Hands shaking and palms damp, Emily Sadler put down her beer can and looked up from her front patio at her car, parked in the driveway. If she left now, she might make it in time to see her son play his Little League game. But a wave of nausea was hitting, and she knew the smell of an afternoon's worth of drinking was seeping through her pores. Maybe she could do what she always did—hide the smell by chewing gum, washing her hands and spritzing on her cucumber melon body spray. "I could cover up how drunk I was," explains the Scottsdale, Ariz., mom. "No one knew."
Two years later Emily has overcome her secret shame. But it's one she shared with an untold number of mothers whose occasional glasses of wine to relax from the stresses of soccer practices and runny noses spiral into serious drinking problems they desperately hide from even those closest to them (see box below). While there are no statistics on how many moms are closet alcoholics, high profile tragedies have pushed the topic into the forefront. Last July an inebriated Diane Schuler, 36, of West Babylon, N.Y., killed eight people, including herself, her daughter and three nieces, while speeding the wrong way down a busy highway. Yet her husband and friends insisted that the Schuler they knew did not have a drinking problem. This is not surprising according to addiction experts: Women—especially moms—are often able to hide their alcoholism easily. "Spouses may be at work, children may not be home during the day, and they have time on their hands," says Dr. Roy Ary, who treats patients at Addiction Recovery Resources, Inc. in Metairie, La. Agrees colleague Lynn Weigel: "Mothers want to project normalcy, that they have everything under control."
Emily, 35, says she began relying on alcohol to overcome feeling awkward. The alcohol helped her get through PTA meetings, school festivals and her boys' games. "But eventually, one beer wasn't enough," she says, and she found herself drinking upwards of 16 Bud Light beers a day—alone—and then heading off to cheer on Beau, 14, or Gavin, 9. "All I ever wanted was to be a mom," she says. "I didn't think I was as good as other moms, and being buzzed took that feeling away." Using gum, mouthwash, soap and perfume to mask her drinking, she says, "I was keeping it from everyone." She became an expert at focusing on a situation to "keep myself from being inappropriate." It worked: Emily's then-husband, Clay Denmark, says he never noticed a problem. "I didn't think she was an alcoholic," he says. "She'd have a couple of beers, but it wasn't a big deal."
Mother-of-two Wendy Vrba, 35, also became an expert at hiding her alcohol. She used to pour whiskey into her children's bottles and stash them in the diaper bag. "Whiskey looks like apple juice in a baby bottle," she says. "No one questioned what's in the diaper bag." As her kids got older, she got more creative. She would hide whiskey and cola in thermoses at her sons' hockey games. "I drank at everything from camping trips to sporting events," she says. "I always had gum and perfume with me."
Wendy's then-husband didn't see a problem, she says; her sons Brecken, 16, and Corbin, 13, didn't know about it either—until one day when she passed out while driving them to school. "Their screams woke me up," she says. "I could have killed them." Now sober for almost two years, she recently remarried and volunteers at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Emily reached her low point a year after she and Clay divorced in 2006 (they fought over money and "expectations," Emily says; both agree they wanted different things). She found herself hiding away in her house, slamming beer after beer. "No one was counting," she explains. "To hide it, I started being later to the games or missing events entirely. I'd pass it off as being busy and other moms could relate to that." One night in November 2007 she was driving intoxicated—alone, thankfully—and police pulled her over. Convicted of driving under the influence, Emily served 14 days in jail. That, she says, was a wake-up call: She began attending recovery meetings and says she hasn't had a drink since. Several of her friends and her ex-husband still don't believe she ever had a problem, she says, but for her, "Every day is a struggle. I used alcohol to cope, and now I'm having to learn other skills."
She's taken a big step this year, organizing the PTA's fall festival—sober. Now, when a busybody mom is overbearing, "I let it go and say, 'Sure,'" she says. But no one has benefited more from the new Emily than her sons. "She's much more focused," says Beau. "She's less frazzled and distracted." Gavin agrees: "She is calmer. She's a good mom." The words couldn't make Emily happier. "My kids are getting the real me now," she says. "I'm not hiding anything anymore."