Review: Drunk Mom: A Memoir, by Jowita Bydlowska

drunk-mom>>Published: April 2013

>>Finally got around to it: May 2013

Oh, in case you’re wondering: I’m not a cocaine addict.

I prefer to drink.

You found me in the middle of my story and I happened to have just found a baggie of cocaine in that bathroom.

But honestly, I prefer drinking.

I prefer drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep. My child, my lover, anything.

I love to drink. Sometimes I think: No, I am drink.

It’s like my blood. Even before I get it, I can feel it in my veins. I’m not being poetic—I can actually feel it in my veins.

It’s gold. It 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.

So I’m not a cocaine addict. I’m a drunk.

I had been a drunk for a long time. I stopped drinking for a time, and then I started again.

***

In case it wasn’t clear from the above segment, Jowita Bydlowska is an alcoholic. That’s not a dismissive statement, but a descriptive one: Drunk Mom, a memoir spanning an unclear number of months in 2009 and 2010, is her open wound to the world—a mostly-accurate account of her relapse into alcoholism following the birth of her son and after three years of sobriety.

The book is structured as a series of episodes detailing the seemingly innocuous first glass of champagne to celebrate the birth of her son, “Frankie” (names changed to protect as much innocence as possible), spiralling quickly out of control as she reverts, in terrifying fashion, to old, destructive, dishonest habits. The catch, however, is that her behaviour this time around threatens not only herself but her son as well. She recounts the times Frankie was left unchanged, covered in his own filth, because she was unconscious elsewhere; the times she’d fall asleep drunk somewhere public while out with him; the many opportunities she took while out with her son to duck into liquor stores—her time spent with child a mere mask for her actual wants and needs.

While there is a narrative through-line to the events recounted in Drunk Mom, it often feels broken and a little disjointed—which makes sense given the somewhat ungrounded nature of the author’s memories during this period of time. She is, for lack of a better phrase, the villain of her own tale, a semi-unreliable narrator who wants desperately to get it right. Her descriptive work is blunt, a collection of straight-razor cuts bleeding all over the page with little care to how messy or horrible it might look to the casual observer. She can’t be worried about something like that; her concern is getting it out in any way possible, documentary-style—harsh, often without emotion.

Reading Drunk Mom was an unexpectedly emotional journey. While I understand alcoholism to be a true addiction, a disease in some ways (though the term is sometimes rejected as it implies there is a “cure” to a facet of an individual’s personality), it was hard, given the risk to her son, not to feel at times angered or disgusted by Bydlowska’s actions and the logic workarounds and lies upon lies she managed to concoct. This is due in part to her personality, which is minimized throughout. She claims several times that she is numb, locked inside of her self. Intentional or not, this is accentuated by her writing style, which itself is sparse and staccato and without a sense of self behind the words. More often than not the book felt as if narrated by a disembodied spirit—that the only way for her to put it all on the page was to distance her self from it. Granted that’s an assumption, and in many ways the drink itself IS her personality, but there is a certain obvious amount of distance, of handling the past with rubber gloves on so as not to be re-infected by it. The result of this is a memoir that reads less like a confessional and more a begrudging recitation, unfortunately limiting the amount of sympathy I felt for her and everyone involved.

Despite all that, when the author reflects on a possible sexual assault in Montreal, or attempts to understand how it is she broke her toe, and is unable to remember such things due to the severity of her blackouts, it’s hard not to feel frightened for her safety, and for the longevity of any future sobriety achieved.

There’s a rather multi-faceted dichotomous relationship between the author, herself, and everyone in her life: she loves her family and hates them, says they’re good people and they’re not; she accepts she needs help and wants it, yet is hostile to the idea of it (even after AA has proven itself and saved her life and her relationship with her boyfriend and son, she still looks to it with a bit of open disdain, citing the pledge at the end of each meeting as “a silly ritual but it gives the illusion that we’re in this together, before we go out into the world again, outside of the twelve-step walls.” She spends half her time viewing the system that has saved her life and will continue to do so, as well as those dearest to her, as a leash tied around her neck and not the solid ground beneath her feet. Which, again, is part of the addiction and/or disease. So, as I said: dichotomous.

Drunk Mom is a case study in hitting absolute rock bottom and anteing up again, repeating the process until that moment of clarity hits and the body and mind finally decide to wash out every pent up emotion and poison trapped inside, chorusing “it’s time, get your shit together and let’s make things right again.” It’s not an easy book to want to read, and in spite of knowing things would turn out okay (because, after all, she’s around to write the tale), it was often difficult to want to follow through or show sympathy towards a character who, for much of the book, seems like she might spit on you were you to express care or concern for her wellbeing. And though I struggled throughout to know whether the author was ever trying to elicit a sympathetic response, and continue to do so even after finishing the book, I can’t deny that Bydlowska’s account of alcoholism, addiction, and borderline self-annihilation is an eye opening and in some ways necessary experience.

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