MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we go behind closed doors. That's the part of program where we talk about issues that people often keep private. Today's topic is something that most people definitely keep private - the title of Jowita Bydlowska's memoir says it all - "Drunk Mom." During her son's first year of life, three things took up most of Jowita's time - figuring out where she could buy her booze, trying to hide her drinking from her boyfriend, and perhaps most difficult, calculating how much she drank and how much time needed to pass before she could safely nurse her son. It's the kind of no-holds-barred account that we usually do not see in the mommy blogs or accounts of the drinking life and yet, there it is. And, Jowita Bydlowska is with us now to share her story. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
JOWITA BYDLOWSKA: Thank you so much for having me.
MARTIN: How did you come to a decision to write this story?
BYDLOWSKA: Well, it started off as fiction. So, during the time when I was raising my son in the first year and during my relapse I had this idea to write a book about a mom who drinks, and that just shows you the power of the denial that I was in. So after I got sober I talked to my literary agent and I told him that it was actually a true story. So we talked about, you know, publishing as a memoir and we went from there.
MARTIN: How - forgive me - how do we know that you're telling the truth now?
MARTIN: The book. How do we know that that is the truth as you see it? Because one of the things that you make really clear in the book is how thorough-going are the lies that one tells to oneself and to people around them when one is in the throes of an addiction. How do we know?
BYDLOWSKA: That's a very good point. I think - how do you know - I don't think there are a lot of people who would want to come out publicly with this issue, you know, admitting to the fact that they were drinking while taking care of a baby. So, I don't know. I think that should be enough evidence because I am coming out and talking about it and I would love to continue talking about it because it is an issue so - yeah.
MARTIN: It is a pretty harrowing story. You write about wandering the streets sometimes in a snowstorm just so you could drink away from home. You write about blacking out. You write about your boyfriend sometimes coming home and finding the baby just screaming and not having been fed or changed. At the time when you were going through all this, did you think it was bad or did you think it was tolerable? What did you think.
BYDLOWSKA: I was quite aware of how horrible it was. I was relatively organized as an alcoholic and I tried to have sort of a backup plan, so I had my partner and my sister to pick up the slack where I wasn't able to. But, certainly, before relapsing - I was sober for three and a half years, I am an alcoholic - so I was quite aware, right away, of where my addiction could take me. And it was a, you know, crazy time feeling guilty and then drinking over it and then drinking to forget that I was feeling guilty and so on.
MARTIN: You write really vividly of the drinking life. And I think it's the kind of thing that's very helpful to people who don't drink or who have never had an addiction and they wonder why - gee, why would you live like that? I mean, one of the things that you write about is how at a certain point in your life it's kind of easy to hide, right? Because it's all new to everybody, like having a dependence. You talk about flitting - everybody in your twenties is flitting, right? But how did you realize that you had a problem - that you weren't just - you know, it wasn't just - well let me just...
BYDLOWSKA: A phase.
MARTIN: A phase. Here, let me just read a paragraph, if you don't mind. You write, (reading) I was the girl who danced barefoot on tables or sometimes fell asleep with her shoes on or sometimes lost a job or relationship. I was the type of tragic girl that boys would try to fix or try to drink with, although only until they'd had enough and there I would be, moving apartments yet again, only to move in with another boyfriend who claimed he'd be better at fixing me.
I always had three drinks to your one. I always prepared for a night out with a bottle of wine, always opened another beer at 4 AM after coming home after a night of partying. It's easy to hide your drinking in your twenties when many of your peers seem to be bent on oblivion too, when comparing hangovers is par for the course.
How did you start to realize, you know what, I'm not just a 20-year-old flitting, as you put it?
BYDLOWSKA: I think, you know, another way to put it is I was the last girl at the party. I mean there was - you know, it was harder to find people to drink with and I started drinking by myself. There were a couple of things that happened in my life around the same time, so, I went through a breakup, I lost a job and my roommates were talking about kicking me out. So, three out of three, I was pretty sure that the common denominator had something to do with my drinking - with my lifestyle. And that was enough of a lesson for me at that time to go and get some help - at 27.
MARTIN: And then you stayed sober for three and a half years.
BYDLOWSKA: That's right.
MARTIN: And then what happened?
BYDLOWSKA: And then I gave birth to my son. We were celebrating his birth. We had some people over and they brought, you know, champagne and all kinds of other alcohol. And someone handed me a glass of champagne and they said, you know, you deserve it, you went through the birth. And, you know, it seemed totally normal and totally advisable to take that drink. And I did.
MARTIN: Why do you think it was the beginning of it?
BYDLOWSKA: I think, because, the only thing that works for me is abstinence and, you know having that one drink - it gives me permission to have more eventually. I mean I am an addict. I have the switch in my brain that - one drink and it's on. And I start to lie to myself and I start to come up with excuses and I get back into the vicious cycle of addiction.
MARTIN: You write very vividly about what it's like to be an addict and what's going on in your brain. I mean, you write about how you love drinking. You prefer drinking to anything in the world - food, sleep, your lover, your child. But you also write very powerfully about being a mother.
And you say in a chapter titled, motherhood - you write, (reading) here's how it is. One day I wake up and it turns out that I am now the head of a country. A whole country, imagine that. What happens is that I've been given a crown one very painful morning and now the entire country depends on me. Not only that, but because of my genetic make up it's obvious to everyone around me that I'll naturally know how to rule this country - how to feed it and protect it from disasters and attacks - how to make its people happy.
And it goes on from there. I must say, that this is like the - one of the more vivid depictions that I've ever read about motherhood. But that sense of responsibility sounds overwhelming. It is overwhelming, right? Do you feel that that was part of it?
BYDLOWSKA: Certainly. I mean it's, you know - we don't have instruction manual when we become parents for the first time and sometimes you do have a mom or other relative that helps you along. That wasn't my case. But the whole idea that you will know exactly what to do is also quite insane to me. I mean it's - you know, I love my son and I talk about it in the book. From the first ultrasound I had this beautiful version of being a mom and it was almost, you know, Disney-like, this idea that I had. And it was very naïve - fantasy.
And when it came to actual raising a child and being responsible and taking care of him - making sure that he lived - I was completely overwhelmed and I felt very isolated. And I think one of the things, you know, about this memoir is that I had some feedback from other moms who said, you know, I'm not an addict, I'm not an alcoholic, but I understand that darkness of motherhood and isolation in those first few months or years even.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Jowita Bydlowska. She is a mother and a writer. In her memoir, "Drunk Mom," she writes about drinking during her son's first year of life. Not just drinking - as you make very clear in the book there's a difference between drinking and being an alcoholic. You write about being an alcoholic to the point where you blacked out - not occasionally. To the point where it -there were whole, you know, episodes where you're just not really sure what happened.
You have to know, and I think the book's has been out enough by now - there are some people who are going to be just absolutely disgusted by this. I mean I'm sure there are people who will applaud you for your honesty but there are some people who will say, this is just absolutely appalling - that by definition, your responsibility to this person, whether it was planned or not planned, supersedes this, and that should have been enough of a driver to try to get you to seize hold of it. And of course you talk about the sense of shame that you felt and sense of remorse, but how do you deal with that?
BYDLOWSKA: Well it's a day-by-day thing. But I think one of the things - even about, you know, people being disgusted or having an angry reaction to this book - that also, I think, opens doors to conversation and that is the conversation around addiction and around secrets and around the fact that if we don't talk about things that are disgusting or shocking or unusual - that only keeps secrets behind closed doors and growing and getting worse. So yeah, I mean I really do appreciate all the feedback and I certainly have gotten some negative feedback as well - you know, threatening e-mails and things like that but I think...
MARTIN: Really? Like threatening you how?
BYDLOWSKA: Threatening me how?
BYDLOWSKA: I mean I've - I'm thinking of one particular one because one tends to remember the negative things more, I think - you know, asking me to get sterilized, for example. What are you going to do with that? But, it's been heartbreaking, It's been heartbreaking. I just got an e-mail, you know, two days ago from someone who says I have no desire and I have no will to get sober. I just wanted to write and let you know that I enjoyed your book and it's the first time someone described what's going on with me. So, I was hoping that by talking about it and by owning my story and by putting, you know, a face and a name to the story I would be able to start a discussion about things that, you know, stigmatize us.
MARTIN: What would you most want people to know?
BYDLOWSKA: Well, I think part of the, you know, reason of writing this book was, you know, I had a lot of people around me - a lot of, you know - my partner, my sister - people who love me very much who kept asking me why I was this way. So in a way this book is a form of a letter to them but also to other people who live with addicts or even children of addicts or alcoholics, and also people who struggle with addiction. I'm just hoping that it's going to explain, to some degree, what it's like in a mind of an addict. And especially in the context of having this beautiful love and this new life - my child in my case - and that not being powerful enough to fight the addiction.
MARTIN: What do you think - in fact there's this interesting passage at the end where you list all of the possible why's, and it's interesting because it's at the very end of the book, right? I think a lot of people might be expecting it to be at the beginning as almost like an apologia, but it's not. It's at the end. At the end of the day, what is the why? Did you ever come up with a why?
BYDLOWSKA: No, I'm still thinking about. And that's the reason for that list. Because people do want to have a very, you know, clear solution or maybe they need an answer in order to prevent it, for example, right? You know, if I do A, B won't happen etc. So, I list a number of reasons, you know - moving to another country and, you know, having difficulties in my childhood etc. I don't...
MARTIN: Well people - I'm sorry, forgive me - people may, some people may hear that you have a bit of an accent. And you immigrated to Canada from Poland when you were a teenager. So, if people are wondering about both the origin of the name and the accent that they may detect, that's part of it. And you talk a little bit about that, that kind of disconnect. I think a lot people have feeling that. But you, I don't know, there's no, is there a why, as far as you know? You don't think so.
BYDLOWSKA: I think it's frustrating to say there isn't. But that's going to be my answer. And I think the why is not as important as how, which is how do you get sober? How do you overcome this? You know, how do you come to terms with your true self and stop lying to yourself? I think that's the main message I want people to get from this book because I did get sober. And because there is a lot of hope.
MARTIN: And talk about that if you wouldn't mind. I mean, there is a point at which you decide that you have had enough. And I don't know if decide is even really the right word. But you said there's something in your brain that has to kind of switch. Can you describe that? What it is that made you say, enough, and really commit to it?
BYDLOWSKA: I will try (laughs). And I'm glad that you went back on the word decide because I don't think it's much of a decision. But there was a moment in my life where what was happening in my life was very, very painful. But it seemed manageable. It seemed like I would be able to come up with more lies to get out of the situation that I was in. My partner wanted me to move out, but I thought I could still talk him into taking me back. Things like that.
So that was on one side, and on the other side was coming to terms with what was happening, and also admitting to all of my lies and suffering possible consequences. So, you know, once I would admit to being an alcoholic and to drinking in secret, some of the consequences could have been, you know, losing custody of my child, or my partner definitely kicking me out. You know, of breakup, loss of a job, but that seemed like less of a burden than going on and lying. And I think, I got to that point, and I was very lucky. I had that moment of clarity where I thought, you know, I'm done with lying. This is, this is no way to live.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, there's, I don't know if you've seen this, that there's this, there's this thing kind of kicking around the blogosphere about bad moms who kind of joke about filling sippy cups with wine. And sneaking drinks - and sneaking drinks was a big part of your life for a long time. I mean, I'm talking about hiding bottles, this place and that place. Even in your sons room, right? At some point, didn't you hide some bottles in his room?
BYDLOWSKA: I did.
MARTIN: I think I remember that. So, how do you, how does that strike you when people kind of look at drinking moms as funny? Do you have any thoughts about that?
BYDLOWSKA: Well, it wasn't funny in my case. And to be honest, you know, I'm horrified by it because of my own experience. I think it's harmless to some extent, you know, take a load off, have a glass of wine at the end of the day. But I think, like with anything, it's very important to be careful and not to give yourself too much permission to relax too much. Because, I mean, when you use drinking or anything else to escape, that's an issue. And I don't think it's something to make light out of, you know, even, I know in Canada there's this wine called Girls Night Out et cetera, or Mommy's Juice, that's another one. I don't know. I'm not comfortable with it entirely. I think there are other ways to reward yourself.
MARTIN: How is your son? May I ask...?
MARTIN: I think that people reasonably might read the book and worry that...
MARTIN: you know, he was not receiving the attention that he needed, at that sort of difficult, tender age. So how is he, if I may ask?
BYDLOWSKA: Of course. You know, he has a very loving dad who was there for him 120 percent, you know, during my relapse. So he had as much love and attention as possible in that situation. And today, you know, he's almost five years old. He's quite bright. He's starting to read. He writes. He's very loving, very fun little boy. And we spend a lot of time together. And I cherish every second of our time together because I missed that first year. And it's going to be a lifetime of making amends to him, you know, just being a good mom and going on from there.
MARTIN: Jowita Bydlowska is a mother and a writer living in Toronto. Her memoir is titled "Drunk Mom." She joined us today from our bureau in New York. Jowita, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BYDLOWSKA: Thank you.
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.