The second that doctor sliced me open and grabbed her,
pulled her out and held her up to the light, I felt a
bone-crushing, spooky love that I’d never felt before. My arms
were splayed on either side of my body and I couldn’t move
them, but they held her cheek up to mine and I felt her. I
sobbed hysterically and so did she. That’s what it felt like to
meet my daughter.
I am a good mother. Today, she is 15 months old, so being good
means that I read to her, attempt to feed her vegetables, build
tall towers of blocks for her to knock down, and love her with
a fierceness that she never, ever questions. It also means that
I never take a drink.
Drinking made me feel like I fit into my own skin. I was born
with a too-big, too-clunky, too-awkward spirit, an amorphous
thing that a god I don’t believe in jammed into a
disproportionate, human-shaped meat. Two arms, two legs; all
the parts were there, but it felt all wrong.
Taking a drink was like easing into myself. The bitter taste,
the slow burn in the throat, the warming in the stomach, and
then the release of discomfort, passing in a slow howl, like
puncturing a tire. I drank because it made the world make
sense, and I made sense in it.
As a young teenager, I learned that drinking instilled in me
the confidence I needed to talk to boys. Some of those boys
took advantage of me in sickening, disturbing ways. I learned
that I couldn’t control what happened to my body when I drank.
The only cure for the bad things that happened was to drink
more to help me forget.
There were thousands of mornings that I woke up and promised
myself that it wouldn’t happen again. Each of those mornings
was exactly the same: My eyes flash open; I realize I’m still
alive; I check to see where I am; I try to remember how I got
there; my head roars like a thunderclap; I tell myself this is
the last time. As the hangover dissolves into day, so does my
resolve. By six o’clock there’s a martini in my hand, all gin.
As I take the first sip, all of the crashing in me starts to
calm, nothing but little waves lapping at the shore.
While the first martini squeezes my brain back into my body,
the second makes me giddy with excitement. Not only has last
night’s replay loop vanished, but now I’m noticing how smart I
sound in conversation, how funny my jokes are, how the
puffiness and ruddiness of my face add a youthful quality.
Two drinks in and it’s time for dinner; wait any longer and I
won’t eat at all. Dinner comes with wine, usually white, at
least half a bottle. I feel good, socially apt, sophisticated.
I talk about what region the wine is from, where the vegetables
My drinking always had consequences.
After dinner, there’s grappa, Irish coffee, an expensive
liqueur. I’m teetering on the edge of my chair, saying less now
than before, spinning but not badly. I drink coffee to revive
myself, because I need to keep drinking. There is an
inextinguishable desire woven into my roots that tells me I
need to keep going. I quickly think about how much alcohol I
have at home: a six-pack? Wine? How many bottles are left? One
six-pack for two people is not enough, because whoever I’m with
might drink three. I try to think of a reason to stop at the
corner bodega, so I can casually recommend picking up more beer
“just to have.”
At home, I crack open the first beer. It’s early, maybe ten. I
turn on the television and queue up whatever show I’m currently
on. The first beer is ice cold and deeply refreshing. When the
first episode ends in a cliffhanger, I push for another one,
and then another. In this way, I can drink four or five more
beers before heading to bed.
My drinking always had consequences. I drove drunk into a
telephone pole and badly hurt my friends. I lost myself in the
bedrooms of terrible men. I stopped trying to get anywhere with
my life, because as long as I could afford to drink, I was OK.
They say a functional alcoholic has a job, but no soul. I
always had a job.
I used to wonder if I’d ever be able to have children, because
I couldn’t imagine going nine months without a drink. Would I
also have to stop drinking if I were just trying to get
pregnant? Would that mean a whole year without drinking?
Drinking “just one or two” was never an option for me; one only
guaranteed that I would not stop until total obliteration. I
drank so I wouldn’t have to feel my life.
One morning, a few years before my daughter was born, I woke
up. It was a morning just like all the other ones. I took a
minute to figure out where I was (on my couch), how I got there
(no idea), and who I was with (my friend Sarah). I noticed the
front door to our Flatbush apartment was wide open, another
detail I couldn’t explain. Sarah left, and I dragged myself to
the bedroom, where my future daughter’s father lay sleeping. I
looked at him and said, “I need help.”
That’s what grace is.
By the grace of a higher power I call “whatever,” I made it
through that day and night without drinking. I made it through
the next day, too. As I sit here writing this, I’ve made it
through 1,697 days.
I had to earn those days, one at a time. I had to learn how to
sit in my own skin, in all that discomfort, with the shameful
memories that snuck up on me and pounced. I had to learn how to
go to dinner without drinking, how to watch TV without
drinking, how to be sad without drinking, how to talk to and
relate to other people without drinking. I felt like a teenager
again, noticing strange feelings and thoughts suddenly
unobscured by the thick fog of a daily alcoholic haze.
In early sobriety, I learned how to be a person. Armed with
AA’s Big Book, I’d sit in coffee shops with other women and
weepily tell them about the things I’d done while drunk. These
women: poets, professors, ex-junkies, best-selling authors,
former crack addicts, line cooks; they’d all done the same
things. They showed me what it looked like to extend a hand, a
whole limb, to another person who desperately needed some
kindness. They taught me how to untangle from my mess of a
past, forgive myself, and look forward. They demonstrated how I
could be worthy of my own love.
After I became pregnant, I’d sit in my alcoholic meetings and
cry. I just wanted to be a good mother. I just wanted to not
I can only imagine what my days would be like now if I weren’t
sober. I wouldn’t get up at 6:30 every morning and slice a
banana into perfect half-inch rounds, cut off the bruises, and
put them in the yellow plastic bowl. I wouldn’t read her Ten
Little Ladybugs until her dad woke up — or if I did, it
would be despite a splitting headache, still half drunk from
the night before.
I wouldn’t drive her to daycare myself, because I wouldn’t
drive. I wouldn’t spend my days writing and illustrating my
very first book, because I would know that I wasn’t worthy of a
dream like that. I wouldn’t make my daughter spaghetti for
dinner — or maybe I would, but I wouldn’t sit with her in her
highchair without a glass of wine, using all the patience I
could muster to teach her how to use a fork and stop flinging
cheese at the dog.
I’m not going to drink today, and so today I will be capable
of loving my daughter.
Now, life is good. Since I’m no longer bound to my obsession
with procuring the next drink, my mind is free to think about
other things. I’m able to think about other people, and the
thousands of microscopic ways I can care for them and love them
every day. I can be patient. I can take my daughter to the park
and notice all the buttercups sprouting in the unmowed grass.
When I drink, nothing is more important than figuring out how
to keep drinking. I don’t care where I am, who I’m with, how
they’re treating me, or how much danger I’m in. I don’t care
about anybody or anything besides drinking. I don’t love
anybody more than booze.
I’m not going to drink today, and so today I will be capable of
loving my daughter. I hope, in this way, I can stack up the
days every day of her life. I hope she never has to feel the
sting of my absence, because I’ve chosen to disappear. I’m
where I want to be now, which is here.
A version of this essay was originally published on Erin
Williams’ blog, goosecamp, where you can
read more about her experiences as a mother.