By Nancy Ramsey, REDBOOK
Moms can't stop joking these days, "Time for a drink yet?" But the laughing stops for women who find themselves spiraling into addiction. Read this raw, riveting wake-up call from mom bloggers who took to their keyboards to get themselves-and each other-sober.
It's 10 p.m., and I come out of a grey-out. I'm yelling at my husband about something-what?-I can't remember. He looks at me with hurt and disgust and heads upstairs to bed. I'm crying, but I don't know why. I turn on some sad music, flop on the couch and sob. Nobody understands me. I'm unlovable. I need a drink. I tiptoe to the bathroom and rummage around under the folded towels until I find the hidden water bottle. It's empty. I begin to panic. I can't be out. I'll never make it. And then I remember another stash in the back of the coat closet.
This is how Ellie Schoenberger, 42, recalls her life of drinking on One Crafty Mother, a jewelry-making blog that became an alcoholic's recovery journal. There she was, a graduate of Dartmouth, married, with two beautiful children and a high-paying job that allowed her to work from home. And yet, day after day, she risked it all for another glass of wine, and another, and another. It's commonplace for moms to wisecrack online about imbibing to stay sane when they're home with their children. The Facebook page "OMG I need a glass of wine or I'm gonna sell my kids" is liked by 112,500 people. We at REDBOOK indulge in this kind of humor too: Our Mommy Mixologist pokes fun at the pressures of parenting with-what else?-a cocktail recipe. But not everybody's laughing. Recent statistics show that more and more moms are drinking wine like apple juice: An estimated 5.3 million women in the United States have risky drinking habits, and it's estimated that one in four U.S. children has an alcoholic parent.
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Ellie, who lives in a Massachusetts suburb, was one of the first female bloggers to admit that she wasn't just a fun, pro-cocktail mom but, rather, a full-on alcoholic. She started writing honestly about her addiction in 2008, and watched something unexpected happen: Inspired by her openness, some of Ellie's readers revealed their struggles with alcohol on their own blogs; other women read those posts and did the same. She set off a chain reaction of women pulling each other out of addiction and into sobriety, all online. You're about to meet three of them, as well as Deb, a blogger still coming to terms with her daily craving for alcohol and her inability to stop at one glass. Can this powerful online sisterhood help her sort it out?
By the time Ellie sought help, she was downing 8 to 10 drinks a day and hiding bottles all over the house to keep a constant buzz. Without it, she'd start to show the effects of withdrawal in a few hours. "They say alcoholics can get off the 'down' elevator any time," she says. "I took mine to the sub-basement."
Ellie and alcohol were an unhealthy match from the start. She had her first drink at 12 years old, and recalls how her feelings of shyness and anxiety faded with each sip. At college, she drank three nights a week-"normal college drinking," she calls it-but she didn't slow down when she graduated. "I wanted to go out and have fun," she says. "I'd be the last one of my friends home." By her late 20s, Ellie had moments when she worried about her drinking. When she read Carolyn Knapp's bleak 1996 memoir Drinking: A Love Story, she saw bits of herself, and it scared her. And early in her marriage, when she'd pour a third glass of wine, her husband, Steve, would often say, "Really, Ellie? Why do you feel you need to do that?"
She didn't feel the need during her first pregnancy, in 2002. Thrilled with her baby bump, Ellie was newly secure in her identity and happily gave up drinking. "I loved being pregnant," she says. "I was growing a baby inside of me, and I felt whole." After her daughter was born, she quit her job as a high-powered corporate headhunter. It was a screeching halt she wasn't emotionally prepared for. "I thought that staying home was what good moms did, and with my husband's job as an insurance broker, we could afford it," she says. "As soon as I made that choice, though, I went into a depression. I had a lot of anxiety about being a mother. I'd think: Am I doing this right?"
Stuck at home with a new baby, Ellie decided that a glass of wine at 4 in the afternoon wasn't a bad idea. What else did she have to do? But 4 o'clock soon turned into 3 o'clock, which turned into 2. "Very, very quickly, alcohol became my crutch," she says. "Motherhood was like pouring gasoline on the fire."
Ellie didn't drink during her second pregnancy, but she resumed two months after her son was born. Before long, she was filling white wine bottles with water in the back of the refrigerator so no one would notice how much was gone, and hiding half-full bottles in the hamper and the washing machine so that she could sneak sips when nobody was watching.
Craving structure, she went back to her job as a headhunter, this time working from home. Her husband would whisk their kids, then 4 and 1, to day care on his way to the office so Ellie could start her workday. But instead, she'd wait for his car to disappear from the driveway and head to the liquor store at 9 a.m.
"I'd get a jug of wine and sip it all day," Ellie says. "If I had a tough call for work, I'd take a few sips. To trick myself out of what I was doing, I'd pour the wine into a coffee cup or drink it out of a water bottle." In the afternoon, she'd tell her husband that she was busy so he'd pick the kids up from school and day care-but she knew, and he suspected, that she was simply too drunk to drive. (Eventually, he took her keys and money away before leaving the house in the morning.) "He knew I had a problem, and I was telling him it would stop," Ellie recalls. "He tried to fix it on his own. Nobody wants to admit he has an alcoholic wife."
The cat-and-mouse game continued for several months. Then, at her husband's urging, Ellie said she would give up drinking and go to recovery meetings-though it was mostly to get him off her back. She did attend some, but the outings also provided good cover for going to the liquor store. Next she attended an outpatient rehab program, but drank right through it.
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Things got even worse. After the kids went to sleep, Ellie would keep sipping until about 9 o'clock, then she'd go to bed too. Conking out was easy enough, but she'd often wake up in the middle of the night, shaking and sweating from just a few hours of withdrawal. So she would sneak out of bed, tiptoe downstairs, and knock back more wine. Just like that, the sick feeling would go away and she'd fall back asleep.
"I had crossed that invisible line from emotional addiction into physical," she says about the last nine months of her drinking. Steve eventually staged an intervention with Ellie's parents and sister, and the group convinced her to enroll in a 10-day inpatient stay at a nearby rehabilitation center. The very day she got home, Steve left the house for two hours and came back to find Ellie passed out on the couch, about 10 airline-size bottles of liquor scattered around her. "That's when he said, 'I'm done. I love you, but not unconditionally. I don't care what you do with your life, but you can't be part of mine and the kids' if you're going to keep drinking.'"
That afternoon, alone in her room back at the rehab center, Ellie thought, I'm not good for my children, I'm not good for my husband. I don't care if I live or die.
But she made it through a 30-day program, and once sober, her outlook slowly changed. "The first six months were white-knuckling, skin-of-your-teeth surviving, because I couldn't not be in my kitchen or not be with my children. I was trying to get sober surrounded by the things I had been using alcohol to numb myself from," she says. "I honestly don't know what kept me from drinking, but I think it was pride. I didn't want to be the woman who lost her kids."
Twelve-step meetings helped, and so did another outlet: blogging. "I started One Crafty Mother almost a year after I got sober," Ellie says. By then she was no longer working; her rehab counselor had told her that she needed to simplify her life and concentrate on recovery. So she took up jewelry making and blogged about it, at least at first: "I thought I was going to write about my jewelry business, but instead it turned into a place for me to talk about drinking." Within weeks, it was all about recovery, so eventually she began a new blog, Crying Out Now, where she and readers could share their stories. In her first post, Ellie wrote: Addiction, at the risk of sounding cliché, was like spending many years inside a dark movie theater, watching my life play out on the screen. There, but not there… always one step removed from what was going on.
Four years later, she has a total of 16,000 readers per month, and, she says, "On an average week, between 10 and 20 people will write, 'I see myself in your story. I haven't told anyone this before. What can I do?'"
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Helping others helps Ellie stay sober. "When you're no longer being congratulated for not drinking, hearing other people's stories, whether at a recovery meeting or on a blog post, keeps the horrors of alcoholism fresh," she says. Ellie's heard it all-the story of a woman sober for a dozen years having a glass of champagne at a wedding, another licking her finger when cooking with wine, only to come stumbling into a meeting six months later, having lost everything.
One woman reading Ellie's posts was Heather King, a mother of three, ages 6, 4, and 4 months, and author of the popular blog The Extraordinary Ordinary, known for its candid mom stories. Like Ellie, Heather went into depression after giving birth to her first child, at 30. She thought alcohol was helping her cope, but "I didn't have an off switch," she says.
"I had quite a commute from work, often leaving me with just an hour to spend with my son before he went to bed. But I'd still go 15 minutes out of my way to pick up a bottle of wine," she says. Heather would tell herself that it wasn't a big deal, that her son wouldn't even remember. "The wine was my treat to myself."
Though Heather was already an established blogger when her drinking spun out of control, she never posted about it. She did, however, take comfort in reading other mom bloggers who drank, and followed Ellie's blog, without commenting, for months. "It was inspiring. I felt a kindred-spirit connection," she says. "The way she described the obsession to drink, and how the days of motherhood can be so busy but so boring-it was exactly how I was feeling. It helped me come to terms with being an alcoholic."
She particularly remembers this excerpt from Ellie's blog, from November 29, 2009: See that glass in your hand? The deep red swirl of wine? You think it makes the fear, the insecurity, the weariness all better, don't you? You feel it masks the anxiety, the self-doubt, the boredom. Know this: it masks the love, the joy and the laughter, too. You are trying to erase yourself from the picture, a little at a time, because you don't believe you're good enough.
"I can't say there's no way I'd be sober without bloggers like Ellie, but they were huge stepping stones," says Heather. "It took me a long time to believe I could quit. I thought, Well, they're stronger than me. But I read their blogs and I knew I wasn't alone. It planted the seed that maybe I could quit too."
By the time these thoughts were stirring in her, Heather was drinking a bottle of wine a night. "My second baby was colicky. I was going through the torture of never sleeping, and my husband was out of town a lot," she says. "I'd call him crying and scream, 'I can't do this anymore.'" When her boys were 4 and 2, she started drinking boxed wine so her husband, who worked as an appraiser, wouldn't see the empty bottles stacked up when he returned home from his business trips.
Heather kept reading Ellie's blog as she and her family moved from Minneapolis to the small rural town in Minnesota where she'd grown up. She thought that would be a good time to quit: A fresh start would help her control the drinking. Instead, she added hard liquor to her half box of wine each evening.
One night, around 10 p.m., she went outside to let her dog in. She recalls that it was difficult to get the chain off the dog's collar. It was icy, and she stumbled and took awhile to get up. At the time she was too drunk to really notice, but later she woke up in the middle of the night and pictured herself on all fours in the snow. She thought, Do I really want to be this person?
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Heather decided to post her own confession. It read: I didn't drink all day, every day. I bathed my kids and made them meals and built things out of Legos. But I did it all while wanting to drink, and then 5 p.m.! Sneaky stolen glasses while my loves weren't looking, but they knew because they always know…. She's not really with us…. If I say it here, in the very space that I've used to…keep me afloat…. If I say it here, well then, I've said it and I can't turn back. I am quitting. I don't have any idea how, but I'm about to find out.
Soon after, another mom blogger, best-selling author and recovering alcoholic Stefanie Wilder-Taylor, tweeted the link. Stefanie asked her readers to "send some love" Heather's way. The post spread like wildfire through blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Not knowing that Heather was a reader of One Crafty Mother, Ellie saw the post and decided to write her newly sober sister a note. "I responded, and we just clicked," says Heather. "First it was really long emails. Then we talked on the phone. Not long after my six-month mark, Ellie and I spent six days together in New York City at the BlogHer conference. That changed me. I realized I could have a good time without drinking."
Heather's confession launched a new friendship, but it rocked an older one. Corinne Cunningham, a 29-year-old mother of two and the author of the blog Trains, Tutus and Teatimes, had spent more than a year talking with Heather online, and they'd become close. So close that Corinne thought nothing about emailing Heather one morning to ask whether or not 10 a.m. was too early for a glass of wine. Minutes later, she received a reply from Heather, saying, "I don't want you to feel bad, but I'm coming out on my blog today as an alcoholic." Corinne stood in stunned silence in her kitchen, her laptop resting on the island countertop. "I didn't know if I should say, 'This is me, too,'" she says. "I didn't want to make it about me. The kids were at my feet asking me for snacks, for milk, for another TV show." She did all she could to keep from crying so that her son wouldn't know anything was wrong.
Corinne had struggled with addiction for 11 years, ever since her first drop of alcohol as a teenager. In the two years before she quit, "I could do two bottles of wine a night," she says. "I also liked margaritas and cosmos."
After reading Heather's blog post, Corinne, who lives outside Boston, found herself in a liquor store. "That was my turning point," she says. "I knew where things were going, and it wasn't going to be pretty. It was a farewell party for my relationship with alcohol." She bought a bottle of tequila and drank the entire thing over the next two days. Then, on a Monday night, she emailed her husband to say, "Your wife has a drinking problem." (It was too hard for her to use the word "I" in that moment, although she admits, "I was also drunk.") He stayed home from work the next day, Corinne says, but he still didn't understand the magnitude of her problem. "He asked me if I wanted to take a break from drinking, or cut back," she says. But after reading Heather's account, Corinne knew better. She wanted to-had to-quit.
She went to a recovery meeting by herself the next night. "I had to do it quickly or else I wouldn't do it at all," she says. "It was cold; I hurried inside. It was a church, and the meeting was all women, and it felt safe. I cried the whole time."
Afterward, Corinne went home, poured a cup of tea, and told her husband that everything was going to be okay. They decided to tell their families, because Corinne, like Ellie and Heather, wanted to blog about her recovery. Her husband was supportive. "He said that by writing about it, I might help someone else."
Corinne and Heather continue to post about their recovery, and swarms of moms follow them. One of these women is Deb Williams, 42, author of the blog San Diego Momma. Deb doesn't categorize herself as an alcoholic, but she admits that her drinking has gotten a bit out of control-even when she's at home caring for her two kids, ages 7 and 5. Initially, she read Heather's blog for the same reason so many others did: She gobbled up all the funny comments about motherhood. But then she saw Heather's "coming out" post, and was surprised by how much she related.
"Heather experienced drinking in the same way I do now," says Deb, who works from home all day, picks the kids up from school, and averages three glasses of wine, five nights a week. "Every description I read, I thought, This is me. How it would start with one glass and not end there, how she'd run water in the kitchen so her husband wouldn't hear the glug-glug-glug when she poured more wine, how she'd lean on the door frame for balance if her husband asked her a question when she was walking through the room."
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Deb says her drinking increased from a couple of drinks on the weekend to 15 glasses a week about two years ago, but she still isn't convinced she's an alcoholic. "I'll probably get crucified for saying this, but in the interest of being completely honest, I'm stressed out, I'm running around trying to get everything done, and thinking about what needs to be done for tomorrow. I'm using alcohol to stop the hamster wheel in my head. And at the end of the day, the kids are being kids. It's loud, they're yelling. I'm yearning for my day to wind down, and it doesn't. My coping mechanism is to pour a glass of wine."
She got the chance to ask Ellie and Heather how they knew they had a drinking problem when she shared a hotel room with Ellie at a blogging conference last October. By then, Ellie was three years sober and Heather had been blogging about her recovery for months. "They listened to me without judgment," says Deb. "They shared their experiences and said they would be there if I needed anything." When Deb mentioned that she had started to wonder if she was drinking too much, Ellie said, simply: "If you have to ask yourself, you probably are."
For now, Deb continues to drink, mostly, she says, because it hasn't had a serious impact on her life. She still works and gets her kids to school (she doesn't drink until they're home). "I am completely high-functioning," she says. Though she admits that if she stayed sober at night, she could use that time to work out, write the book she's three quarters of the way through, or, of course, connect with her husband and kids, Deb has a hard time imagining her life without alcohol. She says it helps her relax and have fun with her friends, who are also drinkers. "That's my circle," she says. "They sit outside while the kids play in the cul de sac, drinking wine, sometimes by 4 p.m."
She takes a breath. "And I'm right there with them."
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