sober lifestyle


We look sweet, but my mom and I have had our scrapes.

There was the one traumatic afternoon when I was 8 or 9 years old, and she drove me to Old Orchard mall and dropped me off in the courtyard with boxes full of chocolate bars I was supposed to sell for a community softball fundraiser. Suffering from crippling peddle-o-phobia as I did (still do), I had instead left them sitting in the middle of the living room floor for months, not-so-secretly hoping they would eventually get eaten and *poof* become someone else’s financial (and probably digestive) problem.

My mother wasn’t sympathetic to my plight, nor hip to my plan. On the day before the money was due, she threw her terrified firstborn child into the abyss of the local shopping center, a hellscape of upscale storefronts teeming with well-heeled strangers. Her instructions: basically, don’t come home without a wad of cash.

It’s hard to do this with a straight face, sit here and try to paint my mom as some kind of pimp. I can’t even imagine what I would do, as a parent, if my child marched in the door every day toting half a candy store or catalog full of useless tchotchkes for every activity she was involved in, and expected me to pay for it all. Be responsible, kid! Show some initiative! I hope you don’t plan on checking “journalism” on your college application if you can’t even ask someone, “Would you like to buy a box of Thin Mints?” 😂

My mom was the reason I got involved in anything to begin with, from sports to music to church youth group, because otherwise I’d have been perfectly happy hiding in my room writing stories and making mix tapes (*looks around at current life* 🤔). To her credit, once she provided that initial push to get out of my own way and get started, she let me run with whatever I wanted to do. She didn’t grab me, shake me and say “Journalism?!? You don’t like to talk to people!” or give me a hard time when I decided to up and move to Georgia for my first sports writing job 20 years ago, almost to the day. She let me live my life, and make my own mistakes, remaining a solid, supportive foundation I could stand on when things felt shaky — and a soft place to land when I fell.

How fitting that I fell into her arms the day I finally decided to stop drinking.

I’m older now than the woman in either of these pictures. I don’t have children of my own; that’s just the way the universe crumbled the cookies, and it’s…(Cliff’s notes version of a complicated topic I could write an entire blog series on)…totally OK. I’m still, in many ways, a child myself, having stunted my emotional growth by escaping into alcohol and other gnarly addictions for more than two decades.

So, you know, no innocent little kids were tortured and damaged in my story, and for that I am extremely thankful. 🙏🏻

My purpose in life is something other than parenthood, and I’m fortunate enough, at 42, to be able — and willing — to search for it. On July 6, 2019, I drank my last tumbler of tequila, and I just celebrated 10 months sober on May 1, 2020.

On the day I decided to quit, I was visiting my parents. They do not drink, and I grew up in a house completely free of booze, cigarettes, and, for a while, sugar, because my mom was a complete Nervous Nellie about letting Daughter #1 have candy or soda or any breakfast cereal that didn’t taste like cardboard. (DING! Chalk that up as another childhood trauma!🤣)

So, my thing was to come into our otherwise dry — or at least very tame — family gatherings like a wrecking ball (I’M ON VACATION! GLUGGLUGGLUG) toting a handle of tequila that I didn’t even feel the need to hide, and pour drink after drink, all day long, and eventually end up in an argument with someone — usually my mom. Bless her heart; she knew it was probably (read: definitely) futile trying to reason with a determined drunk, but she threw down every time, because she is a mom and she just cares that much.

Anyone out there with a mom knows what I mean.

The day of our last fight, on the old back deck in Morton Grove, IL, during my nephew’s first birthday party, was not much different from any other day. Except that by then, I was as far removed from my family foundation as I’d ever been. I was completely unmoored. In fact, probably a month earlier, I’d been sitting on my own back deck in suburban Philly, drowning in despair, dialing my mom to say I didn’t want to die, but I also didn’t want to live anymore.

My mom is the person I turned to in my lowest moment. And she was the person standing in front of me when I finally let go of the last thread of the rope I’d been clinging to, that belief that I needed alcohol to make life worth living. I let go, and there she was, holding me up. I didn’t so much “hit” Rock Bottom as it rose up to meet me.

“I know I have a problem, Mom,” I said, out loud, for the first time ever. “And I know I have to quit.”

Anyone out there with an addiction understands the incredible life-changing significance of that statement.

Don’t ask me to recount what my mom said to me. For one, I’m too busy crying my eyes out and trying to write a blog over here to search my memory. And secondly, at the risk of sounding woo-woo, our interaction that day went way beyond words. No doubt about it, a higher power was working through my mother.

I know now that it always has been.

Four generations. ❤️

I consider myself a strong woman, and it’s no wonder, considering I’ve been raised by — and around — nothing but. You don’t have to be a mom to demonstrate your strength, as evidenced by my two aunts, both of whom have done quite a bit of surrogate mothering for my sisters and me over the years.

My strongest role model, though, is definitely my mom. I mean, I make dumb jokes about forced fundraising and a lack of Lucky Charms “traumatizing” me in my youth, but my mom lived through the death of her older brother when she was 10, and her younger brother passed a little over a decade later, and she not only went on with life, but she devoted that life to helping others.

She has since lost both of her parents, but she didn’t drown in a bottle, or climb into bed, or wallow in sorrow. She summoned her strength and leaned on her faith — like, naturally, not after years of therapy. Amazing.

She became a Special Education teacher and a mother of three, now a grandma of three, pouring her huge heart and creative spirit into all of those jobs and making everyone she touched feel important and loved unconditionally.

Well, I can only speak for myself there — and I think I’ve done quite enough of that for today.

The final thing I’ll say about my mom that I think really sums her up, in my eyes, is that when I decided to enter recovery, she didn’t just sit on the sidelines and wring her hands and worry about something she didn’t fully understand. SHE worked on strengthening herself! She and my husband both found family support groups and got involved, and instead of pointing/wagging their fingers at me and my problem, took this watershed moment as an opportunity to grow as people, so we can all grow together.

I really can’t think of a greater act of love. How do you thank someone for that? (Somehow, the Hallmark card mailed with two ‘Attacking T-Rex’ stamps because that’s all we had in the house 🙄 feels insufficient). I feel like I have two impossible-to-repay debts to my mom: actual birth, and the rebirth of recovery.

My attempt at a meaningful Mother’s Day gift is continuing to chase a goal. Thanks to my mom’s rock-solid support and selfless example, I now have a chance, some tools, and a tank full of motivation, to become the person I was put on Earth to be.

All I know for absolutely certain is, that person is not a salesman. 😉

Jen at 10. My mom was 38 (so young!) when she had my (cropped out) baby sister.

2 thoughts on “Foundation”

  1. Beautiful piece Jen! As a mom, watching your child go through pain, is so hard but that’s what we do. I wish my mom was still here with me as I navigate my current situation. I miss her dearly!


  2. Your mom was always so welcoming and kind to me. Do you remember when I went over to your house after school and she and Andy picked us up? Your mom reminded Andy that it was M day, and Andy said, “M for Melinda!” It was adorable and so sweet. And then there was that time that your parents had me over to help you decorate the Christmas tree. And who could forget when I wrecked my car and was sobbing on your corner? Both your parents swooped me up and brought my blubbering self home. Your mom walked me to the door to explain to my mom what had happened, since I was crying too much to do it myself. Vivid memories I have of her!

    Liked by 1 person

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