She was so stressed that day. The book signing was just six hours away. Soon 300 people would be pouring through the ballroom doors. As community relations manager for a national bookstore in Des Moines, IA, Cindy Sharp had been working on this highly anticipated event for months. She’d ordered the books, made sure the tables were set up, arranged to have the author introduced. So many people were counting on her.
But first, the 39-year-old mom had to pick up her kids from school, drive home, cook dinner, make sure her husband helped their 10-year-old son with homework and check in on their 18-year-old daughter. She had to go over her checklist, make a few final calls, find something to wear. She left work after lunch. Kids, dinner, husband: check. After she made the last call, after she made sure everyone else was taken care of, Cindy did something she’d never done during a workday.
She had a drink. She walked into the kitchen, opened a cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Absolut. She poured two fingers of vodka, splashed in a little soda. While she dressed for the event, she sipped her drink. While she put on her makeup, she had another. Maybe she could get through the evening after all. What’s one more drink? She deserved it for all her hard work. By the time she stumbled into her car, fumbled the key into the ignition and steered toward the ballroom, Cindy couldn’t remember
how many vodkas she’d had.
Living in Denial
Almost everyone in America is affected by addiction. An estimated one in four kids lives with an alcohol abuser, and the latest national data reveals that more than 10 percent of U.S. kids lives with an alcoholic parent. At least 20 million people in this country do drugs. Among women, both alcohol and drug abuse are on the rise: The number of women ages 30 to 44 who report abusing alcohol has doubled over the past decade, while prescription-drug abuse has sky-rocketed 400 percent, according to a federal study. Our image of addicts—drunks bobbing on barstools—is changing. We increasingly hear about moms who use alcohol or drugs to relieve mounting pressures at work. Or about seemingly perfect working moms like Cindy Sharp. More and more, we hear about successful women hiding a dark secret. (more stats)
Remember Diane Schuler, the 36-year-old mother of two who was camping with her family in New York last year? She left the campground at 9:30 a.m. on a Sunday, with her 2-year-old daughter, 5-year-old son and three young nieces in the car. Five hours later, she was driving the wrong way on the Taconic State Parkway when she smashed headon into a Chevy Trail blazer. Only her young son survived. Police said she’d downed ten vodka shots and smoked marijuana. Her husband insisted she wasn’t an alcoholic.
“Most addicts lead a secret life,” says Robert Smith, an addiction specialist and cofounder of Casolaro and Smith in New York City. “Everyone might think they’re doing fine—their kids might be getting straight A’s. But inside, they’re dying.”
Women are even more likely to hide addictions than men, says Heidi Jacobsen, a licensed mental-health counselor who works with prescription-drug-addicted women at WestCare, an outpatient substance-abuse treatment center in St. Petersburg, FL. They’re also less likely to seek treatment than men because they worry about the people who depend on them. They can’t lose their job, their home, their children.
We can’t ask Diane Schuler what she was thinking that Sunday when she left the campground with a minivan full of kids. Or how she hid…whatever it was that she did while working as a cable executive. But we asked other moms who have struggled with addictions—women with careers who love their kids, care about their work and were trying, like all of us, to balance responsibilities and checkbooks while coping with the stress of getting through another day—How did you do it? At what cost?
Many of the dozens of moms we spoke with didn’t want their names publicized. They’d lost too much. Or had too much to lose. But some agreed to share their stories. They live in different cities, walked different paths, experienced different downfalls. But they shared the same secret shame. Everyone, they say, knows someone like us.
Secrets and Lies
In the small town outside Des Moines where Cindy Sharp worked and raised her children, secrets were scarce. Everyone knew Cindy as an energetic supermom whose kids were always polite, always got great grades. They knew Cindy’s house was spotless; she baked a lot, loved to read. And she helped manage that big national bookstore.
But no one knew what she did every night after she put her kids to bed. For 25 years—more than half her life—Cindy had hidden her addiction. Until that awful evening two years ago when, suddenly, everyone knew.
Cindy had her very first drink in high school, at a party. A boy had swiped whiskey from his parents. She liked the way it warmed her stomach, eased her mind. “After that, I got drunk pretty much every day,” she says. By the time she was 20, Cindy was pregnant and married. She stopped drinking while she was pregnant. Once she became a mom, she’d make sure her daughter was asleep before she poured that first drink. She worked part-time for a while, at makeup counters and in malls. Soon she was a retail manager.
A few years later, Cindy was expecting another baby. Another nine months of sobriety, “the longest I ever went without drinking,” she admits.
Her son had just turned 1 when Cindy and her husband divorced. For the next nine years, she raised her children alone. And every night after she tucked her kids in and kissed them good night, she opened the kitchen cabinet and pulled out a bottle of Absolut.
Drinking After Dark
Cindy never went to bars. With friends, she never allowed herself more than two drinks. “I had a career and kids, a reputation in our community I had to maintain,” she says. But while her kids slept, she drank and did housework. Even when you’re bleary, you can vacuum, fold laundry, clean the bathroom. Sometimes she’d bake cookies and cupcakes for the kids’ lunches. Doing mom things made her feel less guilty about drinking. Drinking made her less resentful of having to do mom things.
When Cindy remarried three years ago, she didn’t want her husband to know how much she drank. She’d have a glass of wine at dinner and wait until he fell asleep to go back to her bottle. He traveled a lot, so she still had many nights alone.
On that stressful day of the book signing, Cindy broke her own golden rule about drinking. If she’d waited until after dark, everything would have been the way it always was. Cindy is glad she blacked out the faces of all those people who heard her slurring nonsense. She wasn’t just humiliating herself. She was there representing the bookstore. Everything she’d worked toward, all drowned in vodka. “I made a fool of myself,” she says. “So I’m told.”
Somehow, she managed to find her cell and call a coworker. “I need help,” she sobbed. Cindy had never said that before. Someone phoned her husband, who drove over. At about 3 a.m., sitting in her kitchen, mouth dry, head throbbing, the night a dim blur, she came to. Her son was still asleep. But her 18-year-old daughter was staring at her: “What’s up with Mom?” “She’s sick,” Cindy’s husband said, “but she’ll get better.”
Therapy and Truth
Nobody knows exactly what it takes to get someone to admit she has a problem, says Robert Smith, the addiction specialist. “Different people have different thresholds. Many have to hit bottom to have some kind of awareness that circumstances are getting too hard.”
Cindy took a month of medical leave from work to attend 30 days of outpatient rehab. She completed her treatment and kept her job and her family. Two years later, she’s still sober. She found a therapist who taught her to talk herself down when she was stressed. She learned to stop thinking of every difficulty as a pending disaster. Sometimes she goes to group meetings. But what really keeps her from picking up a drink, she says, is “playing it forward”—thinking about what could happen if she has one drink, then another and another. She catalogs everything she values, everything she stands to lose.
When her daughter graduated from high school, the old Cindy would have secretly downed a few shots before the ceremony. The sober Cindy wept. She’d never felt so “fully present,” didn’t know how to process full-on joy. Drinking, she says, had not only muffled the bad, it had also muted the good.
The New Valium
Historically, women have had less access to alcohol than men. But women have been more heavily medicated. As far back as 1782, doctors were prescribing “a dose of opium every morning” to calm homemakers. In the 1920s, Coca-Cola—laced with cocaine—was marketed as an afternoon pick-me-up for women.
But these were nothing compared to the little yellow pill. The anti-anxiety drug Valium was first marketed in 1963 to help nervous moms unwind. By 1967, the Rolling Stones were singing about “mother’s little helper.” From 1969 until 1982, Valium was the nation’s most widely prescribed drug. As the Stones song goes: “And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.”
“Women have too much to do,” says therapist Jacobsen, “and we’re trying to do it all.” Instead of asking for help, we try to mask our anxiety. I can handle this. Or we reward ourselves for all the hard work. Think two-martini playdates. Instead of taking a time-out, Jacobsen says, we drink or pop a pill.
Most of Jacobsen’s clients are women; more than half are mothers. Almost all of them started out with legitimate doctors’ prescriptions for mood-altering drugs. Then they got addicted and needed more. Xanax has become the new Valium.
Zoning Out at Work
Users who face the highest chance of becoming addicts are those who combine drugs, Jacobsen says—women who take one prescription for nerves or anxiety, another for pain or insomnia. “With prescription drugs,” she says, “most women don’t know they’re addicted until it’s too late.”
It started that innocently for Tanya Page, 34, of New Port Richey, FL, who couldn’t stop crying while preparing for a presentation last year. She was going through a rough divorce, working overtime to pay her mortgage, raising her two daughters alone. A friend said she should try Xanax. Her doctor agreed.
Within a few months, Tanya was taking four times the recommended dose. She loved the way the pills washed away her worries. She started zoning out at work. Her boss told her she needed help. He suspended her without pay and sent her to outpatient treatment.
After Tanya had completed treatment and had been clean for three months, she returned to work. One morning, after she dropped her 11- and 13-year-olds off at the bus stop, she headed home to find the cops waiting for her. A pharmacist had reported all her different prescriptions, and she was charged with doctor shopping. As the officers drove her past the bus stop, Tanya ducked so her daughters wouldn’t see their mom in the back of a cop car.
She got more counseling and in July graduated from Pinellas County’s drug court for women. Her record will be cleared of criminal charges. She’s working full-time at her old job, now grateful for her boss’s zero-tolerance stance.
It Runs in Families
Dana Aronoff remembers her mom forgetting to come home from the neighborhood bar. As a girl, she’d have to go get her and walk her home. She vowed she’d never become that woman. That was then. About 40 years later, Dana was sitting at home panicking because her husband, Tim, hadn’t come home. He’d been acting strange all week, talking about meeting a female friend who was visiting and staying at the Ramada. Now it was dark and Tim still wasn’t home or answering his cell.
Dana had worked a full day at a doctor’s office in St. Petersburg, FL, billing insurance companies. The 47-year-old mom had picked up their son, Will, from kindergarten, cooked dinner, helped him put on his pajamas. Just after 8 p.m., she tucked him into bed—then reached into the fridge for one of Tim’s forbidden beers. It was too bitter. But it calmed her down. The second tasted better. By the third, Dana’s mellow morphed into anger. How dare he! She walked into her son’s room, carried him outside and strapped him into his car seat. Then she sped to the Ramada.
Dana had never dreamed she’d be a mom. Her own mother hung out at the Irish bar on their block. By age 8, Dana was helping her mom into bed. School was her refuge. She studied Spanish and psychology at UC Santa Barbara, then went on to earn a master’s in counseling. Her first professional job was working with runaway teens at a shelter.
In her twenties, Dana grew closer to her mom, who got sober. Just when their relationship was starting to get better, Dana’s mom collapsed in the bathroom and died. She was 54; Dana, 28. Losing her mom, Dana says, sent her into a downward spiral. A friend, trying to help, offered her cocaine. That lifted her enough to get to work. But she had to come down. So she’d have a vodka. Then another. That helped her sleep.
Over the next 20 years, Dana went from being a counselor in California to driving tour groups around Florida, all the while putting partying first. When she got a DUI in Orlando, she went to rehab. There she met Tim, the man she would marry. They went to meetings, talked all night. When they got out, they got an apartment together. He built homes. She started working at the front desk at an oral surgeon’s office. When Tim slipped, she pulled him back. When she fell, he caught her. Together, they seesawed toward sobriety.
They both swore they’d stopped for good when she got pregnant. It felt impossible, at 41, to finally be a mom. Their baby was perfect, happy, curls the color of sand, eyes like the sea. There was nothing she liked better, nor dreamed she could love more, than holding her son, getting down on the floor and playing with him. Then, for Christmas, someone gave Dana a bottle of wine. She meant to give it away, but weeks later she opened it. One glass couldn’t hurt. Soon the bottle was empty.
Hiding the Habit
For the next few years, Dana hid her habit well. She kept bottles of cheap Cabernet tucked behind the vacuum. She poured wine into coffee mugs. Who would blame a working mom, she’d ask herself, if after a long day, she wanted a drink?
Mommy got really sleepy really early, recalls Will, now 8. She was too tired to play. Sometimes she was too tired to make dinner. “So I got to get candy or something from the kitchen,” he says. One time, he remembers, “I couldn’t go to kindergarten because Mommy was sort of sick and couldn’t drive.” Sometimes, he didn’t know why, “she just wasn’t Mommy.”
That night at the Ramada, Will woke with a start in his car seat. Outside, in the hotel parking lot, everyone was screaming. There was his mom, flailing at his dad; there was his dad, naked in the doorway. The kindergartner couldn’t see the woman in the bed. But he heard the sirens, saw the flashing blue lights. And when the cops pulled his parents apart, he was scared.
They were both charged with domestic violence. Dana took Will home. A few weeks later, she and Tim reconciled. Everything seemed to be better, until they both started drinking again. One night, their argument woke the neighbors, who called the cops. The police decided Will couldn’t stay with two drunk parents. So they took him to foster care. “You can’t imagine what that feels like,” Dana said, “to watch police taking away your child. It just tore my heart out. How could I have done this to him?” Will kept shrieking, “No! Mommy! I don’t want to go!”
The New Normal
Will cried every night at the group home. “I knew my mommy was trying to get better,” he says. Dana cried every night in the women’s treatment center.
“When you’re that great mom, you try to hide that other half. Being able to come to terms with the fact that you’re both people—loving mom, raging alcoholic—that took a lot,” Dana says. “I was my mom. I had to deal with that. But I didn’t have to be her anymore.”
It took Dana six months to complete her case plan, to prove she could take care of her child. Finally, Will was able to move into the treatment center with her. When his mom went to group meetings, he would bring his handheld video games or a coloring book.
Without Dana’s salary, she and Tim lost their home to foreclosure. They separated. Dana found a job at an orthodontist’s office. Will thrived in his new school, aced second grade. And for ten months, with the support of staff at the Florida women’s village, Dana and Will adjusted to the new normal.
It’s still hard sometimes, Dana says. Okay, all the time. Every time she goes to the grocery store, or even the gas station, there’s wine. Every time friends ask her to go out, it’s “for a drink.” Every time she gets stressed or angry or feels guilty or overwhelmed, she knows all she has to do is buy a bottle and she’ll feel better. But she also knows how much hurt her drinking can cause.
So Dana pictures Will’s sobbing face as the cops carried him away, hears his voice crying out for her to help him. And she knows there’s nothing so bad, nothing so hard, nothing that could ever happen to her that would be worse than that image. She promised him she’s all better. So she’d better be.
Dana saved enough money at her new job handling medical billing for an anesthesiologist to get an apartment. Their duplex is sunny, with wide windows, fresh paint and a little yard. And after almost two years of being displaced, of sharing space with strangers at the rehab, Will has his own bedroom. Even better, his mommy is always herself, he says. “Never not Mommy. And she always makes me dinner.”
In their new living room, a month after they moved in, Will climbs onto their new couch beside his mom and drops a Wii controller into her lap. He slings his slender arm around her shoulder. She hugs him close, turns on the video game. “And you know what the best thing is now?” he asks. “Now Mommy’s never too tired to play.”
Lane DeGregory, a staff writer for the St. Petersburg Times, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. She is mom to Ryland, 13, and Tucker, 12.