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New Moms in Rehab

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When the postpartum months create crazy amounts of new stress, some mothers look for liquid relief.

charlie sheen and brooke mueller

Jennifer Ginsberg: Nine months after giving birth to twins, new mother Brooke Mueller reportedly sought treatment for substance abuse at the Two Dreams Outer Banks drug and alcohol rehab center in North Carolina. While no one knows for certain what led to her relapse into alcoholism, there is speculation as to whether or not the stress of being a new mother led her to seek relief in the bottle.

In light of the fact that Mueller has had addiction issues in the past, it is not surprising that her problem flared up again in the postpartum period. Oftentimes the combination of exhaustion, physical discomfort and anxiety is enough to trigger a recovering addict's relapse.

Over the years I have seen many women relapse after giving birth, especially if they are fairly new in their recovery or if they haven't adequately dealt with their issues that contributed to their addiction. Postpartum hormones, fatigue, and stress all play a role. Often it starts as postpartum depression, or maybe their partner isn't supportive or is drinking and using drugs. More moms are now entering treatment to learn how to be sober with a child.

The question is, when a recovering addict experiences something as physically and emotionally challenging as giving birth and becoming a mother, is relapse inevitable?

Many new moms feel stressed, isolated and lonely, because the rules that applied to their lives and careers pre-motherhood are completely irrelevant now. There are no gold stars, promotions or "atta girls," even when they make it through the most challenging of days.

Gone are the times when women gathered together to raise children communally, where mothers naturally helped and supported one another. Now women often find themselves stuck at home alone with young children, and there is a sense of the four walls closing in. It's no surprise that many moms feel an increasing need to "take the edge off."

Moms must learn to derive a sense of purpose and self-worth from their own intuition and personal ethos -- not an easy task in a culture that is obsessed with external validation. Raising small children can be tedious and frustrating, and it has become socially acceptable for women to have a glass of wine to cope with the incessant demands of motherhood. Alcohol has been used as a social and emotional lubricant ever since man crushed grapes; for many people, having a drink at the end of a long day can provide a wonderful sense of relief.

However, there's a dark side to this illusive coin that indicates -- often subtly, but sometimes glaringly -- that mixing motherhood and booze can be detrimental, if not deadly. When someone says they're drinking because they need stress relief, it's a signal to be concerned -- especially if they go to extreme lengths to rationalize their behavior. My experience is that drinking can indeed relieve stress temporarily, but there's is a steep price to pay if you use it to suppress feelings longterm.

sad woman drinking wine

Many moms who struggle with addiction learn to live a double life; they go to extreme lengths to conceal their using. They often present a persona of the "good mother and wife," which only perpetuates their denial and addiction.

They have very clever defenses and rationalizations to shield themselves from their deep sense of shame about using around their children. These moms tell themselves that they are better wives and mothers when they are under the influence; that they are more relaxed and better able to deal with the stress of motherhood. The false image they present to the world mitigates their addiction, even as they spiral out of control. When they aren't under the influence, their anxiety is often off the charts: They find themselves needing more and more of their substances to simply get through the day. Their husbands are usually terrified, but feel helpless and confused because addicts are brilliant liars and manipulators.

The guilt and shame that alcoholic and drug-addicted moms feel is overwhelming. They really believe that they are worthless if they can't even stay sober for their children. But addiction is a ruthless illness that doesn't have any regard for one's family, accomplishments or dreams. It crosses all socioeconomic, ethnic and gender lines. Its only aim is to destroy the addict, often leaving her desperate, isolated or dead.

What alcoholics and addicts gain in recovery is a box of tools which, if used diligently, will support sobriety even in the most difficult of circumstances. They learn how to stay clean through illness, grief, trauma and depression. But matching calamity with sobriety doesn't come easily for most -- and the amount of footwork required to achieve this can feel daunting.

This is why it is critically important that new moms -- especially those with past addiction issues -- seek support. Recovering alcoholics must not fall prey to the idea that being a mom will inoculate them against their addiction. They must continue to work on a program of recovery.

May alcoholics and addicts everywhere take pause and remember: Once an addict, always an addict. Stay vigilant about your recovery. And if you are in trouble, get help now.

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37 comments so far | Post a comment now
sheila February 17, 2010, 10:00 AM

Great article - this information is so timely and critical in today’s society…it’s never too late to get help - until it’s too late!

Heather February 18, 2010, 10:05 PM

Thank you for this wonderful piece, which is illuminating also for those who are not substance-addicted. In particular, the piece about the price to be paid for suppressing feelings resonated with me.

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