Rebecca Novak woke up one Wednesday with a feeling. Whether it was sixth-sense intuition or garden variety anxiety, by the end of the day, she would make a life-changing decision to quit drinking.
The 39-year-old Wisconsin mother of two found the active lifestyle of her entrepreneur and politician husband, Jeremiah (J.B.), magnified her own lack of contributions outside their household. This laid the groundwork for her excessive drinking, coupled with a drinking culture taken to an extreme in a state that jokes: “Drink Wisconsinbly.”
It started with a glass of wine while making dinner, then she started drinking at 3 p.m. while she thought about making dinner. “It just kept getting earlier and earlier,” Novak says. “There were days when the kids would come home from school and I was already half in the bag.”
Enter the pandemic and that fateful Wednesday. She was anxious and depressed and eventually curled into a ball on her kitchen floor. Her 10-year-old daughter, Lilly, knew just what to do. She grabbed a box of wine from the refrigerator and a wine glass and handed them to Novak, compassionately telling her, “I know this always makes you feel better.”
That was an eye opener for Novak. “I thought, ‘What the [heck] am I doing?’”
She dialed both grandmas and left a voicemail: “Somebody needs to come watch the kids. I think I have a problem.”
A Friend in Need
When she wasn’t able to reach either grandma, she tried her friend Stacey, who had pulled her and another friend aside a few years earlier to tell them that she would support them if they ever decided to quit drinking. Stacey, a clinical therapist who does alcohol assessments for employers, answered her call.
Beverly Conyers, author of “Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, & Recovery,” wishes she’d had a Stacey in her life. “I’ve thought about this a lot and I have often wished that someone had said to me, ‘You know, have you ever looked at your own behavior and how that might be affecting your children?’” Conyers says. “I’m not saying that would have been a magic bullet, but it’s so easy to fall into a pattern of behavior and you don’t even consider its impact.”
Conyers’ youngest daughter struggled with heroin addiction in her 20s. Conyers reflected on what her own household was like while she raised three kids. “We drank pretty much every day,” she admits, “and we drank a lot. It’s not like we were falling-down drunk, but I realized that my own parenting had elements of addiction. While I don’t believe anyone causes someone to become an addict, I do believe [my drinking] was a contributing factor.”
Stacey helped Novak enter inpatient treatment at Hazelden Betty Ford. Treatment revealed Novak used alcohol to numb the pain of underlying issues and trauma, which Conyers says is common with addiction.
Drink Like a Mother
One doesn’t need to look far to find that popular sentiment supports a parent’s drinking habit. After all, aren’t kids the reason we drink? Variations of the same joke appear everywhere, making it difficult to assess whether you have a bona fide problem with alcohol or you’re merely indulging in well-earned “Mommy Time.”
Heather Hayes, supervisor of outpatient services for Hazelden Betty Ford in Naples, Fla., says drinking is normalized for women, particularly moms. “The greatest gift I can give my children is to be a sober mother,” Hayes says. “Being a sober mom means I’m available, and I’m fully present when I’m available. It doesn’t mean I’m going to parent perfectly or even really well, but it means I’m giving it my best.”
Former binge drinker and sober mom for five years April O’Leary agrees. “There [are] a lot of things I didn’t get to fully enjoy as a mom because if there wasn’t alcohol present, I was annoyed,” she admits. “By quitting, I get to be present for my kids.”
O’Leary published “Sober Moms, Happy Moms,” featuring the stories of 12 moms who ditched drinking to be better parents. She was driven to share their stories after experiencing the power of moms supporting moms in her own life.
O’Leary suggests moms specifically have a responsibility to stay sober. “When we drink,” she says, “we’re affecting little ones who have no choice but to be around us.”
This heightened sense of responsibility can produce paralyzing shame. A few years ago, Conyers cofacilitated a treatment session for moms. “These moms felt so much shame, whether it was the sense they’d failed as a parent or they hadn’t protected their child enough,” Conyers says. “Shame is so deeply debilitating because it can make you feel like you don’t deserve any better and it can keep a person stuck in a cycle.”
No Rock Bottom
There was no pivotal event that compelled Jen Vacek, 47, to quit drinking. The mother of three daughters in Duluth, Minn., was struggling on a run at the onset of the pandemic and recalled a fitness trainer had suggested no alcohol. Always a healthy eater, nixing alcohol and increasing her training led to a 40-pound weight loss.
Quarantine presented what Vacek calls the trifecta to quit, primarily to get healthier, but she also didn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19 to purchase nonessentials like alcohol. Plus she wondered if the stress of the pandemic could lead a harmless habit down the slippery slope of addiction. “It was a quick decision,” she admits. “I didn’t give it a lot of thought, although I knew it would change everything. I did, in the back of my mind, think, gosh, I don’t have a problem with alcohol, do I?”
Vacek was wise to wonder. In September 2021, USA Today reported that 1 in 5 adults used alcohol to cope with pandemic stress. Drinking is just one of the addictive behaviors moms resorted to during the pandemic, including mindlessly scrolling, snacking, Netflix bingeing and online shopping. “Anything but face our deepest selves, our fears, our shortcomings and all the things we’ve shoved down deep and avoided with the busyness of life,” Vacek says.
Outside of the initial weeks when Vacek found herself absent-mindedly reaching for one of her husband Matt’s beers only to remember she’d quit, it meant breaking a habit rather than overcoming an addiction for her. Her husband recently asked her if she misses it. Between the dramatic improvements to her health and her daughters’ pride in her decision to quit, she doesn’t.
At a certain point during the interview with Rebecca Novak, she answers her front door and there’s the telltale crumpling of cellophane wrapping as she thanks a delivery driver in the background. Did she just get flowers?
“Today is actually 23 weeks for me,” Novak says. “The last time I was sober was when I was pregnant, so I measure it in terms of pregnancy. Every week, J.B. adds one more flower delivered to me based on the week I’m on. I look forward to Fridays because it means a flower delivery bigger than last week’s.”
Ready to Ditch the Drinking? Resources & Guidance
Beverly Conyers, author of “Addict in the Family: Stories of Loss, Hope, & Recovery” (Hazelden Publishing, 2003; 2nd edition, 2021), acknowledges that substance abuse is an effort to escape our life as it is at the moment. Overcoming that requires figuring out what it is you’re trying to escape, then finding meaningful ways to address it. Conyers suggests yoga and meditation as healthy alternatives to drinking since both require full presence in our bodies and develop a mind/body connection.
Family history is a strong indicator of your own vulnerability to addiction, says Heather Hayes, supervisor of outpatient services for Hazelden Betty Ford in Naples, Fla. For those most vulnerable, never drinking is the surest way to dodge addiction. That advice comes too late for most moms. How do you determine if your drinking is an issue?
How Do You Determine if Your Drinking is an Issue?
Most of us consider external factors, known as “outside trouble” – losing a job, going bankrupt, or getting a drunk driving ticket; basically hitting rock bottom due to alcohol use – as concrete evidence of a problem, yet Hayes encourages readers to recognize that addiction is a continuum. You can also have what’s called inside trouble, when you make reflections such as: I think about my drinking a lot; I’m controlling my drinking; I’m making rules about my drinking; I’m feeling badly or uncertain about my drinking; I’m looking forward to Friday night a little too much; I’m arranging my life around alcohol.
Treatment is as individualized as the continuum of addiction. Besides the most recognized program, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), other recovery options include inpatient treatment and online support groups. Beyond a Google search of options, a good place to start is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
April O’Leary, publisher of “Sober Moms, Happy Moms” (O’Leary Publishing, 2021), recommends AA as a free and effective service accessible to anyone. Go shopping for the group that fits you. “AA meetings can be a lot like trying to find a good church,” O’Leary says. “There are many groups and meetings within AA. Try a meeting to determine ‘Do I even belong here?’ and don’t be afraid to try another.”
O’Leary also suggests this AA quiz to determine if your drinking is problematic: aa.org/pages/en_us/is-aa-for-you-twelve-questions-only-you-can-answer.