By Kelsey Allen
Motherhood isn’t easy. In fact, they say it is the hardest job a woman who decides to have children will ever have. Amy Hatvany knows this to be true. Hatvany was struggling with the extreme pressure today’s society puts on women to be perfect when her evening nightcap started to turn into a midafternoon snack and then a constant pick-me-up. It is her own personal experience as an alcoholic mom that led her to pen her third novel, Best Kept Secret.
The story revolves around Cadence Sutter, the woman next door who loves her son, but who loves to hit the bottle, too. In a gripping and raw novel that treads closely along the lines of a memoir — mostly on an emotional level and less in the plot — Hatvany weaves a story of a woman who has it all until she has nothing, and how she fights back to achieve sobriety and regain custody of her son.
Hatvany spoke with Renew about her inspiration for the novel, the shame she felt as an alcoholic mother and how she hopes her words can help other mothers who are struggling with their own demons.
Renew: How did you decide to write Best Kept Secret and to tell Cadence’s story? How much of the story is novel, and how much is memoir?
Amy Hatvany: I started writing three years after I got sober. I had written two novels a decade ago, and through a variety of circumstances, I had stepped away from being an author. It took some courage to feel like I was capable again. I was afraid I had anesthetized my writing capabilities with too much wine. But I had this strong feeling about Cadence and being a woman in this situation. It took me one to one-and-a-half years to get the story written.
The plot is fictional, but Cadence’s emotional experiences are absolutely what I went through. Being a mother, struggling with admitting to myself that I had a problem that I couldn’t handle on my own, and then after I got sober, figuring out how to be a mother again.
Renew: In revealing Cadence’s secret, in a way, you were telling the world about your own struggle with addiction. In the July/August issue of Renew, we talk about the science of secrets (“Secrets and Shame,” page 19) and how coming clean is the key to freedom. What was it like for you to share this secret?
AH: It was terrifying. When I wrote the novel, I knew that for my own recovery and my own sanity I needed to be truthful about what I had gone through. It was very frightening. I struggle still — I have for seven years now — but I still struggle with what other people think of me. Many people didn’t know what I had gone through, but I believe in the message. Whatever embarrassment or judgment I might face didn’t matter because of what I wanted to do, which was to let other women know that they aren’t alone.
Renew: The book opens with the scene of a mother getting drunk in front of her son. Is this an experience you can relate to?
AH: Absolutely. I began drinking just as a way to sleep, much like Cadence. I was going through a horrible divorce, and I had gone months without sleeping more than an hour at a time. My girlfriend said, “Have a glass of wine. It will help you relax.” And it did. I would have a glass of wine after the kids when to bed. But it started getting earlier and earlier. I certainly have been in the position where I have been incapacitated in front of my kids. But they were very young.
Renew: When does the alcohol go from being “Mommy’s little helper” to active addiction?
AH: That’s the big question, right? When does that switch get flipped? It happens so subtly and so insidiously. I woke up one day and realized I didn’t just want a glass of wine; I needed a glass of wine to feel normal. I was not a drinker through my 20s. I didn’t like it. It wasn’t until the right circumstances that that happened for me. Everything just clicked, and it went downhill very quickly.
Renew: When Cadence sits down to type out an email to Trina, a woman she met at a meeting, offering her support, it’s kind of like what you did in writing this novel: a proclamation to other mothers out there struggling to keep it together that they aren’t alone. What did you hope to accomplish with writing this story of motherhood and addiction, pressure and shame, empathy and compassion?
AH: Absolutely. My main hope was that – any woman suffering out there or teetering on the edge – that they might see themselves in Cadence and realize that they are playing with fire. Also for the women out there who have gone through these situations and the shame that’s attached to that. For me, I thought that I was the only woman who had done it. I can’t even tell you the depths of that shame. I really hoped that writing this story would help alleviate that for even one woman. If it helps even one woman, then I have done what I have set out to do.
Renew: How has writing this novel affected your own sobriety?
AH: Going through this process and being concerned that any attention I might get would infect my ego in any way – that was something I had to be very conscious of. It wasn’t about it me. It was about the message. Any praise I received, I worked very hard to remain humble. What’s been very interesting to me is a lot of letters I get are from family members of alcoholics who have read the book and said, “I understand something now that I never did.” And that was such an unexpected gift. All I could think about [while writing the book] was the other women who are like me. I didn’t think so much about the families who might read it. That has been a real gift.
Renew: As a recovering addict and a mom, how do you find a balance between keeping your recovery your number one priority while also focusing on your kids?
AH: The phrase that has stuck with me since early recovery is, “The first thing you put in front of your recovery is going to be the second thing you lose.” So for me, it’s: the first thing you lose is your sobriety, and the second thing you lose will be your kids. I have to make a real effort to be vigilant, and some days I am better at it than others.
Renew: How do you deal with the stress of being a mom and being in recovery now that you’re not reaching for a glass of wine?
AH: I laugh with my husband. We laugh a lot. And that has been a real gift for me. He’s my second and final husband. Just having women I can call and reach out to, too. I just recently quit my day job. The stress was really getting to me. I was completely burned out and spread too thin. Now I am at home full-time alone. Solitary confinement is not a healthy place for an addict. What has changed for me is I feel so comfortable with myself. I don’t sit and spin the way I used to. I’ve learned to be in the moment and to be grateful. Most of the time, I really do feel relaxed. I don’t have the compulsion to self-medicate, most of the time.
Renew: What would you say to other sober moms? What do you wish someone had told you?
AH: I’m not sure there is anything anyone could have said to me that they didn’t that would have made me realize. I wish that there were magic words. I think the most important message is that you’re not alone, and you’re not the only person to have done the things you’ve done. There is unconditional acceptance out there, but you have to reach out for it, and that’s the hard part.
Amy Hatvany’s fourth novel, Outside the Lines, was selected by Target as the February 2012 Book Club Pick. Her second novel, The Language of Sisters,is being rereleased in July 2012. She is also working on her fifth book, a novel about the choice to become a mother. For more information, visit amyhatvany.com.