We’re thrilled to bring you an excerpt from Brenda Wilhelmson’s unflinching memoir, Diary of An Alcoholic Housewife (Hazelden), in which she chronicles the struggles that led to her decision to get sober as well as her first year in recovery (and beyond).
The first ten people to comment on this post (and tweet about it—please paste your tweet in the comment section below) will be entered into a drawing to win a copy of the memoir.
The following are some of Wilhelmson’s diary entries, which will give you a taste of her candid voice and hard-earned wisdom:
[Saturday, December 7]
Strips of sunshine beamed on my face as the sun streamed through loosely closed bedroom window blinds. I opened my eyes and pressed my hands to my puffy face. My cheekbones ached. I lifted my head off the pillow and the room started spinning. I lowered my head back on the pillow. I was still drunk. Charlie kissed me and started tugging at my pajama bottoms. I started to cry.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I blubbered. “I’m a wreck. I’ve got to stop drinking.” Charlie rubbed my arm sympathetically.
I really didn’t want to stop drinking. I wanted to control my drinking. But I couldn’t control it. I kept getting plastered.
Once, when I was thirty years old and Max was two, I was sitting alone on the back deck of my house in Chicago drinking my third vodka on the rocks when I thought, I’m going to wind up in a program for addicts if I keep this up. Then I laughed and thought, At least I’ll get out of the house and socialize again. Then I walked out of the kitchen and poured myself another stiff cocktail…
…I married Charlie when I was twenty-seven and had Max at twenty-eight. I was an artsy, 115-pound freelance journalist who drank like a 250-pound guy. I wrote for the Chicago Reader and the Chicago Tribune, and covered the television commercial industry for Creativity magazine. I got wined and dined a lot while interviewing advertising people and commercial directors, but I stopped interviewing them in person after Max was born. My interviews were now done over the phone as I ping-ponged between Max and my computer. Some days I never got out of my pajamas.
Charlie and I moved from a relatively hip apartment in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood to a house we could afford in a safe, blue-collar neighborhood…
Five days a week Charlie took the train downtown to an office where he edited a trade magazine about telephone directories. I worked at home, took Max to parks and museums, and felt guilty about whatever I was doing. When I was writing, I felt guilty about not playing with Max. When I was playing with Max, I felt guilty about not writing. Mountains of dirty laundry piled up. The kitchen sink brimmed with dirty dishes. There was a layer of dust everywhere. When I reached my filth limit I’d clean, all the while muttering expletives about having to waste my precious time on banal tasks.
I started having a glass of wine or two when I cooked dinner. It was my treat for pulling off another day. Soon I was drinking two, three, four glasses of wine, and Charlie would come home and we’d finish off the bottle I started and uncork another.
…One of my dad’s nicknames for me was Bernice. Bernice was my fall-off-the-barstool alcoholic aunt. I called my dad Norman. Norman was Bernice’s mean-as-a-snake alcoholic husband. My dad and I partied a lot together. When I was twenty, I quit college for a year to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and went to work for my dad thinking I’d, perhaps, take over his printing company. I packed up my stuff at Northern Illinois University and moved back into my parents’ house near Chicago. Every morning my dad and I would get into his car, pick up his friend Jack, who worked in the same building, and drive downtown. At the end of the day, we’d hop back in the car and stop for happy hour at a rib joint named Bones. We’d hook up with one or two of my dad’s customers or suppliers, and my dad and his buddies would down manhattans like kids drinking Kool-Aid. I’d drink Heineken and do my best to keep up. Holding your liquor was a badge of honor with these guys. Thank God there was a large buffet table of hors d’oeuvres.
[Tuesday, January 28]
I was lying in bed this morning thinking about how I thought I didn’t give a shit about what people thought of me. I was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of girl. But I care what people think of me more than I want to admit. Drinking swanky martinis and expensive wine was part of a party diva image I tried to manufacture for myself. I liked people who stood out and spoke their minds, and I tried to model myself after them. As I lay in bed, I wondered if I was becoming a dullard.
[Tuesday, March 11]
I want to drink again. Maybe I can do it. It’s hard to relate to the homeless stories, whoring stories, my-children-were-taken-away-from-me stories. I’ve been trying to work the steps, but I’ve been having a hard time.
Step One: “We admitted we were powerless over (enter substance or behavior)—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I go back and forth with this one but, yeah, I know I’m powerless over alcohol, especially when I remind myself that part of the reason I had Van was to sober up.
Step Two: ‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” I never thought I was insane. I was a pothead-turned-drinker who let alcohol spin out of control.
…I started smoking pot my junior year of high school. I liked it. It made me feel uninhibited and comfortable in my own skin. My usual negative thoughts—I’m not pretty enough, I’m too skinny, I’m a Seventh-Day Adventist freak—evaporated when I got high.
I had attended a parochial Seventh-Day Adventist school from first grade through ninth grade. My mother was devout and she, my sister, and I kept the Sabbath from Friday night sundown to Saturday night sundown and went to church on Saturday. My sister and I were taught that drinking was bad, gambling was bad, dancing was bad, wearing jewelry was bad, reading novels was bad, going to movies was bad. My father, however, had immunity. He spent Friday nights at the Moose Lodge playing poker and getting sloshed and never went to church.
Paula and I were allowed to watch The Brady Bunch, Little House on the Prairie, Happy Days, and The Waltons. We wished we could be like the normal kids on TV who went to parties and danced.
My sophomore year of high school, I began attending public school. The Adventist school I’d gone to for nine years, North Shore, ended after ninth grade…
A hateful look crossed my mother’s face. “You’re going to be miserable in public school,” she growled. “You won’t be able to participate in anything. All extracurricular activities are on the Sabbath. You’ll go to school and do nothing else.”
….[In high school] I discovered the joys of marijuana and alcohol. I started questioning authority, who I was, the existence of God. The first two questions persist today…
[Sunday, April 6]
Most people trying to recover don’t hang out with their drinking or using buddies. The ones who do usually start getting messed up again. I’ve been telling people at meetings who question my socializing that I’m doing it for Charlie. “Why should his life have to change, why should he stop having fun just because I stopped drinking?” However, I’m hanging out with the old crowd as much for me as Charlie because I don’t want to get rid of my friends. I don’t want to feel like a sicko who has to isolate and only hang out with sober people. A lot of people in recovery shield themselves from drinking situations, hide out at meetings, talk incessantly about how messed up they were. I don’t want to be like them. I just want to be normal.
[Tuesday, May 20]
Iris spoke next: “You know what’s strange? We feel comfortable telling people our drinking war stories, but we’re uncomfortable saying we’re sober and in recovery. I work in an emergency room and some drunk came in passed out, some young guy. He was a John Doe for a while because he had no ID. When he came to, he had no idea where he was. The nurses were scratching their heads about this blackout thing and I was like, “Oh yeah, that happened to me all the time. I’d wake up and not remember how I got where I was.” They were like, “Really?” But never in a million years would I have said, “But I don’t drink anymore. I work a recovery program.”
That’s the paradox. If people know you’re in a recovery program, you’re sick, but as long as you’re still partying, you’re okay.
–From Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife by Brenda Wilhelmson, copyright 2011 by HAZELDEN FOUNDATION, Reprinted by permission of Hazelden Foundation, Center City, MN.
Diary of An Alcoholic Housewife is Brenda Wilhelmson’s first book. You can find an interview with her on Drinking Diaries.