I have been sober for a little over 5 years. My son is roughly 2 and a half. This is very good math. Lucky math.
A lot of women I know are making amends to their children, children who are perhaps grown and rightfully angry at them for the years they spent prioritizing substances over mothering. When I was drinking and using drugs, I always knew I wanted to be a mother. It was something I intended to do "someday," when I "settled down," when I got tired of partying every night. But deep down I knew that addicts don't grow up and settle down. Addicts quit using or they die, or they end up in jail or other institutions, or the least fortunate few just bump along the bottom for decades, miserable and trapped.
When I got sober, after the initial fear and pain that accompanies very early sobriety began to fade, it suddenly occured to me that I could get pregnant. I could do a lot of other things too, things that had previously seemed impossible and strange when I witnessed others doing them -- attending a gym, getting to work on time and without a hangover, dressing appropriately for the weather, opening my mail, yoga. But motherhood was a possibility that loomed largest in my mind, the biggest emblem of my new freedom from drugs and alcohol. Now I had a chance of being a good mom someday.
Today, amidst reports that 25-year-old Peaches Geldof died of a heroin overdose with her 11-month-old son by her side, I see both a tragic story and an image of my alternate reality.
I never did get pregnant. But a little over 2 years ago, I became a foster mother and hope to soon be an adoptive one. Some people don't know how to behave when it comes to situations like mine, but I had a group of friends who were kind enough to throw me a surprise baby shower. My son and I both attended, he strapped to my chest in a baby carrier, and we had burgers and cupcakes.
Walking away, in the spring sunshine, I tried to imagine what the shower would have been like if I was still drinking. I would have had too much to drink, I knew, because I had too much to drink always and alcohol was available at this restaurant. I would have stumbled outside with my son's heavy weight confusing my center of balance. I imagined falling and smashing his face into the concrete. I was never so grateful to be sober.
One thing I know, one of the things that helped me to finally quit drinking, is that I am not capable of keeping myself safe when I am drinking and using. I'll go with strange people, wander the streets alone at night in blackouts, bend perilously over the subway tracks to vomit. If I can't even keep myself safe, how could I ever, ever keep another small human that way?
I'm sure there are already those maligning Geldof, spewing the kind of vitriol that often accompanies addict's deaths -- another junkie dead, who cares, her kids were better off without her. Others will more reasonably point out the selfishness of a mother succumbing to addiction and leaving her children behind. Most, those who have never struggled with addiction, will simply not be able to understand. How could she do something so stupid? And they'll be right -- it is stupid, and it is selfish. But I do understand it.
In the blindness of active addiction, you can't place anything before your substance of choice, not even your own children. Addiction doesn't give you a choice; the only choice is to use. I can imagine what Peaches Geldof was thinking and feeling when she used heroin in the presence of her child and it wasn't "I could die and leave this precious child behind." Had she been thinking that, had she been able to have the clarity to think that, she most likely wouldn't have used. No, the voice inside was surely more simple: "I need it. I need it. I need it." Or, perhaps: "Just one more time. Just this one more time. I'll quit tomorrow, when I'm stronger." Addiction is a hole, a drive. The example of Geldof's own mother, who died nearly identically in 2000, could not penetrate it. Logic, not even love, has nothing to do with it.
Sometimes I hear people in recovery say that they know God was looking out for them because their behavior should have killed them many times over. I don't believe in that, don't think God was looking out for me any more than Peaches Geldof, or any of the other countless addicts who die daily. As far as I can tell, it's a mix of grace and chance and luck that allows some of us to first survive our addictions, then to actually get and stay clean.
But now that I am sober, now that I am also a mother, I know I must cling to that grace with every ounce of force I can muster, must dig my claws in and refuse to be dragged down. Just as pregnant mothers eat for two, I stay sober for two. I must, I must, stay sober for my son. Must do everything in my immediate power not to leave him at the very least damaged. At the worst? Motherless, as Peaches Geldof surely never meant to do.