Episode #96

Addressing the Issues Mothers Face in Recovery

Featured Guest: Rosemary O’Connor

Rosemary O’Connor image

With all the daily demands facing mothers, how can treatment providers help moms slow down and prioritize taking care of their own recovery?

We’ll answer this with addiction coach Rosemary O’Connor on this episode of Recovery Unscripted.

Podcast Transcript

David: I’m here with Rosemary O’Connor. Thank you so much for being with us.

Rosemary O’Connor: Thanks, David. It’s always a pleasure. I’m passionate about the topic. I love foundations, so my pleasure.

David: Good stuff. Let’s start by having you tell us about your story, your background, how you got into this, how you got into this world.

Rosemary: Sure. I got sober over 19 years ago. Basically, I didn’t think I was an alcoholic. Things started falling apart. I was separated from my now what I call wasband. I don’t like the word ex. I was starting to black out. I was starting to end up in places that I wouldn’t want anybody to end up. Really, my last drunk was, I hired an 11-year-old babysitter to take care of my two, five, and eight-year-old.

David: Wow.

Rosemary: Wow is right. That chokes me up. I left at about 7;00 PM and I said I’d be home in a couple of hours. I went out. I got all dressed up in this gorgeous sequin gown that I guess was in years ago, thinking I’m looking great. I went to a big fancy ball and I started ordering shots. Long story short, I ended up in a place that I wouldn’t want anybody else to end up. I remember driving drunk, trying to hold on to the steering wheel, asking God to please get me there safe.

Anyhow, I strolled in the next morning, many hours later than I said I’d be home, and I was greeted there by my two, five, and eight-year-olds, still in their jammies, looking at me with these big, scary looking eyes. I wasn’t the kind of fall down drunk mom. I was the soccer mom. I was very involved in their lives. I loved my kids more than anything in my life, of course.

Although, when I quit alcohol, in my system, all bets were off. I drove drunk with them. Everywhere I went, alcohol went. I didn’t think I had a problem because everybody I hung out with drank like I did. Anyhow, my soon to be wasband was there, and one of my best friends. She looked at me and said– shook her head, and just in that shame and disgust, and said, “You better get a hold of yourself.” I looked at her, still drunk, and I said, “What’s wrong with you? I only had a few drinks.”

It was the look in my soon to be ex-husband’s eyes that said– He didn’t say it out loud, but I knew the look. The look told me, if I didn’t get my act together, he would take these kids away from me. He said, “Come on, kids. Let’s go. We’re going to my house.” My beautiful little five-year-old looked at me. He was tugging on my dress that had throw-up all over it. I had one shoe. He said, “Mommy, are you okay?” For whatever reason, I said to him, “No, mommy’s not okay.”

That whole year, full of shame for my behaviors and going separated and soon to be divorced– I was catholic. Catholic girls don’t get divorced. So much guilt and shame that my only solution was to drink. That look in his eyes– I was trying to pretend all that year that I was just fine. I couldn’t lie anymore. I said, “Mommy is not okay.” He was crying. They were whisked out on the door.

I just had this one moment of clarity that said, “I’d better get some help now.” I walked over to this old-fashioned thing called a phone book and looked up the word alcoholic help. I went to a meeting that night. I’ve been sober over 19 years and entered in this journey. I’ve been working in the recovering business for over 16 years now. I just feel like one door is opened after another.

I love working with moms because I’ve been a single mom my whole life. Now, my kids are adults. My book that Hazelden published is called A Sober Mom’s Guide to Recovery. Basically, I wrote the book that I really wish I had. That’s the short story.

David: That’s interesting. You said you didn’t notice it was a problem because your friends were drinking the same way. I assume a lot of them were moms as well, so it was just part of the culture.

Rosemary: Part of the culture, like it is today. It’s only getting worse.

David: Diving right into that, you’re here at the conference Innovations in Recovery speaking on the subject of mothers in your presentation, calling them, “The neglected population in treatment.” First, let’s kind of talk about the landscape of this. What are you seeing with this mother’s population? How does addiction manifest among mothers? What does that look like?

Rosemary: How it manifests is, so many moms, we have so many challenge these days– the stress, the high expectations. We got to be super mom. We got to do it all. Just the stress of all of that. My only solution was, hang on until five o’clock, and then making dinner. It was just my relief, at the end of the day.

Again, it’s a lot in our culture. There’s the mommy juice. There’s the whine o’clock. It’s so acceptable in our society. That’s why I didn’t know I had a problem, because everybody else drank like I drank. As we know, alcoholics and addicts, we are one. Things are going to start falling apart, but it still looked good on the outside. I had a beautiful home, three beautiful kids. My kids were in private school. I had a beautiful car. I had a great job that I kept getting promoted at. That’s not an alcoholic.

David: There must not be anything wrong, then.

Rosemary: No. I thought the alcoholic was the guy on the park bench, in a trench coat, with the bottle in the bag. It’s those challenges. What I know, like in my family, it’s legacy. I’m Irish. We’ve got this gene we found in our brain. Thank God for medical, the doctors out there.

David: Brain science.

Rosemary: Thank you, brain science. The thing is, the drug addiction, it’s now all been highlighted because of the opioid crisis. The thing is, more people die and suffer from alcoholism these days, and it has been socially acceptable from the minute it was made and it hit people’s mouth.

I would say the only good news about the epidemic right now, is at least it’s causing the world to wake up. Most of all the addictive medications are going hand in hand. For the moms, they drink the alcohol to calm down, and then they’re taking the uppers to get back up, and then the ambient of sleep. It’s just this chronic cycle that we’re living in.
I would say the average mom I work with, it’s alcohol is primary, but there’s so many other medications that the doctors are handing out like candy. “Here. You’re depressed. Take this. Here. You’re stressed out. Take this.” Much like myself, I had no idea what addiction was or alcoholism. We need to educate. That’s why I’m so out there in my own recovery of just helping any mom or any family member deal with this devastating disease.

David: Being a parent is hard enough. If you’re stressed out at the end of the day, things go wrong. You’re exhausted, you’re drained, and there’s alcohol sitting there, or a doctor hands you this thing and says it will help. You say, “Okay, great. That must be what I need.”

Rosemary: Thank you. The solution to everything. Believe me, it works for a while. It works, until it stops working and creating so much damage. On the outside, things didn’t look bad, but inward, I had a lot of guilt and shame and fear of raising these kids on my own. The moms, I don’t know if we want to go into the neglected part–

David: Yes, yes, we’ll get into that later. Perfect. When you’re looking at addiction with this population of mothers, you mentioned the wine-mom culture, all that. How would you say that it’s different in this group than maybe in other groups?

Rosemary: There’s special needs that I would say different populations have. We’ve got the physicians. They have different issues they’re facing with. We have the LGBTQ that have their own particular particular issues. Many groups do. We need to address those. I just started organically addressing them for myself, and was finding my way through it all, but moms have a much deeper sense of guilt and shame and overwhelm. Because I always call it the umbilical cord theory, moms have really strong connection biologically. I’m not saying dads don’t, but it’s just the umbilical cord.

David: Just different.

Rosemary: It’s just different. They really need to do a lot of work around the guilt because we’ve caused some damage most likely. I had to learn to really show up for my kids. I was in the house a lot, but emotionally– [crosstalk]

David: Not really there.

Rosemary: Not really there. The shame, they really need the education. Moms internalize the guilt, and it goes much deeper. I always like to use the example like I stole the cookie and lied about it, I’m guilty, but shame tells you I’m a bad person because I took it. We are not bad moms. We are sick moms that need help. Moms are the last people to ask for help. We are great at giving it.

David: Busy helping everyone else.

Rosemary: Yes, and then the overwhelm. We need specific help. That’s why my book and my presentations always are really pinpointing, like, at the end of my book, each chapter– It’s 26 chapters. It has topics like guilt, shame, co-dependency, even dating for the single moms. At the end of each chapter is practical tools. I needed someone to tell me in that moment when I’m overwhelmed and I want to grab the alcohol or whatever my addictive solution was what do I do in that moment. Those are easy tips.

They sound easy, my suggestions, like take a 10-minute bath, sit down and breath. The more we implement what seems like a really just simple solution that doesn’t make sense, if we keep adding them to our everyday life, we learn to self-soothe in ways that light our spirit and calm us down, instead of the wine or the drugs.

David: Talk a little bit about how this can affect your families. Like you say, everybody, as a mom, they know moms hold a lot of things together. When this is going on and they can’t control it anymore, when it starts to take control, how does that end up affecting the family?

Rosemary: Oh God, where do I start? First of all, much like myself, I don’t think my kids were affected.

David: You thought you were holding it together.

Rosemary: I had this big smile on my face, and actually I was either screaming and yelling until I could have that drink, or I was the wonderful, nice, loving mom. After I got divorced, my now ex-husband, he said to me, “Rosemary, I never knew who I was coming home to; that wonderful, loving wife and mother or that screaming, yelling crazy mom losing it.” I get that because that was my only solutions. I was just exhausted. I try to help moms learn how to take care of themselves. I’m not sure if I’m answering your questions. I get off on tangents. [laughs]

David: Yes, talking about how it affects the family.

Rosemary: Okay, back to the family. A lot of moms are like, “My kids didn’t know,” or whatever. Yes, they do. Also, alcohol and drugs are very much related to divorces, separated families. I had to really learn how to re-co-parent. I really had to make my kids come first and satisfy the anger and the guilt about the marriage falling apart. It’s just families are very under treated as well. They have no idea what’s going on. They need the education. People’s lives are devastated. I always say anybody that’s within arm’s reach or an alcoholic or an addict, you are affected.

I do a lot of interventions on families and the moms. Everybody plays the role on how to respond to us mothers. I’ll just say if we got addicted kids, because that’s my experience too, we go and we fix and we manage, we mother, just clinging to our kids because we’re afraid they’re going to die. Then, there’s other family members that just want to go ignore, or they’re going to scream and yell. We’re all trying to figure out how to manage dealing with an addicted or alcoholic family member.

A lot of times we can think we’re helping, but it’s actually we’re hurting them. Treatment works. We’ve got to educate the family on what works and how to address their own challenges and issues. Families are just devastated, and they’re in legacy. They are legacy after legacy after legacy. Like I said, I’m Irish Catholic, but again, on the outside, everything looked really good. I had no idea how it’s affected generation after generation after generation.

David: Yes, because then that sets up the kids to have to cope with that in their own way as they grow up.

Rosemary: You’re right. I hear also it’s different statistics, but I have been told that we have one parent that’s an addict or an alcoholic, or there are so many addictions too, you have 50% chance you’re going to get it. If you’ve got two parents, well, pretty much, good luck.

My kids, through my recovery, have gotten a lot of education on what drug addiction and alcoholism is and what it does, and that they see a solution. I was so afraid I was going to have day of fun when I got sober. My kids have seen me have so much fun. I’ve had big parties without alcohol and drugs. We travel together. they get to see my friends.

David: To see that example.

Rosemary: Yes. Back to the media and the press, all they are doing is highlighting the horrible part about the addiction and the alcoholism. I wish we get better at really highlighting what an amazing life we live in recovery. It’s transformative. It’s healing. I have met the most incredible talented loving creative people in recovery. The sky is the limit when you’re sober.

David: For your presentation, you’re calling these mothers the neglected population. What does that mean? Why are they neglected?

Rosemary: When you look, there’s very few treatment centers that treat just moms. There are some great ones that will let you bring your kids under a certain age, like 7 or 12, but they actually get to live with their mother at the facility. They’re are few and far between. There’s not enough funding for like especially a lot of single moms, they can’t afford it. They might not even have insurance, so the lack of funding.

David: How are they supposed to leave? Maybe they have two jobs. Maybe they don’t have the insurance, things like that.

Rosemary: Right, or there’s no other services that really address the mom that’s staying at home. We’ll even talk about AA. There is a specific pamphlet to all sorts different groups. There’s one for people in jail. There’s one just for kids. There’s one just for the LGBTQ. Pamphlets specifically– and there’s ones for the healthcare professionals specifically addressing some of their issues. We forgot about the moms and the dads with special needs.

In many treatment centers, I beg some treatment centers just if there’s two moms get them together to talk. There’s so much healing from the shame and the guilt when one mom is sharing with another mom what they’ve done. A lot of people don’t understand, there’s a much more shame directed at mothers.

I’ve done some speaking engagements when I asked the crowd, I’m like, “What do you think when a child is suffering from addiction?” Most people say, “My heart goes out to them.” “What about fathers? What is your first reaction when you hear there’s an addicted or alcoholic father?” Their reaction is, “Oh God, they must be stressed out.” Then I asked, “What about your reaction when you hear an alcoholic addicted mom?” They just shake their head, “That’s disgusting. That’s awful. How could they?”

David: They should know better.

Rosemary: They should know better. That’s another example. Even AA meetings, there used to be, like in my community, a specific one that you could take your kids to. They canceled the daycare at that. There’re very few AA meetings that will allow moms to– they won’t have childcare.

I often will see a mom struggling with a baby, and I know what she’s going through. to say, “Hey, let me take the baby out.” Us moms have to learn how to come together and help each other because there’s nothing like one mom talking to another mom. It’s not like one doctor talking to another doctor. They understand the challenges. Moms are going to lose their kids. Physicians probably are going lose their license. Two different things to deal with.

David: Looking at this from a clinical perspective, what are some ways that clinicians can recognize some of these unique needs when they’re dealing with helping a mother in their practice?

Rosemary: The guilt, the shame, and the overwhelm, they need specific help with that. What I do with moms is that I actually literally get out a calendar. I say, “Let’s plan your week.” Of course, the list is endless. I look at them and say, like my mentors did, “Rosemary, this is enough for five people to do.” All the demands that we put on our self, we’re going to cross a lot of those things off. A lot of things like the house doesn’t have to be immaculate anymore.

What are the practical things in the day? What is your day like? “Oh, I used to wake up at 5:00 and trying to get the kids lunches and get them dressed and get them to school and blah blah blah. Meanwhile, I didn’t feed myself breakfast. I didn’t have time for a shower. I was just overdoing.” They really need to look at the overdoing.

They’ve got to plan time in the calendar from there for themselves. We are the last group to put ourselves on the calendar. It’s very simple things like let’s look back at your calendar. Where did you build in some self-care downtime? I’m not just talking getting your nails done and your– things like that. It’s like where did you learn, we just sit still and breathe for five minutes, small practical tools. Who’s on your support team? What other moms are you calling?

I have also, I build a 9-1-1 plan for them. Who are the three people you can call? What’s a couple like things you can do at the moment? You can breathe. You can pour a hot cup of tea. You can take a walk around the block. A lot of these things seem, like I said, so simple, kind of some no-brainers but I’ll tell you, I had to learn how to do all those things.

I had to learn how to realize that I deserve that. I was talking to myself really negative all day long. At the end of the day, I had to write down the things I did well as a mom and forget to focus on all the negative things. “I’m not doing enough. I’m not enough,” and blah blah blah.

They really need to understand the disease. because that helps with the shame that we didn’t cause this. When I look at moms and tell them, “You did not cause this. You didn’t wake up and say, ‘I want to be an alcoholic or an addict.’ You have the brain that has that gene that you’re it.” When I look at moms and I tell them and some don’t like it, I’m like, “Now, whether you’re going to do it for yourself or your kids, you have no choice.”

I got sober for my kids at first, and then decided to stay from me. There are solutions. Once they know that, you don’t get to drink or use anymore. You just don’t. Whether or not you want to go to a meeting or want to go to the therapist or want to go to treatment, sorry, you got to put yourself first then this will help the kids. It’ll be the best thing you give to your kids. It’s the best gift you can ever give to your kids and your family and, hello, yourself. See, I put me last on the list.

[laughter]

David: What else do you wish more clinicians understood about mothers, the barriers they’re facing, the voices they’re hearing in their head how they can help them?

Rosemary: Gosh, where do I start? Getting groups of moms together, like even if clinicians can bring some moms together, start support groups, even if they’re online, even if they’re over the phone, connect them. I always tell anybody I meet with, “Hey any mother, give her my name and number.” I’ll hook them up whether they need a group, whether they need just resources, lots of it. There are great books.

I’ll give a plug for what’s– it’s called SHE RECOVERS. It’s a worldwide movement. There’s a wonderful mom out of Canada and her daughter.

David: She’s been a guest on this podcast before, Dawn Nickel.

Rosemary: Dawn, she’s the best. There is support worldwide; literally worldwide. You can join all the different things that they do. They can go to their website. It’s sherecovers.co, because they’re out of Canada. Not dot.com, C-O. What I want to tell the clinicians and the moms, there is tons of help out there. Do not do this alone.

The clinicians have to keep giving them permission to take care of themselves. It’s constantly checking in with them and finding out like just from a practical aspect, I’m a coach so like, “What got in the way of your self-care? What can you do just for today? Let’s look at that list. Can you cut three things out that don’t have to be done today?”
I had to learn how to find carpools for my kids. I couldn’t take them in eight different directions. It was really hard to not try to keep up with the Joneses. I could not be at every kid’s sporting events.

David: That’s part of the voice of shame in your head.

Rosemary: Voice of Shame. I was parenting from guilt. I was parenting from shame. I really needed the support of other moms. I would say get them in communities, the best thing that clinicians can do. Hook them up with other moms that are ahead of them in their recovery process, because us moms know where to go. We know different ways to point them in the directions. I’m hoping and I’m sure the clinicians are really working on the guilt and the shame, and really getting to the root of it, the root of it.

There’s nothing better than looking into mom’s eyes and saying, “It’s not your fault. You didn’t cause this, but there is some help. There’s no cure, but there’s help.” Just to be able to be compassionate with them and nonjudgmental, that’s so healing in itself. Teach the moms how to cry and let go; let go of all the expectations.

It’s a journey. It does not happen overnight. I look at every mom and say, “Do not do this alone, or you’ll drink or use. I can pretty much guarantee you that, or you’ll live a horrible miserable life, and then the kids are going to be miserable, and the spouses are going to be miserable, and the work’s going to be miserable.” We take ourselves wherever we go. We can either be the light or the darkness. I try to teach moms how to be the light.

David: We’ll just wrap up with this final question. Working in the helping profession can be tough, fighting for this cause every day, but it can also be rewarding like you said. Could you end by summing up why this mission is so important to you?

Rosemary: I go right back to the look in my kids’ eyes when I didn’t come home to them. I know moms need help. I really like my book was the book I wish I had. I’ve seen what recovery has done for me. It’s my way of giving back to all the people that have helped me along the way. I really believe it’s my personal mission, responsibility, and with great gratitude, it’s the way I give back.

Literally, I’m choked up. I’m so blessed. I’m so blessed to live this life. It’s transformed me. I’ve met the most amazing people. I got sober. I hated myself, I was so shameful. Today, most of the time, I really love myself and like myself. I treat myself really well. That flows over. There’s nothing better than seeing the light come on in a mother’s eyes and see the responses that their children and family members have.

David: Yes, absolutely. Rosemary, thank you so much for sharing with us today.

Rosemary: Thank you, David.

[00:29:27] [END OF AUDIO]