It takes everything in the end

The other night was TV night.  TV night is Thursday nights, a tradition that started some years back when Lovely Husband started going to an evening class once a week and leaving me in control of the remote.  Since it is only once a week, it’s a night I look forward to.  No idle channel surfing for me; TV night involves a DVD set or something highly recommended from Netflix.  It involves an indulgent meal, eaten solo after the children are in bed – recently I’m favouring spicy buffalo wings and fries, but it can be a smoked salmon and Brie affair or a huge bowl of lentil soup, as the mood takes.

And back in the day, it also involved a lot of wine.  A lot of wine: TV night was my free-pass night, because I was drinking sight unseen and I knew LH was nearby in case of emergencies.  I just added that last bit in case I sounded irresponsible; let’s be frank, here.  I was just drinking a lot because nobody was watching.

When I gave up drinking, one of the things I mourned was the end of my Thursday nights.  Because, you see, I can’t watch television sober.  That’s why I only do it at all once a week.  I needed the wine to make the television fun, without seeing through the tiresome cliches and the telegraphed plot points.  It was worth it, of course, but it was a loss.  And I stopped Thursday TV nights for a little while.

And then I started them again, and I found other ways to keep occupied.  Once I learned to knit, it helped a lot: I can’t knit without doing something else and I can’t watch TV without doing something else but the two things go together like the newly sober and oversharing.  TV night was back.

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Anyway.  Last Thursday, I started the next episode of my current series (which is Nashville.  How good is Nashville?  LH hates it.  I’m particularly a fan of the fact that nobody kills one another and so far zero women have been raped) and I realised that I’d somehow skipped ahead.  I couldn’t remember which episode I was up to, and the blurbs weren’t helping, so I spent a few minutes cueing up past episodes and watching the opening to see if I’d seen it.  It took me four episodes to find the one I was actually up to, and all the time that I was doing this I was feeling The Oh.  The Oh is when I see a previous memory in a different light and – Oh.  Oh, that’s what was going on.  How did it seem like it was fine?  Oh.

I thought that wine helped me watch TV!  For maybe a YEAR after I stopped drinking, I still thought that!  (And not without a soupçon of smuggery, either: you guys, you normal people with your normal intellect, you might be able to enjoy the entertainment of the masses.  Some of us can’t descend to popular culture without a deliberate deadening of our insight.  Jesus.  How anyone ever stands me in real life, I don’t even know.)  And yet, here I was, mimicking a time when I used to have to re-watch episodes of my given show because by the end of the previous TV night, I was too drunk to remember them clearly.

The difference was that this time, it took me less than a minute to check each episode, because I remembered seeing it within that time.  Before, it would take me longer.  I might have seen this one?  I remember this bit, I think, where the guy comes in and shouts, but that whole sequence before it is new or is it?  I wasn’t enjoying TV.  I was barely registering it!  I had to give up on Sherlock because I couldn’t follow the plot!

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Here’s another example: books.  I’ve written before about my love of reading with wine (and TV, in fact – here I am, at six days sober, two years ago, talking about exactly the same thing I’m talking about now).  Reading + wine.  Heavenly.  But again, by the end.  Not so much.  It became normal to pick up a book where I’d left off and then flick back until I reached a page that I remembered reading.  Sometimes that would be a page or two.  Sometimes closer to a chapter.  What was the point?

It takes everything.  It takes EVERYTHING.  Back when I drank, my only hobbies were reading, drinking, and occasionally watching TV.  And arguing on the internet, I guess, but I was trying to quit that one well before I got sober.  Forget the me that I now am, with a birthday list stuffed full of gorgeous hand dyed yarns, running gear, and courses I want to do on power tools and window glazing.  Reading and watching TV.  It’s not a big demand on the universe, to have those things to enjoy.  But I didn’t.  I no longer had even those.

In an abusive relationship, the abused partner adapts to the demands of the abuser.  She tries to become better at acquiescence, hoping that if she can show him enough love and understanding, he will return the favour in increased trust and openness.  Instead the demands grow, and grow, until the victim is backed into a corner and she has nothing left, and if she is lucky she will realise that nothing she can give will ever be enough and if she is really, really lucky she will be able to get out of that corner and away.

When we say the words ‘alcohol abuse’ we tend to mean that we abuse alcohol.  But alcohol abuses us.  It takes and it takes, and it lies and it lies, and we give up everything rather than lose it.   There is nothing we need it for, and there is nothing it won’t take.

It takes everything.

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Parenting is hard enough. Drinking makes it harder.

For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a parent. Lovely Husband and I had many, many conversations on the subject; he was clear that he wanted kids some day, but not as early in our marriage as I did. Being a sensible chap, often to a fault, he wanted to wait until I had finished my law degree and we had made a dent in our mortgage. I just wanted babies. In the end, I acquiesced to his timeline, because I knew that he’d be an excellent father when he was ready, and I was right. We had an easier time of early parenthood than a lot of people, because of the years of preparation that had gone before.

That’s the media sound byte version of how we negotiated the baby question. The uglier version is that for six long years, from the day of our wedding to the day we conceived Big Girl, I thought about babies. Even when I had other challenges in my life; law school, working long hours in a big firm, buying a new house, I still thought about babies. A friend bought me a parenting book, and I read it over and over again, trying to imagine what it would be like to have a child.  I planned the nursery, the books, the routines of my imaginary day.

Every month I would hope, against reason, for an accident to have happened.  I seriously considered pricking holes in the condoms, and what stopped me was not my own moral compass but fear at being caught. Every time one of our friends had a child, I felt a pang of such envy and loss that I started reading infertility forums, because those were the women whose experiences most closely described the way I felt. And yes, I realise that might seem like a selfish and disproportionate thing to say, if you’re reading this and you have actually had infertility struggles. I know that. I even knew that then. But the feelings didn’t go away, for all that.  It wasn’t pretty. It left such a deep wound, in fact, that even after Big Girl was born, and we started to discuss the timing of a second child, the scar was ripped open as soon as he wanted to discuss waiting longer than I thought was reasonable. For a long time, it was the most important thing in my life, and the thing that I wanted more than anything else.

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And then, of course, I ruined it by drinking.

Before I go on I want to make something clear. This isn’t a post about the disservice we do to our children if we drink heavily. It’s about the disservice we do to ourselves, as parents. There is enough shame and guilt around parenting as it is without me adding more. What I want to say is that having children is as wondrous, as beautiful, as it is hard and frustrating, and it is that wonder and beauty that keeps us going.  But drinking changes that balance, and makes it much, much harder to enjoy parenting.

By the time Big Girl was about eighteen months old, I was drinking quite heavily. Wine had stopped being a nice thing to have in the evenings, in generous quantities or otherwise, and had started being the reason why I put one foot in front of another during the long parenting day. I would wake up, realise it wasn’t an office day, and my heart would sink. The time would stretch out in front of me. Reading books, playing blocks, cuddling: if I had the energy I’d bundle her up and we’d brave the steep hills and walk to the park, where I’d push her on a swing for eternity. It felt like I was in a desert, with nothing but flat, dry sand in front of me, and nothing to do but to put one foot in front of the other, trudging through the hours of unrelenting sameness.  And the thing that got me through was the knowledge that at 5pm there would be an oasis, because then I could pour a glass of wine while I fed her her dinner. I loved her, and she was cute and adorable, but I didn’t enjoy being home with her at all. In my darkest months, which I can’t talk about without feeling hot shame, I was pouring a glass of wine in the early afternoon, with lunch, on the grounds that then I could float lightly through my day with my child and shut off the part of my brain that was screaming out for intellectual stimulation and adult company. I’d switch on children’s TV and steal an hour to read a book with a glass next to me, so desperate was I for relief from the tedium.

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This is a difficult post to write, because writing about the joys of parenthood is almost impossible. Perhaps that’s why, despite the thousands of words printed about modern motherhood, I still didn’t realise that the way I felt wasn’t alright. I knew that some women find parenthood excruciatingly dull, and everyone finds it hard, but when they said ‘but the overwhelming love makes up for it, doesn’t it?’ I nodded and smiled and thought to myself  ‘Well, no. No, it doesn’t.’ Because although I loved my daughters more than anything else I’d ever loved, I was rarely flooded with joy when I was caring for them. There was nothing transformative about it. I loved them, I thought about them, constantly, I would lay down my life for them, but also I was just me, going through the motions and wondering when I got some of my life back.

And I made peace with that.  With the fact that I found them boring sometimes, and frustrating, and that I was happier at the office, and that although I adored them, I longed for a glass of wine at the end of the day.  I’m smart, and well educated, and driven: of course the pace of toddlers made me feel shackled.  It didn’t make me a bad parent,  I reassured myself, although it did, sometimes, make me an unhappy one.

I don’t think I really believed that, though.  My friend Rachel, talking to me about social media and alcohol last week, said something that struck a deep chord.  She said, about the fact that she used photo-sharing sites far more as an active drinker: ‘Uploading pictures helped me compose a sort of false-reality, of a reasonably functional person with interesting hobbies and an apparent fascination with cooking. All that said “this life is okay.”‘  When I look back on how I parented, as a drinker, it is obvious to me that I was desperately compensating for my lack of authenticity.  I posted pictures on Facebook of wholesome activities like finger painting and baking.  I carefully monitored TV time, knowing that I had to limit it most of the time because sometimes my willpower would crumble and it’d be on all day.  All the time that I was parenting, I was looking over my own shoulder: am I behaving as I ought?  Should I take them to the park more often?  Am I too strict or too lax or too inconsistent?  Is it imperative that they eat their vegetables?  Am I doing this right, am I playing this role, the role of parent, correctly?

I’m a much, much happier parent now.  There’s a saying I love, which is that sobriety delivers all the things that alcohol promises.  I have more energy.  I have more patience.  I have more enthusiasm.  But mostly, I have more love.

Newly sober, we feel everything far more strongly than we did before, realising for the first time how numbed we have been. I had no idea before I stopped drinking that I didn’t love my girls as much as I was capable of.  None.  But it’s true.  Sober, my love for them is turned up to top volume. It’s as if I have been on an aeroplane, counting the hours while the pressure builds in my ears and sound is muted, and now I am finally back on solid ground. My ears ‘pop’ and sounds come rushing back in, clear and crisp and distinct.  There is so much love now, and it is so loud and so joyful.  I laugh so often at my funny girls.  I rough house with them.  I swoop them up and cover them in kisses.  And of course I also snap at them when it’s T-minus-5 minutes to the school run and they’re still wearing pyjamas, or get cross when Little Girl breaks my favourite mug because she’s running too fast around a corner.

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More than that, I have my self esteem back.  Just as switching a nightlight on banishes my daughter’s monsters, sobriety has banished mine back to the shadows.  I trust myself.  If I shout sometimes, that’s okay.  If I let them watch TV sometimes, that’s okay too.  If I spend an hour racing around the back garden shouting ROAWR at them while they shriek in delighted glee, it’s no longer because I’m saying to the universe look, look, I’m being a good parent. It’s just because I want to, and because it’s fun.

I’m not perfect.  But I am, for the first time in my years of parenthood, living the life that I dreamt of throughout my painful, yearning, baby-obsessed twenties.  Now to convince Lovely Husband that another baby is a good idea.

A conversation with Little Girl

On an errand run with Little Girl the other day, I drove past the bottle shop I used to go to the most.

There’s a bit of background here: where I live, alcohol cannot be sold except in dedicated licensed premises.  So that means you can’t pick up alcohol in a supermarket or a convenience store, only in a dedicated liquor store (known as a bottle shop) which is either a free standing business or attached to a pub.  These stores might offer a few basic snack foods, but that is all; there is really no reason at all that anyone would be in them except if they’re buying alcohol.  Therefore, it is horribly uncomfortable to go to them with one’s small children in tow, at least very often.  This particular store had a drive-through feature; unlike fast food chains, this doesn’t quite mean that you shout your order into a crackling box, but it does mean that you can pull off the road and someone will come and ask you what you’re after.  That’s why I used to go there; it saved the hassle of getting the girls out of their car seats and into a store filled with breakable glass bottles.  But it also meant that I only ever bought one bottle, or one box, of wine at a time, because it was bad enough that I was a regular visitor with two small children in the back.

I also relied, somewhat, on the girls not thinking to relay these visits to their father, because after all it was just a quick stop on the way to something more fun and therefore not worthy of conversation; these tended to be top-up visits, for the replacement wine that LH didn’t know about, rather than the official ‘you look after the girls, I’ll go and get us a nice bottle of something’ visits.

That was rather a long bit of background.

Anyway, there I was with Little Girl, who I may have mentioned has recently, now that she’s two and a half, blossomed into an extremely articulate young lady, which is a polite way of saying that she never ever shuts up, driving past this store on the way to something far more fun and exciting.

‘Me an Daddy went that shop!”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.  I not get out of car, I sit in car.  The man bringed bottles to the car.  For Daddy”

“Mmm hmm”

“Daddy gived him money.  The man gived him bottles”

“Ok.  Hey, when we get to the cafe, do you want a babycino?”

“Yeah.  The bottles not for toddlers.  Toddlers drink juice.  An babytino.  Grown ups drink bottles.  An coffee.  Coffee and bottles for grown ups, juice for toddlers.  Big girls juice too.  Not coffee for big girls.  Daddy like drinking bottles.  Gived the man money”.

And all I could think was – wow, glad I stopped drinking before this particular cognitive advance happens, because hooo boy.  For clarity, LH buys and drinks probably 2 bottles of wine a week; it is unusual that he had her with him at all, it was possibly the first time.  So what would this conversation have looked like the other way?

“Daddy?  Me an Mummy go this shop.  We go to shop lots of times.  We buy bottles.  An box.  Big heavy box.  Mummy gived the man money.  Not card money paper money.  Say ‘Not tell Daddy’.  We goed home and I watch Pe’a Pig.  Mummy put heavy box in fridge.  I not help.  She take out box too, from fridge,  not heavy box, and she say ‘stay here’ and she goed to the bin with the box.  Then we sit togever on couch and watch Pe’a Pig togever.  I drink juice and Mummy drink wine.  Wine not for toddlers.  Juice for toddlers.  Mummy drink wine.  Mummy drink wine all the time”.

Mummy not drink wine ever ‘gain.