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"I Drank Three Bottles of Wine a Night"

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Melissa Gilbert, author of the new book "Prairie Tale," sits down with momlogic to talk about parenting, sobriety, and survival.

Melissa Gilbert

momlogic: Why did you write the book, "Prairie Tale"?
Melissa Gilbert: I wrote it for a few reasons. The primary reason is to help others. If by reading my story, showing that I survived and walked through it, helps, then I really achieved something amazing. I hope they say, "If she did it, I can do it too." I want to inspire people by giving courage and hope.

ML: So many people associate you with the character, Half Pint. In what ways if any were you similar, and in what ways were you different from her?
Melissa Gilbert: Laura's character had tenacity. She was vulnerable, and that's who I was at the time. But I was also awkward, insecure, scared, and didn't have the confidence she had. I lived my life and dove in all the time. I never let fear stop me, but I don't have her inner courage, and I didn't have the familial community upbringing she had. My parents were divorced, my father died when I was 11, and nobody ever talked about it or shared anything with me. It wasn't until years later that I realized things were kept from me -- I didn't even get to attend my own father's funeral.

ML: At what age did you start drinking? And how long did you battle alcoholism?
Melissa Gilbert: My drinking didn't become out of control until much later. I was a wife and mother and things settled down -- only for it to be the time when my alcoholism really blossomed. It was about 10 years ago, after my grandfather passed away. I felt stuff that I had stuffed away for decades, since my own father passed away. I couldn't get my brain to shut off at the end of the day between the kids, having lists of things to do, my job, working, I was president of SAG, etc. I would numb things so I could relax and sleep. I started having 1 glass of wine each night, then 3 and 4 glasses ... Then 1 bottle, 2 bottles, and 3, just to go to bed at night. I had also been in therapy for years, and this came out of nowhere.

ML: When did you realize you had a problem?
Melissa Gilbert: My youngest son, Michael, was the catalyst for getting help this last time. At the time, he was 8 -- he's now 13. This was about 5 years ago, I was standing in the kitchen and drinking my customary glass of wine while making dinner. He said, "Mommy, you're not going to drink more wine, are you?" It was just like getting punched in the stomach. I realized this was not the mother, wife, or person I wanted to be. I had to change and fix it.

Melissa Gilbert

ML: How did you manage to raise your kids while battling addiction?
Melissa Gilbert: I was very controlled about my drinking. I didn't start until 5 PM and ramped up after my kids went to bed. There were a few times where I don't remember putting them to bed. I was blacked out. It's a God-awful thing to have to admit, but it's true. They knew I had a problem, and we've talked about it since. I remember one night I came back from an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and Mike said, "What's AA?" I told him what it stood for, and he told me I wasn't an alcoholic, so he didn't understand why I went to a meeting. I said, "Don't you remember when you asked me in the kitchen to stop drinking?" He didn't realize there was a name for it and treatment. I apologized to him and talked about it with him.

ML: How did you finally get sober? And what advice can you give to moms who may be battling an addiction?
Melissa Gilbert: I started out with women's-only AA meetings. I went to private meetings held in private homes. I had privacy issues that I had to get over. The women were really relatable. They were women by and large who were struggling with the same issues I was struggling with. It's a no-win situation when you're a working mother, which most of us are. You're always sacrificing something, so it was great for me to be in rooms full of women who were in various stages or far ahead of me in their sobriety, or even women who had less time than me. I learned to gather my strength and move on. I realized I am not alone, I am not special, and I am not the only one ...

Melissa Gilbert

We need to allow moms not to be perfect because there is no such thing. No one is a perfect person. I used to look at the moms at school who made perfect piecrusts or wore jeans that were creased, or had unscuffed Keds. There is no such thing as perfect, and I used to beat myself up for not being like that.

ML: As a mother, do you want your children to read your book? And if so, what do you hope they'll learn from it or take away?
Melissa Gilbert: My two older boys have the book. They kind of know what's in it. My firstborn is in Europe, so he hasn't read it yet. I am sure he will. They are excited for me, but haven't shown much interest in reading it because they don't think they have to -- they lived it.

ML: In the book, you mention your relationship with Rob Lowe and miscarrying his baby years ago. How did you get through that?
Melissa Gilbert: The loss of a pregnancy at any stage is a tremendous grief, it causes tremendous grief. In the United States, we are the worst grievers in the world. We pat each other on the back and say, "It's going to be okay." No, it's not! It's not right to go through that -- and we say, "Don't cry." You should cry. You're in excruciating pain. We have an expression in my house: "I am going to feel the way I feel until I don't feel this way anymore." When you lose a baby and it's early on, it's not tangible or real, and people write it off. It's very real for the woman going through it. It's physically painful, your hormones are disrupted, and you feel like a failure.

ML: What was Rob Lowe's reaction when he first learned you were pregnant, and what was his reaction after you lost the baby?
Melissa Gilbert: I wasn't worried about his reaction when he found out about the baby because I thought we'd just move up our wedding date. I should have known we were doomed from the start. We were just too young. I walked through fires and because I walked through them, I realized how to get through them. I think what was more difficult was the premature birth of my son, Michael.

Melissa Gilbert

ML: How have your life experiences affected or shaped the way you parent your kids today?
Melissa Gilbert: Oh my gosh! It's a whole different thing here. I have a running joke with my husband. Someday our kids are going to be sitting on a therapist's couch saying, "Mom gave me too many choices, talking about feelings ... can we not talk about feelings so much?" I have made it a point to be open and honest; I want our family to express our feelings, and I allow my kids to have their feelings too. There is no mystery. They are not my pals, they are my children, but I made a conscious choice to live in a world that's not a big secret. It's made them comfortable sharing things with me, but sometimes I have to admit I am a little stunned by what they tell me. I love that my 20-year-old son can discuss his sexual activity with me, and tell me when he lost his virginity, but then I say, "Please don't tell me." It's part of being a parent and I am grateful they feel comfortable enough to share things with me.

ML: Today, as a mother, daughter, friend, actress, author, and more ... where do you draw your strength from?
Melissa Gilbert: I guess it just boils down to being sober and present in my life. It has not been a smooth ride since I wrote the book, and I am ultimately going to write a second book. But as long as I am sober and present, I can make it through anything. It's a cliché, but it works: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger." It's so true. My best friend and I have talked about this and we boiled it down. She lost her firstborn when he was 16. Her marriage fell apart after 25 years -- we've talked about the trials and tribulations we've been through. We came up with the idea that life is like a pearl necklace. In between each pearl is a knot. Without the knots, the pearls would fall away. The pearls are the good times in life -- births, celebrations, marriages, and joys ... The knots are the hard times, but they hold it all together. You can't have one without the other.

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