Starting the school year sober. Here’s my story.

This essay is part of our original Women at Work series.

By Jennifer Dines

On the first Friday morning of the school year, my body buzzed with desire for a drink from the moment I opened my eyes. While packing my daughter’s lunches, while stuck in traffic, while writing the date on the whiteboard in my classroom, visions of vino danced around in my head. At dismissal, my body broke into a sweat as I pictured pouring that first drink and taking a sip, and then another and another, until my stresses melted into a blurry numbness.

And after all, didn’t I deserve a little drink, just this once, for making it through a whole week with an energetic crew of middle schoolers? I had to drive past the liquor store on the way to pick up my daughters anyhow. Couldn’t I buy just one bottle of wine? I could, but did I really want to blow my four month streak of sobriety?

I have spent years juggling my three jobs: teacher, mother, and alcoholic. Prior to COVID, I went to school early to plan elaborate lessons and stayed late to plan field trips and grade papers. I had the most orderly lines and the most creative bulletin board. I even won awards for my teaching, and I lived for the praise and approval I received for pouring myself into my career.

As I drove home each evening, I promised myself I would read a book or play a game with my daughters before their bedtime. But as soon as I walked in the door, the girls would jump all over me before I had even set down my school bags. The sheer weight of their three bodies tugging at me would completely deplete whatever scraps of energy I had left.

“Damn it—get off me!” I yelled before fleeing to my bedroom, instantly ashamed at my gruffness. While my husband made dinner and did the bedtime routine, I would hide my head under a pillow and fantasize about buying a one-way ticket to a place where no one knew my name.

I would emerge from the bedroom only after my daughters fell asleep in order to pour myself an enormous goblet of wine from one of the boxes in the pantry. As I gulped down the bitter liquid, the imaginary harpy who screamed in my head all day long about my failings as a mother transformed into a cheerful and slightly British sounding friend who chirped, “Let’s have another drink, darling, shall we?”

When I drank, I sat at the kitchen table reading ambitious books like The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, using a pencil to underline a few passages here and there, pretending my oversized drinks were merely a casual prop for serious intellectual pursuits. I would drink until the words blurred across the page and then I would head to the bed to pass out.

When the pandemic hit, my nerves quickly frayed from the stress of teaching online from home with my family bustling around in the background. My daughters often removed their headphones during their classes, so I could hear their elementary school classmates giggling and shouting as I half-heartedly read aloud to my own students from the next room.

For years, I’d had a rule that I would only allow myself to drink after dark, but I started drinking earlier and earlier in the afternoon, sometimes starting the minute I logged off from my last class. I poured wine into a silver coffee thermos to bring on my afternoon constitutionals around the neighborhood. Only when sunset arrived did I allow myself to drink wine at home from a regular glass.

Things got worse when I went back to working on-site. The school district constantly changed the rules about what teachers could and couldn’t allow. One day, the children could play soccer outside during recess, and the next day, I was forced to tell them that soccer was no longer permissible.

These rules seemed especially arbitrary in light of the fact that my students and I stayed in the same small classroom together all day, including lunchtime when we ate with our masks off. If we were already breathing each other’s air, what difference would a couple of pick-up games make?

I hadn’t yet been vaccinated, and I got heart palpitations if I allowed myself to imagine dying. But, ironically, my fear of illness led me to drink more than ever. I started sailing through several boxes of wine each week. I would stay up drinking until two in the morning and then get up at five am the next day, then inevitably crash after a few nights of this in a row. I would then stay in bed for a day or two to recover. I began calling out sick more and more.

Towards the end of the year, I awoke one morning to my phone pinging uncontrollably. I had messages from a dozen old acquaintances. As I looked through my phone, I saw that I had sent over fifty messages between midnight and two am the night before. The messages were tame enough, but I didn’t remember sending them at all. I had done this in a total blackout. This rattled me so much that I decided to quit drinking for good.

Instead of attending the end of year staff party at a bar, I headed out to meet my family at a nearby pond. I sat on the shore holding my husband’s hand and watching the kids swim feeling strangely peaceful. The next day, I cancelled all of my summer tutoring jobs, explaining that I had a loved one dealing with a serious illness.

I took long walks and even longer naps during the days while my daughters attended camp, and then spent the evenings and weekends taking the girls swimming and hiking. I barely thought about the liquor store all summer, but on this first Friday of the new school year, stopped at the red light just a block away, my mind flip-flopped in a dangerous game of “Should I or Shouldn’t I?”

When the light turned green, I pushed down hard on the gas and high-tailed it to my daughters’ school. When we arrived home, I had the kids watch TV while I scribbled furiously in my journal. When my husband came home, I put on my pajamas and went to bed. I did not drink, so I did not get hungover or sick, and I therefore did not languish in bed the next day.

Instead, I took the girls roller skating. At the rink, as I whizzed around to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” while holding my youngest’s hand, I teared up as I considered how many hours of motherhood I had wasted away on drinking.

Suddenly, I felt a jerk. my daughter stumbled and fell onto the hardwood floor. I got dizzy for a moment, but then a wave of calm swept over me. I smiled down at her and reached out my hand. Was she crying? Yes, but she would be fine. I knew it. Because her mother was there to help her back onto her feet.

Jennifer Dines is a middle school bilingual education teacher and the mother of three daughters. She is delighted that her students have been playing soccer every day at recess this year.

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