All I could do was stare as the 23rd parent-teacher-organization-related email of the day appeared in my inbox. I had become so bitter that I actually began counting the emails each day. This email was from her again—the new-to-town PTO mom who was full of you-can-do-it-better-if-only and I–am–so–disappointed–in–the–PTO emails. As president of the PTO, I was expected to respond politely and perform damage control. It was 8 p.m., and my three kids still needed dinner, showers and homework help. I could put off responding to her email, but that would just leave me stressed out about it for the remainder of the evening. I wanted to throw my computer against the wall and say “F*ck the PTO!” and “F*ck this crazy mom from California.” I was done with being the president of this organization—I had nothing left to give.
The next day, I stood frozen in aisle 10 of the grocery store. My nerves were shaky and I was overcome with guilt as I stared at the many beers, wine coolers and flavored alcoholic beverages. I recognized that feeling in my mind and body. It had been a long time, but there it was: a craving—a deep, dangerous craving to consume alcohol. I entertained that first drink in my thoughts—the taste, the burn, the immediate release of tension. I entertained the idea of where I knew it would lead, too: the 15th drink, the inebriation, the loss of control, the escape. I wanted it all, but mostly I wanted the numbness. A small part of me wanted me to be the victim again, too. I wanted people to look at me with pity and say “Poor Suzanne! We should’ve known she was doing too much and we should’ve helped her.” I wanted to put myself in a position that would require others to clean up my mess. After four years of sobriety, I was scared.
I could no longer deny that I was slipping. The emails were constant. I was quickly reading and responding from my desk at work, hoping my boss wouldn’t catch me. My strict bedtime routine was suddenly non-existent, and I was staying up until midnight, making sure that I crossed everything off my to-do list. AA meetings? I stopped going altogether. My kids got used to being shushed, yelled at and locked out of my bedroom while I typed away at the weekly newsletter and made spreadsheets for the after-school karate program.
My intentions were good when I signed up for the position. I cherished the elementary school that had educated my three children, and I wanted to give back. I had an unrealistic sense that I could be that mom—the one who has all her shit together and everyone else’s, too. I wanted to be responsible and present, and I wanted everyone to know my name and say “Oh, Suzanne? She’s great.” I wanted my kids to see me this way because, deep down inside, I knew I had been a crappy mom and this PTO gig was my attempt to make it up to them.
To my kids, I had always been a drunk. I drank for 20 years. I missed birthdays and sporting events and parent-teacher conferences. I was unreliable, unemployable and untrustworthy. I was never present and, on the occasions when I was there physically, I wasn’t there at all emotionally. My children learned that when mom said she would be there, it meant she probably wouldn’t. And when she did show up, they never knew which mom they were getting: the calm and sober mom, the fun-drunk mom or the angry-drunk mom.
But sobriety turned me into a new person: I started saying yes to everything. Volunteer as a coach for my daughter’s softball team? Sure thing! Take the kids on my ex-husband’s night? Yup, I’ll do that, too. Soccer needs a team manager? Oh, me, me, me—I’ll do it! While I knew I was in over my head with the PTO president role, every time I said yes, I felt like I could cross off some of the bad things I had done when I was drinking. I still harbored a tremendous amount of guilt and shame.
But the guilt didn’t disappear. And as the responsibilities piled up, my resentment grew.
I desperately wanted to quit. Deep down, I knew I was playing with fire as I neglected my sobriety and mental health. I felt conflicted. I worried that my kids wouldn’t love me if I didn’t finish the year as president, and I was troubled by what the other moms would think of me if I quit. I was unravelling at the seams. Each morning, I woke up in a fog with a headache and a weight on my heart and shoulders that slowed down my spirit, my body and my mind.
Staring at the alcoholic drinks in the grocery store that day, I knew I had hit a breaking point, but I didn’t buy a drink. I sat in my car in the driveway for what felt like hours. I forced myself to remember how far I had come in the past four years. I called my sponsor. I talked to God and asked Him to give me the strength and courage to do the right thing. I cried.
When I got home, I went straight to my computer. I started writing out my resignations in brief and non-negotiable emails—first to the PTO, then to soccer and softball. I didn’t flinch or second-guess myself. As soon as I hit Send, I exhaled. My body felt lighter. I knew it was over.
Today, I try to turn the focus from the mom I never will be to the mom I am. I keep a gratitude list to remind me of all the beauty, both big and small, that surrounds me. AA meetings are a non-negotiable staple of my sober life. I focus on finding balance over impressing people. Most of all, I stop trying to make up for past parenting failures by doing and giving more. Instead, I focus on being fully present with my children.
*this article originally appeared in the Canadian magazine Today's Parent.