One glass of wine turned to two or three each night, and things just escalated from there until, one day, she realized she was a full-blown alcoholic—with a child in the next room. After nearly 10 years of this “hellish existence,” Wilhelmson’s journey was captured in her book, Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife. In honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, we talked with Brenda, who, among other things, says that her battle with drinking made her realize the unhealthy strive for perfection that so many moms have today.
How did the drinking for you start?
I, like a lot of people, started experimenting with drugs and alcohol in high school and college. I actually preferred pot more in college and was more of a pot head. But once I graduated and was in the working world, it became much more acceptable to go out for cocktails after work.
When I got married and had my first child, it was way more socially acceptable to go to the liquor store and get a bottle of wine versus risking getting arrested from having pot, so I stuck to drinking. It was pretty much relegated to the weekends at first. Then, after I had my first child, I was a freelance writer and stay-at-home-mom. Juggling those two things and trying to be a good parent while paying attention to my writing and my child, was very stressful. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well, and I was alone all the time. Even though I was with my child, I was lacking in adult conversation and adult contact. Before I knew it, at the end of the day, I started rewarding myself with alcohol. It started out with a glass of wine before my husband came home, then a glass or two with dinner and escalated from there.
Was it always just wine?
I was treating myself with a glass of wine while I was cooking dinner. I was dressing it up and making it part of this nice evening. But then, my cousin (who also has a drinking problem) started coming over, and we started drinking together around 4 or 5 p.m., right around the time that I was starting to prepare dinner. He was a bourbon drinker, which I didn’t like, so we compromised on vodka. That started the whole martini process. It felt very posh, sophisticated and grown-up.
Where was your child while you were drinking each night?
He was with us. I was living in a house at the time that had a big family room and open kitchen. He would be playing with his toys, while I was cooking dinner and my cousin was sitting at the island drinking.
How did your husband react when he got home at night?
My husband came from a family of alcoholics, so my behavior was normal for him. But he didn’t like how drunk I was. He thought I drank too much and didn’t like that my cousin was always over. When he’d walk in the door, there was me drinking with my cousin, and we were both loaded. He said that he didn’t want to come home to a drunk wife all the time. About that point, I had become very uncomfortable with my drinking too. I was going to bed drunk every night and feeling lousy every day. It was terrible.
What was the worst thing you did with your child when you were drunk?
I actually handled my liquor pretty well. I come from a line of very high-functioning alcoholics. My dad and I used to drink all the time, after work. He more or less taught me how to drink. At the time I didn’t think I was doing anything terribly wrong, but there were times that I drove drunk with my child in the car.
Did you stop drinking before your second child came?
I always thought I was going to have just one child, but as years went on, I started thinking that it would be a good idea for my son to have a sibling. I actually thought getting pregnant would force me to stop drinking since I stopped the first time I was pregnant. I had already tried a number of times to stop drinking and failed, so it occurred to me that if I got pregnant, then I would stop drinking and that was a piece of my decision to have a second child.
And did that work?
Yes. But I started up again after nursing for six months. I essentially picked up where I left off.
What was the one thing that finally got you to stop?
It was an accumulation of things. I was out of control. Three months before I decided to get help, my mother-in-law and grandmother died. I was very close to both of them. My mother-in-law was one of my favorite drinking buddies. But just watching them deteriorate and die within a week and a half of each other really hit me hard. Along with that, it occurred to me that I was going to die some day too, and I didn’t like the way I was spending my life. I was feeling like a zombie and feeling like crap, but pretending that I was OK. I didn’t want my husband or others to know how I really felt, so the mask went on, and I went on with my my day. It was a hellish existence. But once I came to the realization that this was not the way I wanted to live my life, I decided to get help. After two nights of back-to-back heavy drinking, I had enough, I got the phone book out and called a hotline for a recovery group. That was nine years ago.
Have you been sober ever since?
After one initial relapse at the beginning, yes.
Did the drinking affect the type of mom you were?
Definitely. Absolutely. I’m present today where I wasn’t present before. When I was drinking, I was just going through the motions. As my first child was getting older, he started getting anti-drug and anti-drinking messages at school, and he began asking questions about my drinking. It made me very uncomfortable that he was watching me drink, and I was somehow justifying it. Then one night, my husband and I came home from a night out with friends and we saw that our kids had been drinking soda out of champagne flutes, wine glasses and brandy sniffers. They were 8 or 9 years old and mimicking our behavior.
What message do you have for other moms out there who drink?
I think that’s a personal decision. If you’re drinking alcoholically, that’s not good. If you’re going out for dinner and having a glass of wine, I think that’s fine. I know I was personally setting a bad example, and I had a problem. It depends on who you are and how you’re drinking. We all just need to be very honest with ourselves. If you’re uncomfortable with your drinking and you think you have a problem, you probably do.
What is your life like today?
Do I get tempted? Yeah. But I still go to recovery meetings and I remind myself that I’m an alcoholic. Once you’re an alcoholic, you’re always an alcoholic. I need to remind myself why I stopped drinking. It doesn’t go away. And I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want that kind of life again.
Photo courtesy of Brenda Wilhelmson
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