Where should I start? When I became an alcoholic? When I acknowledged it? When my life became so far out of control that I couldn’t imagine how I could possibly put everything back together again?
I’ve been sober 15.45 months. It might not be the longest time, but when I remember how impossible it was for me to go even an hour without a drink, I’m pretty proud.
My childhood was pretty standard, but with some significant differences. I was a high-achiever, but honestly, most of my accomplishments were less a result of god-given talent or passion, and more an effect of being perpetually afraid of disappointing people or not being good enough. Anxiety is a great motivator.
I grew up with my parents and little sister who has Down syndrome. This girl has had the single greatest impact on my life. If anyone tells you that people with Down’s are always happy and just want to hug all the time, they’re not telling you the whole truth. My sister is smart, funny and adorable, but she is difficult. The kind of difficult that consumed most of my parents’ time and energy. I grew up helping with early intervention, therapies and learning how to manage the unmanageable. I had to develop patience, tolerance and empathy. Despite her challenging behavior, my sister always loved me unconditionally and showed me what healthy self-esteem looks like. I still haven’t caught on to that one – I still have so much more to learn from her.
Growing up, I pressured myself to always be good so I didn’t add any more stress to my parents’ already stressful lives. I often felt guilty for being the “normal” sister, because maybe I somehow got all the “good stuff” that she didn’t so it became my duty to make the most of it. One parent added to the pressure by expecting perfection or something very close to it in academics, extracurriculars, behavior, physical appearance (particularly weight), you name it. The pressure grew. My parents’ strained relationship became a source of any anxiety that wasn’t self-imposed.
I graduated high school in the top 10% of my class, competed nationally in business competitions, danced, cheered, worked and volunteered. I was a well-behaved teen. I don’t mention these things because I’m proud or it’s even anything notable; I mention them because sometimes when everything looks great on the outside, things are crumbling underneath. I mention it because my drive for “perfection” eventually led to self-destructive behaviors.
I had my first drink in high school. I don’t think I had an issue with alcohol at that point, but it certainly laid the foundation. I found my escape from the anxiety and pressure.
I went to my dream college, majoring in economics because I thought it would get me the best career. I ended up hating it, but felt locked in. School was very challenging and I was surrounded by people who were much higher achievers than myself. I felt less than. I was cheerleading captain and had lots of great friends, but there was this pervasive anxiety, depression and sense of not being enough.
I drank a lot during college, but so did everyone around me, or so I thought. But it was “managed”. I didn’t drink alone or on weeknights. My opinion on the subject isn’t very reliable, but I’d say that I didn’t have a drinking problem at that point, but then again, binge drinking isn’t exactly healthy behavior.
Around age 19, my parents divorced and I entered a solid, deep depression. I was overwhelmed by anxiety and many pressures, real and imagined. It was my first experience having to seek counseling for myself. I managed to pull things together enough to do fairly well and did enjoy most of college. I finally had the guts to change my major. Upon graduation, I planned to get my PhD in Anthropology, but instead I got my Masters in Education and another degree in history so I could teach high school.
I got a great job and my own apartment. I enjoyed teaching and coaching cheerleading. I loved working with the students. By this point, I was in a serious relationship and eventually we moved in together. What followed was engagement, marriage, house, military deployment, baby, academies, infertility, second son, teaching, coaching, surgeries, the amazing craziness of parenting and a whole bunch of other stuff. Then one day I “woke up” and realized I was forty, wasn’t living the life I wanted and had no idea what to do. I also realized I was increasingly using alcohol to hide these feelings and my use was out of control.
Without going into details, my marriage was very unhealthy and a huge source of anxiety for me. In my relationship, as with everything else, I wanted to be the best I could and make him happy at all costs. This behavior ended up being very self-destructive in the long term.
Early in our marriage, we’d have a couple drinks together at night to unwind. My husband never had a problem controlling his alcohol use. Meanwhile, I began to drink more and more frequently. Never in the morning, not at work, but the moment I finished classes, I was thinking about having a drink and frankly “needed” one just to go home.
There was variation in my drinking patterns over the years. Sometimes I’d go days or weeks without drinking. Other times I drank a lot. In the last few years before I got sober, I drank pretty much every day, but not always to excess. Frequently I drank at home, from after work until the time I went to bed (read passed out). When my family became concerned about my drinking, I drank “on the way home” believing that no one would know that I had. That was delusional. Sometimes I went stretches of days or even weeks without having a drink, but it rarely lasted. It did however contribute to my belief that I didn’t really have a problem. I mean, an alcoholic wouldn’t be able to abstain like that, right?
Why was I drinking? I wasn’t enough. I couldn’t give 100% to everything. I always felt that I was falling short. At home I was being held to what I felt were impossibly high expectations and I rarely met them. Just when I felt like I was doing things right, the game would change. I felt like I was running in place. Blindfolded. In weighted sneakers.
I always tried to be a good mother. My sons mean more to me than anything else. I cooked, cleaned, made the doctor and dentist appointments, drove to practices, organized parties and holidays, you name it. My goal was always to make everyone else happy. I thought if I made them happy, I’d be happy. I’ve learned that it doesn’t work that way, or not for long anyway. Constant criticism eroded my self-confidence, and the worse I felt, the more I drank. The more I drank, the more my behavior veered from who I thought I was and who I was trying to be. The cycle continued until my drinking was out of my control. I drove when I shouldn’t have. I didn’t get around to doing tasks that needed to be done. I wasn’t there for my sons in the way I should have been and the way they deserved.
But I didn’t know how to stop. I’m a psychology teacher for God’s sake. I know how this stuff works, and more importantly, I thought I was smart enough to know better. I can’t tell you how many times I debated whether my drinking problems were as result of nature or nurture. I read professional journals about alcoholism and used pieces of them to prove to myself that I didn’t qualify. I tried using cognitive-behavioral therapies on myself. None of it worked and it made me feel even worse that I couldn’t figure out my own problems. I absolutely feel that it was my choice to drink and I take full responsibility for my actions. But simultaneously, I couldn’t control it. I can promise you, I wouldn’t have made some of the decisions I did if a truly had a choice. I wouldn’t have done that to my boys.
Three years ago, things at home were going pretty badly. My drinking was out of control. I stopped drinking cold turkey and got myself into an IOP. It was an evening program that I enrolled in voluntarily and honestly enjoyed. I felt like I was headed in the right direction. I completed the six weeks and was sober, but nothing changed. I maintained my sobriety for more than 5 months, but I felt unsupported and frustrated that my ‘problems’ hadn’t improved. I began to believe that I didn’t really have a physical alcohol problem and could probably drink ‘normally’. And so it began again.
I drank again, on and off, for a little over a year. April 6, 2018, I hit rock bottom. That was my last drink. I found The Process Recovery Center online and my stepfather was kind enough to take me to see it. I was terrified at the possibility of entering a program that would require me to take so much time ‘away’ – from family, work, and life. But the reality was that I had been mostly absent from my life for a long time at that point anyway, and if I didn’t take this chance I don’t think I would have lasted much longer, mentally or physically. I was absolutely ready to surrender and get serious about getting well.
My decision was met with mixed reaction, but the plan was already set in motion. I had decided to live in Rise Above housing because my home environment was not the most conducive to my recovery. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I imagine the young 20-somethings were a little thrown when this middle-aged alcoholic moved in with them at the sober house. Maybe it would be hard for me to identify with women struggling with heroin and other drug addictions when I’d never even smoked weed (Yes, really. I have zero street cred.) Age and the drug of choice ultimately made no difference. I immediately felt welcomed and accepted by everyone, and I can only hope they felt the same from me. We were all the same in the ways that mattered and the root struggles that led us to where we were. Certainly everyone had their own story and circumstances, but we understood each other and carried each other when we needed it most.
The whole program was life-changing. To keep it brief, the entire staff was amazing and played a role in my recovery. I was humbled. I rode the druggie buggy. I went on the field trips; I had curfews and chores. I had girls who relied on EBT offer me half their muffin, and nothing has been more appreciated.
I sat in my winter coat and cried like an idiot at the first twelve step meeting we went to. I said I was an alcoholic for the first time. Despite my life being a complete and utter disaster on pretty much every level at that point, I felt like I could breathe for the first time in a very long time. I felt heard. I felt hopeful.
I can never repay the kindnesses, as well as tough love, that were given to me at The Process. It allowed me the time and space to find myself again and maybe even love myself again. I learned strategies for dealing with my addiction and life in general. I learned I wasn’t alone.
Going home was tough. I had changed so much, but most things at home had remained the same. In regards to my children, I couldn’t fathom the damage I’d done. I don’t think I’ll ever truly be able to forgive myself, but I knew if I didn’t, at least on some level, I could never move forward and repair our relationship. My sons have been incredibly forgiving, but it pains me to realize they won’t forget.
At home, everything was “better”, yet nothing was better. We tried for a long time, but the marriage was not healthy for either of us. We have lived separately for many months and I am working on starting this new phase of my life. My relationships with my sons are so much better than I could have imagined 18 months ago. I have reestablished relationships with family and friends. I have reinvested in my career. I am working on getting my financial situation back on track. It’s not going to happen overnight and I struggle to be patient. I’m simultaneously scared, excited, free, anxious, confident and uncertain. Although I’m not sure where my life is going, I am secure in my sobriety and believe that I can find contentment.
I still find myself looking for validation from others. What can I do to make them happy? What do they want from me? I’m so incredibly grateful for even the most basic of kindnesses, which sometimes makes me vulnerable. I’d like to get to the point where I truly believe I deserve to be treated well and can establish standards for how others treat me.
Right now, I feel good. I rarely think about drinking. But this is where I have to be careful: I can’t think that I’m ok. That’s dangerous for me. It would be way too easy for me convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and to slip back into old behaviors. I have come way too far to ever give it up that easily.
When I start to take my sobriety for granted, I really try to put myself back in that place where I thought all hope was gone. The place where I thought I could never untangle the messes I had made. The place where I thought I had no worth. And it is from there that I am so incredibly grateful for where I am today.