Ah, Purim. That early spring holiday when our Jewish kids can wear their Halloween costumes to school, when we eat cookies that are definitely not shaped like vaginas, when we get to use some of our best Yiddish (a spiel of the whole megillah!) and, of course, when the rabbis tell us to get so drunk we don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordecai. The grogger’s clarion call is to get trashed on Purim.
Purim, although arguably the most aggressive, is just one of the many, many moments in which Jews are instructed to drink. A sip to welcome the Sabbath, another to bid it adieu. Four cups per seder, times two seders per Passover. A shared kiddush cup under the chuppah. A smidge for the baby at the bris, and maybe a smidge for mama, too.
For moms, the pressure to drink comes not just from Jewish tradition, but also from a society that begs us to buzz our way through the chaos of these precious moments. From the mimosa-fueled playdates to the “what’s in the thermos” winks to the “I whine and mommy wines” onesies, the pressure and permission to drink is incessant. And of course, it is well-documented that alcohol abuse among women has soared during the pandemic.
Who among us can be surprised?
For so many women, alcohol provides a convenient escape from a system that demands that we raise a generation — and raise it well — while we work full time, maintain bodies of an acceptable size, mind our manners, hunt and gather food for our families, find therapists for the children, fix our faces, host our in-laws and blow-dry our goddamn hair.
For me, the facade began to crumble after I had my first kid. Everything I thought I knew about myself, everything I deigned to have agency over — it was all gone. “I recognize my own body” became “who the hell’s boobs are these and why am I wearing an adult diaper.” “I am a person who sleeps” became “you are a busted-up worm who slithers to bed at the end of the day, only to be woken 45 minutes later.” “I am confident and focused at work” became “what if what if what if something is happening to my baby and I’m not there and the phone rings and it’s daycare and he choked.” “I love my partner” became “for fuck’s sake.”
Maybe it was the mess, or the burp cloths, or the incessant questions, or the sound level, or the utter lack of control, or the overwhelming love, or the overwhelming terror. The world may never know.
But what I do know is that the first time my husband went out of town, leaving me solely in charge of the baby for 30 hours, I bought a bottle of cheap sauvignon blanc and drank the whole thing during the one-hour countdown to his return. I was so desperate to no longer be in charge of that baby. So desperate for a break. And a real break, not a warm bath spent hearing phantom cries and worrying about whether my baby’s spit up was normal. And so I drank that entire bottle. My husband came home, I passed him the baby, and passed myself right out on the floor of the nursery.
To make a dreadfully long story short, I continued to drink, entirely in secret. I’d hide a bottle under the bed, and another in my gym bag for the commute home. Eighteen months later, fearing my pecadillo may actually be a problem, I got pregnant a second time, mostly in order to save me from myself. I didn’t drink a drop while pregnant, but was already sneaking beers in the basement during son number two’s bris. The downward spiral continued. My husband thought I must be so tired, the way I always fell asleep putting the kids to bed. He didn’t suspect that I was blacking out and passing out.
Having learned that pregnancy was my only chance at some extended sobriety, I got pregnant a third time. This one was a high-risk pregnancy, and then COVID hit, and then the baby was born prematurely. It took all of two days before I was going for a “walk” that was actually a trip to the grocery store to buy loads of wine (and also one banana, which I hoped would mask any scent on my breath).
Two weeks after that third son was born, I got so drunk on Father’s Day that my in-laws had to come and help my husband with the kids while I hid on the floor of the coat closet and contemplated how *this* all ends.
Maybe this story leaves your jaw on the floor. Fair enough. Or, maybe you feel a little less alone in your quiet desperation to just escape for a minute. Maybe you also have spent years trying to quietly heal without anyone noticing that you are sick. If you feel a little exposed reading this, there are some things I’d like to tell you.
At some point, after I peeled my broken body off the floor of the coat closet, the terror settled deep in my bones. This is the part where the rest of my life becomes a series of dank church basements. This is the part where I have to give up the social elixir of belonging, where I become the outcast failure, the one who couldn’t keep it together. This is the part where my identity gets a qualifier, forever – I’m Lynn Levy and I’m an “alcoholic.” This fear, this spiral of self-disgust, kept me from finding my way to the surface for too long. Please, allow me to gift you the freedom from this particular line of lies.
The most foundational, cycle-breaking thing I’ve learned so far is this: There are entire communities of allies who know that you are not broken. That you are not your worst moments. That you are not your most intricately knotted struggles. Finding these people has blown up the lies I’ve been taught. (Bonus, there are all sorts of non-scary ways to poke around – the pandemic has forced a lot of recovery online. You can spy with your camera off, with a fake name, and not say a word. No one will know.) I know now that dank church basements and required labels are absolutely not required for healing. Twelve steps, admitting defeat, declaring your powerlessness – it may work for some people, sure, but it’s completely optional.
For me, I found a community that taught me that there’s not a whole lot to be gained by the term “alcoholic,” if it doesn’t work for you. I’m an incredible mother. I’m a fierce advocate. I’m a great lover of sunrises. I’m also a human being who tried, unsuccessfully, to treat my debilitating anxiety with a substance that, as it turns out, is addicting and also not great for my mental health. This doesn’t make me an alcoholic. It makes me a human being living in a human being’s body. I found my people by reading Holly Whitaker’s “Quit Like a Woman.” You will find yours.
I also want you to know that getting sober with three kids under 6 is the greatest coup of my life. I wish I could share with you my Ten Easy Steps To Sober Parenting! checklist, but it doesn’t work like that. I want you to know that, even in community, the work is hard, and intensely personal, and can feel like an impossible demand on your already exhausted body. But you are already doing impossible things with your already exhausted body. The work is hard, but please know, deeply and truly, that the other side is beautiful.
Now, I drink the juice at all the Jewish things, and I still thank God for the fruits of the vine. I join those who question the wisdom of drinking to forget the names of our enemies. I wonder — out loud — why we, in 2022, mark our holidays with what we now know is a toxic and addictive substance.
I know that Jewish moms are struggling, because I am a Jewish mom, and I am struggling. And so, I keep my mind clear and my eyes open for the mamas who may be teetering. Because, mama, I know that you, the truest and only you, are still in there. Your kids and the world and the demands and the virus and the spit up did not destroy your spark, and the booze has not snuffed it out. That spark will light fires for you and for your family, but it needs you sober to breathe it into flame.