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Authors: Brenda Wilhelmson

Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife

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Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife

HAZELDEN

Hazelden Center City, Minnesota 55012
hazelden.org

© 2011 by Brenda Wilhelmson
All rights reserved. Published 2011
Printed in the United States of America

No part of this publication may be reproduced without the express written permission of the publisher. Failure to comply with these terms may expose you to legal action and damages for copyright infringement.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wilhelmson, Brenda.

Diary of an alcoholic housewife / Brenda Wilhelmson. p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-61649-086-7 (softcover) — ISBN 978-1-61649-000-3 (e-book)

1. Wilhelmson, Brenda. 2. Women alcoholics—United States— Diaries. 3. Alcoholics—Rehabilitation—United States. I. Title.

HV5293.W54A3 2011

362.292092—dc22

[B]

2010051679

Editor’s note

Some names, details, and circumstances have been changed to protect
the privacy of those mentioned in this publication.

The Big Book
(Alcoholics Anonymous)
is a registered trademark of
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

14 13 12 11 1 2 3 4 5 6

Cover design by Theresa Jaeger Gedig
Interior design by Cathy Spengler
Typesetting by BookMobile Design and Publishing Services

If you have a drinking problem,
or love someone who does,
this book is for you.
Peace.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Big thanks to my beautifully imperfect family and friends. If we were perfect, we wouldn’t need each other—or be very interesting. Thank you, Sarah Karon, for reading this book, asking Paul to take it to Hazelden, and being a kick-ass friend. Paul Karon, thank you for putting my book in front of the editorial powers that be. Sid Farrar, big thanks for believing in this book and making me a published author. Amy Krouse-Rosenthal, thank you for turning me on to Amy Rennert. Amy Rennert, my contract navigator, thank you. To my mother, Sally, and husband, Charlie, thank you for your unflinching support. And to my Higher Power, thank you for the amazing ride.

INTRODUCTION

One of the many nights I left a recovery meeting wondering if I really belonged there, I drove to a bookstore and pulled every drinking-related memoir I could find off the shelves. I didn’t want to read a depraved story about how low a person could go. I wanted verification that someone like me was a drunk and needed to stop drinking. I left the store empty handed and bummed. As I lay in bed that night, the thought
Write that book
flew into my head.

I bought a notebook the next day and began my first journal entry with the evening I got blackout-wasted and woke up the next morning knowing I needed to quit. I don’t know why that episode was the lynchpin. I’d had countless drunks and hangovers just like it. I believe it was just the accumulation of so many shit-faced nights and sick mornings.

I kept writing journal entries for fifteen months as I worked to stay sober. During that time, I worried about my family and friends, the people who were appearing in its pages. Many were not going to like what they saw. I didn’t come off well either. If I wasn’t honest, if I didn’t accurately report the way the world appeared through my lens, however, my book would be trash, useless to other high-functioning alcoholics I wanted to connect with. I changed the names and identities of my friends so that only the people themselves, or others who already saw them as I did, would know who I was writing about. But my family wasn’t as fortunate. If you know me, you know my family. They were stuck.

I finished my last journal entry on February 8, 2003. I walked over to a chest of drawers in my bedroom, opened the drawer where I kept the other nine notebooks I’d filled with journal entries, threw it in, and closed the drawer. My journals sat there untouched for about a year and a half. I didn’t want to look at them or deal with them until the day (and I don’t remember what day it was) I felt compelled to start typing my journal entries into my computer. I began rewriting and editing. I’d work then stop, work then stop. Sometimes I’d stop for days, weeks, or months because life got busy or difficult, or the journal entries I was looking at were uncomfortable. I’d begin again when I felt an internal urge to get back to it.

Three and a half years later, I completed the manuscript for
Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife.
On December 26, 2008, I began blogging it. Two months after the blog was up, I was vacationing in Puerto Rico with my husband and woke up in the middle of the night thinking,
What the hell am I doing? I’m putting myself and my loved ones out there in a big way and people are going to be hurt and hate me.
I considered killing the blog when I got home, but people were reading it, and I figured I was helping them. “If
Diary
ends up being no more than a helpful blog, I’m good with that,” I decided. That spring, after hearing from people with drinking problems who contacted me through my blog, I started looking for an agent. That summer, my friend, Sarah Karon, urged me to let her husband, Paul, take my book to Hazelden, and Hazelden liked it. So here’s my book.

DIARY
ENTRIES

[Friday, December 6]

Shook up a vodka martini and stirred my beef bourguignon. I like my martinis like James Bond’s: straight up, dry, and with a twist, except my martini glasses—artfully etched with small decorative rectangles—are triple size. My husband, Charlie, poured himself a scotch on the rocks.

This afternoon I took our sons—Max, ten, and Van, two—to my parents’ for the weekend because we’re partying. The O’Brians, high school friends of Charlie’s, are coming for dinner tonight, and tomorrow Charlie and I are going to the Wendts’ because it’s their turn to host the Bacchanal Dinner Club I started.

The doorbell rang. I stopped stirring the bourguignon, walked through the living room, and waved at Mary and Pat through the leaded glass door of our 100-year-old arts and crafts bungalow. A bit of martini sloshed over the rim of my glass as I pulled the door open. A blast of cold air blew in with Mary and Pat. Their sleeping car-seat-cradled infant dangled from Pat’s arm. He set the baby down on the living room floor, and Charlie went off to pour Pat a scotch and shake a martini for Mary.

“I love your artwork,” Mary cooed, taking her martini from Charlie and roaming from living room to TV room to dining room.

“Thanks,” I said, pointing out a few impressionistic cocktail party scenes. “Martha painted those.”

“Charlie’s mom was so talented,” Mary sighed. “Yes, she was.”

Charlie’s mom, Martha, died of lung cancer three months ago. Her memorial service was held at a Chicago art gallery that sold her work, and Mary had attended.

“I really miss her,” I said. I lifted my martini toward one of her paintings. “To you, Martha,” I said and sipped my drink. I looked at Mary. “She was a hell of a lot of fun.”

“I miss my grandmother, too,” Mary said. “She was a ballet dancer. Loved to entertain. Didn’t bother picking up before her guests arrived—which drove my mother nuts. She’d move laundry off furniture as people needed to sit down. She always opened the door with a martini in her hand. You reminded me of her.”

“Here’s to your grandmother,” I said. We clinked glasses and drank. The phone rang, and I headed for the kitchen.

I picked up the phone and heard my friend Kelly, one of my regular drinking buddies, giggle. “Hey Bren,” she said.

“Hey Kel,” I said, throwing ice cubes into my martini shaker.

“Whatchya drinkin’?” she asked

“Martinis,” I said, pouring vodka over the crackling cubes.

“Don’t forget you’re partying with us tomorrow.”

“Are you checking up on me?” I laughed. I shook the shaker and watched it grow frosty in my hands.

“I want to make sure you’re not overdoing it,” Kelly said.

“You
are
checking on me. That’s sweet, but I gotta go. See ya tomorrow.”

I returned to Mary with the shaker and freshened her martini. The phone rang again.

“God, who’s calling now?” I said and returned to the kitchen to pick it up.

“This is totally stupid,” Liv said, “but Kelly made me call you.” Liv started cackling. “Kelly wanted me to tell you not to drink too much.” Liv’s voice cut out and cut back in. “God, I can’t believe it. Call waiting. It’s Kelly making sure I’m calling you.”

Charlie walked into the kitchen and uncorked a bottle of cabernet. “I think we should serve dinner pretty soon,” he said. Charlie opened the martini shaker, dumped the ice down the sink, and gave me a fatherly you’ve-had-enough-martinis look.

“Sure,” I said.

I finished my martini and served up the beef bourguignon along with homemade blue-cheese-and-apple coleslaw, bakery baguettes, and wine. For dessert I served lemon tarts. I was pretty buzzed by the time I dished up dessert and decided to mention I had freeze-dried psychedelic mushrooms in our basement freezer. I’d purchased the mushrooms two summers ago from Ralph, a whack job who impregnated my friend Rachel. Charlie and I had the unhappy couple over for a barbecue and while Charlie was grilling chicken, Ralph informed me that AIDS was a government conspiracy begun to get rid of Rock Hudson and Andy Warhol. He told me the white lines trailing airplanes were evidence that the government was dumping toxic waste on us. Later, Ralph casually mentioned he had mushrooms for sale. I hadn’t tripped in more than thirteen years and felt a little giddy. I told Charlie about the mushrooms, but he didn’t think buying an ounce was a good idea. I purchased the mushrooms anyway.

I kept the mushrooms on a high shelf in a little-used kitchen cabinet and waited for the right occasion to eat them. After they’d been up there a few months, I took them down for an inspection and noticed they were sprouting mold. I threw them into the deep freeze and hadn’t looked at them since.

“Why don’t we go down and take a look at them?” Pat offered. I took him downstairs and pulled the ’shrooms out from under a large frozen turkey. Pat turned the baggie over in his hands a couple of times, opened it, and popped one into his mouth. “They’re fine,” he said. I laughed and popped a mushroom, too.

Either Pat or I suggested going for a walk to look at Christmas lights. Charlie and Mary declined so Pat and I threw on coats and left. I teetered down snowy sidewalks on four-inch stiletto-heeled boots and, on the way back, slipped and fell hard on my ass. I remember Pat helping me up, and the next thing I remember is sitting on the living room couch uncorking another bottle of wine. Charlie was glaring at me. It was three o’clock in the morning.

[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 into 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. The neighborhood was in the new Little Italy area by Belmont and Harlem. It was peppered with Italian delis, shady social clubs, and homes with gaudy lamps and plastic-sheathed couches in front of big picture windows. Much of the landscape gleamed with bright white stones and tiny manicured shrubs. Elmwood Park was next door. Whenever a mafioso got whacked, chances were he lived in Elmwood Park.

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.

My cousin, Mike, began coming over and hanging out with me in the afternoons. Mike lived fifteen minutes away and was working on his doctoral dissertation in economics. His days went something like this: lumber out of bed around ten thirty, ease the hangover with greasy eggs and bacon, work on his dissertation until four, and drive to my house for cocktails. Mike wasn’t a wine drinker and I wasn’t a beer and bourbon drinker, so we compromised on vodka.

I drank vodka martinis when I ate out and went clubbing because I thought they gave me a Bette Davis kind of glamour, plus the buzz was great. They soon became my at-home drink. Mike and I would polish off half a bottle to three-quarters of a bottle of vodka. Charlie would come home and find us dancing with Max to Concrete Blonde, or lolling in the backyard baby pool, or laughing our asses off about something stupid. Charlie would shoot me dirty looks and I’d ignore him.

Max and I went to a Moms & Tots class on Tuesday and Thursday mornings. We’d sit in a circle on the floor, and Miss Lisa, eyes painted in frosted blue, stretchy stirrup pants on her legs, would start with calendar time. Max would squirm out of my lap, I’d lasso him back, and this went on and on through story time. Miss Lisa would pop in a cassette tape, and we’d all attempt to dance and sing “The Hokey Pokey.” I’d shake Max’s left foot, jiggle him about; he’d never do it on his own. Then Max and I would sit at a junior-sized table for art. The moms would cut and paste together Halloween bats, Santa heads, and apple trees, and coax their children to scribble on them.

“Max made this?” Charlie would ask when he saw an art project hanging on the refrigerator. “Uh, yeah, sorta.”

One night, while I was cooking, Mike was sitting on a bar stool at my kitchen island when he noticed my Moms & Tots class photo tucked behind a candy dish. He started laughing. “All these domestic-looking moms and then there’s you. Here comes trouble.”

The picture was taken a few weeks into the Moms & Tots session. Most of the moms were wearing Bermuda shorts and crisp blouses or dowdy T-shirts, and they were holding smiling children. I was wearing frayed cut-offs, a Banana Republic tank, and balancing a crying Max on my hip.

Marie, a pretty Brooklyn native with enormous auburn hair, was someone I’d targeted as a possible friend at Moms & Tots because she was funny as hell. We were coloring fall leaves at our tiny art tables one day when Marie griped, “I can’t tell the difference between my canned tomatoes and store-bought ones, but Sal won’t eat gravy with store-bought.” A wave of commiseration went up, and I learned most of the other moms were preserving homegrown tomatoes in their summer kitchens: second kitchens in their basements where they baked lasagnas and eggplant parmesans all summer long so they wouldn’t heat up the house.

“My husband once tasted a pot of sauce I was making and threw it out the back door because I was using store-bought,” Tina said.

I scanned the faces of the women to see if they were joking, and they were nodding their heads except for Vicky, a pretty Puerto Rican, who shot me a thank-God-we’re-not-them look.

Vicky and I got to be chummy. She invited Charlie and me to her New Year’s Eve party and I gladly accepted. Charlie and I pulled up in front of Vicky’s modest ranch house and parked. “This is it?” Charlie asked with a chuckle. Every square inch of their snowy lawn was covered with light-up Santas, reindeer, giant snowmen, candy canes, carolers, and gingerbread men. It looked like they’d cleaned out every hardware store in the area. The house next door was the same. We shielded our eyes from the bright lights and rang the bell. Vicky’s husband, Lou, answered. He was a butcher and body builder. He pumped Charlie’s hand up and down. “Did you see the lawn next door?” he asked, shaking his head. “Every time we put a decoration out, that guy puts another one up. It’s like it’s a contest or something.” Lou led us to the basement. The basement floor was carpeted in a lush deep-pile. The heads of timber wolves, mountain lions, and bear looked out from dark wood paneling.

“Wow!” I gasped.

Lou clapped Charlie on the back and led him from a snarling bobcat to a stately buck. Vicky grabbed my arm. “Do you know what it’s like to have to vacuum and dust down here? It’s a nightmare.”

The four of us padded across the expensive carpet to the bar. Five muscle men in tight-fitting shirts were sitting there with their pretty women. Lou introduced us and poured us stiff drinks. The men continued talking about their BMWs and Mercedes. Lou slapped one on the back and laughed. “Alex here’s got a house in Barrington the size of an airplane hangar. Better watch it, mafioso.”

Alex smiled sheepishly. He turned his doughy face to his blond glamour girl, and she shot him a cold smile.

Charlie and I drank heavily. We rang in the New Year and quickly left.

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