Tonight I left my children with our longtime babysitter, who claims she is nine days sober, but is possibly drunk or high.
At the very least, she is exhausted — the kind of exhausted that seeps into your bones and calcifies. I am leaving my children with her because I trust her. Four years, she has cared for my children. She has made them paper crowns and cardboard castles, bathed them and sung them to sleep. She and I have lunched and sipped tea. Together, we have summited mountains of paperwork to secure her health insurance, a new car, a new apartment.
I know her, I trust her. This is the mantra I repeat to myself from my office upstairs, where I am listening to every thump and bump and giggle below.
I am in the house. I didn’t leave. It’s the middle of a pandemic; no one leaves anymore. That’s how I know my children will be alive when I finish working. But as the night goes on, I start checking the baby monitor, because my children are not in bed and it is after 8 o’clock, after bedtime, late and getting later. When they finally appear — my 5-year-old daughter doing a cartwheel, my 3-year-old son dragging his blankies, the babysitter, alert and smiling — I release a breath I had not realized I was holding.
How many days of sobriety do you need to babysit? To be trustworthy? Seven days? Thirty days? Ninety days? Conventional wisdom holds that the physical symptoms of alcohol withdrawal — the nausea and sweating, the shaking and disorientation — usually subside in three to five days.
The babysitter says she has nine days sober, but we all lie, every addict, every alcoholic. I detoxed in the hospital’s drunk tank. On day two of sobriety, I had a seizure. On day six, I had a panic attack. On day nine, I could put on my own pants, barely.
But the struggle doesn’t end with the physical. It’s mental. The misery of protracted withdrawal — dysphoria, depression, irritability — can drag on for weeks. Twelve-step programs refer to this as “the monkey on your back,” because the cravings weigh on you, pick at you, natter in your ear about how much more bearable this conference call, this meal, this round of hide-and-seek might be with a drink. My first sponsor insisted I find a job and keep busy, which I did, and I stayed sober.
Tonight, I’m paying it forward. I am giving the babysitter a job. I am keeping her busy. I am hoping she stays sober.
But what if I weren’t an alcoholic? Would I have asked her to leave? Would I have said I’m not comfortable, and sent her away? This babysitter has become something more akin to family. She has told me stories of being dragged through her childhood like a fiberglass boat through the shallows: a father who left, a mother who did her best, a grim foster care placement, and the briny scrape of countless other dangers, both visible and not. This babysitter — whose heart is miraculously intact despite the damage it has endured, including a recent brush with death and viral cardiomyopathy — could I have asked her to leave?
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous says she should stay. Being of use is important, it says. The fellowship of another alcoholic is crucial, it says. Still, I wish she hadn’t confessed. I wish she hadn’t told me over the kitchen island, in front of the children as they were eating spaghetti, as they were eating her every word, saving their questions for the morning when I know they will ask me, What is drinking? What is sober? Why is her face so fluffy?
They do not know what it is to be bloated. They do not understand edema or addiction. They have never seen me drink alcohol, not once, not ever. I will have to explain it to them. They share my blood, so it’s possible that this thing, this alcoholic affliction may be metastasizing in them, even now, as they lie in their beds, chattering back and forth. I will have to explain at least part of it to them in the morning.
Someday they will want to know all of it. How I stopped drinking. How I writhed as the alcohol and dope leached out of my system. How I was dry. For years I was dry, like a desert, like the air in winter, like a pile of ash. Angry. Pimpled. Thirsty. That first year, I locked myself away in a halfway house where I learned how to shower, how to clean a toilet, how to cook spaghetti, how to wash a dish, how to make a bed, why you should care about making your bed. And AA meetings every day. For three years, every day. I had the Big Book nearly memorized — the acceptance passage, the serenity prayer, How It Works, the steps and traditions. I remember so little now.
I’ve been sober 18 years, so long I don’t even think about drinking and drugs anymore. Not really, anyway. Not often. Definitely not every day. But once in a while, maybe out at dinner with friends, when someone orders a red wine, or a beer, or a vodka tonic.
Vodka. I’d like seven vodka tonics. I’d like to slip inside a bottle of vodka, to bathe in it, to slosh, just for the night, just for a little while.
That’s how I know my addiction is still there, still lurking, still hungry. After 18 years it’s probably ravenous, but it’s not starving. Starvation is something you die of, and addiction cannot be killed. You can’t excise or eradicate it. You have to contain it. Dam it. Barricade it. Even then, it whispers. Through whatever levees you erect, it gurgles. It splashes out a Morse code of desire. You become a certain kind of deaf, a certain level of numb, all the time, every day. That’s the work. That is how you progress from drunk, to dry drunk, to sober human. You’ll never be just human. You’ll always be a sober human — a person almost, but not quite.
My babysitter has nine days sober. When she tells me, she says how proud she is. I have given her my children for the night. When I go downstairs, they will be asleep, or will be in bed contemplating going to sleep. She and I will talk. I will tell her what it was like, what happened, what it’s like today. I will tell her half-truths — not even. She will tell me what it is like for her right now, today, with her nine days sober. I will believe half of what she says — not even.
Tomorrow night, she will watch my children again. She will hold them, and her soon-to-be 10 days, as tightly as she is able. I know her, I trust her. She will keep the children as safe as she knows how. I pray their laughter and shrieks and glee will keep her safe in return. These are the things alcoholics do for each other. These are the things that keep us sober. These are the things I hope someone would do for my children, should they need it.
Sarah Twombly is a writer and mother to two young children. Update, Jan. 10, 2021: The babysitter was involved with the writing of this essay, and gave her consent for it to be published to both the writer and the editor.