Reviewed by Angie Abdou
Whoa. This book knocked the air right out of me. Drunk Mom chronicles one party girl’s head-on collision with motherhood. But Jowita Bydlowska is not your average party girl. She is a self-defined addict.
The memoir begins with Jowita, a new mother on a rare night out, finding a baggie of cocaine in a public washroom. She’s powerless to resist this temptation, and the opening twelve pages tell us where that cocaine takes her. Even in these early pages, the careful reader will begin to suspect that our dear Jowita might have an itsy-bitsy problem.
But then we read that cocaine is not, in fact, Jowita Bydlowska’s problem. Alcohol is Jowita’s problem: “I prefer drinking to anything in the world: sex, food, sleep. My child, my lover, anything. I love to drink. Sometimes I think: No, I am drink. It’s like my blood. Even before I get it, I can feel it in my veins. I’m not being poetic – I can actually feel it in my veins. It’s gold. It’s like little zaps of gold going through me, charging me, starting me up. When I drink, I fill with real gold and become god-like. So I’m not a cocaine addict. I’m a drunk.”
Jowita Bydlowska, to steal a phrase from Hemingway, writes hard and clear about what hurts. And man oh man can she write!
Let me digress for a moment to pose a question: Why should we read? My answer comes in one word: empathy. A book like Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance can put me (a middle class white North American woman) into the skin of a legless homeless Indian man in the streets of Mumbai. This is a man I might have crossed the street to avoid, someone whose suffering I would think had nothing to do with me. By the end of Mistry’s book, I am him. In that way, by creating empathy, good literature can make the world a better place.
I love Drunk Mom for some of the same reasons that I love A Fine Balance. Like Mistry, Bydlowska knows how to immerse a reader fully in created experience (I use “created” deliberately – yes, Bydlowska has lived these events, but a whole lot of artistry is involved in the making of the book). This raw account of the indignities of a chronic drunk put me right in Jowita Bydlowska’s skin through some of the worst years of her life. I lived the pain of her hangovers, the weight of her guilt, the shame of each pump-and-dump, the unrelenting pull of her addiction. It’s not pretty. There is no glamour. She sits in the back of a movie theatre and drinks wine out of a box until she barfs on herself. She repeatedly hurts those who love her most. Why? “Because I wanted a drink. Because the wanting was stronger than me.” There are places in the book where readers might lose hope for her, might even hate her, but never as much as she hates herself. Drunk Mom is a memoir born of profound remorse. Jowita Bydlowska dedicates the book to her son – but she explains “This is not ‘to’ or ‘for’ Hugo but because I’m sorry, Hugo.”
It’s long after last call here and someone has done away with the mood lighting. Jowita Bydlowska takes a hard, fearless look at herself under the fluorescent lights. Her unflinching gaze and stark honesty get a standing ovation from me. Drunk Mom is a book that sticks.
In the acknowledgements, Bydlowska explains that she wrote Drunk Mom for three reasons. One is to help others who have similar struggles. Although she never claims to have the answers (“This is no self-help book,” she writes), I do think Drunk Mom will help. Reading about the binges, the blackouts, the lies, and the constant struggle for recovery, many will know they are not alone.
In my decades as a lover of books, I’ve written only two fan mails. One of them went to Jowita Bydlowska. Thank you, Jowita, for Drunk Mom – for its rawness, for its clarity, for its bravery.
Angie Abdou is the author of several novels, including Anything Boys Can Do and The Bone Cage.