One Step at a Time: One Year Sober

“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays by writer and mom Patty N.  who has been chronicling her first year of sobriety.

by Patty N.

The day after tomorrow, my handy 12-Step iPhone app – the one with the sobriety calculator that I compulsively check every day – will finally read, “You’ve been sober for one year / 12 months / 365 days / 8,760 hours.”  Yes!

Needless to say, I will not be celebrating with champagne, like I did after drying out in 2008.  That was the year I set out to prove to myself that I wasn’t an alcoholic. So I quit drinking – except at my 25th high school reunion when, in my whiskey-impaired state, I got into a car driven by an inebriated classmate and, thankfully, didn’t die on the way to Denny’s.  I also drank on New Year’s Eve and blacked out after only a few glasses of champagne.  Then there were the prescription drugs – which I took not exactly as prescribed but, hey, at least they weren’t alcohol.

After my year “on the wagon,” I bought myself a big bottle of bubbly and picked up where I left off.  But it became very clear, very fast, that I shouldn’t drink and that I couldn’t stop.  Embarrassed and ashamed, I started counting days in AA.  At first, I felt like I was being punished. I’m the good kid, the hard worker, the hands-on mom, I thought to myself.  How did I end up here?  And, every time I said, “My name is Patty and I’m an alcoholic,” I would think to myself, But I quit for a year! I didn’t drink everyday! I was high-functioning! I can’t be an alcoholic!”

Slowly, though, the veil of self-criticism and harsh judgement receded and a gentle, clear-headed, self-compassion took its place.  I started wondering:  Would I hate myself for having asthma?  Would I attack myself if I had diabetes? Would I be terrified of running into someone I knew at the dentist office if I had gingivitis?  No!!  So why didn’t I view my alcoholism in the same, straightforward manner?  As Dr. Drew says (I can’t help it, I love him), alcoholism is about chemistry, not character. So why would I be ashamed about a condition over which I have no control?

Looking back, I’ve spent a lot of time this year regretting the past and, oftentimes, wishing to shut the door on it.  I realize that’s part of the process. But as I mark this significant milestone, I’d like to quit mourning my old life and start celebrating my new one.  On Sunday, I will go to my regular AA meeting and announce that I have one year of continuous sobriety.  I’ll collect my special anniversary coin and an amazing group of people, whose last names I may never know, will greet me with applause and hugs and flowers from the corner deli.  And I will call myself an alcoholic, without reservation, without judgement, without shame, and with enough strength to finally bust through that cocoon of self-hatred and fly like a beautiful liberated butterfly.


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Step Four: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

401493172v3_225x225_Front“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays we will be running monthly. We are excited to have writer and mom Patty N. share her fresh perspective as she embarks on the road to sobriety.


by Patty N.

The Fourth Step – a searching and fearless moral inventory – is not so much a step as it is a personal fact-finding mission, a sort of self-guided tour of the past designed to help us figure out why we drank.  Just after my 90th day of sobriety, a clue appeared in my Inbox.

Doug Harrison* wants to be friends on Facebook.

I clicked on the link expecting to see the freckle-faced boy I knew in high school. Instead, a middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a face I no longer recognized greeted me. But just seeing his name  – Doug Harrison – sent me right back to the summer of 1981.

I was fifteen years old, heading into my junior year of high school and had absolutely nothing to do no job, no camp, no family vacation, no responsibilities. Bored and a little lonely, I spent my days at the country club pool where my best friend, Amy, was a life guard. Doug, also fifteen, worked at the club as a golf caddy, and he would come swimming every day after work. One evening, he showed up with two cans of Budweiser for the three of us to share.  I hated the taste, but I loved the buzz. That was my first drink.

Soon after, Doug invited me to go tubing down the Truckee River with his brother, Steve – a senior – and a group of his friends.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked. Steve Harrison was the most popular guy in high school. He was the star of the basketball team, dated the head cheerleader and drove a brand new Camaro Z-28.

“Steve told me I could bring a friend,” Doug said. “And I want to bring you.”

A couple days later, Steve’s Camaro roared into my driveway.

I can’t believe I’m in Steve Harrison’s car, I thought. It smelled like new leather and Coppertone. Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” blared from the cassette deck.  Steve’s blue eyes met mine in the rear view mirror.

“Welcome aboard,” Steve said. “Do you know Deb?”  He nodded toward his tan, buxom girlfriend, who was dressed in a bikini top and cut-off shorts.

Of course I knew Deb. Everyone knew Deb. But she had no reason to know a geek like me.

“Hi,” she said, flashing her bright white homecoming queen smile.

“Hey,” I said, flashing my mouthful of metal. I self-consciously crossed my arms over my flat chest.

As we drove toward Truckee, Steve tossed two Mickey’s Big Mouths into the back seat. I studied Deb, her polished toes resting on the dashboard, as she effortlessly drank her beer. When I took a sip of mine, I actually gagged a little. Beer tasted bad enough and this cheap malt liquor was even worse. But I forced it down anyway.

I was definitely lit when we got to the river and, by the time we finished tubing, I’d had at least two more Big Mouths and a bag of green grapes. I stumbled into the back seat of Steve’s car.  Everything was spinning. Then, knowing I’d never make it to the bathroom, I leaned out the window and vomited on the door of the Z-28 in front of Steve, Doug, Deb and all of their friends.

They all started laughing and chanting, “Grapes! Grapes! Grapes!”  That’s the last thing I remember before I passed out.

I woke up just as Steve was pulling into my driveway. My head was pounding and I felt so humiliated that I’d thrown up in front of the popular kids – and on Steve’s car!

What if my stomach acid ruined his paint job – I’ll never be able to go back to school, I thought.

“Sorry I got sick,” I said, unable to make eye contact.

“Hey, that’s okay,” Steve said. “It was pretty funny.”

“Yeah,” Doug said, “It was fun.”

My mom was in the kitchen when I went inside.

“How was it?” she asked.

“It was fun,” I said.  “It was really fun.”

The next day at the pool, Steve and Doug cheered, “Grapes, grapes, grapes” when they saw me.  I was still a little embarrassed, but I loved the attention.

“Wow,” Amy said, “It sounds like you had a good time.”

My definition of fun became distorted that day on the Truckee River and, as I dig deeper into this personal excavation that is the Fourth Step, I’m able to see how often I confused self-destructive and even dangerous drinking with fun. Being the center of attention, making people laugh, and joking my way out of uncomfortable feelings – all of these became staples of my drinking life for the next 30 years. I denied my disease and dismissed my behavior, choosing to believe I was just a fun drunk. But nobody goes to A.A. because they’re having fun; we go because we can’t pretend anymore.

Doug Harrison wants to be friends on Facebook. CONFIRM or IGNORE.

I wanted to just click IGNORE and get rid of that thumbnail sized reminder of my embarrassing summer of ‘81.  But A.A. promises that if we thoroughly follow each Step, “we will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” Or in my case, throw up on it.  I knew what I had to do – I had to click CONFIRM.

*Names has been changed.

To read Patty’s earlier entries on Drinking Diaries, click here.

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Step Two: Came to believe a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity


“One Step at a Time” is a series of original essays we will be running monthly. We are excited to have writer and mom Patty N. share her fresh perspective as she embarks on the road to sobriety.


by Patty N.

Albert Einstein said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  That pretty much sums up my relationship with alcohol, especially in the past 5 years. I’d drink moderately, then get drunk, then beat myself up, then quit drinking, then decide I could control it because I’d been able to stop, then start drinking again, then get drunk, then quit, then start all over.  It was insane. I was insane.

But there was something about A.A.’s Second Step – the idea that I had to buy into this “Higher Power” thing in order to get sober — that made me a bit uncomfortable.  Not because I didn’t believe – I was raised Catholic, I converted to Judaism in 1996, I certainly believe in God.  It just sounded a little too much like “Jesus Saves” which totally freaked me out.  Because I had been “saved” once before — and it was scary.

When I was 12, my friend Roberta invited me to Wolf Mountain, a weeklong sleep away camp located near the small Northern California town where we lived. She told me it was co-ed so we could meet boys (not like the all-girls Catholic camp from which I had recently returned).  She told me it was “Indian Camp” so we would sleep in giant tee-pees.  She did not tell me, however (maybe she didn’t know) that the camp was run by fundamentalist Christians.  Every night at the campfire, Running Bear or Spotted Wolf (all the staffers had Indian names) would announce the campers who had accepted Jesus Christ as their “personal savior” that day.  I had no intention of adding my name to the list. I’d had my First Communion, I went to confession regularly, I was going to be Confirmed in the coming year. I assumed I was on the fast track to Heaven.  Then on the last night, all the campers were herded into a barn-like auditorium to watch a film about the Rapture. The film depicted, in terrifying detail, the moment when all of the “true Christians” would be gathered together to meet Christ upon His return, leaving all of us fakers behind to die a lonely, miserable death on Earth. It scared the crap out of me. Afterward, I sprinted back to my tee-pee, dropped to my knees and begged my counselor, Little Duckfeet, to save me, too.

Rationally, I knew that A.A.’s traditions were nothing like Wolf Mountain’s salvation-by-intimidation approach.  Still, around my 40th day of sobriety when my sponsor wanted to meet to review the Second Step, visions of Little Duckfeet danced in my head.  I told her I needed more time.

That same week, I was invited to an event at the very trendy Standard Hotel in New York City’s Meatpacking district. Some of my former Conde Nast colleagues had rented the terrace overlooking the High Line with panoramic views of downtown Manhattan.  As we got off the elevator, a young, good-looking waiter greeted us with a tray full of champagne.  I watched enviously as my friends lifted the gold-filled flutes, clinking, toasting, and drinking.  Then my insanity came knocking.

I can have one drink.

I have been so good, I deserve it!

How can I not have a glass of champagne?

Everybody else is drinking, why shouldn’t I?

I walked toward the bar.

“Champagne?” the bartender said as he popped the cork on another bottle.

I imagined the bubbles in my mouth, tickling my palate at first and then becoming sweet and smooth as my troubles melted away with each sip.  I wanted to say “Yes” so badly, and had I been trying to get sober on my own, I probably would have.  But I thought of all those people I had met in my A.A. meetings — unfailingly honest, day after day, sharing their experience, strength and hope with me. They’d given me their phone numbers, invited me for coffee, clapped and cheered when I announced my sober day counts: 12 days…23 days…36 days…41 days.  As the waiter filled up the glass, I imagined calling my sponsor to tell her that I’d have to forfeit those hard-earned days of sobriety and start over. I pictured myself telling all those people who had been rooting so hard for me that I “went out” over a glass of champagne.  I couldn’t do it.

“Just a Perrier with lime,” I finally said. The waiter handed me the unfamiliar drink and I winced as the bubbles stung the inside of my mouth. It was a lot to swallow – this unsatisfying champagne substitute, this strange state of sobriety, this saying no when I wanted to say yes, this Second Step. But I did it.  While physically I was at a glamorous Conde Nast event, mentally I was in a church basement with these strangers I’d come to know, trust and rely on for help. Together, they formed a power that was greater than myself. Together, they helped rescue me from my own insanity.

In the book, Twelve Jewish Steps of Recovery, Rabbi Kerry Olitzky writes, “It doesn’t matter if God has a long white beard, what matters is there’s someone beyond you and beside you.  You just have to connect with it.”  I realized that day that it’s irrelevant whether I am Catholic or Jewish; Born Again or Atheist. What’s most important is that I’m not alone.

Read Patty’s first post of this series .

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The Sweet Smell of Excess

By Sari Botton

mickey rourkeAl-Anon sucked. If I hadn’t been too broke for therapy, I’d never have taken a friend’s advice to attend those awful meetings.

They were worse than the AA meetings I’d been to in support of my string of alcoholic boyfriends over the years – three, if you’re keeping count.  The AA people, when they finally hit bottom, were brave, copped to shit, took responsibility for all the nasty things they’d done when they were trashed. The Al-Anonics were victimy and whiny.  Everything was someone else’s fault.

They were addict-addicts, people who NEEDed people in the worst possible way, and yet would counter-intuitively go for only the most unavailable, most uninterested, meanest people around. I, of course, did not see myself that way – she who was addicted to alcohol not by mouth, but on the breath of a difficult man.

Eric, my friend in AA, suggested I try his meetings instead.

“I’m not an alcoholic,” I protested.

“Here’s what you do,” he said. “Go lock yourself in a room with a case of Jack Daniels and don’t come out until it’s all gone. Then, go directly to AA. Do not pass Go.”

I thought about it. While I was at it, I might try writing, too. I’d always wanted to try writing drunk. I imagined it would free me from my crippling good-girl inhibitions.

I couldn’t though. I’d sworn off drinking nearly four years before, initially for Steve. I kept my vow of sobriety as I moved on to Bill, and then to Evan. How, oh how, pray tell, would these poor, poor men stay on the wagon without the support of little ole me? That right there is what kept me hooked. Look at how all-important I was to another human’s well being. What power I could have. All while appearing saintly. Trade that in for the occasional glass of wine? No way. This was much more intoxicating.

Except that the buzz never lasted long. In a matter of time, each boyfriend would return to drinking, and I’d feel like the ultimate failure. The relationship would bust apart, maybe for a while, maybe for good.

Evan and I went back and forth a few times. He had the hardest time of all staying sober, and I had the hardest time walking away from him. A hot, long-haired musician always surrounded by women, he also had difficulty keeping it in his pants. He reminded me of my grandfather, the original drunk in my life, alternately affectionate and icy, and unfaithful to my grandmother.

Pappa could put away a fifth of Johnny Walker Red Label a day.  I knew because I worked for him at his Seventh Avenue garmento firm. When my cousins heard I’d started working there, they joked, “What do you do, pour scotch all day?” Well, that was one of my jobs. It started at 10:30 a.m. He’d ask me to wash a glass, grab some ice, and pour some Johhny. I did that over and over until it was time to catch the train home. I knew that smooth, perfumey, malty smell so well. I had been breathing it in since I first sat on Pappa’s lap as a little girl. It simultaneously tantalized and lulled me, from the first.

Evan’s breath was infused with Vodka rather than Scotch, but it worked. My last go-round with him could have been avoided. I thought I had finally learned my lesson, and was ready to move on, not just from him, but from the Land of the Twelve Steppers. But he begged.

“I need to do this – I need to get sober for you,” he pleaded.

“But they say it never works when you get sober for someone,” I reasoned. I also instinctively knew he wasn’t ready, and doubted whether he ever would be. There were too many other women around him who were eager to do whatever he wanted in exchange for him making them feel important and powerful, too.

“Please.” He was serious. “You just have to promise you won’t leave me if I fall off the wagon. You have to stick around and help me back on.” It was the opposite of the frequently advised tough love, but I signed on anyway.

Things were great for a few weeks. Evan was so eager to try, and he’d replaced his fixation on alcohol with a fixation on me. He wrote songs about me, wrote me love letters, thanked me for having the courage to insist he go to meetings. I was higher than a kite, strung out on his complete adoration. It was so perfect.

But right on schedule, he fell. Hard. He’d never made it longer than a month, and we were rounding three weeks. Just in time, his last girlfriend, Melissa, sent him a Christmas card. He met her for a “friendly” dinner. He called me that night, and tried to hide his slurring, unsuccessfully.

“I can’t talk to you like this,” I said. “I have to get off.”

“But you promised you wouldn’t leave me if I fell. You’d stay and help me get up.”

And so I did. I went to Al-Anon, bristling as people whined. Evan was supposed to go to AA. When he stopped doing that, I started dragging him there myself, sitting with him through meetings. Then he’d sneak off. He always had to be somewhere. I knew where, although I didn’t want to know. He’d call from payphones, and the names of the bars they were situated in would come up on my caller I.D.

The drinking got worse. Now I was the enemy.

“At least Melissa will drink with me,” he argued on the phone one evening. “You’re. No. Fun.” He had this way of punctuating his word when he was sloshed, in what seemed like an effort not to seem sloshed. “If you’d just come with me to the bar…” He fell asleep mid-sentence.

Okay. I’d go with him to the bar. Maybe sitting there, sober, across from him, I could somehow appeal to him. And get him to go back to AA. And change his ways. And save his life! And save our love! Because I am just that awesome and powerful.

For a guy who clung to the mid-90s grunge look, Evan had weird taste in bars. He liked these shiny mid-town tourist traps on the ground floors of hotels that especially appealed to high-class hookers and their business-men-in-from-out-of-town clientele. One well-dressed flight attendant type came back with three different men in the course of an evening as I sat there and watched Evan down six pints of draught beer, each one followed by a shot of chilled Stoli.

I stared as he pounded, wondering what it felt like inside his brain. I was fascinated with the idea of being blissfully anesthetized, but not quite tempted to go there myself. I found myself torn between wanting to be fun like Melissa, and wanting to get serious and save him. One minute I was laughing at his stupid jokes, positioning myself just so to receive his sloppy, fragrant, Vodka-flavored kisses, and the next, I was crying, pleading, “When will you be ready to get sober again?”

“This is just a bender, babe,” he said holding me tight, alcohol fumes wafting out his mouth and off his skin, enveloping me, caressing me. “I just have to go all the way through it to get to the other side. Stay with me. We’ll get there.”

More drinking. More dragging him to meetings, after which he’d run off. Then came the confession.

He’d cheated.

I punched him in the stomach. I stopped taking his calls.

“What about me?!” He shouted into my answering machine.“I want to jump out the window and kill myself, and you won’t even pick up the phone. Would you even cry if I died?” Imagine that. With just one phone call, I could save his life. I was getting tired of being so important and powerful.

That didn’t stop me from going back and forth with him a few more times. The night he chose to stay at Melissa’s and drink instead of coming to see me, sober, it was over for me. Well, almost. First, I needed to see what all the fuss was about. I needed to know what he and Melissa felt when they were knocking back shots. It never looked fun from the outside, but if he kept wanting to do it so badly, there had to be something to it.

I went to Detour, the jazz bar across the street from my East Village tenement. I hadn’t had a vodka drink since my 18th birthday, when a single screwdriver had yielded bed spins and a terrible hangover. But now I wanted vodka. I knew the smell. Now I wanted to know the taste. And, hey, this might be my chance to write drunk.

There was a woman singing old standards accompanied by a guitar and bass. I ordered a vodka martini. After four years of not a drop of alcohol, I sat at the bar and sipped it slowly. It went right to my head. I felt like there was a bubble on it. The edges on the sounds got softer. People seemed to be moving more slowly.

A man at the other end of the bar sent over another one for me. I smiled at him, not feeling the least bit flirtatious or amorous. This made people want each other? Sip. Sip. Sip. I felt…out of it. Removed. Numb. The appeal was lost on me.

I stumbled back across the street to my apartment. As I lay down on the couch, exhausted, I noticed my journal on the coffee table. This was my chance. Inhibitions be damned!

The next morning I woke with a crushing headache. The notebook was on the floor. I picked it up. There were only two lines:

“I drank vodka tonight,” I wrote. “I can’t feel my face.”

Sari Botton’s articles and essays have appeared in The New York Times, New York magazine, The Village Voice, MORE, Marie Claire, Self, Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and many other publications, as well as on WAMC radio and NPR. Her website is she blogs at


Getting My Mother Sober

russian_family_at_the_feast_tableBy Erin St. John Kelly

Late in the afternoon of Easter Sunday, my mother arrived at my house for dinner holding on hard to my stepfather’s arm, sporting a fresh, scabby shiner.

She’d managed to fall up the stairs, slamming into the baluster of her staircase the night before. I nudged her towards a chair in my little kitchen as efficiently and subtly as I could, hoping to minimize her mobility and the possibility of another accident.

My mother sat at the head of the table, having a slur of a rant to no one in particular. Among my assembled friends and family, one of my sisters and her daughter sat quietly leaking tears at their places. My eldest daughter left the table after a short while and the rest of the children followed her. Their grandmother was scaring them during the appetizer and they opted for crackers and cheese in the next room instead. She was impenetrable, only vaguely resembling the person they’d known as their grandmother.

My brother James had died earlier that year. It was sudden, out of the blue, and far, far away from my mother’s bucolic college town. She hadn’t been able to say goodbye. She hadn’t seen his body. After he died she lamented that she never should have let him go. As if he’d asked, and as if he would have obeyed. She couldn’t relate to the distant place he’d died except through the story of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” because they too had died in Tupiza, Bolivia. James wasn’t robbing banks and he didn’t die in a shoot-out. He and his wife were backpacking around the world, doing good works, before they would settle down to raise a family. He died of altitude sickness in an Andean emergency room that had no oxygen mask. He came home as a box of ashes.

My mother was raised on an apple farm in Southern Quebec, the middle child of seven girls. She was the first ever in her family to go to college. She survived a bout with breast cancer, a stint in women’s prison for civil disobedience, and Woodstock in the rain, but it was her despair from James’ death that triggered her descent into raging alcoholism.

My mother was so drunk she smelled. She wore the same sweatpants and sweatshirt day in and day out. She had once loved a martini – we called them garbage-tinis because she’d pretend it was good for her by adorning it with limp, brown vegetables culled from the drawers of the fridge, creating a stinky salad in a fancy glass. Now she was pared right down to gin, in a coffee mug, while lying in bed.

My mother has read all of Proust.  She has probably spent more time immersed in the matters of Congress, albeit via C-SPAN, than have most actual Members. As a matter of course, three televisions and at least one radio were on at all times, and two or three daily newspapers were ingested. When we were growing up she took us to rock concerts, peace rallies and hitchhiking through the Yukon.

Then, a cacophonous slide into nothing. The televisions were all on but she didn’t care about what was happening on them. She didn’t know what time of day it was– it was irrelevant. She was either in a rage, or on the verge of one.  She complained that she didn’t hear from us, her children, enough. We did call, but she didn’t remember having spoken to us. One winter my eight-year-old daughter realized that my mother was surprised to see her every time she walked past.  She said to me, “Mom, I am worried about Granny’s memory.”  Mom had provided me a tremendous opportunity to explain the nexus of martinis, mourning and memory.

My five remaining siblings and I felt helpless for more than a year to address her drinking, except among each other.  His death brought the revelation that the family had depended on James, the middle child, to be our emotional and cultural center. Now we had lost him, and it. He was so steadfast, earnest and good. He signed off all his emails from abroad with this Mark Twain quote: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”

James was also a worry-wort. Be it concern for the global state of humanity or trying to eat healthier, he was on it. No one hated my mother’s drinking like James had.

I hadn’t planned to confront Mom for everyone’s Easter dinner.  I had planned to serve a specially ordered ham instead. I had been rolling around the need to deal with her in my mind, but hadn’t been able to form a real plan of how and when to do it. Turns out, there’s no good time for an intervention with your mother.

It started by accident. I sat next to her and suggested she eat something every now and again, maybe even drink a glass of water. I offered to get her one. She mumbled that she couldn’t, that I just didn’t understand how it felt to be her. She dropped the sickening bomb I knew she had, but didn’t think I had it in me to withstand. She didn’t save it up. It came out fast. “You haven’t lost a child,” she moaned. And everything froze.  All the chopping, washing, table-setting and chat ceased.

My voice shook and I paused. Then I continued, motivated by the eternal regret and sorrow that I’d experience if I let her die without trying to make her stop, just once.

“You haven’t lost a child.” It was what I feared she would say. I felt almost guilty for not having a dead child myself. That without one, I had no understanding and therefore no grounds to complain. “No, I haven’t,” I said. Then it came to me why I could confront her. “But I have lost a brother. And now I am losing my mother. And my children are losing their grandmother.” There was more that just tumbled out, but I can no longer remember what else I said. My mother sat quietly waiting for me to finish. “Well, dear, Mommy loves you very much, but now she has to go,” she said, as she put her hand on my shoulder to raise herself up from the table.

I know that it is completely irrational to feel like James’ death was a personal failure of mine, but there it is. I did. As the oldest child I had always felt a conflicted mix of power and responsibility. I fixed things. I adjudicated. I felt I had failed everyone by not bringing him back from Bolivia alive. At the funeral home in La Paz, I saw him for the last time through the glass window of a little blue coffin.  His shoulders were cramped against the wooden walls of a box built for a small Andean native – the biggest coffin his wife was able to find. I am haunted by his face with his lips pursed in the way they looked before he was going to say something that mattered to him. I couldn’t be so weak as to fail him and the family again, by letting Mom die a drunk.

At my desk on Monday, I wrote my mother an email to restate in print what I’d said at Easter dinner – I was afraid that my spoken words wouldn’t stick. I didn’t know how else to try to get through. I hoped that she would be able to process it, staring at the screen in her own time. In my email I begged her to stop, to take some pity on us – the survivors – her children and her grandchildren. Must we watch her kill herself? And then I typed what I had been unable to say: was the death of one of us worth more than the other five of us alive?

I sent a copy of my email to my siblings right after sending it to my mother. I wanted them to be aware of what I’d done, the possible horrors I’d unleashed. I waited with a panicky, shiny sense of dread for reaction – from them and from her.

Two days later, I was sitting at my desk when an email gently floated across my computer screen that simply said, “You’re right. I quit.” Oh my God, it’s a suicide note I thought, and I dialed the phone, to see if I could stop her or if it was too late. There she was on the other end of the phone. I was at work so I couldn’t say much except, “Really? What can I do to help?”

I thought rehab. “Let me try it my way,” my mother said. “If that doesn’t work then I promise to do it your way,” she said. She and my stepfather joined AA.

It’s been more than a year. She showers. She drinks seltzer and fruit juice spritzers in wine glasses. She goes to weekly AA meetings. A former reporter, she listens intently to other people’s tales of horror and redemption. And she thanks me all the time for writing the note. “I want to be sober until the day that I die,” she announced last summer. I believe her. My mother is nothing if not a zealous participator, a whole-hearted committer to things. She’s recommenced being her old quirky self, protesting for peace in front of the post office, glutting herself on news and stuffing her grandchildren full of snacks.

And now, even her sense of humor is reviving. On Mother’s Day this year she took me and two of my sisters out for dinner. She explained it was to make up for whatever she’d done wrong during our entire lives. She was practicing an AA step, and we had about an hour. We sipped delicious, unembellished tap water and I asked her what the secret element to her resolve was. “Maternal instinct,” she said. “I don’t want to worry the children. It’s not the way it’s supposed be.”

Erin St. John Kelly is the eldest of the eight children from her parents’ many marriages. She and her husband have two daughters. She has lived in Brooklyn, New York for almost 20 years. The writing she is most proud of has appeared in The New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, Brain Child Magazine and on WBFO, the Buffalo NPR station. This essay originally appeared in “Knowing Pains,” an anthology that is a fundraiser for a breast cancer non-profit (“)