I chose the image of an owl because, to me, they evoke not only wisdom but calm confidence and prudent use of great strength, and they look freaking cool. I admire Jen’s generous sharing of her experience so much, her strength & hope, and her work to destigmatize substance abuse disorders. This is a serious public health issue that should be addressed accordingly, with sufferers given accurate information regarding the nature of their addictions and various paths to recovery. I’m often astounded by the extent to which alcohol is pushed on us as a society; I can buy Everclear pure grain alcohol off the shelf (not even behind the counter) at a local bodega. But teenagers are vaping !! 🙂 I was more than happy to contribute when Jen asked me to share my story. Hopefully, it can resonate and offer some hope to anyone suffering with their own problem or the problems of a loved one, friend, or colleague.
I remember slugging down a glass or two of wine at a family dinner when I was maybe nine or ten years old and just feeling dizzy. I remember no euphoria. The first few times I drank in my early teens, it hit me differently than it hit my friends. It completely changed my personality. I acted goofy and turned into a motor mouth, whereas sober, I was a pretty nervous, reserved kid, although also pretty social. Alcohol did help me act extemporaneously and seemed to calm my chronic anxiety. I remember vomiting at times and saying things I would have preferred not to say, but beyond that, I felt no urge to drink again. At such a young age, I did not fully appreciate the extent of alcoholism in my family and community. Also, the culture in which I grew up was quite accepting of a certain level of “problem drinking”. Therefore, I assumed being visibly intoxicated regularly was just part of life.
For a few months in our earlier high school days, my friends and I would often drink fortified wines such as Mad Dog 20/20 when we smoked weed; it didn’t appeal to me! I was more into the weed at first. In reality, I hated when we drank that stuff. I distinctly remember the first time a beer tasted really good to me. It was summer between sophomore and junior year of high school. It was Miller Genuine Draft. For some reason, the euphoria hit me then. I remember feeling so good as I drank those beers that day and knew this was something I wanted for the rest of my life. The party was on from there!
I would classify myself as a heavy social drinker from that point up until I was 19. There were signs during those years, but I brushed them off. I could be a nasty drunk or otherwise get overly emotional. For me, alcoholism was in large part drinking to ease the embarrassment, anxiety, and fear (well, it’s all just fear, really) that my last drinking bout caused. That was the vicious cycle. I started to get blackouts my sophomore year of college at age 19. I don’t necessarily think experiencing an isolated blackout indicates alcoholism; I understand that a good percentage of all drinkers can experience one if they overindulge on occasion. However, I am sure that regularly drinking into a blackout and then soon after drinking into another blackout to ease the fear caused by the last blackout was and is alcoholism. I did not seek to drink into blackouts. Another old adage I like is “you can’t enjoy it when you try to control it, and you can’t control it when you enjoy it.” I told myself I would do better next time and not get to such a state, but that usually did not happen. My blackouts could last up to say three hours or so, ballpark. Some alcoholics spend days in them.
So, back to it. During college, I flitted between a few scenes and never built great relationships in any of them. No group was ever quite cool enough for me. It was a period during which drinking became more of a solitary endeavor. I also started to embarrass myself in front of people I very much wanted to impress. It was also a period during which I could not form any romantic relationships, which would last until I got sober. I believe now that I had severe “social anxiety disorder”. I was not an overly shy person and generally liked meeting people. Still, social situations also made me very uncomfortable, and I struggled to make conversation once I met people during this time of my life. Alcohol seemed to help this, but honestly, people tire of drunks pretty fast!
Immediately after college and through and after graduate school, I became a lone wolf for much of the time. I had some good high school friends, but I started to prefer just going to bars alone to drink. I suspect that drinking with me was not high on their priorities list (early in sobriety, one of my best friends told me that he did not like drinking with me after 3 or 4 drinks). I was intrigued that this would lead to some exciting and fun situations, and it did at times. More often, however, I would not remember chunks of my little benders and would frequently rotate bars to avoid the anxiety from seeing the other regulars, not knowing what I did and said. Drinking alone allowed me to drink on my terms, where, and when I chose.
My first two jobs out of graduate school were conducive to my drinking. Many of my vacation days were day-of call-ins because I was brutally hungover. I also finally got a DUI during this period. At a certain point, my work did not allow for weekday benders, and in general, I contained drinking to weekends and probably a fair amount of Thursday nights. I clung to the idea that I could not be an alcoholic because I showed up to work sober and not hungover. That probably accelerated my pace on the weekends.
I had several deeply troubling experiences that could have been a “bottom” but were unknown to others or forgiven. Looking back, I think I was dragged along the bottom for several years. Had I been a daily drinker with severe professional repercussions, perhaps I actually would have found sobriety earlier. Life revolved around drinking episodes, deep fear, remorse, and shame from such episodes, and then as the days went by, a growing uncontrollable anticipation to drink. Occasionally I would take some time away from drinking in hopes that I would handle it better the next time. Sometimes I tried to alternate beers with water or pace myself, but that went out the window a few drinks in.
My early thirties presented me with a chance. I moved back home with my parents after moving back to my hometown after a few years away. The first few months of this stretch involved some harrowing episodes that convinced me to seek sobriety. I began to attend weekly meetings of Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), as I was rabidly opposed to AA after a few fleeting attempts years prior. If I got home after work on Friday and just stayed put, I could muscle through the weekend sober. I hit a deep emotional bottom about 15 months into being abstinent from alcohol.
When I stopped drinking, I had told myself that if I made it a year and still felt squirrely, I would go to AA. Also, my SOS group often turned into an “AA sucks” discussion forum, which was fine for me at first, but I wanted a firmer foundation for sobriety. But I do credit SOS with giving me a lifeline when I needed it. It gave me something to lean on in those early months, and I believe I would not have otherwise made it.
It’s hard for me to accept that not drinking like a pig is some accomplishment. Sobriety for me has been filled with some challenging experiences that sometimes surpassed the pain of alcoholism. AA was a challenge psychologically and emotionally for many years. I have gotten better at accepting others and viewpoints with which I may disagree. I have had to confront my problems without the medication and respite of alcohol. I have begun to feel emotions other than fear, anger, and anxiety and to understand that there are different, healthier ways to view challenging situations, great and small. I no longer wake up, not knowing what happened the night before. I don’t have disabling hangovers and can pursue interests I only mulled over while drinking. Importantly, I have accepted that change is usually a process, not a catharsis; I enjoy the image of a raging river shaping and smoothing a stone over a long period of time. Change is not something that comes to me like the sudden euphoria of alcohol or drugs.
I firmly believe that there is no single path to addiction recovery. Folks should be made aware of different approaches and options. AA’s basic text plainly states that we know but a little and that there is no monopoly on recovery. Science must be allowed to progress free from emotional appeals and anecdotal evidence.
I don’t have a great ditty to sum things up! This story has been pretty G-rated for the sake of brevity and getting to the message. If you have a problem with alcohol and you want to change, there is a lot of help out there. For me, even “wanting to want” to change was an essential step in my journey. I attended a Herren project meeting and immediately thought how much this would have clicked with me when I first sought sobriety. It is a place where anyone honestly seeking sobriety will be given refuge and hope, free from specific dogma. I firmly believe that specific programs should be pursued only after a period of abstinence and work with external, objective guidance. I chose the 12-step path, but what works for me may not work for you. Thanks for reading this. If you want to talk one-on-one and in strict confidence, let Jen know. I know she would happily connect us.