In the beginning, I didn’t want anybody to know. I walked the streets of Toronto, pushing the stroller with my son happily babbling away to himself, clueless to his mother’s invisible vice around her neck and carrying an anvil in her heart, the weight of her secret so great, some days I was surprised I could still push forward and breathe. And every morning I would wake up relieved and disappointed I was still here—relieved because I loved being a mother and disappointed I was the only mother I could give my son. 

I am ruining my child, I would frequently think if I managed to think anything coherent at all as I would step into the land of glass and light, like nightmare Christmas, summer, fall and winter, my hand somehow clutching a bottle despite having every intention—at some point in the middle of the night when I would come to—to never do this again. I lived this way for most of my son’s first year, after relapsing on alcohol. Three years later, I published a book about that experience, a memoir with a no-bullshit, unromantic title, Drunk Mom

It’s been exactly 10 years since publication and today I know that it wasn’t just alcohol that was my problem—it was the secrecy, that other insidious force in my life that back then, and over the years, has made my life hell. And it was the secrecy that also contributed to my motivation to write it—when I walked around with that invisible weight in my body, I desperately wanted to tell, I needed to find out that I wasn’t alone—there was no way this was only me, was it? 

Back then, I did what I’d always done: I searched for books because books are where all of our secrets lie. But this one was particularly elusive; it showed up here and there but it never quite reflected my experience. So I wrote my own book, first of all for me, and second of all, for my son and the people around me who didn’t get why I was doing what I was doing. 

I wrote without much reprieve and breathers, I wrote, “I prefer drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep, my child, my lover, anything,” and those words were true. I wrote, “It’s gold. It’s like little zaps of gold going through me, charging me, starting me up, When I drink, I fill with real gold and become god-like.” I wrote about my son, too, his first smile. “We are a pendulum of the sun. He smiles. Time stops. The pendulum stops: a baby just smiled for the first time ever somewhere in the world. This is why we are all here on this planet, I think to myself.” Alcohol, my god, my son, the universe. Which is stronger? 

After I got sober, I didn’t expect to drink again. But I did, more than once. More than once I partook in that maddening match of my universe versus my god. And the only antidote to this madness was not giving in to secrecy. 

We lie for different reasons. I lied because of shame and guilt and because I wrote the damned book where I told the world what I was and I didn’t want to disgrace myself and disappoint all those people who said the book helped them get sober. But I stopped going to meetings where I would feel pressure to have to reveal my relapses, and often sobered up on my own for long stretches of time but it was always lonely; everyone wants to be known and there was no one who knew me anymore. Not the strangers who read the book and my various accounts of drinking or recovery, not my loved ones who watched me closely but who were wary of my lies. Not my son whose trust I broke and to whom I lied because I didn’t want to break his trust. 

Last Sunday, I went to a random AA meeting. These days, it’s a lot easier to go to those; with access to wifi and the Everything AA” app, there’s always a zoom room somewhere where people like me can help each other get sober, day and night. Lately, I go to lots of these. The meeting I went to originated somewhere in Ohio or Colorado and there was a cheerful Lead Share, a woman with bright-red lipstick and black curls who talked about her recovery. The story of all people in recovery can be divided into “What it was like, what happened and what it’s like now,” and her story followed that formula. It was an all women’s (non-binary, trans and cis) meeting, 30 squares of faces or avatars that came together for an hour to talk about sobriety. 

The Lead Share talked about parenting her young kids and the lengths she would go to to hide her drunkenness from them, sipping “mommy’s special apple juice” and other such ridiculousness I’m familiar with. After she finished, it was as if a floodgate had opened. Every woman who clicked on the palm emoji to signal her turn, shared about being a drunk mom. The older, jovial woman with 18 years of sobriety whose grown children didn’t trust her with her grandchildren because of their own upbringing, the bawling mom who had her children taken away, the mom who spoke in almost-whisper how she hoped her daughter was still young enough not to remember, the woman who was going through postpartum and just thanked others for sharing; she needed to hear what she heard because right now only the fear of becoming a drunk mom was stopping her from giving up. 

I shared too. For the first time in years. I turned the camera on, my fake name the only lie about me that afternoon when I finally unburdened that which kept me from becoming known. I didn’t name-drop the book but I talked about the new anvil and the vice—the secrecy—and when I was done, it was as if I could finally breathe again. I felt humbled, not humiliated as I thought I’d feel—I felt humbled because everyone said, “Welcome,” and for that one afternoon I was finally known again. 

Ten years ago, I told the world I was a drunk mom, but last week, I finally unloaded the label once and for all. If I manage this time around, I only owe my sobriety to myself and to my son, and my honesty to the people in those meetings who want nothing from me and who I want nothing from but to listen to and be able to relate. I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what you’re struggling with but I hope you too can find someone or somewhere where you can feel known.

Jowita Bydlowska lives in Toronto with her son and a white chihuahua named Misiu. Her last novel, Possessed, was published in 2022.