“I shivered under the bright fluorescent lights blazing above me as I attempted to yank the thin blanket tighter around my shaking body. I flipped over on the squeaky mattress and gazed out of the disgustingly dirty window into the vast darkness. My mouth felt like I had eaten a thousand cotton balls, and my throat was dry. The stiff orange scrubs were loose, but they felt perplexingly tight and suffocating. As I began to sober up, I could smell vodka. It seemed like vodka was being emitted from my scalp, my pores, and, as if on cue, what tasted like tears of vodka began to spill over my eyelids.
I closed my eyes, hoping it might stop the tears. Reflecting back, I hadn’t ever had an unmanageable relationship with alcohol in my younger days. When I had my first drink in college, it was a non-event. I drank maybe once a semester, and never more than one or two wine coolers at best. I met my husband, graduated from college, and 5 months later, we were married. He was an accountant, and I became a 10th grade English teacher. We moved from California to the Seattle area when I was pregnant with my first baby. After I had her, the baby seemed to be a great conduit for making new friends. At that point, I could still attend social events, book clubs, or my husband’s work functions and just have a glass of wine or two, not thinking about it again until the next event.
I was pregnant again in no time, and I gave birth to 3 additional babies in quick succession by the time I was 30. I was often by myself while my husband was out climbing the corporate ladder. I chose to make that my cross to bear: feeling sorry for myself that I was essentially raising these 4 babies by myself, instead of admitting I needed help. I played the martyr role. I was exhausted all the time, and I began to feel a bit socially isolated at home with so many babies. There was a massive ‘mommy-wine’ culture in my neighborhood, and I started to partake in it, drinking every afternoon in the cul-de-sac with my neighbors while our kids played. I loved both the calming sensation that filled my body and the sense of connection I felt when I drank.
I had never had a history with alcohol before: I could take it or leave it. But seemingly out of the blue, my daily wine was becoming very important to me. I started to imbibe every day, hanging out with girlfriends at bars, perhaps in hopes of fulfilling some unrequited dream, sowing wild oats that hadn’t been sown in my twenties, or making the excuse that drinking qualified as ‘self-care.’ In addition, I became overly sensitive; the simple mistakes of average people would absolutely take me down. It just seemed I could not get a handle on life. I would take the kids to Bible study and forget to bring the diaper bag. I would go to church and forget we had signed up to bring snacks. I would go to make dinner and realize I did not have one crucial ingredient. These low-level mishaps started to become the lens through which I viewed all things, like I was a total failure of a mother. To combat these feelings of inadequacy, I started pouring glasses of wine earlier and earlier—after naps, during naps, and eventually, even at breakfast.
In the early stages of my alcoholism, I lived in denial and continually told myself I was just going through a rough time, I just had so many kids, and no help—I was just stressed out, of course. Because I was no longer working, I felt I didn’t have an identity. I was changing diapers and cleaning up messes all day. I wondered, why wasn’t I fulfilled just staying at home? I had been dreaming about staying home and having kids for most of my life, and here I was, smack dab in the middle of motherhood, and it was officially in session. I reasoned that surely this season of ‘overdrinking’ wasn’t going to last forever, and I would get back to drinking normally, in moderation, any day now.
Secretly, I knew deep down in my soul that was not the case. I had a horrifying foreboding that I was on the brink of spiraling completely out of control. Some nights I had it under control-ish, and I could cut myself off after two drinks, but other nights I would not remember going upstairs to bed. Coming to, after those horrible nights, I hated myself, mortified by my behavior the previous evening, and so drinking became the balm to cover that shame.
At night, if I wasn’t passed out from drinking too much that evening, I would lie awake and toss and turn, thinking of the people I knew who would give anything to stay home with their kids, or even have a child. Women were often asking for prayer at church because they were having trouble getting pregnant or their husband couldn’t pay rent. Here I was, in my big fancy house with these 4 perfect babies, and yet, I couldn’t manage my life or my emotions. I shamed myself for being so ungrateful, and to quell my brain, I would sneak downstairs and pour a tumbler full of wine in the middle of the night.
Every day began to feel like Groundhog Day, but with various degrees of drinking or thinking about drinking. As my alcoholism progressed, I began having consequences: debilitating hangovers, injuries, random inabilities to care for my kids properly, trying to fill the hole in my soul by buying them things we could not afford. I started to look in the mirror and not recognize the person staring back at me. Where had that fun-loving, kind, easy-going mom gone? Why couldn’t I just be happy, barefoot and pregnant? In fact, where had I even gone? I felt lost at sea on a ship of shame, in a sea of sadness. I sank deeper into my internal pity party. I started to see a psychiatrist, and eventually, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.
My inward self-flagellation and depression were, at times, now visible and on display for everyone to see on the outside. I felt like a failure at every level. Since alcohol is a depressant, it was like pouring gasoline on a fire. Once the switch had flipped and I became physically addicted to alcohol, I had quite literally developed an allergy to it. My brain had been rewired to believe alcohol was my solution to life’s problems, not the source of them. Once that belief had taken root in my mind, I would pick up that first drink, thinking I could just learn to drink in moderation again and all would be well. It was the endless chasing of this idea that led me straight into an abnormal relationship with alcohol. The manifestation of this was an allergic reaction of sorts: I broke out in handcuffs and was given a non-optional free stay in the Loveshack for Lawbreakers, courtesy of the taxpayers. Now that I had legal problems, something in me changed. A willingness to admit the obvious. It was a blow to my pride like none other.
I ended up going to treatment twice, the first time was prior to my arrest (because my husband made me), and the second time was because the courts made me. But until I had legal issues, I did not concede to my innermost self that I was an alcoholic. Alcohol took me further than I wanted to go and cost me more than I could pay. It was an ego annihilating earthquake—I felt like I had nothing left of my once more confident, joyous self. But I always hoped this was a massive moral failure—I could get back to drinking moderately if I just tried hard enough. Accepting it wasn’t possible to revert to a ‘normal drinker’ was actually the hardest part of the journey. You can’t turn a piece of toast back into a slice of bread.
The concept of trying to get sober was terrifying. I knew I had to try to get sober if I wanted to continue having my husband and kids in my life, but my track record of success with anything wasn’t stellar, so I was worried. Those first few months at home were so difficult. It was as if I was re-learning how to do everything in my life: go to my husband’s executive work functions, show up for various activities at my kid’s school, be at home by myself, go out with friends to celebrate birthdays—it all seemed so daunting. I felt so raw. I had to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Still, I forged ahead. I did the deal. I went to my court-appointed monthly check-ins with my probation officer. I went to 12 Step meetings daily, and afterward, I attended awkward coffee times with old people in questionable strip malls. I met my sponsor and began to work through the 12 Steps. Slowly, I was beginning to have a life that looked like it was becoming a little bit more manageable. Little by little, a new person began to emerge as I chipped away at recovery, one day and one step at a time.
In sobriety, my marriage has been saved, and we’ve gone on to have four additional babies together, bringing the total to 8 kids. A couple of years ago, I learned to stay sober while navigating a health crisis when I survived a viral dilated cardiomyopathy and had an internal cardiac defibrillator implanted in my chest. You can stay sober through tough times, apparently.
I have learned to do things differently now: I ask for help, which is a normal part of life with 8 children. I’ve built up a massive network of support in most areas of my life: physically, mentally, and emotionally. I call these people when I’m upset, when I need guidance, when I need advice. I take people through the 12 Steps. I have even developed self-love, and it is so freeing compared to absolutely hating myself with a primal intensity! These days I try to practice patience, gentleness, kindness, acceptance, and unconditional love for myself. With others, I try to practice the above, plus boundaries and loving with detachment. I try to make choices that support a peaceful spirit, instead of choices that put me in danger of losing my serenity.
That night lying in jail almost 10 years ago, completely defeated by alcohol, I experienced a soul-crushing brokenness. It was the lowest of lows. When I peered out that window, shaking in my shameful orange scrubs into the devastating darkness, all I could see was the incomprehensible pile of shrapnel barely resembling my life. I felt debilitated. Finished. Like it was proverbial curtains for me. What I had no ability to see at that moment was there were beautiful bright lights illuminating the dark city. Lights of hope, optimism, a future of some kind, tiny beacons representing a new start. I thought my life was ending, but the reality was…it was just beginning. It was the onset of a process of restoring hope, healing, and learning to speak the language of the heart.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Amy Liz Harrison of Bellevue, WA, author of Eternally Expecting: A Mom of 8 Gives Birth to a Whole New Life…Her Own (April 2021). You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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