Raising a child can drive a person to drink, as many parents in the trenches jokingly attest. But for this mom, having a vodka martini and a bottle of wine every night was serious business.
Being a parent terrified me. How would I keep this tiny human safe? I thought of my infant son, David. What if something happened to this baby I loved with all my heart? While I changed his diapers and fretted about my mothering skills, happy hour was my dangling carrot. At exactly 5 p.m., I "celebrated" David's approaching bedtime — and the fact that we'd both survived another day — with a raised martini glass.
As my son got older, my worries intensified, and happy hour morphed into cocktails all evening long. I hid the depths of my despair, and my drinking, from my fun-loving husband, who had already raised two sons and seemed more emotionally equipped for the task.
Eventually, my love of vodka eclipsed the love I felt for my child.
There was a time when I delighted in another liquid altogether. In my youth, I was a star swimmer — one of the fastest sprinters in Florida. Until I was 20, I defined myself by the very water in which I was immersed for two to four hours every day. I earned a scholarship to swim for the University of South Florida, where I was part of a national championship team and qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 50-meter freestyle. Back then, I loved winning, and adrenaline, more than anything.
Once I hung up my cap and goggles, I missed the high I'd gotten from racing in the water and overcompensated by drinking alcohol. Many of those drinks went down overseas when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya and a journalist in South Korea.
Whenever I found myself in challenging places, which was most of the time, I drowned my worries in alcohol. Nervous about malaria? Drink gin and tonic, which is loaded with parasite-killing quinine! Fearful about North Koreans threatening to invade? Drink high-octane soju with soldiers on leave from the Korean Demilitarized Zone! Drowning my worries was so much fun, but, as Frida Kahlo so aptly put it, the damned things learned to swim.
In 2009, I was inducted into the University of South Florida's Athletic Hall of Fame, with 5-year-old David in the audience. I drank before, during and after the ceremony. My fingers were too swollen to wear the diamond-encrusted ring with which I was presented.
It wasn't until 2015 — right after my son turned 11, and just months before I turned 50 — that I confronted my drinking problem. I'd felt awful for decades: My blood pressure was high, and my liver was swollen. The lithe girl who once lifted trophies over her head was now a pudgy woman who lifted drink after drink to her lips. If I wanted to live to see my son become an adult, I'd have to change my ways. But could I?
We were in Abu Dhabi at the time, thanks to my husband's work as an itinerant filmmaker and cinema professor. I had a job in communications at an Arab university, and David attended the American International School.
The country is a peaceful oasis nestled between the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Desert, but I saw it as a fish bowl in a sea of piranha — safe unless the glass breaks. Alcohol is off-limits to the majority of its population, and therefore difficult to procure. I purchased whatever booze I could find at the "forbidden" liquor store, exclusively patronized by expats. Sometimes I'd shop for my fix while David waited outside in the back seat of a cab with a complete stranger.
As fate would have it, my "come to Jesus" moment — where I admitted that I was powerless against alcohol and that booze posed a greater threat to my life than terrorism — took place in a Muslim country. Inspired by the people and the place, this former swimmer decided to go dry for good. I got through my very first night without a drink by watching Lawrence of Arabia with my husband and son in our high-rise apartment.
Turns out that the Middle East is a darn good place to get sober. I didn't have to contend with booze in every grocery store and restaurant, or on television and billboard advertisements. The location, however, didn't make the detox process any less painful. For weeks, I cried myself to sleep and vomited upon waking. But the muezzin's call to prayer, five times a day, tethered me to Earth and to a power far greater than my addiction. I now consider myself a Muslim, as well as a recovering addict.
Moving back to the United States three months later, I was shocked to reenter the world I'd once inhabited — and imbibed in. There were never-ending excuses for me to drink and seemingly endless ways of getting alcohol. Now, to cope with fear and longing, I employ a tactic I used on the starting block before a swimming race: I stare at a fixed point on the horizon, similar to how Bedouins navigate vast seas of sand, and I imagine myself on the other side of adversity.
I've been sober for two years now. Am I a better mother? I'm certainly a more present and patient one. I'm also vastly less anxious. Rather than eliminating my worries, alcohol had only ever intensified them.
I recently came across an Arab proverb that sums up my journey: "It's the same rain you loved that drowned you." The only things overflowing in me now are devotion to my 13-year-old son and appreciation for life on dry land.