Mary Karr, Alcoholic Mother, Recalls Shame of Addiction

Twenty years sober, author Mary Karr recalls struggle with alcoholism.

April 26, 2010, 2:53 PM

April 27, 2010— -- Best-selling poet and author Mary Karr knows all too well the treacherous cycle that faces every alcoholic mother.

"There was a moment when I realized I was drinking every day and I couldn't quit, and it was shocking to me, in a way," Karr told "20/20" co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas. "I was depressive, it's a depressant drug, which is how it works. It's insidious, because initially alcohol works for an alcoholic."

In her new memoir, "Lit," Karr, now 20 years sober, chronicles her gut-wrenching descent into alcoholism. Karr's addiction worked so well for so long because like many other women, she hid it from her husband, her family and her friends.

"You don't go to the same liquor store, and you say you're giving a party every week, and yourself the only invitee," Karr said.

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The denial of her addiction was so powerful, she says, she lied to herself on a daily basis.

"I couldn't sleep through the night without a tumbler of watered-down whiskey by my bedside," Karr said. "Then I would get up in the morning, I would pick that up, get my kid on my hip, I would think, 'Oh, it's a shame to pour it out,' and I would drink probably two or three ounces, at least, of alcohol. But I told myself I wasn't a morning drinker because I never poured it in the morning."

Even a teaching job at Harvard and a beautiful baby boy weren't enough to keep Karr from alcohol. The highlight of her day was always drinking alone on the back porch of her Cambridge home after her baby and husband had gone to bed. Intoxicated, Karr would promise herself the next morning would be different, that she would get up and accomplish all of the things she had been putting off because of her drinking.

One particularly dark Christmas morning, Karr awoke before her family to do some holiday baking, but chose instead to take a drive and drink a six-pack of beer alone.

"The worst part is, the minute you start lying to your husband or your family or your children, whoever, your friends, you get a little more lonely, and you get a little more cut off," she said.

Stigma of Alcohoilsm Humiliating for Moms

Karr attributes the feelings of isolation to the humiliation most women feel about their drinking. Unlike their male counterparts, women who struggle with alcoholism are often tormented with guilt, thinking that they've failed as mothers. Even when a woman does decide to take steps to deal with her alcoholism, the challenges can be overwhelming.

According to the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, one third of alcoholics in this country are women and most don't receive the proper treatment. However, even when women do make it to detox and rehab, studies show that as many as 90 percent of them will relapse.

For Karr, it took six tries before her wakeup call finally came.

"I was ninety days sober. I was giving a poetry reading at Harvard College, and I, some students of mine, we went out to dinner after, and I ordered a martini," she said. "And the next thing I knew there was a piece of concrete hurtling at my car with me in it. And that was the last night I drank."

Karr acknowledges that, like so many women struggling with alcoholism, she didn't look the part.

"I didn't look like somebody sleeping under a bridge. But I had this black hole in the center of me that I was pouring alcohol into," she said. "There are a lot of women who think, 'My drinking's just not that bad.' Feeling like every day is a nightmare that you have to trudge through is a consequence enough. You don't need a DWI, you don't need to go to jail, you don't need to lose your kids. It's enough that the highlight of your day is sitting alone drinking."

Now, having stopped drinking and written the bestsellers "The Liar's Club" and "Cherry," Mary Karr knows what reclaiming your life can really mean.

"The transformations that you see, I mean, I'm the least of it," she said. "There are women succeeding beyond their wildest dreams because of their sobriety."

Click here to read an excerpt from Karr's new memior, "Lit."

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