by Kathleen C.

I thought of myself as a good mother: Didn’t I stop drinking while I was pregnant with my twin daughters? I didn’t even take any drugs when I gave birth. I didn’t have a program, I was dry as a bone, and my feelings bubbled up into rage and tears, but I wasn’t drinking, was I? 

The whistle’s blast was my first inkling my babies and I were in danger

Of course, I started drinking again as soon as I decently could. Wasn’t beer supposed to be good for your milk supply? Sure, I drove drunk once in a while with them in the car, but nothing happened. I got across the tracks well ahead of that train—literally. I once drove right in front of a train in an industrial area of San Francisco. But the train was going very slowly. The whistle’s blast was my first inkling that my babies and I were in danger. 

Then there was the time I was lying in bed hung-over and two energetic two-year-olds burst into my room and started jumping on my bed, as if it were a trampoline. Sarah lost her balance and landed on my stomach—hard. I grabbed her, raised her high in the air and then threw her on the floor. I will always remember the look on her face when she realized what I was about to do. Fortunately she landed on carpet and wasn’t badly hurt, but she got the message: Whatever you do, don’t make Mommy mad! I swear I feel that fear in her to this day. She says she doesn’t remember, but I remember.

I will always remember the look on her face when she realized what I was about to do

Then I lost Lynn by the side of the freeway. She was about two. I was home, hung-over and tired. She was awake but still in her fuzzy, pink, footed pajamas. “Parque, Mommy. Parque!” She pleaded, using the Spanish word for park that our Salvadoran babysitter had taught her. The park was next to the freeway, around the corner from our house. I couldn’t leave her sister home alone and I was tired and irritable, as I so often was when I was hung-over. “We can go outside, but just in front of the house,” I offered.

She grabbed her security blanket and trundled down the steps next to me. We stood together in the morning sunshine, on the sidewalk next to the low picket fence that separated our front patio from the sidewalk. The phone rang. I thought I would just run up the stairs, grab the phone and be right back. Whoever it was must have been fascinating, because in my hangover haze I forgot all about my daughter. 

When I looked down the stairs, there was her security blanket, neatly draped over the fence, but no Lynn. I screamed her name as I ran up and down the street. She was nowhere to be seen. One of my neighbors emerged from her house two doors down. I told her some version of what happened.

She took charge. “You go that way,” she pointed, “and I’ll go this way.” She started around the corner. And that is where she found my baby—in her fuzzy pink pajamas with the feet, standing at the southbound on-ramp to the 101 Freeway, staring across six lanes of traffic at the park. My neighbor brought her home.

None of these episodes, where I injured or endangered my children, got me sober. It took something much more ego-driven. To hit bottom, I had to fail an exam that I needed to practice my profession. I drank all the way through school, even though my husband had mortgaged the house to pay the tuition.

The day I flunked the exam, I called my newly sober sister to whine and wail. She had dragged me to meetings and showed me the way, by her own example. I got sober, too, and my Higher Power let me keep my kids. But the journey was just beginning. My sobriety date is September 11, 1986—Sarah and Lynn were 3 years old. I passed my exam and got a job a few months later.

My life with my children began to both challenge and enhance my sobriety. For instance, when she was 12 years old, Sarah came to me one morning, with a worried frown. “Mom, my face feels funny, and I can’t taste anything.” By mid-day the whole left side of her face was paralyzed, the corner of her mouth drooping, her eyelid sagging. We took her to the pediatrician, who looked her over and then said, “It’s Bell’s Palsy.” Palsy? Wasn’t that some weird disease out of the Bible, like leprosy? How did my daughter get it, and what did this mean? The cause wasn’t known and there wasn’t really any treatment. “The safest thing is to watch and wait,” said the doctor. “But she is supposed to go to summer camp tomorrow,” I cried. “This is her first time there, she hardly knows anybody except her sister.” My mind raced.

My child’s life was about to be ruined. Her face would be paralyzed forever. How could she adapt to the new camp when her face looked weird? The pediatrician said if her eye wouldn’t close at night while she slept, she might have to wear a patch. Would the other girls make fun of her? How could this be happening?

Right away I took on all fault. What had I done to bring this on my child? What retribution had I called down upon this innocent young girl by my past and current bad behavior, this same young innocent whom I had thrown on the floor when she was a baby? Guilt and rage engulfed me.

I can be grateful my children are happy

I called my sponsor, Bonnie. For many years her mother had been seriously ill and she had taken care of her, from home to ICU and back. She knew how to cope with a crisis and stay sober. “Why don’t you try writing a letter to God?” she suggested. I tried it. My letter began: “Dear God, I hate you for what you are doing to my child!” I went to a meeting and shared my rage and despair at what was happening. At the close of the meeting, as we stood in a circle, the speaker said, “Lord, help the member whose child is having trials.”

I went home a lot calmer and helped Sarah pack. The next day Sarah went to camp, and the day after, the camp nurse called. “I am watching over Sarah, and she doesn’t know. Her eye closes at night while she sleeps, so there is no danger of infection, and she won’t have to wear a patch.” I cried, realizing my child had guardian angels watching over her. I only had to let her go, and she would be safe. The other kids and her sister all tried to help her have a good time, and she loved the camp and went back every summer for several years. She recovered completely.

I didn’t have to drink, out of either anger or guilt. All I had to do was stay in conscious contact with my Higher Power, praying only for knowledge of its will and the power to carry it out, and let it act through other people to take care of my daughter and keep me sober.

We never know what is going to make us crave that first drink. In sobriety I have lost my parents to cancer, had cancer myself twice and seen my children have frightening medical problems. My husband even had a serious accident on his motorcycle and I didn’t need a drink. Instead, the craving came on one of the happiest days of all our lives—the day we celebrated our daughters’ graduation from college.

photo credits available upon request to [email protected]

My husband and I had booked several tables for lunch at a posh restaurant. We invited our family members and the friends who had helped us raise these two little girls to become accomplished young women. The time came for us to toast the wonderful people who had loved us and them for all these years. The waiters swiftly passed out champagne flutes and poured champagne. My sister and I were the only ones who had sparkling water instead.

In my drinking days, I loved champagne. It symbolized success, the good life and happy milestones. That day as everyone raised their glasses I felt sad that I couldn’t have champagne like everybody else. My sister caught my eye. She winked and raised her sparkling water. I remembered all those meetings she dragged me to when she was first sober and I was still on Step Zero, and I winked back. We toasted the new graduates and the whole village of people who had helped my husband and me raise them. 

Today, the girls are young women, out on their own. One morning recently at a Big Book meeting, I shared how my daughters had been living in Buenos Aires for two years. They have nice boyfriends, good jobs and a congenial group of friends, both Americans and Argentines. Their boyfriends’ families love them and treat them like daughters. But what about me? “They’re 8,000 miles away!” I cry.

The other A.A.s chuckle as I rant. “What if they settle down? Get married? Have kids? It’s a long trip to go see them!” Even as I am sharing, I realize how lucky I am. My husband and I are both close to retirement. The seasons are reversed in the Southern Hemisphere. We might wind up spending spring and summer in San Francisco, then another spring and summer in Buenos Aires—a tough life, but someone’s got to do it, right? Thanks to A.A., I can be grateful my children are happy, even if this is not how I imagined life would be. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous has given me tools—the steps, especially Steps Eleven and Three. I pray for knowledge of God’s will and then turn my children over to his care. Then we can all be happy, joyous, free and grateful!

Copyright © The AA Grapevine, Inc. (May 2009). Reprinted with permission. Kathleen is a former editor of The Point and a long-time A.A. member in San Francisco and Marin. 

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