musings on addiction, mental health, and one year free from alcohol

TW // alcohol/food/eating disorders

One year ago today, I did something I’ve done countless times before. I came home from a full day of hiking and swimming, and drinking IPAs on an otherwise empty stomach. I was so thoroughly buzzed when my friend dropped me off at home that I passed out in my recliner right away.

PASSED OUT

About an hour later, I woke up feeling disgusted. Not physically ill the way I’d often get from drinking too much — relatively speaking, I hadn’t even drunk that much — but deeply disappointed in myself. I’d yet again failed to stay within the “moderate drinking” limits I set for myself.

These feelings of shame and self-loathing were familiar. They always followed my inevitable deviation from the strict guidelines I’d set for myself around what, where, with whom, and how much alcohol I was allowed to drink. Sometimes, I could only have wine or beer. Other times, I’d only drink on weekends (even though I observed a self-employment schedule that didn’t acknowledge days off).

This pattern of setting rules, then breaking them, then hating myself for it, was beginning to reveal itself as a vicious, self-destructive spiral.

So, upon awakening from my mid-afternoon nap that day, I declared that I’d had enough. I was going to quit drinking again.

It was “again” because I’d stopped drinking at least three times in the previous two years. I’d stop with a predetermined timeline in mind. The first time, I’d lasted the entire winter season and felt quite proud of myself. Then, I tried to make 2020 my first full year free from alcohol. That one fizzled out the day we went into pandemic lockdown.

So, what was different this time?

I took the first step (side note – a hummingbird just peeped in my window as I wrote this. A sign from the universe that I’m doing good!)

And by taking the first step, I mean I admitted I was powerless over alcohol.

I probably wouldn’t have taken this step without a gentle nudge from my life coach, Cat, who I now realize I subconsciously sought out because I knew she had worked the 12 steps and was more than a decade into sobriety.

During our next session, I recounted my experience and renewed determination to quit drinking.

Cat asked, “how much space does alcohol take up in your mind, Lauren?”

Obsession was the first word that popped up, but I didn’t say it out loud. The word obsession felt accurate. Like thoughts of alcohol consumed me if I wasn’t consuming alcohol. It wasn’t unlike my relationship with food during bouts of disordered eating. In fact, the two experiences are very similar.

As it happens, the more I learn about addiction from gurus like Russell Brand* and Julia Cameron*, the more I see the same basic structure applied to a broad spectrum of obsessive and compulsive behaviors that branch off from the same trunk. For example, my tendency to pick up my phone and open Instagram without conscious awareness of what I’m doing or why feels like reliving a childhood memory of reaching into a bag of BBQ potato chips, shoving them in my mouth, and robotically grabbing for more before the flavor even registers on my taste buds.

But, I’d never thought too much about these patterns before. Primarily because they made me feel uncomfortable, but also because my life wasn’t a total mess. Sure, I drank too much, but not any more than most of my friends. It’s true that I picked fights, puked everywhere, and occasionally showed up to work hungover, but I’d never lost my job, driving privileges, or relationships due to drinking.

I didn’t think I was dysfunctional and I definitely hadn’t hit bottom. Not due to alcoholism, anyway (more on that later).

Admitting that I am an addict brought a sense of freedom. It gave a name to the murky feelings I tried so hard, for so long, to deny. It relieved me of a heavy burden.

It literally was the first step on a well-laid and extensively-traveled path.

After making it one whole year without drinking, I really thought I’d feel different. A sense of accomplishment, maybe? Or like I’d arrived at something.

But today feels more like a beginning than a finish line. It’s like how I felt after my wedding (except not hungover). I had this sense of completion. The planning was finished. The event that had consumed all of my attention was over. But then the sense of commitment to my marriage kicked in and I realized all the congratulations were premature.

I can’t help but think about freedom in the way the narrator from Fight Club expresses it.

I don’t know why this particular scene keeps swirling through my mind, but I imagine it has something to do with letting go. Surrendering. No longer trying to keep up with my friends who don’t have drinking problems. No more striving to be some imagined “better” version of myself. Just me, giving up the chase of perfection and accepting myself as the person I am right now, flaws and all.

No, especially the flaws.

This morning, I journaled about the time I felt I really did hit bottom. When I was 18 or 19 and losing control of my life to manic depressive disorder, my parents gave me a two-week deadline to get straightened out or I’d be moving to a halfway house.

I don’t remember the conversation, exactly. All I remember is sitting down at their kitchen table later that day and hearing a voice in my head say, “It’s not going to get any worse than this, so you might as well start trying.” Whether that was my inner child, my guardian angel, or God talking, I don’t know. But I felt calm, clear, and at peace for the first time in a long time. The struggling, the spiraling, the fear – all of it ceased in that moment.

I was at the bottom. I felt the sturdiness of the rock floor. I took a few deep breaths before picking myself up again, knowing that any action I took would be an improvement on my current situation.

However, that wound never healed properly. I was so eager to move on from that time in my life and never wanted to look back on it.

At the time, I believed that I was the only person who could help me. This belief solidified over the years, deepening a pit of isolation within myself. Outwardly, I became obsessed with showing the world how wrong it was about me. My drive came from the need to prove to myself and others that I was not some broken thing unable to care for herself.

I could go back to school and get the best grades in class. I could be skinnier than everyone, have all the boyfriends, and volunteer while working a full- and part-time job, taking night classes, and training for a marathon.

I could do ALL THOSE THINGS because I was BETTER.

I was better.

I heard it in my mind and from those around me. “I’m so glad you’re better, now.”

No, I wasn’t. I was the same person, presented in more socially acceptable packaging. I was sleep-deprived, starved, and working my skinny little ass off.

I remember my acupuncturist telling me, “You’re like an alcoholic, but with work.”

I was so offended. Why wasn’t she praising me?

Workaholism, internet addiction, and disordered eating are a few other ways in which I avoided feeling angry, lonely, and bored (and maybe even boring). But I found drinking to be one of the fastest and easiest ways to temporarily escape. It was also the most difficult addiction for me to confront.

Back to the present…

In the weeks leading up to this day, I imagined a celebration. I thought I’d write a blog post about all the ways in which my life has become richer and more fulfilling since I stopped drinking (there are so many – better sex, inner peace, more authentic relationahips, etc). Or the ways I cope when I want to drink (Starbursts and prayer, anyone?) But instead, I feel sad and a little bit angry.

Why?

Because I grew up believing that alcoholism was a dirty word. That people with addictions were less-than, lazy, or weak. I grew up hiding the fact that I had a mental health disorder because I felt ashamed. I treated myself so poorly for so many years.

So today, I’m leaning into the power of vulnerability and sharing my story. Because reading and hearing other people’s stories was one of the ways in which I realized I didn’t have to wait until I lost everything to get help. Anyway, I can’t very well claim to be an advocate for the destigmatization of mental health issues without owning my own.

One thing is for sure, I’m dropping the old belief that I could ever recover fully on my own. The older I get, the more I appreciate the love and support that surrounds me.

So, for this year of freedom from alcohol, I want to thank my friends and family. I have boundless gratitude for the sober women in my life, especially Hayley (find yourself a friend who’s a spiritual guru AND a comedian) and for all the resources that exist to help me stay on track.

I’m also grateful for the ways in which society is changing to grow more accepting and inclusive of people with substance use and mental health disorders. Talking about it without shame or judgement really does help.

And with that, I’m off to continue on this endless path of sobriety, one day at a time, carrying the confused young woman pictured below on my shoulders.

I didn’t keep many drunk photos of myself, and here’s why. I think what you see here is the result of stealing pieces of everyone’s clothing, putting them all on, and taking a bathroom mirror pic in a bar somewhere in eastern Washington

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