It wasn’t until after I became a mother at age 34 that I began to understand where terms like “Mommy’s little helper” and “Mommy juice” came from.
With alcoholism and addiction strong in my family line, I grew up with a deep anxiety that someday this condition might wake up inside me, too. Never able to reconcile the genetic question, for most of my life I adopted the strategy that it was better not to find out if addiction lurked like an IED in my cells, waiting to explode into abuse.
In the realm of substance abuse treatment, addiction is considered a disease, even though the science is murky on the actual genetics and many medical doctors stigmatize it as a problem of self-control. And it’s certainly not a disease in the same league as diabetes or cancer, not one that’ll garner you much sympathy should you suffer from it; it’s one thing if your chemotherapy makes you nauseated and belligerent, but not too many people will throw you a bone of sympathy for shouting and vomiting after too much to drink.
My mother was, herself, also a child of alcoholics—she was born underweight and premature to a smoking and drinking mother, and a father who drank to quell his temper, and her brother lost a battle with heroin-aggravated hepatitis at age 25. I grew up in the 70s and 80s with a colorful cast of addicts and alcoholics parading their poisons before me. Many that I’ve known suffered a daily agony of symptoms that ranged from self-loathing to suicidal ideation, to the physical tremors and depression of withdrawal, leaving trauma in their wake even if they found sobriety.
As a child, the only addiction I had was to sugar, which my health obsessed father banished, thus prone to as much secrecy and shame in my candy-bingeing as any addict. My father didn’t drink much more than the occasional beer or glass of wine, though I do recall at least one occasion in the late ’70s when he bore the glazy-eyed, jaw-grinding signs of cocaine.
I can count on one hand the number of times I was drunk before the age of 30. I didn’t like the head swimming blurred vision feeling of intoxication. Like any California teen, I smoked a little pot—but only really in my depressed 16th year when I could get my hands on it for free from my stepfather’s stash. Even then it gave me a terrifying feeling of lifting off the earth with no certainty of coming back down. Plus, already overweight, the munchies did nothing for my self-esteem.
Other than this, I tried one round of ecstasy—at a rave in college, how cliché—and while I found its effects bolstering and stimulating (not in a sexual way, mind you), I woke the next day feeling as though dust had replaced the blood in my veins like something out of The Andromeda Strain.
At a couple of parties with friends in my 20s I drank cocktails that masqueraded as desserts—White Russians and Mudslides—only to vomit myself stupid and swear off alcohol forever more.
It wasn’t until after I became a mother at age 34 that I began to understand where terms like “Mommy’s little helper” and “Mommy juice” came from—terms that also make me want to squeeze the namer really hard. Suddenly, after a day of wrangling a toddler in and out of a car seat or grocery carts and his fingers out of my bra, I came to look forward to that six ounces of red liquid in a glass several times a week. I came to look forward to it with the same fervor that I would fondly think of my coffee the next morning, and thick squares of dark chocolate. And before long, I realized that I was looking forward to my glass of wine in the morning, my eyes caressing the curve of the bottle at lunch, and as soon as I walked in the door after picking my son up from preschool.
Even though I never actually drank it until dinner time, and would never substitute any other cocktail—I’m not a fan of alcohol for alcohol’s sake—it soon occurred to me that an addiction doesn’t always have to be a nefarious act, one you do to excess or with dire consequences. Sometimes, an addiction is when you choose a substance over other means of processing or coping with your experiences.
On the other hand, there is an undeniable drive in humans to become intoxicated, for better and worse. Every culture has its natural intoxicant, ranging from Kava, to Peyote to Marijuana and more. Psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel, author ofIntoxication, argues that the urge to intoxicate is the “fourth drive” after hunger, thirst, and sex.
I know a lot of people who are highly functional in their jobs and relationships who allow themselves a regular nightcap or few and never think twice about it. Perhaps they don’t have the specter of addiction in their families; although, it often takes hitting a level of consumption that would be lethal to most of us for many to see alcohol use as a problem.
Some people only drink at parties and on the weekends, but binge when they do so. Some people have a tiny glass each day but never more. Not all consumption must happen in excess. My mother’s description of her drinking days (she’s now more than 20 years sober) was drinking to the point of blackout or illness, occasionally adding in pills as well, waking with a violent hangover, and doing it all over again in excess, despite knowing how she would feel.
Whether you want to say that the alcoholism that “runs” in my family came awake at last, or that I self-medicate life’s little annoyances, or that I, like millions of other humans, enjoy the warm sensation of a little intoxicant at the end of the day, I will never fully trust my relationship to alcohol, and that is the only thing of which I’m sure.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the writing guides Make a Scene, Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace, and Night Oracle. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, the St. Petersburg Times, San Francisco Chronicle and more.