Earlier this year, I signed up for an online mom group called MumNet. My partner and I had recently moved back to Toronto after four years in Vancouver with our six month old daughter in tow, and a very well-intentioned friend told me that the group—which hosts both online discussion groups and IRL meet-ups—was a great place to commune with people who could relate to the unique plight of early motherhood. We were to meet once a week. There was childcare on site (said site being the drafty basement of a United Church in Toronto’s west end) and a professional fitness trainer to kick things off with an hour-long workout, followed by a guided discussion for us moms. It was a place to complain about and discuss all the heavy stuff I was dealing with among other moms of babies and toddlers who were IN IT just as deep as I was. And with the added bonus of treats (snacks! coffee!), cue up the Mariah Carey because this sounded like my own personal motherhood “Fantasy!”
But despite my early enthusiasm, during the first session, three things became crystal clear: 1) I hate working out 2) I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my opinion so I ate too many snacks and drank way too much watery coffee instead, and 3) my fellow moms loved talking about drinking. With the circular chair set-up, discussion leaders and the group’s overwhelming zeal for chardonnay and cab sauv, it was like I had stumbled into an anti-AA meeting.
Which, typically, is *fine*. Listen, I know alcohol is a source of release and fun for a lot of people, and talking about drinking is common in conversations about needing a break from “the daily grind,” especially after nine long months of not drinking (and however many months of breastfeeding, for those that did it). I completely get why these women would need a drink. But I had never had a drink as a mother. Clinging to a mere 18 months sober, I was unprepared to be faced with a bunch of perfectly normal, completely together women casually talking about needing to do the thing that I knew could unravel me.
The fact was, listening to people talk longingly about alcohol just reminded me of a person I no longer am. All of a sudden, what could’ve been a motherhood safe space turned into a precarious place for me. Because I had loved drinking, or if not loved, relied on it, for the better part of the past 25 years. I realized with burning clarity that I can no longer just waltz into normal social settings and expect the world to be different just because I am. Oprah would call that an “aha” moment. I called it a very good reason to quit MumNet.
At first, my drinking was innocent enough
I first started drinking when I was 13-years-old in the dank, undeveloped basements of neighbourhood friends in Calgary. Someone’s older brother would procure some grape flavoured Canada Coolers for us—which is essentially alcoholic pop—and we’d pass those two-litre bottles around until we were all laughing, fighting, making up, sobbing and finally, puking purple. Despite the messiness of it all, I was wooed by the feeling alcohol gave me. I was light, happy and freed me from my shyness and the confines of my own troubled mind. Soon, we were filling up water bottles with a little bit of everything we could find in our parents’ liquor cabinets, chased down by Sunny D or, barring that, literal fruit. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. Canadian Coolers became 40 ounces of beer, then Mickeys and 2-6es of the hard stuff, and when older siblings weren’t available, we’d loiter outside of liquor stores looking for a boot (which, FYI, is when you ask adults walking by if they’ll buy you alcohol). If people said yes, we gave them our money and order and hoped for the best. It was usually middle-aged white men who agreed, and we almost never got ripped off. We drank anywhere we could: playgrounds, baseball fields, the alley behind 7-11. They were all places that, just a couple years prior, we’d been scraping our knees and playing make believe.
Around the same time, my eighth grade art teacher, Mrs. Grady, told me: “You need to define your lines.” She was talking about my sketches, but I also didn’t know how to draw a hard line to save my life. And my already flimsy boundaries evaporated completely when I was drunk. I loved that I could “let my guard down” while drinking, not understanding that sometimes, guards are there to, well, guard you. I managed, quite miraculously and thanks to luck and luck alone, stay out of danger in my later teens, despite keeping company with drug dealers, frequenting seedy bars and getting into cars driven by intoxicated people.
Turning 18, the legal drinking age in Alberta, was no big deal. I’d been committed to drinking for five years by that point. When I decided to go to community college—neither encouraged nor required in my family—I got sober for the first time. After being a terrible student in high school, I decided I’d try being a good one, and cleaning up my act worked. I got scholarships and bursaries for my academic performance. Me! A girl who spent her Grade 12 year in the backseats of cars in the school’s upper parking lot smoking weed.
But things changed when I started to rely on alcohol
It was as an adult, right as I was graduating college, that I’d meet my first long-term boyfriend, and turn the erratic weekend drinking of my youth into something much more constant. He worked at a wine store and would come home every night with a different bottle, which we’d duly share while watching movies and/or fighting about how he hated everyone I loved. I was wine drunk for the better part of the four years I spent with him, which was, not coincidentally, how I managed to stay in an emotionally abusive relationship with a raging, pathological liar for four years. After we broke up, I returned to the bars and ex-boyfriends of my past. I was drinking more than I ever had and waking up in different beds, downing morning after pills and generally loathing myself.
In the decade since then, I’ve freelanced, worked many odd jobs and moved cities half a dozen times. I’ve been on and off the wagon about just as many. Quitting alcohol was always easy. Who doesn’t love a fresh start? I’ve always been an optimist. But backsliding into my old ways was just as easy and optimistic. It would usually happen at family functions, where I’d hear something along the lines of: “What do you mean you don’t want wine? Don’t you like a little bit of red with your pasta?,” and I’d think: “You know what, I really do want that.” Some of my family members—like many well-intentioned people—saw alcohol as a nice drink to have with dinner, not a problematic and addictive substance; and they saw me as the sweet daughter/niece/cousin they loved, not a girl with a drinking problem.
It took moving to Vancouver for a job five years ago to eventually do the work required to get sober. Which, as it turns out, is more than just not drinking. It involved identifying the uncomfortable places in my life that I numbed with drinking and confronting what my art teacher had talked about 20 years prior—my lack of hard lines—and why I used drinking as a replacement for them. Even just being in a loving relationship was completely foreign to me, and I spent the first three months of coupledom with my now-partner doubting that he even liked me and waiting for him to leave. Thankfully, I was in therapy at the time, taking antidepressants, exercising, meditating and looking to people who’d lived through something similar for guidance. I read memoirs written by women who’d been through worse than me: Wishful Drinking by the great Carrie Fisher, Lit by Mary Carr, and Blackout by Sarah Hepola, among them. I didn’t actually stop drinking completely at this point, but I was toying with the idea, and unearthing much of my baggage around it. Key to this was beginning to forgive myself for my past transgressions and seeing them as symptoms of the issues I wasn’t dealing with, not life failures I was defined by.
After years of self-sabotage, getting pregnant helped me forgive myself
My stomach knew I was pregnant before I did. I immediately had fierce doughnut cravings for big-ass Texas-style doughnuts that I’d normally need a day to finish. They went down with such ease, I found myself contemplating seconds. My boyfriend joked that I might be pregnant and as soon as the words came out of his mouth, I knew that I was.
I stopped drinking right away because that’s what you do when you’re pregnant. I also stopped eating brie cheese, which I would normally die for, or at least spend lots of my money on. I truthfully found the cheese harder to part with, largely because I was ready to stop drinking and being pregnant took away my alcohol lust, replacing it with an ever-changing roller coaster of emotion-based cravings that, like doughnuts, seemed to harken back to a time before I had ever tried alcohol. As I washed down the cookies, Pizza Hut pizza and lupini beans that I couldn’t stop eating with chocolate milk, it felt like I was feeding the metaphorical child in me. Being pregnant not only changed my appetite, but it also changed my mindset. I was now the protector of a growing baby. I became aware of my mental state almost all the time, and was determined to keep it healthy, because of the effect it could have on the baby.
I also started to think of myself in a more loving way, and in turn, started to go easier on myself. I began to mother myself as I got ready to mother a baby; and in order to really get to the nurturing, caring place I needed to be for my child, I needed to have boundaries in my own life. So I got better at setting them. I started by Googling: “What are boundaries and how do I set them,” because that’s what newbies do. And for once, the internet (and a healthy dose of Brené Brown) was actually helpful. It turns out that boundaries are everything from acknowledging when I’m hurt—instead of letting it sicken me from the inside like a parasite—to having uncomfortable conversations to communicate when my (now visible) lines have been crossed. Enforcing my newfound self-respect became just as intoxicating as alcohol used to be, in a scarier and much more empowering way.
After I gave birth to my daughter, I was messed up from an emergency C-section and the doctor offered me opioids for the pain. I took them. This meant that on my first day as a mom, I was high AF. And I absolutely hated it. It would be the first and last time I’d be messed up around my daughter, and I intend to keep it that way. I love my daughter more than I ever thought it was possible to love another person, but I didn’t get sober for her. I did it because I finally learned—after 35 years—how to love myself enough to be kind to myself. All I can hope is that she learns that lesson earlier than I did.