One of the slimmest, most elliptically poignant modern short stories, “Escapes,” by Joy Williams, from a collection of the same title, is about a fractious relationship between a child and her alcoholic mother. To the narrator, a young girl, the ever-pervasive vodka fumes signify “daring and deception, hopes and little lies.” The mother smells “like the glass … always in the sink in the morning.” (Note to alcoholics who drink vodka because they think it does not smell: it does.) “Escapes” is not only about the humiliation and confusion of seeing a parent drunk, but also about bearing witness to a parent’s abandonment and self-destruction.
I mention the vodka fumes, the deception and the parent-child relationship in “Escapes” because I imagine that Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom: A Memoir is roughly the same story told from the mother’s point of view. At one point during the Williams story, the mother finds herself onstage in a magic show, begging the magician to saw her in half. Similarly, Bydlowska metaphorically emerges, after the birth of her son, Frankie, cut in half, emotionally, physically—with an unruly Caesarean scar for proof. Bydlowska picks up her alcoholism where she left off three years prior to Frankie’s birth, indulging in manic and marathon secret drinking sessions that involve tucking the incriminating empty bottles, mostly vodka, into her diaper bag or purse, and strategically getting rid of them all over the city so “the boyfriend,” as she calls him throughout, will not discover her passionate return to booze.
As she tries to balance the illusion of responsible motherhood with her internal and endless “wanting” for alcohol, Bydlowska times her drinking so she can breastfeed only when she is not producing “poison” and later sobers up only for AA meetings. The emphasis on breastfeeding—and its concomitant associations with idealized spiritual, nutritional and animal maternalism—is an obvious preoccupation throughout the book. However, the energy and pages devoted to descriptions of Bydlowska milking her breasts, while likely accurate, seem a bit excessive. Early on, we understand that Bydlowska is clearly intent on revealing the unglamorous viscera of alcohol addiction: blood, vomit, milk, shit coupled with tears, cuts and bruises are the day-after reality of nearly every lost night of oblivion. Her blackouts occasionally cause her to neglect Frankie, fall off chairs and bicycles, break glass, fight with the boyfriend, and find herself in compromising and dangerous situations.
For readers unfamiliar with the secrecy, denial and destructiveness of alcoholics, some of the material may be shocking. But those familiar with the alcoholic-memoir genre and the predictable behaviour it charts will recognize the ways in which Bydlowska stretches herself, and the narrative, from highly elaborate and ritualized drinking patterns to denial (to self and others), guilt, self-hatred, which eventually leads to an unsteady clarity, sobriety and healing. That is not to say this is a typical self-indulgent addiction memoir, as Bydlowska eschews the touchy-feely language of recovery. For example, during rehab, the author attends meetings titled “grief and loss,” “wellness and spirit,” “feelings and triggers” and “crap like that,” as she says. She is without patience for labels such as “disease” to describe alcoholism and does not accept excuses that her drinking problem may be, in part, due to post-traumatic stress disorder. “We’re a walking fucking trauma, all of us. Isn’t the human condition a post-traumatic stress disorder?” Bydlowska challenges one of her many counsellors, who are each begrudged not only the memoirist’s interior thoughts, but her respect as well.
At the same time, Bydlowska labels herself sick, “a poor, stupid drunk slut, that’s all,” when the boyfriend, after months of her not-so-secret drinking sprees, decides it is time for her to leave. During a stint in rehab, one of her flakey counsellors labels Bydlowska “dissociative,” which is probably the most accurate designation, given the author’s remarkable absence of any emotion, except for morning-after-blackout fear.
The cool yet raw efficiency of Bydlowska’s prose, a testament to her successful journalistic career, repudiates indulgence of any kind. This detachment is what makes Drunk Mom both a painful yet paradoxically effortless read. Bydlowska has oceans of sympathy for her baby, her boyfriend, yet very little for herself. As readers, we are asked to fill in the emotional blank and care about a narrator who refuses to care about herself. Albeit some readers may not care about a beautiful, successful writer who, for little or no reason, deliberately destroys a cozy, financially secure little family—fair enough. Poor little beautiful rich mom, running around Toronto shopping “for stupid stuff that [she doesn’t] need” and steadily getting loaded at high-end restaurants while napping with her son in parks. And yet we do feel sympathy for the acerbic and ironic Jowita, who is in the throes of a new identity—Mom!—new motherhood and old bad habits. She is startlingly alone and isolated, even for an alcoholic of her calibre, both as a mother but also as a person.
Secrecy is an important aspect of maladaptive behaviour, from eating disorders to addictions: hiding and feeling superior that you can “get away” with your bad behaviour is one of the only consolation prizes. Thus it makes sense that even in these brutally honest pages there is also the pervading sense that the memoirist is keeping secrets from the reader. She protects her estranged family and “the boyfriend,” although she writes of both, particularly him, lovingly. Even though attempts are made to paint the boyfriend as supportive and enduring, he appears as emotionally void and self-centred as the narrator. For example, as her drinking escalates we learn that the boyfriend is “overwhelmed” by caring for his new son—poor guy. In a final chapter titled “Archeology” (“This is the archeological dig of my addiction”), Bydlowska lyrically litanizes the possible reasons she is an alcoholic, which extend from emigrating from Poland as a teen to perfectionist Eastern European parents to being raped. In this chapter, she also includes more pertinent and recent traumas: namely, the boyfriend’s indiscretion during one of her own lost weekends. We are also informed, in a cursory sort of way, that her mother did not want her to have a baby “because it was wrong to have it with this man in this country, it was the wrong baby.” A few lines later she recants this quietly cryptic statement about her mother, with a line about how mother did not “quite” poison her. Yet, she admits, she is still filled with rage. No kidding. Except for occasional visits from her sister, the emotional and practical absence of both supportive partner and family would make anyone a) rabid and poison-filled, and b) reach for a bottle of vodka to keep herself company.
Although the why of her drinkingis not important to Bydlowska, without the Archeology chapter—which supplies a furious heap of reasons that could catapult anyone into alcoholism—this memoir would be curiously empty of the types of causal connections most readers do like to make to account for the transition to addiction. Drunk Mom is a harrowing and at times difficult read, not because there is a baby on board the narrative, but rather because Bydlowska’s denial, patterns and desire for inebriation are so deeply psychically entrenched we fear for the burgeoning life she repeatedly attempts to destroy—her own.