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My Son Is A Blessing, But He Doesn’t Keep Me Sober

The first time I got pregnant, it was 2004 and I was almost 21. I was deep in my active addiction, in love with someone who saw what a trainwreck I was and kept me at arm’s length, and on the verge of failing out of school. This was the semester that my Russian professor suggested that I quit drinking—and when a Russian tells you that you’ve got a drinking problem, that should be a sign to take notice. I showed up to class drunk, stinking of cigarette smoke. I ate once every couple of days, huge meals that I attacked with the ferocity of a shark. When I missed my period, I chalked it up to stress. What else could it be?

My “diagnosis of pregnancy” at 11 weeks.

A Miscarriage, Not A Missed Opportunity

A few weeks later, halfway through brushing my teeth, I vomited. It was morning, so of course I was hungover. I rinsed the bile out of my mouth and spat in the sink. I felt queasy, but that was normal. I would just shake it off, like all my other hangovers. Again, I didn’t connect the two things—a missed period, morning sickness. I hardly had time to think about my body. I was busy trying to navigate a lab science class, the syllabus for my literature course, and a failing relationship. I was in the library for six hours a day, minimum. Pregnancy was the last thing on my mind.

I didn’t notice the missed period until eight weeks in. Flipping the calendar page in my planner, I saw that my usual line of red X’s was missing. Had I forgotten to mark it? The previous eight weeks had been nothing but hangovers, for me. I drank myself into a blackout almost every night, woke up reeling and sick. Regular painkillers didn’t work on me, but prescription opiates did—I had swallowed them, too. I felt fear grip my stomach. Was I pregnant?

I was too busy, and too hungover, to think about it. I would pick up a pregnancy test on the way home, or go to Planned Parenthood. Then I would know for sure.

On my bike ride to campus, I thought about the man I was in love with. We had dated for about a year, talked about getting married. We’d picked out baby names that were half jokes and half serious. I imagined telling him the news: I’m pregnant. I’m going to have your baby. I could already see the look on his face. I knew it wouldn’t be happy news, and it wasn’t hard to imagine his deep unhappiness. He loved me, sure, but I was a mess and we were both kids. How would we raise a baby? Or, if I had an abortion, how would our relationship weather that decision?

It turns out that I didn’t have to do anything. Instead of a trip to the clinic, or a dose of RU-486, I woke up to terrible cramps. I was bleeding. The pain was so intense that I couldn’t walk. My miscarriage was painful and frightening—but it was certainly better than the alternatives. That same night, as soon as the Vicodin I’d taken started to dull my pain, I drank until I couldn’t see. My lover put me to bed, and I woke up alone, with all my clothes on. I’d be a terrible mother, I thought. A month later, my period was back and my relationship was gone. It took me a decade to tell him that I’d been pregnant with his child.

First Sobriety and Second Chances

Three years later, I was pregnant again. I was newly married and freshly sober and absolutely terrified. This time, I knew enough about active addiction to worry. If I relapsed, I knew that I put the health of my pregnancy at risk. I saw the consequences of drinking while pregnant up close: that year, I’d worked with adults who had severe disabilities due to Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I knew that if I drank, I was playing roulette.

There’s a baby in there!

One thing I am exceedingly grateful for is the moment of clarity I experienced the day an at-home test confirmed my pregnancy. I don’t have to have this baby, I remember thinking. But for me, it wasn’t a choice between my addiction and the clump of cells that would one day become my son. I knew myself well enough to know that no power on God’s green earth—not even a pregnancy, not an army of adorable babies—would stop me from picking up a drink when I felt the desire to use. I didn’t delude myself. I didn’t think, I can get sober for my baby, because I knew in my heart that was a lie.

When I gave birth to my son, it was without the aid of any interventions or pain relief. I was terrified of relapsing, even then—afraid that the drugs my midwife offered me would lead me back to the person I was before I got sober. My son, lying on my chest for the first time, felt like the best gift I’d ever received. I loved him immediately. Being sober and present for that moment was a miracle. What I felt wasn’t just love—it was grace.

Later, in AA, I met women who’d shot dope and drank all through their pregnancies. I knew how lucky I was to be waking up every two hours, sober, and breastfeeding my kid instead of feeding my habit. It wasn’t easy. Yet I stuck with it, because I knew what the alternative looked like: daily blackouts, humiliation, hangovers, shame, and the sickening fear that my husband would catch me drinking. That’s what kept me sober. Not my son, but my instinctive fear of relapse. I knew that, if I drank, I would ruin my life again. And he deserved a better mother than the person I was when I was using.

My sobriety is freedom for both of us.

This, my son will turn 9. He’s never seen me loaded. The mother that I am today is loving, messy, silly, and most of all, present. My hope is that he never knows me as anything other than sober. It is a gift that I can give him, and myself, every day. When the opportunity to drink or use comes up—and it has, in the last decade—it’s not his face that I think of, but my own. I’m sober for myself, because my life is worth it. I’m sober so that I can be a good mother, and the way I care for my son is one of the great gifts of my recovery. If I felt like I “had to” stay sober for my kid, or made myself into a martyr, or pretended that sobriety somehow made me a candidate for the World’s Best Mom award, I wouldn’t be able to keep from drinking.

I love being sober because it means my son can trust me to be his mom every day, no matter what. I get to be here for him, because I’m finally able to be myself.

My recovery benefits both of us, without question—but it works because I’m doing it for me.