I Was The "Perfect" Mom, With A Dark Secret Threatening It All

I’m the mom you might whisper about to your friends; maybe you can’t stand how I’m always early for everything, the fact that my house is spotless, or that I have a lot of sex with my husband. I have a system to managing my family of five, and it doesn't just work — it is impeccable.
Our day cannot begin until the dishwasher is unloaded in a very specific way. Each member of my family is trained to deposit their shoes in the basket by the back door before they come inside. My children have never so much as tasted Kool-Aid. (Red dye #40? Not a chance.)
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Each of my three children goes to bed on time every single night. They are beloved by their teachers; their fingernails are always trimmed. As long as they are well cared for, I told myself for years, then no one has to know how I really manage it: drinking myself into oblivion each night, and then powering up with pills in the morning.
And for a long time, no one did.
“How do you do it?” my friends would ask. “How do you have the energy to keep up with everything?”
I’d deflect with a self-deprecating joke, but not mention the diet pills that cost $120 per bottle that I had to finagle our budget to afford. I wouldn't explain that the reason my husband and I have so much sex is because I do it on a schedule, hoping it’s frequent enough to serve as a distraction that will keep him from noticing my drinking and the holes in our bank account.
For almost nine years I’ve been the mom other moms love to hate — just so good at it — and I know there's plenty about my situation that seems enviable and even more that makes me lucky. But if I told you managing it, for me, required a daily dose of amphetamines to combat the hangover from the previous night’s blackout, would you feel the same? What about the parent you’re judging in Target right now. Do you know how together she really is? I hate being called a perfectionist, and this may be why: It is a lie.
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I volunteer at the kids’ schools. I never leave home without makeup, and my hair blown out to near-salon quality. I’m friendly, driven, and successful. But there is a dark side, one I am still unraveling in order to understand it better. It's called addiction.
My problem with prescription diet pills began in college, before I met my husband. I’d go to shady weight loss clinics in bad parts of town to get pills. I loved the high. It was a dream drug for a Type A personality who loved to drink, because after a long night out with my friends, I could pop a pill with my coffee and snap right out of the fog.
Motherhood only sharpened this need — there is so much to do on so few hours of sleep, and so little time. Basically, it stressed me the fuck out. I began drinking at 5 p.m. every evening to get me through the difficult hours of homework and bath time, and by the time my husband got home around 9, I’d made one bottle of wine disappear and was making eyes at the next. I told myself that no one noticed, because I was so high functioning. Look at how together I am, I thought. Maybe they did notice and just thought, She's got three kids, of course she drinks, as if life is an actual Someecards meme, and didn't give it another thought.
I had wanted to be The Best Mother with The Best Children, and any time something threw a wrench in my grand plans of being outstanding, I became upset. And I drank. A lot.
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The thing about children is that they're always doing shit that isn't especially outstanding, which meant that I was drinking more and more to cope with my increasingly imperfect life. This made it impossible to relax. I was constantly running behind my kids, sweeping, picking up, making beds, ruthlessly attempting to maintain a perfection I had largely imagined, that only I really cared about. The harder I worked to make real my idealized life, the unhappier I felt, and the more I drank. The more I drank, the more chaotic our household became.

Any time something threw a wrench in my grand plans of being outstanding, I became upset. And I drank. A lot.

“This is bullshit,” I'd tell my husband via text, resentful that he got to be at work, in an office where no one can smear boogers on him. When our second child was born, I gave up my career in insurance to stay home with the kids, a decision I don’t regret until someone starts shrilly screaming “MOOOMMMMMMMMMMY!” Then, I regret almost all of my life choices, which causes me to feel like a horrible person, which makes me want to drown myself in a vat of cabernet. I gulped wine from a plastic blue cup with Spider-Man on the side to feel less like the world was collapsing in.
Two Christmas Eves ago, my kids were all finally old enough to go caroling without dragging along a double stroller. My husband excitedly made hot chocolate for all of us, making sure to drop ice cubes in the kids’ lidded cups. I made sure to dump a hefty dose of bourbon into mine. My husband saw me pour it, but when he went outside, I dumped in more.
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We drove around to look at lights, but I’d lost the ability to find joy in anything. As the kids squabbled and sang in the backseat, I snapped, screaming “SHUT UP!” I was drunk and agitated, and they were loud and little. I had ruined the holiday for all of us.
"Why is everyone so fucking difficult?!" I later whined to friends on a coffee date. One of them finally pieced together that something wasn’t right with me, and spoke up, which I also found annoying. I had been caught.
On February 26, this year, I took my last drink. At first, just to humor my friend, and prove to both of us that I didn't actually have a problem. A few days later, when my body went into full detox, and I said out loud, “I would cut a motherfucker for a drink right now,” I was forced to face the fact that I needed help.
My intervention, though kind, left no wiggle room for me to justify continuing to drink. According to my friends — who spent the first 30 days of my sobriety calling me, showing up at my house, making sure I was getting the help I needed — getting another adult sober is almost as exhausting as trying to keep an immaculate home with three little kids running around. And there would be no pills to help us coast through.
My alcoholic brain tells me I'll never be good enough. My therapist would say, "That's also called perfectionism." I cannot explain why I recoil at that label so much, and yet wrap myself up in “alcoholic” like it’s a luxurious coat. Or maybe I can: Alcoholism feels like I finally have an answer for so many of my unanswered questions. Why I couldn't cope with the stress of life without a drink in my hand; why I felt it necessary to sneak a flask into a child's birthday party — the screeching! The germs! — and why I've never felt like I fit in anywhere, with anyone.
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Sobriety is showing me how much I’ve missed. Not just holidays, but the little things. The way my middle son sticks his tongue out just slightly when he laughs. The way my daughter stares at me when I’m not looking. How they walk and how fast they run. Who they are as human beings.
It’s showing me how miserable I was while I was trying to prove to everyone that I was exceptional, and how frightened I am of losing control.
Parenting is incredibly stressful. I want so badly to raise the kind of children who will one day change the world — I expect a lot of them, still. I still want fastidious cleanliness, orderly family time, good grades. But every coping mechanism and substance that I used to help me through the day is now gone, and it feels a lot like awkward nakedness.
Recovery means that I have to re-learn how to be a wife (we are no longer on a sex schedule), mother, and human being. Now, instead of methodically unloading the dishwasher first thing in the morning, I spend a few minutes meditating to prepare myself for the day. I’m learning how to relax my standards of living, just a little, and although it’s scary, it’s also incredibly freeing. I’m a much better, more present mom than I used to be.
So, if you see me in the carpool line, struggling to re-do my daughter’s pigtails with mathematical precision, just know that it’s not because I’m “perfect.” It’s because I’m trying.
If you are struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information. For more stories about our many paths to, through, or away from parenthood, head over to Mothership.
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