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Hi Laura,

Your work has given me a lot over the past couple of years and pushed me to really examine my life, my choices, and ultimately my decision not to drink. Not drinking has helped me put my life back on course, made me a better mom, and a better human in general.

I watched my life slowly deteriorate over the course of a few years and alcohol played a role in that. It took my focus off my daughters and onto myself. I made terrible choices.

How do you ever get over the shame? Even with two years in therapy, I feel like I sit in a shame cave that I can’t get out of. You mention that you made poor choices that hurt yourself and others when you were drinking and you also say you have gratitude for all of your days because they led you to where you are now.

How did you reframe your mindset to love yourself?

Thank you.

In The Cave

+++

Dear ITC,

A few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, I had a bunch of friends over to watch the Patriots game. As usual, the adults clustered around the TV and the kitchen and the food while the kids made up games and rode bikes and scooters around the neighborhood. My daughter and two of the other girls made an elaborate fort in her closet. No adults were allowed in her room for a good hour or more.

The next day when I picked her up from school she hopped into the car and, smiling, said she and the girls knew “the real reason I left her in the hotel room”. She was referring to the night of my brother’s wedding back in 2013, when she was four-years-old. The night that formally started me on the sobriety path (but was not the end of my drinking). I’ve talked about that night vaguely on HOME podcast and in various interviews and writings. It also happens to be how I open up my book. The first sentence of the introduction (*spoiler alert*) says, “On July 13, the night of my brother’s wedding, I left my four-year-old daughter alone in a hotel room overnight because I was blackout drunk.”

This is something that, over the years since the night it happened, Alma and I have discussed. I’ve never told her the specific reason why because, despite her sitting in countless AA meetings with me in the earlier years, overhearing me record podcasts on days when she was home sick from school, being present to many phone and FaceTime conversations with friends, and generally being an open and often loud book about sobriety and my feelings about alcohol, she’s always seemed too young for that detail.

I pulled the car over. “Wait, what? When?

“We read the introduction to your book last night! When everyone was over. When we were in the fort.”

Right.

I had an advanced copy of my book laying around the house. We’d been talking about the damn thing forever. The kids had weighed in on cover designs. And there it was, finally! A thing in the world! When the copy had arrived the week before, Alma and I had squealed and I took photos of her with it. HELLO. Of course they were going to be curious about it.

Still, I was…stunned? Because I hadn’t been there to provide more context. And all these years Alma had known that I left her, obviously, but she thought it was because I was being a dumb-dumb mom and wasn’t thinking and went down to breakfast early (or something like that, I had kept it vague, but made sure to tell her it was the worst decision I’d ever made and that I was so, so sorry and that I would never do it again).

I’m telling you this because in that moment I had a flash of old shame, but also, this is an actual thing that happened. I left my daughter in a fucking hotel room. Alone. All night. And while it’s the most punctuated example I have of what you called “poor choices”, it’s not the only one. There are hundreds—maybe thousands—of moments where I chose alcohol over Alma and each of them were like tiny cuts in the fabric of my mother heart. By the end of my drinking it was a shredded thing.

But this is what I know now: they weren’t choices. I wasn’t choosing to drink and I hadn’t been for some time. I was addicted. Addiction was choosing.

Despite the acidic horror of that morning after the wedding there was a tiny thread of pure, golden insight that arrived in my consciousness—something I had never been able to grasp before—and it was this:

This thing had me.

Leaving her was so obviously NOT a choice because in my right mind I would never, ever leave my daughter unattended in a hotel room overnight. Ever.

I knew how much I loved Alma. I loved her as much as you love your girls, as much as any mother loves their babies. And yet, I wasn’t choosing her. I drank through bedtime stories and I drank through bath time and I drank through birthday parties and play dates and I gave her to family or friends so I could go out and I often wished her to go to bed or to go away or to be less needy all the time so I could just get back to my wine glass.

I couldn’t choose her. I was not in charge anymore. I was very, very sick. I didn’t see this before because denial is a real thing. I still thought I was “managing" my drinking, or that I could if I wanted to. At the very least I thought that despite all the horrific shit that had happened as a result of my drinking I still had enough grasp on things to protect her. Nothing like that could happen.

And then, it did.

A few months later in an AA meeting, an older woman who had many years of sobriety told a story about leaving her kids unattended, just like I had. She talked about how at the time she was aghast, beside herself, just mired in so much self-hatred and also confused. Because like me, like you, she loved her kids.

So, why? How?

What another woman said to her then has stayed with me since. “Addiction is stronger than love. Until it isn’t.”

You don’t need a horrible hotel story to qualify for this.

You don’t need to pass the 12 question “Am I an Alcoholic?” quiz. You don’t have to label yourself an addict or an alcoholic (please don’t) or to have drank a certain amount for a certain number of years or any of that. You don’t have to ever have blacked out or wrecked your car or been drunk in front of your kids or even to have been too hungover to make them breakfast one morning to qualify. You just need to have that singular, nagging suspicion that alcohol has robbed you of a presence you would otherwise have without it. It’s a small turning away from them and toward the numbing, a fraction of a moment, and goddamnit we know it when we do it, but we have made it so easy to tell ourselves otherwise. Drinking, especially as a mom these days, is heavily supported and even expected. As Kelly Clarkson said in front of millions on live TV, “Wine is necessary when raising kids!” to which all the moms in the land whooped a collective “A-men!”.

At some point, yes, I chose to drink. Obviously. But at some other elusive point, the choice was no longer there. I was physically addicted (which doesn’t take much, by the way, it’s an addictive drug—one that we put in pretty bottles with juices and sugars and yeasts and call it fun and joyous and okay in moderation—but nonetheless, a drug just like tobacco and cocaine and heroin) and owned by my anxiety and my shame. I just didn’t stand a shot anymore.

I’m not abdicating responsibility or suggesting you do either. Quite the opposite. I take responsibility for everything. This also means I don’t shoulder the blame for what wasn’t my fault like a ten-ton backpack and I don’t pin myself to the cross endlessly and I don’t have any illusions about my deeply, beautifully flawed humanity which means, by design, I will make mistakes. Sometimes big ones. I know that who I am is not the worst—or the best!—things I have ever done. If there is any “mindset” shift, it is that.

Who you are while in extraordinary pain, while being driven by addiction, while drinking, is not who you are.

Addiction is a human condition. Period. Some of us go further down the line than others, some of us get snagged by alcohol or drugs whereas for others it’s food or work or power or the need to be fucking right all the time, but make no mistake: we have all been driven by needs and desires we don’t understand to do things we cannot comprehend and in doing so, harmed the people we are supposed to love and protect.

“We are not mad. We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.

— Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen said, “We are not mad. We are human. We want to love, and someone must forgive us for the paths we take to love, for the paths are many and dark, and we are ardent and cruel in our journey.”

I would tweak his brilliant words just slightly to say, "We want love” instead of “We want to love”, because that is what we are always after. You. Me. All of us. Everyone. (Except for the truly psychopathic and even then, you can still make the case.)

We are driven by this subconscious need for love and to heal the places where we are wounded and as much as we think we understand why we do what we do, we really don’t. We just don’t.

Brene Brown said, “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

Look at your life and see where you might be stuck in those places. I can’t tell you how many women come to me saying they’re still enveloped in shame, like you. Especially the moms. And I always ask whether people in their life know that they are sober. Typically, the answer is no. I ask them why—why do they keep that part of their lives hidden? Sometimes it’s just because they are private people, but more often it’s because they are ashamed of what being sober means. Then I ask them if they’re ashamed of me. If they find me and my story embarrassing and gross and ugly. They always emphatically say, No. No way, not at all. Then why, I ask, do you feel that way about yourself?

“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment.

— Brene Brown

We tend to think other people are different than we are. If I laid out our experiences side by side and could prove they are the same, you would still think, No, I am the actual worst. While you could see the humanity and redemption and glory in my story, you’d still see yours as proof of what a piece of shit you are. And yet, they are the exact same stories. Even if the details are different.

So examine this: Where are you hiding in secrecy? Where are you silent? Where are you judging yourself? Where can you open the door on these things just little bit more, and then a little more, until you are free? You don’t have to tell the world; it can start with one close friend, or a partner, or someone you work with. I am pretty sure one of the main reasons I don’t feel shame anymore is because have written and talked about my story so much over the years. There are no dark corners, no stones unturned. No secrecy, no silence. This freedom is possible for you too.

Also: time.

Just give it time.

I can write all these words and you might intellectually understand them, but you also need practical distance from the painful times: hours that turn into days and eventually years. And in that time you will get the magical healing of grace, which can’t be manufactured by any number of therapy sessions or yoga classes or spiritual books. It will just show up one day, as internal and sure as your heart pumping blood around your body, as thoughtless as your lungs breathing air.

You mentioned that I said I am grateful for all my days because they brought me here and while that’s basically true, it’s not quite so simple or meme-like as that. When the waves of shame crashed over me in the early days and years, I would take all that hot, burning energy, pause right in the center of it, take a deep breath and remind myself—with all the wisdom and knowing that would accompany these words if I said them to Alma, “We don’t live there anymore, Laura. You don’t live there anymore.

This is what’s true, cave mama: You do not live there anymore.

You are not drinking anymore and you are not choosing alcohol over your daughters and you are working so damn hard every day to heal yourself so that you don’t inflict that same pain on you or them. Do you even know how incredibly courageous that is? Do you know how many people will never do that? You could probably trace a line through the history of your ancestry back dozens of generations and you would see the same pain repeated over and over again. You are breaking that. You have broken that.

So the reason I am grateful is because I can speak directly to someone like you and say these things. I can know they are true and I can hold that truth up for you until you see it too. Then you can do the same thing, if you choose. You can do it for your daughters and for the other people in your life and for strangers you don’t even know.

You wouldn’t be able to do it without all the mistakes.

Only the ones who really see the dark can talk about the dark; only the ones who have crawled out of it can show other people how to do the same. That is why I am grateful. Nobody I’ve ever respected or admired or found interesting has had a squeaky clean past. I love the broken ones most.

Another thought: What’s all the shame keeping you from doing or being?

It serves a purpose, you know. Because shame lets you stay small and victimized and incapable of moving forward. It doesn’t sound like those things are things we would choose for ourselves, but ohhhh, they are. Shame is a prison we know instead of the vast, open-ended, infinite possibility of what we don’t. And it’s not just the shame of your drinking days; I’m guessing shame is a very old story for you.

I know for me there was a point where I thought, If I don’t have all my problems, well—THEN WHAT? If I can’t use all my mistakes and the drama I’ve created as proof of what a piece of shit I am, then I guess I would have to, like, fly?!? It’s a harder choice than one would think.

I wouldn’t say any of this was a decision I made to “love myself”, not really. It was more like I saw myself more clearly. There’s something very freeing about all of your worst nightmares happening, you know? Of finding out that you have the capacity for all the light and all the dark. Because once you get that you enter a whole new realm. You understand that the game we are playing is entirely different than the one most of us believe we are playing. It’s the story of the prodigal son and the reason I have the words, “You are always with me and everything I have is yours” (Luke 15:31) tattooed on my ribs. Because it was never, is never, about how good we can be. Love is ours no matter what. I would recommend listening to this episode of Rob Bell’s podcast to understand the deeper explanation of the story, but what I get from it is this. God says, “Wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, it doesn’t matter. I love you.”

Read that again.

That’s the message I tucked into my heart. The loving myself part came later and I’m still not sure any of us really knows what that means, to be honest.

When we got back home that day, I sat down with Alma.

I asked her if she had any questions for me about what she read. She said she didn’t. I asked her if she understood what happened. She said she understood that I wasn’t myself because I was drinking. Then she said, “But I know you don’t do that anymore, mom! Can I go now?” and then she squirmed to get on with whatever thing she wanted to do—probably watch a show. I wanted to say more. I wanted to tell her everything. I want to make it all okay and right and to erase all the bad and to fix it forever. But I can’t do that—I will never be able to do that.

I told her that if she has any questions she can ask me, to which she nodded, Okayokayokay, can I go now? But a few days later she asked some questions. I never know how to answer them right, but I try. I don’t know how to do this parenting thing any better than any of us, but I do know this: she will never be left in a hotel room by me again. She has never, in the past five years, had to wonder where I am or whether I will wake up. She doesn’t hear me talk funny and she doesn’t have to be afraid in ways she cannot understand and she gets to say how boring I am and I get to know that she secretly loves my boringness because it means she’s safe. I mess up with her. Of course I do. But it’s honest. It’s not a result of being drunk or hungover. Addiction isn’t running the show, I am.

Addiction isn’t stronger than love anymore. Not in my house.

You can crawl out of the cave. It’s not a mindset change; it is so much bigger than that. It is stepping back into what has always and already been yours. It is a return. It is a painful but intelligent design: in order to return home, we must first get lost.

You got lost. Now come back. The invitation is open.

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