Mothers who drink

Recovering alcoholic Rachael Brownell talks about cocktail play dates, sobriety and the tragedy of Diane Schuler

Published August 10, 2009 12:07PM (EDT)

Tragic stories about mothers and drinking have been dominating the news lately, but they are particularly bracing for Rachael Brownell. A mother of three, she chronicles her battle with the bottle -- and her subsequent recovery -- in the recently published "Mommy Doesn’t Drink Here Anymore," a slim and compulsively readable addiction memoir.  Now 22 months sober, she talks to Salon about how white wine was a way to reclaim the lost freedom of adulthood -- and why sobriety deserves to be glamorized.

As a blogger at Babble, you once wrote about the joy of cocktail play dates, but eventually you decided you were drinking too much. Can you take us through the evolution of your drinking?

Like a lot of people I began drinking in my late teens, and throughout my 20s I would usually just drink on weekends. Once I had my twins in my early 30s, I was a like a lot of people with new kids -- I was a little more cut off, I was home more of the time, and I started to drink a little bit more then, and it became kind of a highlight of my day. So I’d spend time with them, and after they were in bed I would read and drink some wine.

And it wasn’t anything problematic for a while. I started by using drinks in the way that a lot of people use them -- "Oh, it’s been a stressful day, I’ll just relax and I’ll enjoy some adult time and unwind." Pretty soon it became, "When can I drink?" And I would drink earlier and earlier in the day, and it snuck into being my favorite part of every day.

How did you stop drinking?

This is going to sound really obvious but the hardest thing for me about getting sober those first six months was the realization that I had become so dependent on alcohol. And so I found a 12-step group and I started going.

I had this whole span of time in the afternoons that had been filled with drinking a few glasses of wine. Now I had to do all the things I was doing usually -- making the dinner and dealing with the kids -- when I didn’t have my favorite stress reliever. So there was a period of time where I just had to come up with new things to do. It was incredibly difficult to find replacement activities. So much of my life -- my writing life, my friend life, my social life -- revolved around alcohol. I had to redo all of that and it took a long time. I could not have done it alone.

What would you say to mothers who tell you, "At the end of the day, I just need a drink"?

I wouldn’t say anything. There’s nothing wrong with someone who’s a normal drinker who has a glass of wine now and again. People who are drinking more than they want to drink or people who are wondering about their drinking: Those are the people I’d love to say, "Hey, why don’t you look into it a little, or call a 1-800 number and try and see if you might have a problem."

I just think it’s important for people not to be so ashamed that they can’t come forward and maybe ask for help if they need it. But I’m definitely not of the school of thought that all drinking is evil and people shouldn’t drink at all. There are perfectly reasonable ways to drink. I just didn’t happen to engage in any of them! 

You were part of a mommy brigade that wrote about their martinis, and I'm wondering how you see that era now -- do you regret glamorizing drinking?

I think I glamorized drinking to an extent -- although I’m not sure I had that much of an influence! What I’m trying to do now to counter what I might have done then is to say, there’s another way. If drinking is all you're giving yourself to relax … there’s a lot better ways to take care of yourself as a parent, other than just getting loaded. It’s not dour and grim, like, "I used to have fun and drink and now life is terrible." It’s quite the opposite. I’d like to glamorize sobriety a little!

I was just muscling through, determined to be a good mother. But boy, I’ll tell you, that’s a grim little march. I think I’m a whole hell of a lot more fun to be around now.

According to the toxicology reports, Westchester mother Diane Schuler, who killed eight on July 26, had a bottle of vodka in her car and a blood alcohol level of .19. How do you feel when you see those headlines?

Of course it’s a total tragedy. There but for the grace of God go I, because any of us in the grips of our disease can make terrible, terrible decisions. It’s amazing to me those kinds of tragedies don't happen more often. There are a lot of people with undiagnosed serious problems with alcohol.

By Frieda Klotz

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