Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Invisible damage

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Jowita Bydlowska, Drunk Mom
  I’m an addict. There’s no way to know what I will do. Most of the time I don’t know what to expect from myself. I have lots of evidence that proves this.
  While drinking, in the morning, on waking up, remorse already eating away at me like rot, I would beg. I would beg and plead for a good day. I would promise my god, your god, the gods of worlds, and all the godless world that I would not drink.
  I would be drunk by the end of the day.
  This is why I don’t know the end.
  …
  Do I stay sober?
  Oh, how would I know? I’m still here. But how can I be sure of anything else?

  —Jowita Bydlowska, Drunk Mom

It took me two nights to read Jowita Bydlowska’s Drunk Mom and the entire day at work between I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I felt disoriented—half living in Bydlowska’s world of addiction and parenthood, only half able to concentrate on the policy paper I was writing. For me, it was impossible not to get caught up in her narrator’s unraveling—to feel like I was unraveling too. At the end of the memoir, when Bydlowska regains her sobriety and is able to keep her family together, I felt relieved, redeemed.

But her ending is complicated too, as is evidenced by my chosen epigraph. Addiction is a shade of madness and I recognize myself in her discussion of recovery, in that I’ve known recovery to be non-linear and to contain the possibility of relapse, re-affliction. The cul-de-sac that leads back to the self, back to the past, back to a coping mechanism that’s more about dying than it is about living. Every time I notice in myself a lack of joy, a fleeting thought about deep darkness, a longing for long sleep, I wonder about how far I might fall, whether the tools that have saved me in the past will buoy me again before things get too crazy. Do I avoid the self-destructive lure of self-harm? Oh, how would I know?

But I’m still here and I have a strong desire to stay healthy. I find a lot of solace in Bydlowska’s overcoming the struggle to accept love, to live up to the responsibility of motherhood, to be strong enough to welcome wellness and stability—things only she can convince herself she deserves. By the end of her personal narrative, Bydlowska is able to turn toward the love of her son and her partner without needing to dull the edges of emotion with alcohol. A passage in which she collects her son from daycare is particularly striking:

  When I pick him up and he leans his curly head against my chest, sometimes it feels like too much love and I worry that I’ll lose my balance and fall, sink under for a split moment, but then I always push myself through, all the way up to the surface. Nose to the blue horizon.
  I can handle it. I can handle it now.

This war—the battle of self-on-self—is internal. One of its key dangers is that it’s hidden, indiscernible to the naked eye, different from the pain of obvious physical ailment, which triggers a public recognition of disease. In his memoir There is a Season, Patrick Lane considers the invisible damage his years of drinking inflicted on his body. His liver will work to repair itself, but it’s the only organ in the body with such power. He writes:

The rest of me, stomach, heart, lungs, and brain, injured by the years of drinking, will have to get along as best they can…. There are times I feel I am some misshapen thing, a creature who wears his illness inside the illusion of a body that does not betray the damage done. The people I have turned to for help tell me I feel what all addicts feel. They say I must not dwell on the past with all its traps and seductions, its old habits that are designed to lead me right back where I was before, alcoholic and dying. Perhaps what I need to do is learn to accept forgiveness, but who among the dead will forgive me?

This strikes me as quite opposite to my post from last week, my assertion that the skin is a written document. Skin can cover up self-destruction too, papering over the deeper injuries—our self-annihilating behaviours rotting us out, undetectable to the naked eye, ransacking the inside. Every move toward living requires a steely resolve to care for those decayed parts. Who among the living or the dead will forgive us if we can’t forgive ourselves?

From grappling with forgiveness, Lane goes on to discuss the effort it takes to move away from the seduction of negative thought patterns and to truly embrace the life one has left: “I know I started dying the moment I was born and my life lived so far has been a long path leading toward my leaving. I know that, but I still grieve for time wasted and in meditation do what I can to focus myself and turn away from loss.”

Bydlowska, too, turns away from loss and her memoir is a conscious, concerted effort to face the damage done and, in so doing, to repair injuries within herself and to make reparation to her family. In her acknowledgements she says she wrote the book as “a form of apology to both my partner, Russell Smith, and my sister, Laura Bydlowska” and as “an attempt to make amends to my greatest love, my son, Hugo Smith, who I hope will one day be able to forgive me for this transgression.” In light of these explicit motives, it’s ironic that Bydlowska has been criticized for her portrayal of her partner in the book and for publicizing this personal narrative in a way that might, in future, cause further pain to her son.

I don’t agree with these condemnations. For one thing, it’s not for critics to speak on behalf of Bydlowska's family—her partner and sister and son will decide and will continue deciding how they feel about her text and the publication of her text. (As an aside, in my opinion, Bydlowska's memoir more than satisfies Vivian Gornick's standards for creating potent personal narrative and public discourse should focus on the effectiveness of Bydlowska's prose.) For another, I believe that any addict or depressive or hysteric who documents trauma as a way to move beyond it is the best judge of what redemption is possible in the form of public confession. Some outsiders to such pain are going to be made uncomfortable by these disclosures, but for those of us who’ve faced down an internal enemy in order to become functioning members of our families and communities, the record of the struggle is sometimes integral to its cessation. Like Bydlowska’s Wednesday nights at AA, this memoir acts as her publicly accountable pledge to stay sober.

In terms of the public declaration that my book, Broom Broom, offers—or these blog posts for that matter—as I’ve said during my time as Writer in Residence here at Open Book, I have conflicted feelings about who owns the stories I’m telling and how large a role self-pity has played in my drive to divulge personal narrative. For today, I’d like to end this entry with an anecdote, a way to complicate my anxieties about the project of writing my mother’s illness:

At a poetry reading in Saskatoon last week, I read a piece that had my father, my brother, and my sister-in-law in tears. I felt horrible and ashamed of myself. Was I willing to sacrifice their feelings on a public altar simply to suit my vanity? After finishing, I sat down with them at the pub table, eyes lowered and apologetic. They met me with gratitude rather than anger. We shared heavy moments and held hands.

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The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Brecken Hancock

Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.

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