forever grateful for Planned Parenthood, birth control pills and the one tiny shred of common sense I had in my younger years that kept me from having a kid then. I wasn’t capable of raising another human being until my recovery was more than a decade old. Throw in the fact that the derelict criminal drug addict morons and assholes I used to sleep with weren’t exactly dad material and you practically have a horror movie. (If you think I’m being too harsh about some of my previous paramours, just know that I can’t show you how bad they were since they’re mostly in prison or dead.)
There are plenty of women who will tell you how hard it is to be a mom. Even the biggest Stepford fembot who lives for her kids and seems to have it all together will admit there are days parenting can try your patience, sense of self and sanity. This can be especially tricky for people like me. Addicts and alcoholics don’t have those assets in abundance to begin with. We are people who love instant gratification, whose sense of self is fragile and who struggle with too much ego and not enough self-esteem. Oh also—we tend toward insanity. When you look at it that way, it’s easy to see why being a mom in recovery is a challenge. And by challenge, I mean it’s the hardest motherfucking thing I’ve ever done.
At the age of 24, I kicked heroin in my parents’ basement after spending my teens and early 20s in perpetual party mode. Getting clean after a decade drinking, smoking, snorting and slamming whatever I could get my hands on was a humbling/terrifying experience. Going through detox was horrible. I was physically ill, mentally impaired and an emotional mess. I had to be unflinchingly honest with my new support group, my doctors and my family—probably for the first time in my life. After the worst of the physical withdrawal symptoms passed, I was like a raw scab of a person. Just all tender, gross and shiny pink. Then I was forced to add new layers by learning a new way of life, which involved reaching out and relying on strangers for help. I had to trust that they understood, had been in my shoes and would show me the way. The only thing that got me through those first few months was the deep certainty that there was something better than a life of addiction out there.
When I had a kid 13 years later, it was pretty much exactly the same—only this time I was pretty sure life was about to get a whole lot worse. And it did. The first couple weeks with my newborn son were spent recovering from a C-section, detoxing off of painkillers and struggling to keep the baby’s belly full and ass wiped. For the first time in my life, I couldn’t figure out a penis and so I kept getting peed on. I wasn’t sleeping, I forgot to eat real food and when I was hungry all I wanted was chocolate. My days revolved around fleeting moments of relief from getting a substance everybody told me was incredibly precious (breast milk) out of my body. It didn’t feel much different than days spent desperately chasing the relief of forcing something I considered incredibly precious (heroin) into my body. Just like that, I was back to being that stripped down, raw human.
Nothing prepares you for being the mother of a newborn. I’m sure there are some (crazy) women who take to it with grace and genuinely enjoy it, but I’m not one those (newish SUV driving) people. For me, it was like snowboarding naked, covered in Crisco, while carrying a raw egg and a trying not to break it. I emerged feeling lucky to be alive and grateful not to have caused any permanent damage to myself or others (except I’m pretty sure my ass will never be the same). I came up for air after about three months and by then I felt completely insane. My entire world had shifted on its axis. Things I had always known to be true were now a little grey and hazy. My perception of myself had changed and not for the better. I felt like I had become what I’d spent my entire life trying to avoid. I couldn’t figure out how I got clean, built a career and struggled through nine years of college (hey, it takes some people seven years to get a BA) to became a strong, self-supporting, independent woman, only to end up some guy’s bitch. And this guy was tiny, bald and shit himself about every two hours like clockwork.
I had to reach out, look within and hang on. All I knew how to do was apply what I’d learned as a newcomer in recovery to my life as a new mom. I relied on people I didn’t know, followed their advice and trusted that things would be okay even when they didn’t feel okay. I had to remember that I didn’t become a kick ass adult woman overnight—it took years of struggling and making mistakes. Why should motherhood be any different? I may have felt raw and shaky, like everything about me changed overnight, but it didn’t. The most important thing about me will never change—and that’s my identity as a recovering addict. Being a mom in recovery means I have seen the darkness of the human experience and that makes the light of my son’s childhood much more precious in contrast. It also means I know how to hang on tight through adversity, let go, have faith and clean up shit like it’s no biggie.
When I think about it, active addiction may have been the best prep for motherhood of all.
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