I Loved My Baby Girl Fiercely as a New Mom—But I Couldn't Get Through the Day Without Alcohol
Change the diaper. Take a shower. Make dinner. Pour another glass.
Janelle Hanchett's new memoir, I'm Just Happy Be Here ($26, amazon.com), is an unflinchingly honest account of her decade-long struggle with addiction. In the excerpt below, Hanchett describes how she slipped into alcoholism during the first year of her daughter's life.
I soon learned as a married, stay-at-home mother that if I remained drunk about 40 percent of my waking hours, I really enjoyed it. That is not true. I did not calculate percentages. Also, I did not particularly enjoy it.
I would go to the store to “buy groceries for a nice dinner” and come back with a couple nice bottles of wine, for our nice dinner, which I would drink while I cooked. At our actual dinner I would have more wine and a cocktail or two. This made bedtime manageable, as well as motherhood as a whole. (They do not write this in the “new mom” brochure we get when they discharge us from the hospital, but perhaps they should.)
I drank for relief. I drank because from my first sip at sixteen, alcohol felt like peace, like coming home after a long and arduous journey. Anticipation of the day’s first glass was a rush of lifted spirits within me—energy, comfort, being—and by glass number two, I began to feel the way I thought I should feel all the time.
Drugs would do the same, but they required such commitment—two a.m. runs, transactions with people I didn’t know, dealers refusing to return my calls. After Ava was born, I was a drug dabbler. I was a fucking grown-up, after all, a mother. Of course I don’t want any blow.
Wait. Does somebody have it, though?
More realistically, what saved me from narcotics was that I lived on a ranch ten miles outside an excessively vanilla college town where “partying” looked like nineteen-year-olds doing keg stands, not bumps of cocaine in bathroom stalls.
And I wasn’t seeking drugs because I had alcohol, which was enough—mostly because it was reliable. You could get a bad baggie. You couldn’t get a bad handle of Grey Goose. Plus, everyone drank. I could cling to alcohol like it was my last breath of air, but as long as I hid my desperation, the world would assume I was functioning, motherly, even sophisticated. They would believe the polish of laughter and smiles, as long as I never looked too thirsty or excited, as long as I never explained that if uninterrupted drinking was on the horizon, if I knew alcohol would soon pour into the cracks of my psyche, soul, and heart, I could handle anything—even my stale days and too-young hus- band who left in the mornings, and the baby sucking my life dead and dry while making it infinitely more worth living and deep and clear.
I held on that way, by drinking, and the love. Her tiny dimpled fingers.
When Ava was about six months old, I thought I had found my own groove in the endless rhythm of motherhood, possibly even beyond White Russians and steadfast denial. I started exercising and writing again. I was researching graduate schools for a master’s in English, and found a friend my age with a baby.
But one morning while Ava napped, I sat alone in the ranch house, surrounded by toys and blankets and diapers, next to a baby monitor rumbling with gentle snores, and I opened an email from my brother. I clicked on a picture of him in a white doctor coat, grinning widely on his first day of medical school at one of the top universities in America. My eyes studied his proud, hopeful ones, the sprawling manicured lawns, the old red brick building of the hall of medicine. I thought of new school years, semesters in college—the pens (and how I always wanted fine-point blue), empty notebooks, literature on the shelves with its wild, disrupting ideas.
A beginning. He was at his beginning. I was at my end.
I retraced each line of his face and smile. Each second I looked, my heart beat faster. This man, my brother, who could make decisions and stick to them, who could not get pregnant by people he barely knew, or drink too much every fucking night. He did it. Growing up, I thought it would be me. I thought I would send that email, yet there he was, inarguably handling the world, while I sat immobile in a room I couldn't navigate. I couldn't even find its walls. I simply saw black.
If somebody had walked into that room at that very moment, I would have run upstairs when I heard the door open so they wouldn’t see me crying. If I couldn’t make it out in time, I would have swept my face with my hand and laughed about having just read something sad, but I would have disliked that lie because it would have made me seem like an overly emotional female. When others cried around me, I willed them to stop immediately because I felt compelled to say something supportive, but could only think of “Pull it together, please.” Or “Do you want a cocktail?” When sadness overtook me, I consciously pressed it into tightened fists, screams, and dramatic departures, but never tears.
There was nothing anybody could have said to fix it for me anyway, to give me a new way of looking at it, to patch up the hole in my brain or heart so I could pick myself up and carry on. I wouldn’t have even let them try. I wouldn’t have admitted how pathetic I felt sitting there, how small under the shadow of the photograph. I would have bragged. I would have said I was heading to graduate school soon. I would have squared my shoulders and acted like I had somewhere to go.
But that afternoon, in that chair, while I looked at my brother, my body shook and the tears came roaring against my will. This? It can’t be this. This can’t possibly be my life. Not now, at twenty-two. It was startling to cry like that. I could not remember having done it before. I wept in heaves until the baby cried, again, wanting to nurse, again.
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I didn’t go back to thinking I had found a groove. The days began to blur.
Am I dressed? Am I ever dressed? How long until Mac comes home? How long until I can go to grad school? How long until dinner? How long until motherhood is over, or at least until wine? If I weren’t here at two p.m. in my pajamas, I would be a lawyer, or writer, or something that mattered a little, at least. I would be young and hot. I would party. I would travel the world. I would do something. But I would not do this. I have to go. I have to get free.
And then, her sweaty head, puffy eyes, and rosy cheeks would send smiling warmth to my bones, and I’d think, I’ll never leave you, baby girl. Thank God for you.
Carry on. Change the diaper. Take a shower. Make dinner. Pour another glass.
I tried to tell Mac I was barely functioning. I tried to tell him my life was in ruins, that I was no longer me, or a person at all, and sometimes I wished I had never become a mother.
In response, he went to work.
Then he came home. We did it again and again and again.
On my twenty-third birthday, he rolled in from the slaughterhouse exhausted, reeking of goat guts, and I quickly realized he hadn’t planned anything as a celebration. I threw a spectacular tantrum before dragging us to dinner, where he nearly dozed off at the table, and my fit resumed. Under those conditions, though, he had no chance of performing adequately. He thought we were going to dinner. I thought we were fixing my life.
Excerpted from I'm Just Happy to Be Here: A Memoir of Renegade Mothering, copyright Janelle Hanchett, courtesy of Hachette Books.