About four years ago, when my oldest daughter was four and her twin siblings were barely walking, we sat at our dinner table with friends. In those days, friends were critical to survival. They showed up with food, camaraderie, and fresh energy. They played with babies, changed diapers, and folded laundry. They showed up with alcohol, too, and that also felt critical to survival.

I’m not sure exactly when my love of alcohol and dormant predisposition for addiction collided and became a dependency. But, by the time my kids were born, I was an active alcoholic. I remember one dinner when I left the table midway through my meal to pour more gin into my glass, and when I sat back down, I kissed my daughter on her forehead.

“Your breath smells good, Mama,” she said.

My friends laughed. I did, too. Her little voice was sweet and innocent. The sound made me smile, but I hid the sadness her words triggered. I hid my worry that she equated her mother with the scent of the booze on my breath; I didn’t want her to connect my love for her with the alcohol I consumed every night.

But when I was with her, I frequently had a glass or bottle of alcohol in my hand. And there was always gin or beer on my breath. It was our normal back then, and remained that way until she was six.

A Perfect Mix

Image by Amber Leventry

Shame and guilt are tricky emotions. In equal parts, they’ve both motivated me to do better and also been the source of my own self-destruction.

The more I drank, the guiltier I felt, so the harder I worked. I didn’t try to drink less, I tried to do more. I tried to be the perfect spouse, friend, daughter, and parent. I tried to be all the things for all of the people. I tried to be perfect for everyone—everyone but myself. Because if I could feign perfection, I wouldn’t have to give up what kept me numb and safe from having to feel painful emotions.

The more I drank, the guiltier I felt, so the harder I worked. I didn’t try to drink less, I tried to do more.

I knew I was calming anxiety, buffering depression, and masking fear from PTSD when I drank. I knew I was uncomfortable, and the booze made life tolerable. But I didn’t really know the full extent of why I drank.

I blamed my queerness, my abusive past, my OCD, my childhood trauma. I pointed at parenting, stress, and work. But even after 15 years of therapy, there was still something untapped and unturned. Was I drinking to find out what that thing was, or was I drinking so I would never have to know?

The hole I tried to fill with booze was bottomless and dark, and when I stopped drinking, the gap deepened and widened. It hurt to be filled with so much empty space, but awareness spread with the pain. Without alcohol to numb myself, something was being exposed.

The hole I tried to fill with booze was bottomless and dark, and when I stopped drinking, the gap deepened and widened.

I wasn’t just uncomfortable; I was uncomfortable in my body. I fully anticipated the way my brain would reject sobriety. Alcohol had slowed down the busyness of my mind and quieted the noise. But it had also masked an extreme level of bodily discomfort; a sense that I was trapped in my own skin. The intensity of these feelings surprised me.

Surprised might be the wrong word. I was being reminded of how awful I feel in my female body, how awful I’d always felt, before my discomfort was numbed by booze.

I fall in love with female-bodied women but hate my own. I present myself with stereotypical masculine expressions of clothing and hair. Female pronouns cut off my masculinity, yet male pronouns aren’t quite right, either. I long for the day I can have my breasts cut off while sometimes feeling like a penis I never had has already been removed.

I long for the day I can have my breasts cut off while sometimes feeling like a penis I never had has already been removed.

One morning I looked in the mirror and the hatred I had for myself and my body was finally too much. I was suffocating. Something my yoga instructor and mentor often said vibrated through the pain. If there is one thing you had the courage to change, what would it be?

I had to face what I always knew to be true: I am non-binary—not male or female, but a perfect mix of two genders.

I was only able to face this fact after I stopped drinking. Sobriety seemed to change me, but what it actually did was scoop me up and shove me into the spotlight. Sobriety forced me to own my non-binary identity. But owning that meant it felt like I was becoming someone new, especially to my kids.

Sobriety seemed to change me, but what it actually did was scoop me up and shove me into the spotlight. Sobriety forced me to own my non-binary identity.

All of Me

As I struggle with the nuances of this part of me that has been locked away since childhood, I feel trapped in my need to be seen and accepted sooner than most people can accommodate. I am often angry, sad, agitated, and lonely.

My kids don’t know the extent of how much I used to drink, but my oldest knows I’m sober and don’t drink anymore. She likes to ask about my Sober AF mug, which I tell her stands for Sober As Fact. I have told her that I don’t drink alcohol anymore because it made me sick. She doesn’t have any bad memories of me in regards to alcohol, but she tells me I yell too much. I am not patient enough. Sometimes I am mean. She’s right.

They don’t know it, but my kids are watching me transform into a different person.

When I was drinking, guilt and shame helped me overcompensate. I would dig deeper to be patient and empathetic with my kids. Now, without alcohol to numb my frustration with my undeniable identity, I struggle to find compassion at times or even the energy to try. I snap at them, and I am not as present as I could be. I need space and time away from them. In the past, as long as I had a drink in hand, I could sit on the floor for hours and play or talk or color. Now it’s hard to just sit. This has brought to the surface a new variety of guilt.

In the past, as long as I had a drink in hand, I could sit on the floor for hours and play or talk or color. Now it’s hard to just sit. This has brought to the surface a new variety of guilt.

My kids are seeing me, imperfect and in progress, as I struggle to find solid ground on the way to becoming a better version of myself. As they watch, I shed old, protective layers and fight to emerge as my true self.

Part of this fight means asking friends and family to use they/them pronouns when speaking to and about me. When they don’t adjust as quickly as I’d like, it hurts, and sometimes I take my annoyance out on my kids. I am not as patient when I ask them to change the pronouns they use for me. I am still Mama, but I am slowly guiding my children to stop using female pronouns when referring to me.

My oldest is trying, but all three of my kids usually forget. When I gently correct them, I can see the defeat on their faces. In those moments, I wonder what is fair to ask of them. But then I remind myself that staying sober means living as my most authentic self—and that means owning and insisting upon my non-binary identity. It’s not fair to me to try to stay sober while hiding or denying who I am. Sobriety doesn’t work like that. I can’t continue to avoid the things that kept me clinging to the bottle.

Staying sober means living as my most authentic self—and that means owning and insisting upon my non-binary identity.

Through my recovery, I’m getting to know the truest version of me: the sober, nonbinary me. I now see how the two identities are linked; I know they need to coexist. I am learning how to be a sober parent while asking for the validation and respect I deserve.

My kids are learning, too. They’re learning to get used to a sober parent who not only has mood swings, but also new pronouns. This rough patch, this painfully steep learning curve, has exasperated all of us. It’s also provided moments of beautiful clarity.

“But Mama! How can I call you they or them? That means two!” My daughter is now almost eight; she is an eager learner and an even stronger reader and lover of words.

I understood her frustration. I also understand that the use of they is correct even in singular situations. I didn’t give her that grammar lesson. Instead I said this, “Well, I am male and female. I am both. So it’s okay to call me they. Does that make sense now?”

She hesitated, but I knew it did. I could see her reluctance to change, to see me differently. I know those frustrating and fearful feelings of letting go of old habits and information I thought was correct. 

“Yes,” she said.

Yes. We are both starting to see all of me.