It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. At least, that’s what they tell me. Of course I can’t remember because I was drunk most of the time.
Yep. You read that right. So, it turns out, I’m an alcoholic. I know…shocked the hell outta me too. What’s that you say? You never saw me drinking? You never noticed me stumbling around or slurring my words? I’m the last one you would have suspected of having an alcohol addiction? Classic alcoholic…good at hiding it, really good at holding my liquor and waking up the next day good to go. As for being the last one you suspected? Well, no matter what I may seem to have or not have going on the outside, the truth is, I have an addiction, I have a disease…I AM an alcoholic.
I never drank to speak of before 2 years ago. I remember having a wine cooler once in high school and getting tipsy a couple of times in college. In the years following, I mostly avoided alcohol for a few different reasons…I knew I had a bit of an addictive personality and that this wouldn’t go well with my strong family history of substance abuse, and I think somewhere threaded through my motivation not to drink was some kind of misguided spiritual arrogance. So what changed 2 years ago? Well, some might call it a midlife crisis, others may refer to it as waking up…ultimately though, the label is irrelevant.
For the first time in my life I enjoyed going out with friends for drinks…talking, laughing, dancing, karaokeing (yes, it is a word because it’s my blog and I say so), and loving every minute of it. Somewhere along the way, as life became too much for me to handle (in lots of different ways), my drinking changed. I began to self medicate with alcohol, as well as with pot. I drank to numb excessive, painful emotions, and to turn my incessantly spinning mind off. I would still go out with friends, but when I got home, having to face myself, I would drink until I passed out. My drinking began to change from a social activity to a solitary, hidden habit. Morning, afternoon, middle of the night…all times seemed the right time to drink. My tolerance grew with the size of my glass, until a typical drink for me was a large mason jar at least half full of vodka, mixed with whatever was on hand.
Believe it or not, I still had no idea I had a problem. I thought I drank a bit too much, but it wasn’t until an incident in early October that I finally paid attention to the red flag waving in my face. And a giant flag it was: call from school nurse at 10:00 am…child sick…already drunk…shit…drove to pick her up (unforgivable)…stagger into Catholic high school…sign in with the nun at the door (I know, right?)…drive sick child home (even more unforgivable)…tuck her into bed…go back to drinking.
The next day, the thought was just there, ugly and loud and impossible to ignore. I have a drinking problem. Clear and simple and time to act. I talked to my kids and my husband and explained that I have a drinking problem; I am not an alcoholic, but am on my way to becoming one if I don’t change some things. So, we got rid of any alcohol in the house that I thought I might drink, and I started researching addiction support groups. (Not that I had an addiction, mind you, but it pays to be proactive.) A soft, irritating, voice in the back of my mind started whispering incessantly to me: how do you know you’re not an alcoholic? Just to shut up this annoying and unnecessary question, I presented the query to Google. Clicking through the proffered options, I found a website that presented the ridiculous information that “one drink” is considered 1.5 ounces of hard liquor. I mean, come on…one drink for me was anywhere from 8 to 12 ounces of vodka… this website must be promoting some kind of amuse-bouche version of cocktails! Meaning to continue on to Google’s next brilliant suggestion, I instead found myself reading on, and discovered that this 1.5 ounce shit was, like, a real thing. Huh. Then I noticed a link for a “Examine Your Drinking Habits Survey” and I dove in.
After answering questions for nearly an hour, I sat stunned, looking at the summary page. Last summer at a doctor’s appointment, I answered the number of alcoholic drinks per week question: 5 to 6. My actual total was between 35-40. (7 or more drinks per week for a woman is considered heavy drinking.) My average number of hours of intoxication per week was 195. Now, math and numbers are hard, but even I have a vague understanding that there aren’t 195 hours in a week. Apparently I would always start drinking again before my body had metabolized all the alcohol from the previous binge…basically for much of the past year I have been at least impaired, if not intoxicated all the time. It estimated that my peak BAC in a given week was in the neighborhood of .25, reaching even higher than that a few times. (A BAC of .08 is considered legally intoxicated.)
These facts and figures began to swim in front of me as the survey came to the inevitable, horrifying, heart-breaking, panic-inducing conclusion: I am an alcoholic.
The next days were a blur as I tearfully accepted my truth, told family and a few friends, and shivered and shook and white knuckled my way through the process of detox. I kind of just floated through the next week and a half, and then slipped up, drank a whole bottle of gin and experienced my first blackout. Realizing this the next morning was the most horrible feeling (much worse than the fact that I was both still really drunk and really hungover), and I went to my kids and asked them if I had done anything I needed to apologize for.
Round 2 of an abbreviated version of detox, depression symptoms spiraling out of control, feeling like I was literally losing my sanity, I realized I needed help. The time from this first realization to actually checking into rehab was only about 36 hours. Walking into that facility was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t remember much of those first hours, since I was having the mother of all anxiety attacks, but I know that I had to take a drug test, my first, a breathalyzer, also my first, and all my possessions were thoroughly searched. Those first couple of days were extremely dark, but by the end of the first week I was filled with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, realizing what a gift it was to take a month away from my life to work on me. To be surrounded by teams of people who were committed to helping me diagnose, analyze, and begin to heal the turmoil roiling within my body, mind, and spirit.
To try to explain all I learned in my 28 days in rehab, would be a little bit like attempting to teach a toddler calligraphy…a huge investment of time and energy, and in the end, probably not possible anyway. With that in mine, here are just a few highlights:
I learned so much about brain chemistry, and I have never felt so taken care of physically. From the moment I arrived until the day I graduated, the process of rebuilding my body never ceased. Extensive blood and saliva testing led to diagnoses of everything from adrenal fatigue to hypoglycemia to raised levels of certain chemicals that severely interrupt a normally functioning brain chemistry. In over 15 years of being under the care of various physicians for clinical depression, I had never had these tests done. At first this made me angry until I made a decision not to focus on the lost 15 years, but instead to be grateful that these problems had now been discovered and treatment started. I also tested positive for a gene which is a marker for cancer, mood disorders (such as depression and anxiety), and addiction. Having this gene makes it difficult for my brain to convert (or methylate) folic acid. This conversion should happen just a couple steps up the chemical chain from the production of serotonin, so I create less than half the amount of serotonin I need. (Ummmm….yea…depression, anyone?) The cool thing is that all of these issues, including the genetic disorder, can be treated and normalized. The month was spent, in part, with doctors, nurses, nutritionists, yoga and reiki masters, taking supplements, IV treatments, and a very strictly controlled nutritional regimen. This protocol gave me a huge head-start in repairing the damage that I had done to my body and my mind with excessive alcohol consumption.
I learned that religion and spirituality are not the same thing. Maybe this is obvious to many, but it had never come across my radar before. Since I have been unable to deal with organized religion of any sort for quite some time, I had just kind of put aside any sort of spiritual aspect in my life…just one of many imbalances that I needed to address. Learning to look at nature differently, being coached in very basic meditation techniques, having counseling and guidance in learning to see myself in a more kind, loving, and positive light, all helped calm the maelstrom of conflict and pain that have occupied my mind and my spirit for a very long time.
Most importantly, I learned about the disease of alcoholism. Before I went to rehab, I had accepted my truth, adopted the label, but also condemned myself, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, and something “less than”…ironically, all the things I have worked so hard to overcome on my journey of living with mental illness. You see, somewhere along the way I picked up some major misconceptions about alcoholics. I believed all the stereotypes…alcoholics are bums, losers, weak…basically people who have fucked up their lives, and continue to fuck them up because they want to. Now, I’m not at all abdicating personal responsibility. I made choices at the beginning of this whole thing when I started self medicating with alcohol, but at some point the disease began to take over. The truth is that most people can drink now and then, or daily, or even extremely heavily, and never become alcoholics. A small minority of the population, however, will become alcoholics no matter how much or for how long they drink. Basically, once I started drinking, I “flipped the switch” and the disease kicked on due to my predisposition of genetics, hormones, enzymes, and brain chemistry. I could get really technical here but I won’t, partly to not bore you, but partly because I might not get all the details right (if you’re interested, an excellent book on the subject is Under the Influence, by James R. Milam and Katherine Ketcham). Mostly, though, there’s no need to get technical because it’s simple: started drinking, flipped the switch, alcoholic…for the rest of my life.
I got home from rehab the day before Thanksgiving, and it’s been a bit of a bumpy road ever since. I’ve been battling the downs and ups of depression in the midst of the fading cravings for alcohol. I’ve been trying to slowly change patterns of living and ways of responding to the circumstances and stresses of my life. I’ve been trying to be kinder and gentler with myself, getting better acquainted with the me I met when I got to take a month away from my life. I’ve been trying to take steps to repair relationships and slowly reconnect. It’s a journey, and I’m only beginning it, but at 80 days sober, I am incredibly proud of myself, and taking it one day at a time.
What’s that? Oh, yes! The shoes! My Chucks!!! The gray chucks have been my buddies, my companions for a very long time. I bought the yellow chucks as a graduation present to myself. I wanted a fresh start, channeling a very Justin Timberlake, “sunshine in my pocket” kind of vibe. So, am I getting rid of the gray chucks, you ask? Umm, no…and also, hell no. Every metaphor has it limitations!
My hope is that my being open about my not so perfect life will encourage you out there to be open about yours. We’re all going through shit, just doing the best that we can. So, name it, own it, and reach out. And just know that I’m proud of you!
Namaste my friends!
(To all my friends out there: please, please still invite me to stuff, even if there will be alcohol there…I’d rather be included even if I decide I need to skip an occasion or two. And yes, it’s ok to mention or joke about booze in front of me. Just treat me like normal…that’ll be my red flag that aliens have abducted my friend…my real friends know that I’m an absolute weirdo, and the complete opposite of normal!)