Last month, an English celebrity, Peaches Geldof, 25, died of a heroin overdose while at home alone with her 11-month-old baby, Phaedra. I understand that kind of dangerous aloneness: a few years ago, I too was alone with my baby boy as I repeatedly got drunk, tried to stay sober and failed every time. Unlike Geldof, there was no history of addiction in my family and my substance wasn't heroin but addiction is addiction -- it always changes you and if you don't beat it, it makes you die sooner or later.
I don't know why Geldof was alone -- maybe she had never been alone with the baby while using -- but for me aloneness was part of what it was to be a new mom and a newly relapsed addict. After I had my son, it was like walking around in a bubble; I was in the world but also separated from it. I watched other mothers pushing strollers, passing me by, and I'd meet their eyes and speculate about them: were they feeling as isolated as I did? Were they doing secret things that were ugly and dangerous or perhaps just ugly? Perhaps they were just stuffing their faces with cupcakes when no one was watching.
Drugs and alcohol are not cupcakes. In the U.S. approximately four-million women meet the criteria for drug abuse. At the same time, studies show that women may experience greater stigma when it comes to substance use so who can tell how many women don't report their shame -- I certainly felt deathly ashamed of drinking while my new baby boy depended on me. I love him fiercely, always have, from the first time I saw him when he was merely an abstract shape on an ultrasound screen: dots coming together and breaking apart. But my addiction trumped that.
Where an addiction is a death force (in Freudian psychoanalytic theory this is known as "death drive" -- a subconscious desire for self-destruction), motherhood is nothing but the embodiment life. Maternal instincts are biological as much as they are behavioural. They're social too: what comes with motherhood is the expectation that a woman just knows how to parent a baby. Which is why for a long time I refused to concede that there was a problem. I believed that a morally sound mother doesn't have problems like the ones I had -- surely maternal instinct would override the desire to destroy everything that I valued in life. And it was suggested more than once by some family members that if I loved my son as much as I said I did I would chose not to drink: "If you can't do it for yourself, do it for him."
I don't blame anyone for suggesting this -- an addict is a hateful, baffling creature: a person who insists on walking in traffic. A mother addict is a person walking in traffic while rocking a baby to sleep. I would hate me too.
So every time I'd wake up ashamed and horrified after drinking, I'd only feel like drinking more to forget that I was such a hateful being. I didn't see a way out of it. I didn't want to deal with the shame of admitting to being a drunk mom -- and the much bigger shame of admitting that I was a failed mom. And admitting it meant that there could potentially be serious consequences -- child services possibly getting involved, me getting kicked out of my family home (my drinking is a dealbreaker in my family). Not only that, getting sober would mean that I had to somehow overcome my natural death-wish, that force that seemed stronger than my love for my son.
I got sober eventually to simplify, because the lying and the pain got to be too much. My son didn't get me sober. Or not entirely. It would be a nice narrative if I were to say he did but to say that would be to say that a woman like Peaches Geldof didn't love her child enough to go on living. That she walked into traffic while rocking her baby to sleep.
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