Decades of Drinking Behind Her, a Mother Faces a Steep Road Ahead

PHOTO Lynn Wardlow was a drinker for over 20 years.Courtesy Wardlow Family
Lynn Wardlow was a drinker for over 20 years. "I think after two drinks, I'm like, you know what, these people aggravate me," said Wardlow, who runs the family's ceiling construction business. "And they aggravate me during the course of the day, and at the end of the day I have a couple of drinks."

At the end of a country road, inside the walls of a quaint and calm Hattiesburg, Miss., home, a family was in crisis.

Lynn Wardlow, a 50-year-old wife and mother of three, had been a drinker for more than 20 years. All the while, though, she ran a family business and raised her children.

VIDEO: Mother of three opens "last bottle" says of family: "These people aggravate me."Play

In January, "20/20" visited Wardlow. It was the day before she'd planned to give up alcohol for good.

"My hands are shaking," said Wardlow as she packed her bags. "God, I hope I remembered to bring underwear."

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In the morning, Wardlow would travel from the Gulf Coast to Palm Beach, Fla., check herself into a medical facility for detox and then enter a 30-day rehab program for her alcohol addiction.

Meanwhile, Wardlow planned one last hurrah. She took a bottle from a cabinet in her bedroom.

"Would this be my best choice for my last bottle of wine?" she asked.

The last year in the Wardlow home had been particularly difficult, especially for the children -- Bo, 21; Jessy, 20; and Marina, 17.

"She's been drinking every night for as far back as I don't even know," said Bo. "The last year there's been a lot of drama, and it'd be nice if things were just normal for even just a little while."

Wardlow poured herself some wine. "My kids want me to just stop, stop, stop, but I like, I don't think I can just stop," she said.

"And if I did, I don't know if I would feel very good, or if we might have to go to the hospital, because I just stopped after I've been going, go, go, go for so long."

Wardlow's children have witnessed things no child should ever see: their mother passed out in her closet, in a drunken rage at a bookstore, in a car attempting to drive after an alcohol-infused fight.

"It's hard to see someone you love have to be addicted to something in order to feel better," said Marina.

"It makes you feel like you've done something wrong," said Jessy.

Drunken Moms: 'When She Gets Like That'

The kids say their mother's drinking had reached a critical point. Last April, Wardlow was diagnosed with hepatitis C, unrelated to her alcoholism. Unless she quit drinking, she could die.

But even the threat of losing her life, the family said, hadn't stopped Wardlow from consuming alcohol.

"I want my mom to get better and not just for our sake but for her sake for her health," said Jessy.

Wardlow's last night at home was tense. The alcohol fueled her anxiety of what was to come.

"I think after two drinks, I'm like, you know what, these people aggravate me," said Wardlow, who ran the family's ceiling construction business. "And they aggravate me during the course of the day, and at the end of the day, I have a couple of drinks."

The kids knew better than to stick around once Lynn started drinking. Wardlow's husband, Bob, soon became a target.

"If you want to spend more time with Bill O'Reilly and your computer then go ahead," Wardlow cracked.

"When she gets like that, conversations can turn to arguments," said Bob.

"Or being an a**hole can turn to arguments," said Wardlow. "Maybe I'm just able to say, you know what, [I've] had it up to here!"

The next morning, her head a little clearer, Wardlow acknowledged that rehab may be her last chance.

"I've affected my children. ... Our relationships would be different if alcohol wasn't a part of my life," she said.

But just before she walked out the door, the leftover wine from the night before called to her.

"I'm not going to drink that," Wardlow said, wavering before she gave in and took a sip.

Wardlow's family walked her down the steps. She gave them kisses. She grew emotional.

"I'm not the only person who needs to be healed," said Wardlow. "I'm not the only person who has been affected by this.

"It's gonna be good," she assured her famliy. "I'm going to get better."

Two planes, three bloody mary's and two beers later, Wardlow landed in Florida.

She was greeted by Loren Seaman from the Orchid Recovery Center, where Wardlow would surrender herself for treatment.

"Did you drink?" Seaman asked.

"Well, hell yeah," Wardlow said.

Wardlow and Seaman had been talking for weeks on the phone to prepare for her arrival.

But before her bags had even make it downstairs, a shoeless Wardlow headed off for one more drink.

"We're going to make a new martini," Wardlow said. "It's called the Lynn's-quitting-drinking-and-going-to-rehab martini. Ready?

Drunken Moms: Tough Recovery Odds

Finally, it was time for Seaman to sign Wardlow into the center.

"Have you ever been to detox?" Seaman asked. The answer was no.

"It's OK, I'm good," said Wardlow, laughing. "I'm drunk, so right now I ain't scared. Give me a day or two, and I'm probably going to be frightened out of my wits."

Over a million people submit to detox and rehab programs for alcohol addiction every year in this country. The odds going into rehab were against Wardlow. Studies show that 90 percent of people in recovery relapse.

Wardlow had a session with Linda Burns, head of nursing at Sunrise Detox.

"How much are you drinking a day, about?" Linda asked.

"Four, five, six ..." replied Wardlow.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse, one third of alcoholics in the United States are women.

Staff at both the Orchid and Sunrise Detox Center told "20/20" that about 95 percent of the women they pick up at the airport are intoxicated upon arrival. Wardlow was no exception.

A Sunrise Detox tech measured Wardlow's blood alcohol content upon admission.

"You're not too bad -- .106," the tech said.

"What does that mean?" said Wardlow. "Would I be arrested?"

"Oh, definitely, yeah."

"I would be arrested."


"Point-zero-8 is the limit, and I'm at point 1-plus over. I'm over the limit to drive a vehicle."

"Yes, you would be wearing nice bracelets."

For the next five days -- standard for alcohol addiction -- Wardlow remained at Sunrise. She was medicated with a drug called librium to eliminate the side effects of withdrawal, which can range from tremors and insomnia to delirium or even seizures.

From day one, Wardlow was restless.

"If you reached in your pocket right now and pulled out a beer, it would be really hard for me not to drink it," she told "20/20." "Quite honestly, it would."

By day four, her impatience and boredom reached all-time highs.

"I have not had a good morning," she said, talking to a portable camera "20/20" gave her to document her journey. "I have cried on more than one occasion today. I have come to the realization that this is the closest thing to a jail that I have ever been in."

But it was only the beginning of a long and difficult journey.

The next step for Wardlow was the Orchid Recovery Center, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center designed specifically to treat women.

"We're just glad you're here, Lynn," said an Orchid staff member who welcomed her.

"Thank you," said Wardlow. "I'm glad I'm here too."

Drunken Moms: From Detox to Rehab

Normally, TV cameras are not permitted to see inside the walls of a rehab facility. But with Wardlow's permission, the Orchid Recovery Center allowed "20/20" unprecedented access to their treatment process.

"You don't know Lynn clean and sober," Mindy Appel, Wardlow's therapist at the Orchid, told her. "You don't know that woman."

Unlike at detox, Wardlow's days at rehab would be packed, from six in the morning until nine at night. She would have individual and group therapy sessions mixed with yoga, meditation, accupuncture and art.

An all-female facility, the Orchid is run almost exclusively by women, many of whom have been through some type of addiction recovery of their own.

The Orchid places enormous weight on the honing of life skills, encouraging women to shop and cook for themselves -- all of the things they'll have to do back home. But sometimes, even a simple trip to the grocery store can spell trouble. Once a woman from the center drank vanilla extract from the store. It's 24 percent alcohol. The woman drank five or six big bottles, staff said -- and came back reeking of alcohol and walking funny.

For recovering alcoholics, triggers to resume drinking can be anything from beer commercials on TV to the wine store they used to frequent -- anything that reminds them of drinking, said Orchid staff.

Wardlow's heavy lifting for the next 30 days would happen inside the office of Appel, her therapist.

"We want to stay really focused, and I'm going to keep you on task here," Appel told her.

During her first session, Wardlow confessed her reasons for drinking went back to her relationship with her father.

"So what was growing up like for you?" asked Appel.

"I had times of sadness," said Wardlow. "My father was an alcoholic... When I was 15 he decided it was time to go ... so he died."

Genetics may also have had a role in Wardlow's addiction. Studies show that children of alcoholics are four times more likely to develop the problem.

A week into her treatment, "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas paid a visit to Wardlow at Orchid. She appeared more calm and focused but still struggled with her addiction.

Vargas asked her if it was hard.

"It's really hard," she said. "It is hard and it's, and it's hurtful, and you realize how many people that you've hurt. And my children are amazing. I mean, I look at them, and I know I've not been a bad mother. I'm like, I know I'm a good mother. I've mothered them well -- but how much better could it have been if these past 10 years, I hadn't been living in the bottom, in the bottom of a bottle?"

Wardlow described the cycle of her drinking.

"I wake up the next morning, you feel horrible, and you say, 'I'm gonna do better. I'm gonna do better. I'm gonna do better. So, but I don't feel very good today. So this afternoon, I'm just gonna have a beer.'" Which turns into "three or four or five or six."

Are Mothers Drinking More?

The team of therapists at the Orchid said regrets and expectations about being the perfect mother are often what push a woman deeper into her addiction.

"There's so many women that are so sophisticated at covering up and being, you know, the PTA mom and being the soccer mom and doing all things for everyone," said Appel.

But are women, particularly mothers, drinking more -- or are we just finding out about it more?

"I think we're finding out about it more," said Mindy Agler, another therapist on the Orchid team. "[It's] just not something you talk about. ... If a man walks away from a family because he needs to focus on his recovery, everybody says OK, so he needs to do that. But if a woman leaves her family to go get treatment and then decides 'You know what, I'm not ready, I got to go to a halfway house before I go back to my kids,' everybody goes, 'Oh my God.'"

That double standard and the stigma of alcoholism can keep a woman's disease under wraps. But past traumas, the therapists say, can also play a role.

In her short time at the Orchid, Wardlow opened up about not only her alcoholic father but other traumatic experiences: an abortion at 17, and a horrific gang-rape on her 18th birthday.

"She identifies, from 15 to 18, these were horrible years for her," said Appel. "That she's never, never dealt with."

The entire time, a question hung in the background: Would Wardlow make it through treatment, and would she be able to stay away from alcohol once she was back home?

"I'll be honest with you, I'm scared as hell," she said. "I'm scared, I'm scared to go home.

Wardlow left the Orchid with 30 days clean and a lifetime of hurdles in front of her. We visited Wardlow in Hattiesburg after her release. She was ready to add another day to her sobriety.

"This is my little tablet," she said, indicating a pad of paper. "And I wad up yesterday and I write today down, put my little tablet back up there, and if I drink, I have to put that tablet on zero -- and I don't want to have to do that."

The time back home had not always been easy.

"We had to relearn how to live with one another," said Wardlow. "The first week or two was pretty volatile. Not in a physical way, but there was lots of screaming and gnashing of teeth."

But there are signs of healing.

"We're all really proud of her," said Marina. "I know if she sets her mind to anything, that's what she's going to do. I'm just glad that she finally set her mind to it."

"I think she's trying to be more aware, and I think she's trying to make up for, in some aspects, everything that's happened and stuff," said Jessy. "But I think she's working on it. ... I think she'll do it. I believe in her."

Wardlow had followed her care plan closely. She had daily phone calls with her sponsor and attended support group meetings regularly.

To stay with the recovery program, Wardlow can never consume a drop of alcohol -- or take any habit-forming medication -- again.

"No mood-altering drugs, as far as any type of benzos or opiates or whatever," she said. "I was on tremizal for joint pain. Also I was taking lunesta to sleep, and I'm not taking that any more either."

Wardlow left one support meeting with a chip marking how long it had been since she'd stopped drinking.

"Ninety days! 90 Days," she said. "Big three months. Three months sober."