It was 1997. I was 15 years old, a sophomore at Bartlett High School in Anchorage. The youngest of four children, I craved attention and loved acting a fool to get the spotlight. I played sports, I did well in class, and I was in student government. I rapped Vanilla Ice in front of the whole school at a pep assembly before the principal told me to sit back down. My home was safe and full of love, and I had everything I needed. And that’s also the year I started drinking.
At the time it felt totally normal – all my friends drank. I knew I wasn’t supposed to and would be in trouble if discovered, but I kept my grades up and never got caught. Keep drinking, keep staying out of trouble – that was basically the story of my life for the next 13 years. I kept being surrounded by other people who drank heavily so my habits never seemed abnormal – through college, through playing rugby for 10 years, through various stints working at restaurants – and I stayed out of perceptible trouble.
Some of the other details shifted, though. After high school, I transitioned from vomiting to blacking out. Not passing out, but retaining no memory of events while remaining somewhat functional. Consequences of these blackouts included saying hurtful things, driving while intoxicated, unwanted sexual experiences (not every time, but even once should have been more than enough). With these consequences came the heavy weight of intense shame.
I convinced myself I didn’t have a problem because I never lost a job or ruined a close relationship, I never went to jail or got so much as a ticket, and I certainly didn’t end up living on the street asking for money to go buy my next bottle. To me, that’s what alcoholism looked like.
I convinced myself I didn’t have a problem because I could quit whenever I wanted to. I gave up drinking for the 47 days of Lent for nine years in a row (starting the first time anyone ever questioned whether I had a problem with alcohol). For my 25th birthday I gave it up for a full year! In my mind, no alcoholic could do that.
I convinced myself I didn’t have a problem because I wasn’t physically dependent on it and in general didn’t drink heavily every day. In fact, sometimes I only had one glass of wine or a single cold beer like a totally reasonable, healthy person. The issue was I never knew when it was going to be the other kind of night. Once I had one, there was always the chance I would want a million. I’ve heard people talk about recognizing when they’re tipsy and wanting to stop there because it was still fun and they didn’t get a hangover; my thought pattern was always closer to “if this is fun just imagine how great three more would be!”
During the final years of my alcohol use I began to wonder how to continue my Lenten sobriety, not wanting to return to drinking but not knowing how to say no. I felt like drinking alcohol was part of my identity, I thought it was what made me fun and why people liked me, and I couldn’t fathom an alternative. If I considered never drinking again, I didn’t know how I would celebrate, how I would mourn, how I would rage, how I would commiserate or even socialize with others. There was no example for me to follow, no role models or heroes who were publicly sober.
It was also during this time that my world started getting darker around the edges. I thought if I could quit drinking whenever I wanted, then I must deserve all the negative consequences that came with my blackouts. I figured I must be a terrible person who didn’t care about anyone else and didn’t deserve anyone’s compassion. I hated the person I was when I was drunk and the feeling that I would never live up to my potential. I quit drinking for graduate school thinking it would help, but my chest just got tighter until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I was going to crack. Instead I went to mental health counseling and a 12-step peer support program and they saved my life.
I started learning so much. I learned I have an anxiety disorder, and got some tools to help cope with it. I learned that blacking out isn’t normal, and binge drinking* is an alcohol use disorder just like physical dependence on alcohol is, and that alcohol use disorder is not a moral failing but a chronic disease. I learned that youth who begin drinking in their teens are five times more likely to develop a problem with alcohol later in life. I learned that I didn’t need to keep all my secrets to myself and that sharing my experiences helps me to feel better. I learned that my mistakes don’t define me, and how to own up to them and make things right. I learned not to take myself quite so seriously. Maybe most importantly, I learned I wasn’t alone.
I also learned that addiction is a disease of isolation, one that will continually try to convince a person they don’t have it. It’s a disease that will lie dormant for years, just waiting for the opportunity to resurface. My sobriety is a blessing and a gift, but it’s not free. The first years took constant work – learning how to feel feelings and express them appropriately, how to change the way I felt in healthy ways like running or writing poems, learning how to ask for help.
It’s easier now. I haven’t craved alcohol for years. Plus, it’s becoming kind of hip to be sober, and the sparkling water rage that’s sweeping the nation is really upping my options when out on the town. It’s so easy for me to see all the benefits of my substance-free life: getting to be fully present and experience my emotions; being a reliable sister/daughter/friend/aunt; getting to work at a job where I can bring my full self to the table and strive to help others impacted by alcohol. I’m not saying no one should ever drink — that’s for every adult to decide for themselves. I’m just saying I know I am better to myself and everyone around me when I abstain.
My life today isn’t perfect. I still struggle through sad times, I can be quick to anger, and I worry about the future. But I never have to drink over it, and I never have to get through it alone. I am endlessly grateful for every step of my journey and all the support I have had along the way. Thank you.
*Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as 4 or more drinks in one sitting for a woman, 5 or more drinks in one sitting for a man. Heavy drinking is defined as more than seven drinks per week for women, more than 14 drinks per week for men. The disparity is based on the different ways male and female bodies store fat and water. Sorry for the binary, the science is lagging.
You can watch her personal story of recovery here, along with many others’.