“It is through weakness and vulnerability that most of us… discover our soul.” (Desmond Tutu)

Doubleday Canada - Random House, 2013

Doubleday Canada – Random House, 2013

If you take Desmond Tutu’s statement as truth, Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom is arguably the ultimate discovery.

Her to-the-bare-walls description of her alcoholism displays every weakness. It is a visceral story; the storyteller’s voice is intelligent and controlled, but the subject-matter is raw.

“But this intelligence is no match for the kinds of instincts that demand to be satisfied instantly. And there’s fear behind the wanting – the fear that if the wanting gets denied there will be only pain and the fear itself left.”

Demands, pain, fear, wanting: if looking for light reading, Drunk Mom isn’t it. But, really, who expects a book about either alcoholism or parenting to fall into that category.

In the context of addiction, there is no other subject. The addiction, the wanting that Bydlowska describes in the book’s early pages eclipses everything else, to varying degrees.

“The feeling of being underwater is still present – the almost palatable sensation that I’m not completely tuned in, that I’m missing something, like the one breath needed to break through and be present….”

It is difficult to parent from underwater, when your child lives on land. The author’s young son is beloved, but the author’s addiction trumps all.

Nonetheless, there are some astute observations about parenting, even though the perspective is limited and controlled by the alcoholism with which Bydlowska struggles.

While her child is young and overwhelmed, at times, by his own kind of wanting, she writes: “Motherhood is an infinity of second chances. It is insanity by repetition.” Some of the memoir’s most affecting scenes circle this mother’s love for her son and that love’s intersection with her addiction.

There are times, too, when the parallels between these two all-encompassing orbits are startlingly clear. Just as the “insanity of motherhood lies in perseveration”, the author struggles to endure and persevere in the company of alcoholism.

Many times that companionship offers the rush of a romance. But not necessarily a happy ending.

“There’s always a tiny sliver of hope that we’ll get back together, alcohol and me, even if for just one more naked weekend, just one more night. This can’t be over, can it?
Well, that’s up to you, certainly. You don’t have to answer all his calls.”

Indeed, the author’s committed relationship is repeatedly and devastatingly eroded by her addiction, but that second voice is the voice of rehabilitation.

A great deal of damage is done to their relationship and devastating patterns repeat.  “Or should I just apologize? Assume that bad things happened – they always do – and that I owe him an apology. Promise that I won’t do it again. But do what again? I promise him I won’t do it again all the time. I apologize all the time.”

But there is an attempt to repair and rebuild (more than one, actually, but details would spoil the trajectory of the memoir).

“Everything seems to be a normal part of recovery. Relapse, slip, overconfidence, compliance, happiness, unhappiness, hunger, loneliness, friendships, too much of something or not enough of something / or just the right amount of everything – every single thing can be a normal part of recovery.”

And yet, as anyone who has read memoirs of addicts or has personal experience of addiction (either directly or via a family member or close friend) will know that recovery is not likely to provide a straight narrative line.

“With the right amount of alcohol, I am a superwoman. I will jump from tall buildings, run like the wind, charm whomever I choose and perform all kinds of magic tricks: get ahead of any lineup, walk through glass, fight anyone, kill a car with my fists.”

How can No Alcohol compete? The idea of living life of a superwoman is seductive. Nobody would argue that.

“In fact, it is wonderful that makes me relapse. I’m always chasing it because I don’t experience it – the wonderful – unless I’m truly on the edge. I understand the concept of wonderful, the concept of happiness, but I never feel as close to it as I do when intoxicated.”

But Jowita Bydlowska’s memoir has been controversial. The fact that her addiction compromised her ability to parent her child. The fact that she has disclosed so much of the turmoil that her alcoholism caused her partner and their son (who are named in the afterword, but not by their real names in the text, which is why I have not named them here either). The fact that there is no Hallmark-Card ending (that’s not a spoiler: there is no cure for addiction).

Yet perhaps she is simply constructing order out of the chaos of her life by shaping it on the page. Powerful art can arise from pain. Eric Maisel writes: “An artist feels vulnerable to begin with; and yet the only answer is to recklessly discard more armour.”

(This is not a genre that I read regularly, but I wonder whether the authors of addiction memoirs that have been published in recent years by fathers were so blatantly attacked for sharing the stories of the impact that their choices had on the young members of their families or whether Jowita Bydlowska’s choices are held to a different measure.)

This leaves the author vulnerable, but that can be viewed as an instrument of change. Take Brené Brown’s Power of Vulnerability TEDTalk which went viral in 2010. Vulnerability is where it’s at.

Ultimately, Drunk Mom is a tale of wanting, and vulnerability is a constant companion. It is not that different from the obsession, the desire, that Tennessee Williams discusses: “All my life I have been haunted by the obsession that to desire a thing or to love a thing intensely is to place yourself in a vulnerable position, to be a possible, if not a probable, loser of what you most want. Let’s leave it like that.”

It isn’t pretty, but it’s human. Let’s leave it like that.