Smart, Devoted, Ambitious Mom—and an Alcoholic

Cammy is one of those unassuming women with a secret weapon—a knockout smile and brains for days. She’s an assistant professor in women’s studies and the single mom of two young girls. She lectures and researches every weekday, then grabs the girls dinner on the way home. They eat in the car as they head to karate and gymnastics. Cammy talks to them while she drives about the importance of loving their bodies exactly as they are, and tells them about the women who inspired her when she was their age—all women who lived in books. She answers their questions and laughs with her kids, and the girls think their mom is great—as long as it’s still daylight. At work, Cammy is a respected professor and is quickly working her way toward tenure. She’s unafraid to take controversial positions, but can always back up what she believes. She’s not one to become too encumbered in office (or academic) politics, and she’s genuinely passionate about her work—if a little competitive. More and more of late, however, Cammy’s had trouble tuning in to her students or her readings. As practice gears up, Cammy waits in the car. She keeps a coffee mug that’s filled with merlot, and has extra bottles stashed in the trunk. But she only lets herself drink as long as it’s after 5pm. The college town she lives in is small, so her drive home isn’t far, and she tells herself she won’t have had much by then. Except that Cammy’s teeth turn purple whenever she drinks and her mood gradually, then all at once, changes. She waits for the girls in the car, listening to sad songs play on repeat. When the girls walk out to the car across the winter parking lot, they hold hands. Their faces are turned down. The excited chirping that took place on the way to practice is gone—everything is quiet now. They gingerly slip into the backseat and brace themselves as their mother careens home. They will do everything they can from now until bedtime not to warrant her attention—she will either be too harsh or too honey sweet. Neither feels like the mom they know and love. The girls just want that mom, the old mom, back.

High Functioning Alcoholism

Cammy is a high-functioning alcoholic, described by Sarah Allen Benton, author of Understanding the High-Functioning Alcoholic, as one of those people who are “able to maintain respectable, even high-profile lives, usually with a home, family, job and friends,” despite their disordered drinking. Benton is herself an alcoholic, despite the fact that she has graduate level education and is a practicing therapist. In a recent TV interview, Elizabeth Vargas, American TV journalist and anchor of ABC’s “20/20,” proclaimed that she is a high-functioning alcoholic as well. She has spent years reporting on moms who drink to excess, all the while, desperately needing help herself. Still, she managed to appear elegant and intelligent, and wholly put-together for her audience. Alcoholism, though more accepted than it has ever been, is a condition that brings with it enormous stigma, especially for mothers. Female alcoholics are growing in number and now make up one-third of all alcoholics. Five times as many women will die as a result of alcoholism as from breast cancer (plus, alcohol use may contribute to breast cancer), and excess alcohol consumption is more toxic to women’s bodies than men’s.

“Mommy’s Juice”

Wine is often the drink of choice of successful moms who find themselves confronting a problem with drinking. At first, it all seems quite reasonable, even socially expected (not just accepted) in certain circles. Having a glass or two of wine is how many stressed out moms relax, but as with Cammy, Benton and Vargas, just one glass—no more than two—every now and then gradually blurs into three glasses, then four (maybe more), sometimes every night. Rachael Brownell, author of Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore, has written, “ … alcohol abuse is a symptom of a greater disease, a spiritual disease that renders us incapable of assessing our better, more loving selves. This certainly was the case for me and many others like me.” Brownell hits the nail on the head. Addicts of all kinds use in order to suppress feelings, to numb out or to experience pleasure instead of pain, and each of these reasons has an emotional root cause, unique to every woman. Cammy’s father had been an alcoholic, and though she had adored him greatly, he’d spent the last years of his life holed up in a cramped rented room, drinking away his time and refusing to see anyone, even his daughter. Her pain over her father’s alcoholism and successive mistakes in romantic relationships (with men who seemed an awful lot like her dad) had helped to create the spiritual disease at the center of the brain-based one called alcoholism. This is largely how it is for those of us who discover in a bizarre moment of clarity, or gradually over weeks and years, that we too are addicts. Recovery isn’t simply putting down a wine glass and refusing to pick it up again, but healing the very reason behind the urge itself.

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