All photos courtesy of Jowita Bydlowska
Drunk Mom is a rarity in this age of constant overshares – a work that had me questioning, "Does she want us to know this? Should I know this?" as I read it. The book chronicles its narrator and author’s 11 month-long relapse into alcohol addiction, which coincides and clashes with her first year of motherhood. Author Jowita Bydlowska is unsentimental and unflinching about this period of her life: pumping breastmilk into the sink because it’s tainted with cocaine, hiding wine in the stroller and waking up next to her son “soaked in piss and milk” after she had blacked out next to his crib or without underwear and without memory of the previous night’s events.
Her descriptions are not florid or excessive, but induce a kind of claustrophobia in the reader by virtue of their recurrence: her son in the stroller while she buys wine and light beer. Her son watching her pour sparkling wine into Sprite bottles in the bathroom at a cafe. Her son asleep in his crib besides her when she wakes up passed out on his floor.
The book as a whole is exhausting to read, unyielding in its cycle of binges and blackouts, guilt and redemptive lies. There is cheating, lying to her sister and family, a break up and the nasty, cruel words of an addict lashing out at those closest to them. Jowita the addict can get mean. She mocks members of her 12-Step programme, other mothers and her partner. But her endless attempts to hide her drinking are countered by her endless attempts to be a good mother to her son. To go a few days without booze so she can breastfeed, to eventually leave the baby with her partner to attend a rehab facility. The book is dedicated to her son, in the hopes that he can "forgive me for this transgression", and portrays the destructive solitude of addiction, but also the isolation of new motherhood and postpartum depression. At times, it's also a shockingly amusing read, sprinkled with wry, dark humour.
I met up with Jowita, now almost four years sober, on a sunny day in Toronto. She fidgeted with a coffee cup on my front porch and told me about the public’s reaction to her book, the process of writing about such a messy time in her life and the politics of sharing it.
VICE: How has it been for you since the book came out?
Jowita Bydlowska: It’s been OK. We’ve been managing it. The reaction in Canada was much more intense. The day before the book was released here, there was a profile in the Globe and Mail, and it was kind of… I didn’t expect it to be the way it was. I don’t know if it was negative, per se, but I read it and was like, “What the fuck did I just do?” I went home and we called a lot of our friends and had this spontaneous support party, which was nice. A lot of guests got pretty drunk at that party, which is kind of ironic. That weekend my face was on the front page of the Arts section looking kind of forlorn, which was a bit off-putting. The main thing for me has been to keep a distance between the book and myself, and the person I write about in the book and myself. The reason I was able to write it and talk about it and still am able to talk about it is because I did treat it as someone else’s story. I distanced myself from it. I had to.
How do you delineate between self, narrator and writer when they’re all you, or some version of you? Where did that distance come from?
I wrote it in present tense, first of all. I imagined speaking to someone directly while I wrote it. I also wanted to do this thing where I had to put myself back into the mind of an addict, so that was, I think, a form of literary device. I don’t necessarily think that way any more, but I remember how that felt – how that was – and that’s what I wanted to represent. It’s not stretching the truth, but I am in a way playing my past self – there was a wall that existed between myself and the character of myself.
Did you have a ritual or a place that got you in that headspace? Where did you write the book?
Dark closets. [Laughter.] A lot of it I wrote when I was still active in my addiction – it was supposed to be notes for a work of fiction that I thought I could base around that time in my life. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of that work. Then once it was becoming a memoir I’d just write at my desk – I had a full time job at that time and I was taking care of my kid and my family. So I wrote after 9PM. I used to drink after 9PM, and I’d drink and write. Then when I got sober I would just would write and write.
How has your family received the book? You say a lot of very personal things about yourself, but also the people in your life, and not all of it flattering.
My partner was very supportive. He’s also a writer, so we have this rule where we don’t try to influence each other’s writing. He only read it when it was finished and ready to go into copy editing. His reaction… He needed time to think about it, because he didn’t want to react right away. So he took some time off… Actually, we haven’t really talked about it a lot. I’m not even sure if my parents read it. I’m hoping not. My sister read it and was very compassionate and empathetic. She had lots of questions afterwards. Difficult questions. One thing I was worried about was that I was going to lose a lot of friends, that people would tell me what a terrible person I was. In the end I just had some angry feedback from friends who were upset that I didn’t reach out for help.
Your son is five now, and a lot of concerns in reviews of the book seem to centre around his reaction when he inevitably reads it. Do you want him to read it? Are you worried about that?
I don’t think I’m going to encourage him to, but I’m sure he’s going to read it and I’m going to have to answer all his questions, if he has them. He was, of course, taken into consideration before I published the book, but I can’t speculate about his future reaction. It would be OK if he had questions, and I’d be happy to answer them.
What made you want to publish something that made you so nervous about the reaction? What about writing this book was something you felt you had to do?
I think you should never not write because you’re afraid of offending someone. In the book it looks like I’m not worried about anyone’s feelings, but that’s certainly not true. I just needed to be true to myself as a writer, otherwise what’s the point?
You’ve written other memoir pieces now about very personal issues. Why do you think we’re so hungry for personal stories, and especially about people’s low points?
I think personal disaster stories are the most interesting for people to read. There’s the scandal element – 'oh boy, I’m not as bad as this person.' And with the internet, too, there’s been a shift towards more focus on the individual and the individual experience. The individual is as important as the collective experience used to be. I don’t know if that’s a good thing. I’ve indulged in that, but am hoping to move away from it.
What’s your relationship with alcohol like now?
It’s OK. I don’t think about it every day. I talk about it a lot, especially with the book, but I can go to a bar or be at a dinner party no problem. I think addiction is less about having access to whatever your substance of choice – or lack of choice – is, it’s more about an internal compulsion. It’s also easier because the peer pressure “we’re all getting shitfaced” culture of people in their 20s is not something I’m around as much any more. I think in your 30s that stuff looks a little sad.
Yeah, my friends in their 30s are dropping things – alcohol, smoking, drugs, gluten – like crazy. There’s a mass Giving Up of Stuff.
It’s true. You hit 30 and you start buying organic mattresses.
How has sobriety changed you? Anything you didn't expect?
It’s great! I have more time, I don’t have to nurse hangovers, I know what happened the night before – I was a blackout drinker. I’m present now, I pay attention to things. It’s only been positive. What is baffling to me is that that’s what it was like before I relapsed. I got sober for the first time at 27, and I was a senior editor at a magazine, my relationship was going great, I had a nice place to live… Everything was going well, so I don’t know why I thought, 'Well, I’m going to fuck this up by getting drunk all the time.' I think maybe I appreciate it more this time, because I see how fragile it is.
Does it still feel very fragile?
To stay sober? Yeah. I have more respect for it now. Before I relapsed I was still very nostalgic about those party days. I thought, 'I’m still too young to be sober – I want to be out at all night shows.' And I’ve done those sober now – and it’s hard to stay out until 4AM without substances of some kind, but it is possible. You just have to drink a lot of coffee.
When I publish personal things online I get this crazy annotative urge to guide people’s reading experiences and tell them what I was thinking at the time, to justify why I chose those words. Do you get that post-publishing anxiety?
People don’t seem to understand Canadian maternity leave, so I’m getting a lot of comments about being a rich bitch pushing a stroller around, getting drunk because I had nothing better to do. And I want to respond like, “You have no idea!” When you read people’s assumptions about you or your intentions, that’s hard, but other’s interpretations are also interesting. I don’t think I thought of the book as a feminist book particularly, but after it came out some of the reviews were suggesting that it was, simply because it was a true flawed woman’s story that challenges our expectations of parenthood and motherhood.
I would definitely consider it feminist as an endeavour. A lot of the reviews seem concerned with your likeability, and I think it’s great that you weren’t, particularly, in your writing about yourself.
Yeah, likeability is such a bitch. It’s like, why does that matter? A story is a story. I didn’t want to likeable, I wanted to be truthful. I find addiction memoirs often end up the same – I call them “misery-lit”. There’s this narrative like, “Things were bad, I tried to get better and now things are really, really good and I’m married." People in interviews are always asking me if I married my partner finally, like that would be the real ending to the story.
Did it feel cathartic when the book was out? Was that a kind of ending?
I was just happy to have a book out. There wasn’t much catharsis to me. I find the book hard to read. When I do public readings I’m a bit like, “What the fuck did I say?” Which is stupid, because I wrote it, but sometimes I’m surprised by what I wrote.
Would you ever write a follow up?
Sober Mom? [Laughter]. God, no. I don’t think that would interest anyone. I’m interested in fiction exclusively from now on, I think.