“How To Be Perfect Like Me”: Author & Humorist Dana Bowman Reads at Prairie Lights

Author Dana Bowman reads from How To Be Perfect Like Me at Prairie Lights on Sept. 7. (author photo by Erica Heline)

If you’ve ever felt like you’re not keeping up, relax—you’re good company. Author and humorist Dana Bowman, who also happens to be a woman in recovery, makes it okay to be imperfect. And to laugh about it. Bowman will be in Iowa City to read from her new memoir, How To Be Perfect Like Me, on Friday, September 7, at Prairie Lights Books.

No stranger to life’s messiness, Bowman wrote about her alcoholic relapse and its effect on her family in her 2016 award-winning memoir, Bottled. In her new book about the unrealistic pressures of motherhood, she rejects quick fixes and the notion that domestic life is all rainbows and cute selfies in chapters such as How to Stop Buying All the Self-Help Books, How to Deal with Relentless Disappointment, and How to Live a Rich and Fulling Fake Life.

“So this is my life. It is messy. And it is mine.” —Dana Bowman

In September, which is National Recovery Month, Bowman will appear on The Today Show to discuss her experience as a mother in recovery. Bowman is a long-time English teacher and part-time professor in the department of English at Bethany College, Kansas. She is also the creator of the popular momsieblog.com and leads workshops on writing and addiction, with a special emphasis on being a woman in recovery while parenting young children.

Dana Bowman talks about How To Be Perfect Like Me:

 Why was relapsing the best thing that happened for your recovery?

I grew up with a father who liked to tell me, “Dana, do it right the first time, or it’s not worth doing at all,” and I would turn away from him and roll my eyes so hard it gave me a headache. Backstory on my dad: he too is in recovery. Also, he never relapsed. So he truly did recovery right, the first time. I don’t know how to put total failure in a good light, but my relapse taught me more about myself than my first three years of sobriety. Recovery was worth doing “not right” the first time, for me, because it showed me what true tenacity is. I learned that slogging through the tough stuff (because recovery part two is really tough) is painful, boring, awful, repetitive, and pretty much just a total pain in the ass, but it’s doable. I screwed up. I relapsed. And then I came back, and I did it all again—the learning, the meetings, the recovery, the reaching out and I survived.

It’s tough to talk about relapse in a positive way, because I don’t want anyone to think, “Well, look! Relapse is good for you! Let’s do this!” because that’s nutty. But if it happens, it’s not necessarily a death sentence. That’s the paradox of recovery—it is a matter of life and death. But also? It’s a matter of just dusting yourself off, getting back on the path. It’s not easy, but it’s simple. As Dory would say, in Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming.” The sharks are out there, yes, but we keep swimming. What other choice is there?

Why do you think alcoholism has been impacting moms at higher rates in recent years?

I hate to point the finger at one culprit, especially because I make my living via it, but social media has not done women any favors in this area. When I first started down the rabbit hole of dangerous, addictive drinking, I had quit my job and was staying at home with my newborn Henry and my 18-month-old, Charlie. And because I was a new mom and exhausted and a little strung out about it all, I found Facebook. Facebook was a way to connect and ask questions about whether they’ll ever nap at the same time, and what’s the deal with those amber teething necklaces. It helped quell a lot of my anxious thoughts and isolation. But at the same time, Facebook seemed to really be embracing this whole “Mommy’s Happy Juice” meme thing. It validated my need for a release and reward at the end of a long day of mommy-ing.

I also have to blame Pinterest. It’s an evil machine. I am being a bit sarcastic, but here’s the deal: We have mom-ed ourselves into a corner with all our homemade gogurts and organic knitting projects and all the crafts! The CRAFTS! The mom culture these days is pretty hard core. Social media puts our mom life on display, and then it winks at us, asking, “Don’t you want to filter this first?” Parenting has become an act of display, and I am not sure raising children should have that in its contract. I was struggling with postpartum depression and slowly sinking into alcoholism, and yet all I could see were moms happy and fulfilled and playing with glitter. A nice vat of wine at the end of each day shut down that screechy and constant voice telling me, “You are not doing enough. Your children need to have the best possible mom in the best possible way. Step it up, Dana.” Wine shut that voice right up, and I welcomed the reprieve.

Sometimes, I allow myself a few minutes to wish I had found a better way to deal with that voice. But actually, my journey has made me better. I would not change a bit of it, even though it was so fraught with struggle. The struggle is what makes us stronger. It sounds like a Nike ad, but it’s true.

Why is it a good thing to conclude that you have messed up or failed at life?

Moi? Mess up? *Shudder*

I was a straight-A kid. I couldn’t tell you exactly why I chose this lifestyle, perhaps I had no choice. It was just a part of my DNA, like my brown eyes or my inability to tell north from south. I am pretty sure it has something to do with my dad being in recovery and some pretty solid codependency issues stemming from that, true. I just know that I opted out of track in the seventh grade because I would not place first at all of my races, and I really love running. This was my life. It was clear-cut, defined, and very driven. This worked for me for some 20 years, but eventually I did what any normal person would with this kind of work ethic: I got really tired. Here’s how alcohol worked for me then: I maintained the perfect little life, but I started drinking really heavily at night. It was contained. It was tidy. It was just me, my wine, and my Seinfeld reruns, nearly every night. For another 20 years I kept this up; all the while, alcoholism just sat quietly by, folded its arms, and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll just wait right here. You just take your time.”

And then, at 40, when I really should have been on my game, I let my life fall apart. Marriage, two moves, two babies, staying home, all of it mixed itself up into a strong cocktail that begged for more alcohol to be added to it. And alcoholism was more than happy to accommodate.

So when I needed a solid, responsible, and upright life the most (I was now a mom of two; if ever there was a time to rally, it was now), I failed. Big time.

And thank goodness. I messed up, colossally. On a failure scale of one to ten, I was at eleven. I laid waste to my morale code, my parenting code, my marriage goals, all of it. And you know what? I’m glad.

Those of us who screw up so monumentally that we really should have our own Lifetime Television Movie and survive the bad ratings? We can be beautiful. We understand things through a filter that refined our understanding of people, places, and things. Granted, this filter hurt. It scraped us through. And now we know what’s important. When we lay our head down on a pillow at night, we thank God for the pillow. We are alive in our skins. We are the grateful ones.

Incidentally, I tend to communicate mostly through humor because I feel life has about the flavor of a dry pork chop without it. And what is the basis for most humor? The mess-up. The prat fall. The banana cream pie in the face. The faults and failures all lean on laughter as their press agent. Failure does well to hire laughter as its copilot.

Why is the decision to stop shopping in bulk the best form of self-help?

When I had my first son, Charlie, I was very into stocking up on things. This was good. One does need a lot of diapers with a baby. But lurking beneath all this buying and shlepping and storing of the diapers was a deep fear. What if one day we actually ran out of diapers? What would happen then?

I’ll tell you what would happen. You’d run out to the local Stop n’ Save at three in the morning and you’d buy yourself some diapers. And in the meantime you’d wrap your precious darling in a towel and you’d say, “Wow, look at me. I’m not actually dying, nor is my child, and there are diapers coming. And yes, there was a rather large lack of planning here, but show of hands: Who here has had a full night’s sleep in the past three days? Right? So, to sum up: we will not die from diaper lackage. We carry on.”

That’s a long conversation to have with yourself about diapers, especially at three a.m., but I had one just like it at some point with both Charlie and Henry. Each time it happened, a small part of me that was all mortared up in my Perfect Fortress of Motherhood would chip loose and fall away, and it felt good. Freeing. Nobody needs a big huge wall in their lives, shutting out the sun, and spontaneity, and messiness. I needed to demolish my wall, and one of the first things I did to start this process was to stop buying every darn thing in bulk.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re wondering, “What’s so wrong with Costco, lady? It saves us money.” I think perhaps I should clarify that, for me, Costco was just a way for me to add to my list of “this is what you do” expectations that just weren’t me. I hate bulk shopping. I hate the big boxes and the storage. I hate having to show my receipt as I walk out the door because I am always petrified I will lose it. Some people love bulk buying, and therefore they should not stop. But I took on the Costco trips with the wrong motives—to achieve full-on Peak Mom with her coupons and perfect budget and shelves and shelves of organic applesauce. That’s just not me.

Planning is good. Being organized and thoughtful and practical and prudent: all good. But when life becomes a list of “had to’s” I say, burn the Costco membership card, with the really bad ID picture, and just relax a little. Nobody needs a four-pound bag of quinoa. Calm down.

What is the upside of living in a marriage comprised of “low-volume feelings” and “and so on’s?”

There is an upside to this whole “low-volume feelings” lifestyle, and it goes beyond marriage. It applies to everything, from carnival rides to exotic vacations to any other sort of “this is supposed to be pretty awesome” kind of event. Marriage was not, as I originally thought, designed to shoot me up with all the euphoric feelings all the time. I had marriage up there with when I first watched ET—lots of happy tears, a John Williams soundtrack, and flying around. Instead, marriage proved to be a kind of anti-climatic walk around the block. Sometimes it would be nice. Occasionally there were moments of bliss, but that’s asking a lot for a walk around the block. Most of the time it was just walking around and commenting on the weather.

I do realize this really does not sell the whole concept of marriage. I’m making it sound like an episode of The Golden Girls.

I say life is full of feelings enough. We don’t need to go looking for them. Feelings come up and bop us on the head all on their own. And we certainly don’t need to go in search of feelings when they are tethered to another human. Humans are all willy-nilly. They so often do things we don’t like, or they make those noises when they eat, or they snore. When we tie our feelings to them with a whole bunch of schmaltzy expectations, somebody is going to get tangled.

The last time I can remember having really strong, Tom Cruise-ish type feelings about my husband was . . . oh, I don’t know. I really should write these things down. But this morning he cuddled with me before he got out of bed, and his beard was all furry and he offered to make me coffee, and it was so nice. I’ll take that over big mushy moments and terribly romantic exploits. Those are rather tiring, anyhow.

What can we do when all the counselors, prayers, green juices, and yoga aren’t seeming to work?

Don’t panic. Whatever you do, don’t just throw up your hands and think, “Well, this isn’t working—come back, vodka.” Don’t do that. Here’s why:

  1. The vodka is what got you here in the first place. Remember when you first stopped drinking? You did it for a reason. There was a real why there. You might not have been able to put it into words, but you did it. You got sober and it was an event in your life and we don’t do big scary things like that just for giggles. It had a point and a purpose. Don’t ignore what your gut or your instinct or your Higher Power (or some combination of all three) was telling you: It’s not like your inner compass was saying, “Hey, let’s get sober and just dabble with that and when it gets hard, just give up, okay?” So your soul told you to do this, and your soul has quite a lot of wisdom. Don’t ignore it.
  2. Every single time your sober friends or the people in our recovery group or anybody who understands this whole alcoholism thing, every single time they said, “It will get better, I promise,” they were telling the truth. It really really does get better. You just have to believe me on that one. And I actually think you do believe me, because go back to #1.

What you have to do instead, when you have tried all of it and you are stuck and slogging through recovery and it just hurts? You do it as badly as you can—meaning you do all of life at a barely amoebic level. You treat yourself like one of those poor invalids at the home. You wrap up in blankets and sit by a window and eat butterscotch candies and you take lots of naps, and hate it all. And maybe you watch a lot of Say Yes to the Dress and inhale half a loaf of cinnamon toast and you do five minutes of yoga or walk the dog halfway around the block before you have to stop and return home and cry and still hate it. And you make, once again, chicken-flavored nuggets for your children for dinner, and they are thrilled about it, and you kind of hate them, too. And you just keep doing this. Because I promise, it will get better. You have to feel it, all this hating. You have to realize that hating things will only last for a bit. And you can try the therapy or the green juices again, in a week or so, but I do promise, it just does get better. Every time we do something for ourselves that the universe had been begging us to do, something good and pure and healthy down to our toes of our souls? The universe will validate that. And it will get better.

Also, just so you know? I have never heard a person say, “Well gee. I really wish I had never gotten sober.”

How can we redefine “perfect” to embrace more happiness?

I know a lot of the buzz right now is to eschew perfection, like it’s an unattainable thing, some mythical unicorn off farting rainbows and making us all jealous. But I am here to say that perfection does exist. It is simply a matter of looking for it the right way, and in the right places.

Perfection does not live in our own actions. It’s not in the spotless house with the tasteful decor. We cannot work our bodies to achieve it, with sinewy muscles and bronzed limbs. We cannot make our minds perform at its level unless we make sure no one around us ever interrupts us, and I’m pretty sure that’s never going to happen. We can’t sing in the shower to it, although we try, and that’s okay.

Perfection also tends to show up the minute we look away and stop yearning, or trying so hard. It’s an elusive little guy. It shows up when we least expect it, and very often it is in the chocolate frosted grin of our eight-year-old. We think he is perfect, with his freckles and long lashes. We don’t just think it, we know it. He is that unicorn, off frolicking about with his rainbow potty humor and his messy face.

So basically perfection is tied to our love for others. It is illuminated, if only briefly, by acts of service and sacrifice for these folks. And it does not come when called. As soon as we accept all of that? We will have a few moments with perfection and then we can realize—it’s meant to be free. We don’t need it around us all the time. If we are graced by it once in a while, that’s enough. The rest of life is layered with grace just with knowing this.