Originally posted January 24, 2020, PARADE
On Instagram to her 21K+ followers, Emily Lynn Paulson looked like she had it all together. To the social media world, she was a doting mom to her five children, ages 4-11, a former chemist and teacher who found success selling network marketing products from home. But behind her 'Gram life, Paulson was living a dark secret—she was an alcoholic, shielding her need for a drink behind cutesy shirts like "Prosecco made me do it."
"I kept bottle openers stashed throughout my house—in the bathroom, in the laundry room, one was always in my purse–so I could sneak away to drink while my kids ate dinner or played in the backyard,” Paulson admits.
It took a sobering DUI charge and tough conversations with her older kids to force Paulson to take a long look in the mirror and get the help she needed to overcome her battle with alcoholism.
Sober since January 2, 2017, Paulson is now a certified professional recovery coach, speaker, and member of the long-term recovery community. In her new memoir, Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Behind the Filtered Life, Paulson reflects on her struggles and looks to shed light on the dangers of the drinking mom culture.
Here in this Parade.com exclusive, Paulson explains in her own words why it took a DUI to make her a more connected parent, why she used motherhood as an excuse to drink, and her reality of being a sober mom in a "wine-mom culture."
In the summer of 2016, I was pulled over for drinking and driving. I won’t go into all the details, but it was traumatic messy and expensive and it was 100 percent my fault. I’m thankful every single day that nobody was hurt because of my horrid decision to get behind the wheel.
But it didn’t make me stop drinking.
The most alarming thing about that experience, looking back, is the way that I, and everyone around me justified and minimized it.
“We’ve all driven a little buzzed, Em, it could have happened to any of us.”
“Oh, that sucks, I had a DUI last year too, so many people have.”
“So sorry, there have been SO many nights that I should have gotten a DUI.”
Really? Ok. I guess it’s not so bad! Sounds like a rite of passage!
Later that summer, I sat in a court-mandated drug and alcohol class, with about 20 other people who had also received alcohol related offenses. We all had to share our “charge” and our “remedy.” For example, mine was, “I got pulled over after drinking, and my remedy to prevent this happening again is UBER.” Not super profound, but you get the point. As I listened to everyone rattle off their charges and remedies, I was struck by the responses of two people in the group:
'Really? Stop, like, forever? For one little DUI?' I thought to myself. It didn’t occur to me that someone would chose to quit drinking over this. 'They must have a problem,' I rolled my eyes, as if getting arrested in the first place isn’t enough of a problem. At that point, I still didn’t understand the gravity of my choices, which shows how brainwashed I was into believing that alcohol was a necessary part of my life.
It wasn’t until I had an interlock (read: breathalyzer) installed in my car, that I began to question the repercussions of drinking. Not because of the embarrassment of it, or the awkwardness, or the criminal charges, or fines, or the suspended license, but because of my kids’ reaction to it.
The day the interlock was installed, I picked up my older two from school (they were 9 and 11 at the time) and prepared myself for a very awkward conversation.
“So,” I stammered, “ Mommy made a bad choice this summer. I chose to get behind the wheel after drinking, and I got in trouble. This is my consequence,” I announced, while showing off the odd looking new accessory in my car. I winked and did jazz hands out of nervousness, which received nothing but blank stares.
“Do you guys have anything to say?”
My son finally responded, “So, you have to go to jail or anything?”
“Nope, this is it. Just this. And some fines and stuff,” I sighed.
“Ok.” he shrugged.
That’s it? Nothing else? I was surprised they didn’t have more to say, but also relieved that the conversation was over. But as I drove home, my daughter asked,
“Are you going to stop drinking?”
“Um, well, I definitely will stop drinking if I have to drive!” I laughed.
She deadpanned, “But why would you drink if you can get in such trouble.”
Crap, ok. “Well, it was my bad decision to get behind the wheel, hon, not the alcohol.”
I quickly realized the absurdity of my statement (alcohol is the reason I MADE the bad decision) and backpedaled, “I should have gotten a ride home.”
“But if you don’t drink at all then you don’t have to worry about it, right?”
A thought that literally never ocurred to me.
“Yeah,” my son chimed in, “Why do people even drink? I don’t understand why grown ups have to drink beer all the time?
Um… wow. Ok. All the time? Are we drinking all of the time?
Before I could say a word, the two of them launched into a dialogue about the times I was “silly” and “fell asleep too early” or “forgot to pay the sitter.” They chatted about the parties we had at the house and “so many swear words” and how loud it got and “wow the piles of beer cans!” They talked about the one time they walked to 7-11 alone to get slurpees and “you and daddy didn’t even notice because you were all partying with your friends!” They giggled about other kid’s parents, stories their friends told, all with the consistent theme of drinking everywhere, anywhere, all the time.
Oh my God.
They were seeing everything. They were hearing everything. Of course they were! The sad and honest truth is that I never considered how the drinking I did impacted my children because I thought I was hiding it from them. I wasn’t. They were downstairs watching a movie but hearing everything. They were doing homework while my wine glass was full and I didn’t think they noticed. I certainly never thought to talk to them about it. I assumed they were too young.
And I had three other kids at home who were absorbing the same narrative.
The scary thing is, my son and daughter’s enlightening conversation in the car wasn’t about the DUI or other rock bottom, stereotypically alcoholic behavior. They were absorbing and reflecting the “normal” day to day alcohol use that most parents (including myself) find completely harmless.
That was mid-November, and for the next six weeks of 2016 I tried to pay more attention to curbing my drinking around them. I also had the interlock to contend with. It was during that short time that I realized how hard it was to NOT drink. Not just because I was addicted (I was), but because the whole world is arranged to keep people drinking, especially moms.
It’s assumed in our society that everyone drinks. It’s needed to relax, celebrate, take the edge off, have fun, or fill in the blank with any number of activities. And it’s no wonder, Alcohol companies have psychologists and marketing experts on their staff with the goal of making everyone believe they can’t live without it. And they are doing a damn good job.
My life was filled with mom’s nights out (times five!) all with alcohol flowing. A plethora of Christmas parties. “Mom deserves wine” marketing was everywhere, in fact my own phone case said “rosé all day.” Wine in cans at the drugstore. Beer after the 5K. Liquor at every school function. Wine at yoga. Bottomless mimosas at 10:00 a.m. Beer at kids’ birthday parties. A second grade soccer awards ceremony at the brewery with pitchers flowing. My wine advent calendar. The “pre-party” before the kids’ Christmas program. Tailgating before Seahawks games, and drinking during and after. Beer, beer, beer. Wine, wine, wine. The attempt to curb my drinking seemed impossible. When I enjoyed it, I couldn't control it, and when I controlled it, I couldn't enjoy it.
Finally, New Years day, after waking up hungover for the god-knows-how-many-ith time, I knew I had enough, and I walked into my first AA meeting. I didn’t know what my life was going to look like without booze, but I knew it had to be better than the life I’d been living trying to control an uncontrollable substance. Whether or not I was an alcoholic, a question I’d tormented myself with for months..years...didn’t matter anymore. I decided I’d rather call myself one than spend the rest of my mothering years trying to pretend that I wasn’t. The short story is, I haven’t had a drink since.
Of course, there is more to it than that, because getting sober is not easy, especially with five children! When you are surrounded by a world of women who are also “taking the edge off,” it can be difficult to convince yourself that you’re making the right choice. For the first year or so, I had to say no to things; events, people, situations. I had to find new outlets and activities. I’m grateful that there are multiple pathways to recovery, and over time, I’ve found what works for me. I attended AA (there are meetings with childcare!). I found SHE RECOVERS. I started seeing a therapist. I started reading more and writing and learning more about myself, and ultimately worked to uncover the reasons I felt I needed to drink in the first place.
The truth is, I’m inundated with the same messaging I was four years ago, but I react differently now. It still seems crazy to me that sober people are expected to justify why they don’t drink. I would never imagine asking someone who quit smoking, “oh, like, forever? Or just for now?” or someone who is allergic to peanuts, “Really, how about just one?” Yet I’m asked several times per week if I’m “still doing that sober thing.” It can be frustrating, because making the less toxic choice should be the celebrated norm, not the challenged oddity.
For many years, I considered motherhood a trigger; I used the stress and noise and busyness as an excuse to drink. I actually believed that drinking made me a better mom (spoiler: It didn’t). Learning how to sit with uncomfortable feelings and find new coping mechanisms was tough, but became the absolute key to my success in recovery, and my transformation as a more connected parent. Alcohol use increases anxiety (so much for the “taking the edge off” theory, right?), so by quitting, my stress level has decreased over time. When I do find myself overwhelmed, instead of reaching for a bottle, I meditate, journal, exercise, or take a hot bath.
My children were keenly aware of the fact that I stopped drinking. First, they wondered where all the “fancy glasses” went, and why we all of a sudden had so much cabinet space. They started commenting at restaurants that I was drinking soda instead of beer. Most impactful, they told me they liked me being around more often, and I knew what they meant by it. I was a stay at home mom, for goodness sake, I was ALWAYS around, but I wasn’t always “there.” Their awareness of how I’d been poisoning myself over the years has made it easier for me to stay the course.
As a parent, sobriety can be equally joyous and lonely. In a way, becoming sober has made me feel like a kid again; I enjoy going to parks and museums and taking bike rides and playing games and going for walks and doing things that I formerly considered quite boring because my brain was conditioned equating booze to all things “fun.” On the other hand, sometimes I’m excluded from things because other people don’t know how to handle my sobriety, or feel that I wouldn’t enjoy it because it’s booze-focused (hint: most things are). In turn, my kids get excluded, too. I’ve had to answer the question, “why don’t we hang out with so-and-so anymore” a painful number of times, because frankly, there are some people and some situations I don’t want to expose myself, or them, to. I’ve decided though, that it has only led to me curating a deeper connection with my kids, and my kids with one another, so it’s well worth it.
As my kids get older and become teenagers, the line of communication on this subject is constantly open and being revisited, which is something that would never have happened before I got sober. But whether or not you drink, the subject shouldn’t be “taboo,” in fact, you should be talking more about it, and talking earlier than you think. I have found that moms have no problem speaking to their children about reducing sugar, gluten, dairy, or praising their “anti-inflammatory” diet, but they don’t touch the subject of alcohol. Kids deserve to know why adults drink! Communicate, and call a spade a spade. Alcohol is ethanol. It is a Group One Carcinogen. It’s proven to cause seven types of cancer, and it’s addictive and dangerous for everyone. You and your kids. They can Google this information too, but isn’t it better to talk about it?
Ironically, I talk more about alcohol now that I’m sober than I ever did when I was a daily drinker. My kids know that alcohol is a drug, and it’s completely legal when you’re 21, and that they absolutely can make their own choices about it at that point. They also know that it caused their mom a boatload of problems, and it has the potential to cause problems for them (or anyone) as well. They know that the younger you are when you take your first drink, the more likely you are to have problems with it. They also know that booze is around sometimes, and sometimes not (my husband still drinks occasionally), but that it’s not the norm, and it's certainly not a requirement. Ultimately, they need to make their own choices, but I’m happy with the messages they are receiving from us.
I am not a prohibitionist. I don’t expect everyone to be a sober parent, nor do I think that’s necessary. What I do challenge other people to do, especially moms, is to question the status quo on drinking culture and alcohol use. Harm reduction is a good thing, especially when you think about the legacy you are leaving your kids. Rather than thinking about restriction and cutting back, think about how you can affect positive change. Coping with stress without a numbing substance, lowering your risk of dementia and cancer, and being more present, all have an incredibly positive impact on your kids.
Being a sober mom in a wine-mom culture is not easy, but it’s worth it. I’m doing my part to not only share the truth about alcohol, but balance out a drunk world by normalizing an alcohol-free lifestyle. I’ve found it surprising just how attached to drinking people are, by the defensiveness that many of my articles and posts have sparked. Still, I plug away, because I’ve witnessed the benefits of sharing my story and my truth. There’s been a positive shift for me, for my kids, and for other moms who have heard and taken my message to heart. It’s all been worth it. Even that damn breathalyzer.
Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life is available now.