The end and the beginning.
I got sober 6 months ago at age 43. How strange to write that. I am still amazed that this is how it’s turning out. I wasn’t going to be “one of those people,” those I deemed to be rigid and a bit simple-minded, unable to figure it all out. Sure, I drank too much, and had for my entire adolescence and most of my adult life. I knew all about my longstanding tendency to “overdo it”. But that was just because I was a screwed up kid, then later I was a party girl like so many others in their 20’s. And these days, now that I was a grown-up married lady with kids, I just needed to think my way through some emotional issues, or meditate more, or do more yoga, or remove this, that, or the other stressor, or exercise more to stabilize my mood. Quitting completely was for losers who couldn’t learn to dance with the nuance and complexities of life. I was going to be different.
I saw my alcohol abuse purely as a symptom of other problems. It was that, of course, but not only that. I failed to recognize that my relationship with alcohol was also a problem in and of itself–its own animal. I thought if I could just take care of the underlying issues, I would quite naturally become a person who could drink normally, because then I would have no need to use it in a self-medicating way. Sounds logical, right? I also presumed to believe this was true of any problem drinker other than perhaps the most severe, physically dependent breakfast drunk. Those poor souls aside, people who quit were taking the dumbed down way out of the problem. Such arrogance, to think I knew all about the psychological issues of millions of complete strangers! Now I am being humbled.
I am an alcoholic of the “high functioning” variety. The bottom I hit was internal and private with no big disastrous incident or dramatic flair. I must never forget that that makes me lucky, not better. It’s easy for me to compare myself to other alcoholics, and if I’m honest, at times I have felt more than a little smug about being “not THAT bad.” Who knows all the reasons why some travel farther down the rabbit hole than others? No doubt socioeconomics, general mental health, family and social support or lack thereof play huge roles. I’ve thought a lot about why my story is unfolding the way it is, knowing that I could have been writing a very different story from a hospital or a jail, or not at all due to being dead.
First, I am grateful for my half-assed but long-standing yoga and meditation practices. For years, I used my yoga and meditation as strategies to try and become a normal drinker. As futile as that exercise was, those practices gave me the tool of self-observation from a distance. A small part of me was able to step back and watch my own behavior and twisted thought processes. Finally, I saw my drinking behavior, rationalizations and denial for what they were—the classic workings of an addict’s mind. I saw flickers at first. I pushed those away. My mindfulness practices had created just enough “mindsight” that one day I was able to SEE my mind actively pushing away thoughts that contained the truth, and then grabbing onto more rationalizations. That seeing is what scared me the most, and woke me up.
I also thank my husband for the fact that I got out when I did. The last couple of years, he wouldn’t let me off the hook. Because of him, the problem was on my radar sooner and stronger than it would have been if left to my own devices. If I had a husband who was a couple of beers every night kinda guy instead of a very occasional, purely social drinker, who knows where I’d be? He went from giving me gentle reminders to “take it easy” to flat refusal to ever drink with me. I would do better for a while, and he would relax that rule, especially if it was a special occasion or a rare dinner out. But then I would start overdoing it again and he would reinstate his rules. I love my husband beyond words and care about the health of our marriage. As much as his lines in the sand pissed me off, I had to recognize that my behavior was causing him pain, and at least try and alleviate that situation.
So I looked at how much I was drinking compared with NIH guidelines for low-risk drinking. For the first time in my then 28-year history of alcohol abuse, I had a moderation plan involving number of days and number of drinks. When I failed, there would be moments when a small part of my brain knew what was really going on, and I would quickly push those thoughts away. I would try again, this time with a slightly different approach, a tweaked set of rules. And then fail again. The anxiety created by the trying and failing began to build. And the building anxiety created stronger cravings for more alcohol. The dawning awareness of the true nature of my problem created yet more anxiety. During the last two weeks of my drinking, I had two panic attacks. I’ve had bouts of depression and anxiety most of my life, but full-on panic attacks were a new thing. I also had two horrible hangovers during the final week. The second one was my first day of sobriety. I woke up and I knew. This had been my last chance and the jig was up. A couple months before, I had written in my journal that if I couldn’t follow my own moderation rules this time, I would have to quit. Altogether. Forever. FUCK.
What kept me deluded for so long?
- My addiction hadn’t progressed in the way I had read was predictable. I was the crazy party girl in my teens and twenties. In my 30’s, I settled down quite a bit, got married, had a couple kids. I still drank too much on occasion, but for a while there it looked like I was growing out of it, growing up.
- I abstained completely during my pregnancies with no difficulty. When people said “Oh, you can have ONE small glass of wine once in awhile, that’s fine.” I would say, “Ha ha, who wants one?” At the time, I didn’t think about that too much, because it all fit together and made sense. I was a purist. I ate all organic food, I didn’t so much as take a Tylenol, and I didn’t drink alcohol. I even gave up caffeine entirely with the first one. And it was all easy. Later, when I really started to question if I was in trouble with alcohol, I would think, but how can I be an alcoholic if that was so EASY? If I were, maybe I would have still been able to quit for the sake of my babies by sheer force of will, but wouldn’t it have at least been HARD? Now I know it’s because I was abstaining completely. Abstinence, for me, is very doable (so far)—moderating is what is hard (read: impossible). That, and I didn’t have the FOREVER part to contend with during my pregnancies. Big difference.
- I was never even close to the stereotypical concept of “hitting bottom.” I was holding down the fort. I put myself through college and got straight A’s while drinking. I got a master’s degree with high honors while drinking. I was a professional, and my drinking never interfered with my work. I had a strong marriage and two beautiful, happy children. I was a mostly good, involved and committed mom. I usually started drinking while making dinner, but no more than a couple while the kids were awake. Binging was a rare thing these days—much more rare than in my “party girl” days. My life was not in shambles, not even close. In many ways it just kept getting better. So how could I possibly be an alcoholic?
And yet…I was. Am. During the last few years, I felt more needful around it than I had in the past, even more so than during times in my life when I drank more. It wasn’t so much the actual amount and frequency, although both were unhealthy most of the time. It was more that my drinking had taken on a different quality–from “this is fun!” to “I need this.”
I am now learning that the mental gyrations and endless variations of “See? I’m not THAT bad.” are so typical of the active alcoholic. Between that and the serial failed moderation attempts, I was a walking AA cliché (how embarrassing!). And boy did I want to succeed at moderation, because I really, really didn’t want to have to stop. I wanted to moderate for lots of really good reasons—to be physically healthier and lose some weight, to have more energy, to make my husband happy, to not be cranky with my kids due to low-grade hangovers. But guess what? While I wasn’t consciously aware of it at the time, my NUMBER ONE reason for wanting desperately to succeed at moderation was license to continue drinking. And still I failed. Many times. Round and round I went for two years.
I’m starting this blog to help me through this process and hopefully help others along the way. Sober blogs were the first resources I used to get sober. In those first days and weeks, the blog posts I read helped me recognize myself and confirm what I was coming to know to be true. And they gave me hope that maybe I would gain more than I was giving up. In the weeks and months that have followed, when I read or hear parts of my own story being told by someone else almost verbatim, two things happen. First, shame is lifted because I see I am not alone in my feelings and experiences. Second, the reality of my situation is confirmed–I am, in fact, a part of this club, lest I begin having any doubts. The former is good for my mental health, and the latter is good for my sobriety.
So my hope is that others will read this and say, like I did, “Oh my God, that is JUST like me!” and find help or comfort in that. I am starting late, and part of me wishes I had documented everything from the very beginning. But part of this journey is accepting what is, so starting now is OK, too.
© soberfire, 2015