Jowita Bydlowska is the author of Drunk Mom. Her latest book, Possessed, came out in 2022.
“What is your son going to think?” That was the question I was most often asked almost exactly 10 years ago after the publication of Drunk Mom, a memoir of my relapse into drinking after having a baby. Recently, I reread some of the articles that came out in 2013 and noticed a certain theme: the shaming of what was frequently referred to as “confessional” writing.
At that time, the word “confessional” sounded dismissive; reading it over and over, I had an image of someone who blabbed her secrets away for clout. “This is a memoir that pushes at boundaries – what is private, what should perhaps be kept private, what we need to know, what we don’t, what is insightful or just exhibitionism,” wrote one journalist. Or: “She says she wrote the book, in part, to take away the stigma of her disorders. It’s unlikely anyone will read [the book] and want to hug an addict.” Or, from another journalist describing a scene of my sexual assault: “And what of her son, who will read someday that his mother woke up in a Montreal hotel, black bra sodden with breast milk, panties gone, no idea if she’d had sex with the two strangers she’d met the night before?”
And in all of the articles there was at least one reference to my romantic relationship at the time. It seemed as if by writing what I wrote, it gave people permission to cross every boundary, further categorizing me into a loose cannon who wanted to be treated seriously, and who annoyingly only wanted to talk about literary merit and not about her “trainwreck you can’t look away from” of a life. I was described as being defensive, as irresponsible, and exploitative of my son’s privacy who, as one reviewer pointed out, would one day possibly have to cower in shame in a sandbox because of the book his mom had written.
I am not upset at how I was perceived. And I wasn’t then. I’ve always felt proud of writing about an issue that no one else talked about much – addiction and parenting, but also postpartum depression, and the guilt that came with not being the perfect mother. I loved my son more than anything in the world, but my compulsion was somehow bigger than … anything in the world. I published a book I myself wanted to read, a book I desperately searched for when I was hiding empties in my son’s diaper bag, when I needed to know I was not alone and not a monster. I didn’t sugar-coat my addiction and the book’s prose mattered to me as much as its content. I didn’t set out to help people with their addictions; my publicist suggested at one point that it would be good to say that I wanted to do that, though, and people did write and say the book helped them.
To many others, it was shocking that a monster like me existed, one who chose alcohol over a baby. But the severity of that judgment was a reflection of that time: when the publishing industry dismissively referred to addiction memoirs as “quit lit,” or when I was described as “building a career on spilling [my] guts,” or – back to the sexual assault – how I was “sorry … for waking up, pantie-less on a solo trip to Montreal, not knowing if [I’d] had sex with the two men [I’d] met the night before,” or how I looked like a sexy librarian.
It wasn’t my memoir that was revealing something that was wrong with the world. It was the reception that was the most telling – not of what I had done (drank, wrote, published), but on what timeline. It was a timeline where both men and women acting in unconventional ways were mocked but where men still got a pass on things that women did not. Three years before Drunk Mom came out, a Toronto-based author, Christopher Shulgan, wrote about being a new dad addicted to cocaine and the book was lauded for being “refreshingly free of both histrionics and bald sentimentality,” “moving,” and “candid.” The headlines were along the lines of, “From Crack Fiend to a Doting Dad.”
This was also the timeline when famous young women getting sloppy in public (Tara Reid, Paris Hilton, Lauryn Hill), shaving their heads (Britney Spears), stealing designer clothes (Winona Ryder), passing out drunk (Lindsay Lohan), sucking off powerful men (Monica Lewinsky), or dying (Anna Nicole Smith) were getting ridiculed for behaviour that, in 2023, looks like an obvious and blatant cry for help. Addiction, mental health, rape, and sufferers and victims of those calamities were all punchlines of the early 2010s jokes. And although I was not a celebrity, I did get a taste of that dubious honour – of becoming a punchline – with Drunk Mom in the wings.
“Bydlowska, 35, did more than open the door. She flung it open to expose her booze-filled, milk-engorged breasts to the reading public,” read one profile. I did fling it open. And I believe that today, in this post-#MeToo world that is still far from accepting but where addiction is no longer a dirty secret, my “confessional” would be treated differently. And maybe women like me, who’ve felt they had to hide their shame and who don’t have a platform the way I did, would find it easier to come forward and ask for help. Maybe the strangers who have written to me over the years telling me how they hide empties in their diaper bags, or are secretly dying of liver failure, would feel safe enough to come out to a world that finally protects them from judgment.
When asked about what my then-four-year-old son is going to think, I would always say, “I hope he grows up in the world that will have more compassion and where he doesn’t have to hide.” We broke the world in many ways, but 10 years later, my pride – of telling the world one taboo truth – is no longer my shame and, in some ways, we’ve normalized vulnerability to the point where it’s no longer such a pearl-clutcher, at least where addiction is involved.
As for what my now-14-year-old son thinks about the book – well, it was a little anticlimactic when I asked. He rolled his eyes and chuckled, while patting me on the shoulder: “I’m sorry, but don’t care.” In other words, he had no idea why I was making such a big deal out of it.