I thought drinking would help me cope with my son’s cancer

I thought drinking would help me cope with my son’s cancer

When my 4-year-old daughter Emily was diagnosed with high-risk stage IV cancer, I packed two vodka-filled water bottles in my hospital bag. Every night at 7 o’clock, I would take one out of my bag and leave it next to the stack of books my daughter and I read before bed. Between pages of “Goodnight Gorilla,” I took small sips.

Drinking was magical. After a few sips, worries about Emily’s chemotherapy, blood counts, tract infections, organ problems, and unexplained rashes faded from my mind. For the first time all day, I was able to breathe.

As if he needed a reason, drinking was easy to justify. My son had neuroblastoma, an aggressive disease with a 50-50 chance of survival. A tumor the size of a baseball rested on his adrenal gland, and cancer cells floated from the top of his head to the tips of his toes.

For most of the day, I beat myself up for not realizing sooner that Emily had cancer. I went through old photos and thought: How did you not know? When I couldn’t take it anymore, I became obsessed with Isabelle, my healthy 6-year-old daughter, who asked me, “Is Emily going to die?” after a boy in her class told her that her grandfather died of cancer and that Emily would too.

Drinking allowed the thoughts to stop, or at least slow down. She helped me sleep and be a better mother. My edges softened and the wild thoughts of Emily living and dying calmed down. I liked myself better. For an hour or two, I forgave myself.

To keep myself in check, I made ground rules: no drinking before 7 o’clock, only drinking enough to make me nervous, and not telling anyone what went into my Diet Coke in the plastic hospital cup. It was a system that worked.

Every parent on the pediatric oncology floor had a system. I saw a mom chain smoke with valets and a dad eat McDonald’s three times a day. We all needed something to get ahead; without it, we would crash.

The “healthy” alternatives to canceling the consumption of alcohol did not escape me. When my father came to the hospital to relieve me, I ran through the streets of the city. At noon, I tossed my yoga mat onto the floor of Emily’s hospital room and performed a sequence of a yoga class. The movement distracted my mind during the day and the alcohol allowed it to stay still at night.

I had no desire, nor time, to go to my doctor and tell him that I was struggling. He would write me a prescription for something and tell me to talk to a therapist. Unless a therapist could promise me that Emily wasn’t going to die, I didn’t want to talk to her. The vodka was taking good care of me. My dose of three capfuls, twice a night, was doing the job.

Like any relationship, there were some bumps. On July 4th, in an act of rebellion, I didn’t measure the full caps, I took a sip from the bottle. The “supposed coughs” of the day took over my mind. Instead of watching the parade, going to the beach, making s’mores, and waving sparklers, we were locked up in hospital jail watching bad cartoons.

That night, I fell asleep reading books to Emily. When I woke up, there was an infomercial for skin cream on TV. My head was throbbing and my throat was dry and scratchy. Sunlight peeked through the curtains.

I sat up and swung my legs off the side of the bed. A wave of nausea and the twisting had me grabbing the bed rail. My water bottle was half empty and it made my heart sink. Did I really drink all of that?

The author with her husband, Shane, and daughters Isabelle (left) and Emily at Boston Children's Hospital in 2010.
The author with her husband, Shane, and daughters Isabelle (left) and Emily at Boston Children’s Hospital in 2010.

When Emily was discharged early a few hours later, I took four ibuprofen and ate a bag of pita chips. On the way home, I stopped and threw up on the side of the road. At 7 o’clock that night, after lying on the couch and struggling to make macaroni and cheese for my daughters’ lunch, I drank, and it made me feel better.

A few days later I googled, “What is an alcoholic?” One million results generated with links to AA and graphics with alcohol guidelines. One asked me to reconsider my drinking. But I didn’t want to reconsider my drinking, so I closed my laptop and walked away. I would stop when Emily was better and my life was easier.

But at the end of the 18 months, when Emily was better, life wasn’t any easier. Doctor appointments and navigating our new normal kept my mind racing. I was worried that she would have relapses and the occasional bruise on her body. I’ll stop later…later…later, I told myself. This comes from years ago.

On difficult days, which most of them felt, I asked myself: Why do I have to stop? My life was hard, drinking was easy, and I didn’t have the bandwidth to muster the strength to quit. Many people drank every night and their children did not recover from cancer. I would go to work and show up at my girls’ soccer games. Who cared if he drank at the end of it all?

But little by little over time, I began to care. She had full control and no control. I loved how drinking made me feel and I hated how it made me feel. It took up a lot of space in my head. Dependency and secrecy began to weigh on my Irish Catholic guilt.

I kept waiting for “the thing” to show up that would make my life easier. An epiphany or some kind of promise that Emily wouldn’t die so she could drop her jaw and stop complaining that her back hurt. “The thing” that would give me strength at night and allow me to say: “I’m fine. I don’t need to drink,” and I actually mean it.

As I waited for him to show up, little things pulled me together, some so little I didn’t even notice. A passage from a book, a conversation with a friend, and laughing at things that once infuriated me all settled deep into the part of me that yearned for something more than vodka.

Acupuncture, off-grid healers, and keeping a gratitude journal (which I wanted to dismiss as merit, but it worked when I woke up and hated the world) also helped. The good days began to beat the bad days. When the dog pooped in the house, I didn’t yell in the backyard that I hated it.

On my way to work one day, I thought, You have the choice to drink or not to drink. I narrowed my eyes. I had a choice. Something had changed. I felt slightly powerful. Not enough to stop drinking that night, but enough to consider it before taking the bottle out of the freezer.

Around the holidays, eight years after Emily’s diagnosis, I got sick. The reasonable voice in my head told me that drinking would not help me feel better. I wanted it to be wrong, but I knew it was right.

That night in the shower I was filled with rage. The anticipation of not drinking sparked a battle between the two: one insisting that it was the night to stop and the other insisting that one more day was best.

just for tonightI told myself. If it’s horrible, I can drink tomorrow. She couldn’t bear to be around me, so I ate a pint of Oreo cookie ice cream and went to bed. I read a book and fell asleep. When I woke up my first thought was I fell asleep without vodka. My second thought was Do I want to try this again?

For me, quitting cold turkey was the only way. Moderation and I have never been friends. I’m all in or all out. That mentality is what kept me drinking and what I knew was my only way out.

For weeks, I hated taking a shower because I had nothing to look forward to afterwards. With nothing to distract me, I had to pay attention. I was convinced that it could kill me.

The author with Isabelle and Emily on Cape Cod in 2019.
The author with Isabelle and Emily on Cape Cod in 2019.

With all my presence, I realized that I left my children alone when I ran away with vodka. To be with them, really with them, I had to be still and let the feelings flood my body. A mess of joy and pain, anger and heartbreak, fear and gratitude swirled from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. It took all my strength not to run downstairs for a drink for them to stop. Giving up felt dangerous, but it also felt like the most loving act he could give me. I was tired of fighting myself.

While my feelings did their job and informed all parts of me, I stayed and waited. Sometimes it took two minutes, sometimes 20. Eventually, the discomfort passed.

At night, I would listen to my oldest daughter tell a story about a squirrel at recess or help my youngest daughter study for a spelling test. I was not consumed by the amount of vodka left in my glass. I did not fall asleep while books were read to me. Little moments of joy sustained me enough to keep me sober.

But don’t let me fool you, some days I was hanging by a thread. In retrospect, I wish I had joined a group. Being seen and heard by others would have made me feel less alone. I reasoned that getting help made me an alcoholic, a label I didn’t want. Now I realize that my ego and fear prevented me from reaching it. It was silly.

Online support and other modalities such as counseling, medication, support groups, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy and/or brief interventions offer clear steps and a variety of options, according to Alcohol Screening. A benchmark test can be a great first step.

I still think about drinking. The first days of the pandemic put all my strength to the test. More than once I justified why it would be okay to drink.

In those days, I got a little excited, then annoyed. And then I read the note that my acupuncturist made me write:

Thanks for your service. You helped me in an unimaginable moment. Without you, I would not have been able to show up and take care of myself and my family. It’s time for you to move on. I’ll be fine without you.

I would sit on the edge of my bed and say, “You’re okay. You are well. You’re fine,” until I got sick of it and myself. Sometimes I thought the note was bullshit. Those nights he wouldn’t let me go downstairs. I stayed in my room to wait. There was no magic. Just waiting for the wild thoughts to tire.

Time and time again, I have had to make the decision not to drink. For many of us, we always will. Yoga, acupuncture, walking, soaking in the cold, binging on Netflix, reading, texting, baking banana bread and eating ice cream have all helped me keep the voices at bay. I remember feeling my feelings and realizing that I am not going to die.

Now the water, not the vodka, rests on my bed. He sits next to a sound machine that drowns out the noise of the world and allows me to surrender.

Amy McHugh is a freelance writer on Cape Cod. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Oprah Daily, NBC News, and Shondaland. She is writing a memoir on parenting, mental health, and new beginnings. You can see more of her work at www.amymchughwriter.com.

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