It isn’t that Brenda Wilhelmson journaled her way sober, but her writing practice and background as a freelance writer and journalist certainly facilitated her recovery. A self-described high-functioning alcoholic, Wilhelmson realized it was time to get help when the bad days began to outnumber the good. Looking to the literary world for aid, however, she found the self-help genre more scandalizing than beneficial. Her response? To write the book she craved. Fifteen months of journal entries led to a streamlined manuscript which she first blogged, then sold to Hazelden. Recently, she spoke with Our Town about her book, "Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife," her sobriety, and what it’s like to count David Sedaris as a fan.
Our Town How did your journalistic background influence your writing?
Brenda Wilhelmson Early on, I showed a friend the beginning of my book and he showed it to his wife, an English teacher. She pointed out places where she thought I should elaborate on my thoughts and feelings. I thanked her but didn’t take her advice. I used the who, what, when, where, why, and how approach because I knew if I didn’t, “Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife” would be maudlin drivel, and I wanted to stick close to the facts.
OT You describe your experiences as milder than other addicts’ which made you question whether you were truly an alcoholic. Can you talk about that?
BW When I started attending recovery meetings, I'd listen to addicts tell stories of their children being taken away, selling sex for drugs, burning down their houses, going to prison. It was like they knew they had cancer but waited until stage four before getting help. I felt like I was at stage one. I had a good husband, two great kids, a nice house, two cars, I hadn’t lost my driving privileges like most of them had, and no one knew I was a drunk. I’d sit in meetings and tell myself I wasn’t that bad, that I could drink again. But when I took [an] honest look at myself, I sounded bad, too. The battle of I'm-not-that-bad/yes-you-are raged in me for most of the first year I was sober.
OT What keeps you sober?
BW When I'd seriously contemplate drinking again, I’d remind myself of two truths that made me cringe. The first: I’d begun drinking the dregs from my party guests’ glasses after they left my home. The second: I knew I’d quit drinking if I got pregnant, and that’s part of the reason I had my second child.
OT You detail the action at AA meetings. Any qualms about revealing private details about an anonymous group?
BW I wrote about attending meetings, being in recovery, working a 12-step program. There are a lot of 12-step programs out there. Readers, draw your own conclusions.
OT Your book is brutally honest--about yourself, about your friends--any regrets?
BW Regrets? No. Mixed feelings? Yes. I thought about pulling the plug on this book many times. I love the people in my book. It pains me to know some of them have hurt feelings. But maybe my book will help those who read it on their path, even if they don’t like me anymore.
OT What was it like to discover David Sedaris was a fan of the blog?
BW I met David Sedaris when he was at Steppenwolf reading from his then-unpublished book "When You Are Engulfed In Flames." I told Sedaris I was writing a book titled "Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife" and we talked about alcoholism for a while. When I began blogging my book, I wrote Sedaris and told him about it. He read my blog and wrote me back. I was thrilled. He’s a rock star. We exchanged a few more letters. It was very kind of him to write me.
OT What do you hope your book achieves?
BW I believe there [are] millions of others out there suffering like I was, and I want to reach out to them because when I reached out for books I could relate to, there was nothing there. I hope my book gives other high-functioning alcoholics comfort knowing they are not alone, knowledge that life is better without booze, and a start toward leading the quality life we all want for ourselves.
Join Wilhelmson in celebrating the release of "Diary of an Alcoholic Housewife" at Mars Gallery on March 3rd from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
A freelance writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum, when not writing, supports herself as a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago's Story Studio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez