It’s funny what the human brain remembers. It’s funny what it chooses to forget, too.
Here’s something I remember vividly: April Fool’s Day, 2019. On that particular day, I remember that there were no pranks to make me smile; no lighthearted fun to make my family giggle.
Nothing was funny. Nothing.
My husband and I had just had our biggest fight ever, and the dreaded “D” word popped up seriously for the first time in our seven-year marriage. There were hurtful words hurled with venom and vitriol; random household objects destroyed in fits of rage — anger taken out on inanimate objects and not each other because even in our fury, we still loved each other too much to resort to that.
But we hated each other, too. A little.
The reason for the fight itself was something unmemorable — something mundane, probably. My brain conveniently chooses to forget that part.
Probably because it doesn’t really matter. It wasn’t about that; whatever “that” was.
What did matter was the fuel that started the fight — that’s what got us there, sitting on the couch, calmly discussing divorce, post-rage; post-enormous-blowup. It was the fuel and the spark igniting violently, as it did every time, and it was never about the fight itself. The fight was always just a symptom; a casualty of the real issue. It was the same issue that ignited every devastating blaze in our marriage.
The issue was my alcoholism.
My addiction had long since taken up residence in our home; it was comfortable and well settled. Long had it ruled over me in ways that no one could. It was powerful and dreadful — and winning. It was an absolute destroyer of worlds.
Of our world.
On April 1st three years ago, I’d finally had enough. My husband was done with it, too. Three years ago, we kicked out my addiction and slammed the door firmly behind it.
Three years ago, I had my last drink.
Three years ago, we embraced instead of parting ways; we whispered new, secret, sober vows.
Three years ago, we abandoned our addictions and never looked back.
A hidden addiction
I’ve written about sobriety several times before, and I still can’t quite describe the experience accurately.
There’s so much to describe, though. Struggling with alcohol addiction is alarmingly common — 107 million people around the globe struggle with alcoholism. I think part of why it’s is so prevalent is that it’s hard to nail down the reality of addiction in the first place — knowing you’re addicted is half the battle.
It’s easy to deny an addiction, though, that the majority of the people around you partake in freely, and usually without consequence.
It’s especially easy when you don’t look the part.
I wasn’t what most people thought of when they heard the word “alcoholic.” An alcoholic is someone who reeks of booze and sits on a street corner, likely jobless and homeless, hurling slurred insults at passersby, holding a brown paper bag in a gnarled hand.
An alcoholic is someone who goes to AA meetings and tells a room full of strangers their darkest and most shameful secrets. An alcoholic is a person who has hit rock bottom, clawing their way back from hell. An alcoholic is some poor soul who’s lost everything and everyone they ever cared about because of their addiction.
What an alcoholic is not is a working mother and wife with a steady job, a closetful of business casual attire and a healthy support group in her corner. An alcoholic is not someone who owns and uses a library card regularly and returns her books on time; who writes out grocery lists and balances her family’s budget. An alcoholic is not someone who seems to have her life together; who raises her baby girl and diligently walks her dog every day.
And yet, it is.
Little big lies
Addicts like to think their problems are pretty unique, and while the events and roads that carried them to and throughout their addictions might be pretty specific and individualized, the realities of living with addiction aren’t.
One such reality of addiction is that alcoholics don’t often think of themselves as addicts at all — especially if they still function in society on some level.
For instance, I didn’t look like a typical alcoholic, but in reality, I was as typical as you get. I was a functional, but extremely typical, alcoholic.
No matter how you swing it, I was chained to my addiction in every conceivable way. My every waking moment revolved around my next drink — I just didn’t know it at the time.
Or maybe I did and I denied it. That might be more likely.
Looking back now, I recall frequently questioning if I was an alcoholic. I somehow always talked myself out of that idea — even after I quit drinking. I am honestly amazed at that, because it is glaringly obvious to me now how much alcohol controlled my life.
Addicts are inexorably tied to their addictions, and we will fight tooth and nail to stay locked up in those shackles. We will fight to the death.
Being tied to your addictions necessitates lying to yourself — to others, too. Addiction means keeping shameful secrets. Addiction means putting another drink ahead of everything and everyone and lying the whole time.
Addiction means that you would rather kill yourself slowly with every drink than quit — or even admit — that you have a problem. Addiction means you have zero control over your impulses and desires — that you have no control over your own life.
Ironically you will believe that you do.
Whether you’re sitting on a street corner with a brown bag bottle in your hand or you’re a working mom who is secretly drinking too much night after night, an alcoholic is an alcoholic.
Functional or not — an alcoholic is an alcoholic.
The normalization of drinking
It’s even easier to deny your own alcoholism when everyone around you drinks to excess.
I have friends who drink too much — an observation I have gently made known to some — but it makes no difference. Drinking is seen in such a lighthearted, endearing way that it’s no wonder it’s the most anticipated guest and any social gathering.
Drinking is an acceptable response to almost any event in life — and any Friday night, come to think of it. It’s just so normal.
New job? Go out for some drinks!
Lose your job? Drink it off!
Got engaged? Celebrate with champagne!
Oh, is it Christmastime? Drink until you can’t feel your face!
Drinking is widely used as both a coping mechanism and as a means of celebration, and it’s expected of all adults, regularly — and often in excess. This is detrimental to those who suffer from addiction; those who cannot say no.
It’s hardly a surprise that drinking has become so normalized: just look at the entertainment industry. It can’t be trusted to portray the damaging effects of alcohol accurately, and power has been most poorly bestowed there.
There are entire movies devoted to blackout drinking culture; to irresponsible drinking leading to sex and marriage and business deals all in the name of humour and entertainment. Television shows portray drinking as a funny, silly thing that characters get into, entertaining their audience with the adorable slurred speech of dangerous women and the men who are desperately in love with them and all their emotionally stunted ways.
I get it. That’s just TV — no one is influenced by what shows or movies they watch. Right?
The fact that alcohol is glamorized to such a degree in the entertainment industry is proof that people — all people, not just young people — are responding to it. People have been universally coerced into thinking that alcoholism is a globally accepted practice. This gets applied in everyday life, too, because it’s so accessible.
Thanks to the advertising that takes place in the media, the entertainment industry is responsible for up to 30% of teens drinking and smoking. I suppose when you spend upwards of $6 billion dollars on advertising every year, it’s important to hit ’em when they’re young and impressionable; to lock them in for life.
Besides the obvious coercion of the media, however, one thing is undeniable: drinking alcohol is the most widely accepted form of substance abuse in the world.
Read that again.
Think about it: you don’t celebrate a new job with a line of cocaine, and if you do, you’re considered a tragic addict. You don’t go out for pills with the boys to watch the game. You don’t smoke pot over happy hour with your colleagues; you don’t pair a plate of pasta with a sleeve of heroin.
Alcohol is fine, though. It’s accepted. Getting drunk is accepted, as long as you do it safely. Nursing your hangover is accepted, as long as you get your butt to work on time.
It’s even considered a rite of passage for young people when they hit the legal drinking age.
“Baby’s first hangover?” It’s all just a part of growing up, like learning to ride a bike.
If you don’t think too seriously about it, that’s all fine. It’s fine until the use of alcohol starts to become disordered, and alcohol abuse is ever on the rise. It’s fine until you realize that 1 in 8 Americans are alcoholics, and you have hundreds of friends on your socials (even I can do that math.)
But it’s fine.
With how normalized drinking has become over the decades, though, how is one to know if they are an alcoholic or have an alcohol use disorder?
There are several definitions for alcoholics and for people who have an alcohol use disorder, but the most important thing to note is that alcoholism itself is a progressive disorder.
That means that it gets worse over time; long-term alcohol abuse leads to chemical changes in the brain, which creates a heavy dependence on alcohol, and that can lead to an alcohol use disorder.
An alcoholic is defined as someone affected by alcoholism:
1: continued excessive or compulsive use of alcoholic drinks;
2a: a chronic, progressive, potentially fatal disorder marked by excessive and usually compulsive drinking of alcohol leading to psychological and physical dependence or addiction;
2b: acute alcohol poisoning resulting from the usually rapid consumption of excessive alcoholic beverages.
Alcoholics are typically unable to successfully control their drinking, whether they’re binge drinkers or “marathon drinkers” like I was. I could drink excessively without getting drunk at all; without having to deal with a hangover.
I was a professional.
Alcoholics can get violent or depressed, and over time they may neglect their appearance and hygiene, but functional alcoholics might instead become obsessive bathers (an attempt to scrub away the smell of alcohol emanating from their pores.)
Then comes health complications. At the height of my own alcoholism, I started to feel regular heart palpitations and that, ultimately, was what started to scare me into at least considering ending my love affair with wine. I was also overweight, and had chronic plantar fasciitis in my left foot, thanks to all that wine-fueled weight gain.
Alcoholics may also try to reduce or control their drinking at times (hi) and can even go long periods without drinking, such as during pregnancy (hi again.) This helps solidify the belief that they aren’t, in fact, alcoholics at all because they can “stop drinking at any time.”
I recall saying those exact words multiple times.
Alcohol use disorder is a brain disorder and can (and often does) take place after extended use of excessive drinking:
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. It encompasses the conditions that some people refer to as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction, and the colloquial term, alcoholism… AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe. — source
When suffering from an alcohol use disorder, quitting can be a lot harder than a simple matter of willpower. People with an alcohol use disorder can treat it through therapy and, on occasion, non-addictive medication. Support groups and group therapy are frequently used to combat alcohol use disorder.
There is no “one size fits all” solution for people who struggle with alcohol addiction, but they all share a common problem: dealing with pain and trauma without abusing alcohol.
Learning how to live with and cope with the harder moments in life when you’ve spent years medicating them with alcohol can be extremely jarring, and it often sends people spiralling back into addiction.
Is there such a thing as healthy drinking?
There was a study done in 2016 on the relationship between alcohol and disease, which proved that alcohol is a leading risk factor for disease burden globally.
But what was extremely interesting about this study is that it also examined the reality that we’ve been told for decades, which is that there is a healthy amount of alcohol for adults to safely consume. The result was shocking:
No amount of drinking is healthy.
Even more interesting is that despite this information, the CDC still advertises safe drinking levels for adults — although they do encourage not drinking at all as a safer alternative.
The CDC goes on to explain the potential short-term and long-term health risks of drinking but stresses that while people do drink in excess from time to time, they are not necessarily alcoholics.
While this information can bring a sigh of relief to those who are concerned about their drinking habits, it’s a concern for me as a former drinker, because it takes next to nothing to talk an alcoholic out of getting help for their addiction.
The root of the issue is complex — and sad
Alcoholics have so many stories to tell. Most of them are sad.
My own is admittedly pretty tame, but it’s still full of trauma and extremely bad decision-making. There were many points in my personal history that could have ended up in tragedy, and I thank God every day that I was saved from that result.
There are many who weren’t so lucky.
I have spent so much time introspecting about what caused my addiction in the first place. It could have been trauma. It could have been heartache. It could just be who I am, deep down inside.
I could just be a little bit broken.
This might come as a surprise, but I’m a major perfectionist. Making mistakes was always so hard to deal with, even as a young girl. I would break a toy or trip over a rock, and the result was always big wails and crocodile tears. My little mind couldn’t handle the errors, no matter how small they were.
As an adult, that perfectionism morphed into people-pleasing. I was good at people-pleasing, so that paired nicely with my perfectionist nature. I think that ignoring my own needs and focusing so hard on being perfect for everyone around me ultimately led to my drinking issues.
When I couldn’t be perfect for someone, which was all the time, since perfection is impossible, I would berate myself harshly. The things I said to myself in the quiet of my mind were atrocious. They were hateful, horrid things to say to anyone, especially myself.
Drinking silenced the angry voice in my head. It allowed me to sink into myself and forget the world. I could pretend that everything was okay.
Now, I have to deal with that voice. I have to deal with the voices of others. I have to face them all in a strong, sober state; I have to be ready to fight back with a clear head. I can’t let down my guard.
I have to be vigilant.
This is where addiction creeps back into a reformed alcoholic’s life — when our guard is down, we are vulnerable to attack. Alcoholics don’t have that luxury anymore. We can’t sedate ourselves anymore.
The life I have left is precious and short — and that’s okay
Three years ago I had my last drink.
It lives on, though. It creeps up in my Google Photos memories. In my Facebook memories. I find those shameful pictures that make me cringe internally, that remind me of blurry fights and angry words that should never have been spoken aloud.
When I quit drinking I took stock of my life and realized that I’d drank away fifteen years of it. Fifteen years of sedation and blurriness. Fifteen years of slow but steady weight gain. Fifteen years of denial, self-loathing and sadness.
I’d drank away my twenties. All of them.
I’d drank away my youth; when I was supposed to be vibrant and powerful, I was dull and weak. Now, nearing forty, I look and feel better than I did when I was twenty-five.
That’s weird. But I’ll take it.
It’s important to remember what I can from those days; it’s important to tuck that knowledge of what my life could be like if I slipped up. I’ve been doing this for long enough now that I feel confident that I could have a drink.
It would be okay.
But the mere thought of it makes me queasy. It fills me with an unpleasant nostalgia that I want nothing whatsoever to do with.
Life is short. I drank through so much of it and sometimes that makes me a bit sad. But by quitting, I lengthened it just a bit. By quitting, I improved the quality of that life.
The life I have yet to live is shorter now, but it’s sweeter. I may not know how or when I will finally meet my end, but at least now I know one thing is certain:
I will be sober.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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The post Three Years Ago, I Had My Last Drink appeared first on The Good Men Project.