Jowita Bydlowska gets defensive early on in our telephone interview.
"It sounds like you've already written your story," she snaps when I ask her if she feels guilty that she drank to oblivion during the first year of her son's life. You wrote a book called Drunk Mother, I reply. You opened the door. I walked through.
Bydlowska, 35, did more than open the door. She flung it open to expose her booze-filled, milk-engorged breasts to the reading public. She expressed milk at night so baby Frankie wouldn't drink something that would put him over the legal limit. She hit the Internet to determine how many hours must pass before her milk is clean. She was clever in that crafty, bargaining, alcoholic way.
Baby got formula when mommy got tanked.
Bydlowska will speak at McNally Robinson at 7 p.m. this evening, part of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.
A recovering alcoholic, she waved farewell to three years of sobriety when she grabbed a glass of wine at a party celebrating her son's birth. Anyone who has walked the narrow, hurricane-prone tightrope of sobriety knows one drink leads inevitably to another and the hundreds after that.
'I'm a writer. I tell stories. I wanted to give insight into the mind of the addict'
Bydlowska's full-blown return to destructive drinking was easy as tipping over a canoe in a rushing, rock-filled river. It takes no time before she's spreading her visits between liquor stores, a sort of internal GPS telling her where they're located as she takes her son out in his stroller. She feels the guilt of the active alcoholic, hiding her booze under her son's diaper bags and taking surreptitious sips while they're off for a stroll. She buys sparkling wine and Sprite, replacing the pop with booze for easy public sipping.
Bydlowska is cursed with a double diagnosis. She has bipolar disorder as well as being an alcoholic. It's a one-two punch that defines much of her life, the mental illness uncontrollable when she drinks.
She says she wrote the book, in part, to take away the stigma of her disorders. It's unlikely anyone will read Drunk Mother and want to hug an addict.
"I wanted to tell the story," she says during our call. "I'm a writer. I tell stories. I wanted to give insight into the mind of the addict."
And what of her son, who will read someday that his mother woke up in a Montreal hotel, black bra sodden with breast milk, panties gone, no idea if she'd had sex with the two strangers she'd met the night before? About the blackouts that left her bruised and unknowing?
"I'm hoping he grows up in a world where we don't stigmatize addiction and mental illness so much," she said. "I'm hoping he will understand this is a form of public apology."
Her partner, Globe and Mail columnist Russell Smith, read the book in draft form. "It was difficult, but he's always been very supportive."
But wasn't it hard for him to read her blackouts were "pure temporary death" and that, really, anything could have happened?
"It certainly hasn't been easy. How could it be?" she says. "We survived it. Some of the things that happened, some of the criticism has brought us closer together."
Addiction and mental-illness memoirs are not new. Bydlowksa's memoir adds a baby and all our preconceptions of motherhood to the mix. She writes of waking up from a blackout, stretched out on the floor of her son's nursery.
Smith is speaking to her.
"His voice sounds calm," she writes. "That probably means that he doesn't know yet that the baby is dead, or he knows and has gone mad.
"Or the baby is not dead.
"Maybe I didn't kill the baby?"
She says she hopes the book will help other new mothers realize all of us struggle to be adequate mothers.
"I wanted to tell it in the hope it will help some people," she said, "I don't know if it will be a help to other people."
She's been sober for three years. Frankie is four.
"I guess I'm not a very sympathetic person in the book," she says. "Right now I'm a completely different person than I was in the book."
She relaxes her early combative stance.
"I totally feel like I've let him (her son) down. I feel guilty all the time."