What It’s Really Like to Be a Young Female Alcoholic on Her Way to Recovery

Is your relationship with alcohol more harmful than you think?
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Is your relationship with alcohol more harmful than you think?
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Photo Credit: The Kitcheners

Editors Note: September is National Alcohol and Drug Addiction Recovery Month. Erica is sharing her story of recovery; if you are looking for help, more information is at the bottom of the article.

Six hundred and seventy days ago, I had my last drink—a mimosa. Not even my favorite. I wish it had been a Sam Adams, my drink of choice.

Like so many twentysomethings, drinking was a big part of my life. I used to start craving a beer in the last hours of my work day. When I first started drinking back in college, I placed parameters around when I was allowed to drink, generally limiting it to certain days and sometimes even taking a break for a month at a time to check that my drinking was under control. At 25, I had a rule that I had to go to yoga before I could have a drink.

After a hard day, I remember the tingle after the first few sips and the sigh of relief that accompanied them. I always felt like my brain was going a thousand miles an hour, and the alcohol helped slow everything down. The tension in my shoulders would relax, and I could enjoy the hour I had before the drowsiness put me to sleep.

Those were the drinks that I would have alone. Going out was another story.

When I was out being social, my intention was to only have a few drinks—just enough to feel more comfortable. Since a young age, I never really felt like I fit in, and alcohol helped alleviate my inordinate amount of self-consciousness. The problem was that a few drinks were never enough. I had no stopping point.

Im just having fun, I would tell myself. Waking up the next morning, I’d replay the night before—what did I say? Did I really say that? Sometimes I would experience blackouts, unable to recall hours at a time, waking up at some guy’s house whom I had just met. The shame would wash over me as I tried to piece it all together. Nursing an awful hangover, I’d tell my friends that I was not going to drink that night.

But once out, one drink would turn into seven, eight, nine. I drank to celebrate, I drank to escape, I drank to manage the every day.

The Turning Point

On the surface, I projected a happy, successful young woman. I was 25, I had a college degree, I had traveled and lived in many places. Newly settled in Brooklyn with a salaried job and a sweet apartment, my life was pretty good. Everyone was going out, always in search of the next good time. Drinking was par for the course. This is just normal, I thought.

But in truth, my drinking was making life unmanageable. In addition to the lost memories and embarrassment, the alcohol exacerbated my anxiety and depression. I was miserable on a soul level, despite my attempt to cover it up.

And yet, I was completely blind to my problem. It wasn’t that I wasn’t introspecting; it’s just that my relationship with alcohol had become an addiction, and addictions, it turns out, are blind spots. I would frequently go to see my spiritual director, a priest I trusted, to give me counsel. I was arriving distraught and in tears regularly, feeling trapped in a cycle of self-destructive, soul-crushing behavior. One day, he pointed out to me that of all the various bad experiences I relayed to him, they all shared something in common: drinking. He asked if I had considered that alcohol was an issue. I could not fathom my life without drinking. “No, no,” I said. “It’s just me. If only I had stronger self-discipline.”

But the seed was planted. I spent the next six months trying to prove that alcohol was not a problem. Things went downhill quickly.

That fall I traveled home for a friend’s wedding. I went on a morning hike with two guys who had just left a twelve-step program meeting. I was nursing a massive hangover from the previous night of catching up with old friends. I was jealous of these guys who looked so perky and alive, whereas I couldn’t remember most of what we did or said the previous night, and I didn’t know where I left my wallet. Mid-hike, I shyly posed a question of them.

“What would you say about someone who only has about two beers a night during the week but then on the weekends plans on having two or three drinks and ends up having ten?”

They smiled at me, then at each other, and said, “Erica, we know that’s you, and yes, you probably have a problem.” I come from a family of alcoholics. I watched how it affected my family life. But I never thought I would find myself here. Unlike most of my peers, I didn’t touch alcohol until I was 20 years old; I thought I couldn’t be an alcoholic.

I believe that this is the moment of grace that many addicts experience. There wasn’t anything different that had happened the night before that hadn’t happened multiple times in the previous months. The veil was simply lifted for me to see that blind spot. I wanted to un-have that realization and continue on my naive path, but I was struck by how happy my friends were and their ability to have fun without alcohol. If they could do it, maybe I could, too.

Over the next few days, I reflected on the first time I took a drink and everything that happened in between. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen the signs before. By the end of that weekend, I couldn’t even finish my mimosa at brunch. I knew that the way I was living was not working, and I wanted what my friends had. I knew I needed to find a new way, even if I was unsure of what this journey would yield.

Pushing Through Barriers

According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, alcoholism affects 17.6 million people in the United States alone. And, according to research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, women encounter more alcohol-related problems than men at lower drinking levels for a variety of reasons. Women tend to weigh less than men and carry less water in their bodies pound for pound, so the blood alcohol concentration is higher with the same amount of drinks. When it comes to women’s consumption of alcohol, experts recommend low-risk drinking limits at no more than seven drinks per week and no more than three drinks on any single day. Alcoholism is a progressive disease. I do believe that had I continued on the path that I was on, it would have gotten much worse with time.

At first I was hesitant to go join a recovery program. I didn’t want to rearrange my schedule—how could I fit that into my already busy New York life? Once again my spiritual director told me that if I didn’t properly work the program, I would just end up a “dry drunk,” no longer drinking but still trapped in addictive dysfunction. What I found in the program, when I finally let go of my ego, were people of all types—men and women, young and old, Catholics, Muslims, agnostics, every race and size, rich and poor, stay-at-home mothers, Wall Street bankers, homeless men. There was a place for everyone. It even had a place for me—the woman who never felt like she fit in anywhere.

I am still figuring it out. But now I am a person in recovery, and that has changed everything. I have found a circle of amazing people who support me. Alcohol is no longer the medicine for my fear or anxieties. I have learned how to practice contrary action—to do the opposite that seems natural to me, such as putting out my hand to meet someone new when I would rather sit alone. I have learned how to have deep friendships with other women without judgment or jealousy. I have learned to rely on a deep interior and spiritual life and to reflect at the end of my day and make changes accordingly. I have learned how to go on a date without alcohol and how to reach out for help when I need it.

Last year, I continued my recovery journey with yet another bold step. I left my safe job in New York and moved to Los Angeles to start my own design company. Being sober and working the Twelve Steps has taught me to choose what is good for me instead of taking what comes along—whether a man or a job. I would have never been able to start my own business if I hadn’t started recovery first. This week, as I sat at my desk in my new art studio, my heart filled with gratitude for the ways that I am provided for when I show up and do the work in my sobriety.

I recently visited New York on a work trip and saw my closest friend there. “You’ve changed,” she said. “You are so calm and joyful.” I owe that to my recovery and my fellows who also show up and teach me so much about life. Being sober doesn’t mean that everything in life is perfect; I still experience the ups and the downs, the heartbreaks and the celebrations. But it means that I am able to be in the present and to embrace the emotions that come. In sobriety, I grow through the wonder and the struggle each day. My recovery has taught me an easier, softer way.

Erica is a calligrapher and designer in the L.A. area and is willing to receive emails from any readers who want to ask about “their friend who has a drinking problem.” Contact her at erica (at) beaheart (dot) com.

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