I was wrapped in a bleached white blanket. It was not mine, neither was the bed. I sadly pondered how I arrived here. I was 30 years old, finishing up my Master’s Degree in Special Education that very month when my world crashed down around me unexpectedly. I do not recall the details of how I ended up in that moment, in a bed at McLean Hospital in Massachusetts. I do, however, remember the smell of the starchy sheets providing me with a sense of surrender. I was no longer able to pretend that I was ok. I did not want to be in this time, this space, ultimately this world. I closed my eyes. Glancing at the fluorescent, lights above, I remember that I, at that moment, realized I truly had a problem with alcohol. I would be stuck in this physical and emotional space until licensed strangers decided my fate.
I fell out of the womb a multi-tasking perfectionist. Each day was spent arranging my world in a perfectly functional order. As a child, I would clean my room each day, clutching paper towels and scrubbing obsessively. The scent of Pledge and Windex seeped into my walls. As I morphed into my late teens, I was exhausted from this process of arduously working toward perfection. I turned to alcohol to self-medicate. The sedative effect that overtook when I would drink provided a peace and order I had never known.
While in the hospital, I often found myself staring blankly through tightly locked windows. I envied people walking along the campus. I yearned to “be normal.” I created stories of their lives in my mind. Those stories represented my broken dreams involving children, beautiful homes and lucrative careers. My white-picket-fence dreams dissipated as tears rolled down my cheeks.
The hospital campus resembled a beautiful, well-manicured college campus, set in a suburb about 20 minutes west of Boston. It was spring and there was a sweet smell in the air. This scent was tantalizing, astutely sneaking in when visitors arrived. I was there for several days while doctors and social workers determined my safety and sanity. My belongings were searched. My life was stripped of all that I took for granted.
The realization that there was a name for my problem was paradoxically comforting. I had always suffered from anxiety and depression. I soul-searched extensively, yearning to be “normal.” I was consumed with questions: How could a hard-working, educated woman be an alcoholic? Could my future be alcohol-free? I feared my life was over. Potential judgment terrorized me. I became aware that my life was about to change dramatically. I felt comforted and horrified simultaneously.
I reluctantly crept into my first 12-step meeting in 2007. It was a large church hall. Most meetings took place in church basements where crooked, metal chairs rattled as the smell of weak coffee permeated the stale air. I became subtly aware that I might actually be similar to “other” alcoholics who I had deemed so different from myself. “They” lost jobs, careers, freedom, and family due to alcoholism. I hadn’t. In fact, up until that point I had never crashed a car, lost family, been incarcerated, or fired from a job.
I continuously compared myself to people I met in meetings until I soon realized, my mind confused and my heart broken, that I was actually quite similar to these people. Experiences were diverse; however, the feelings, pain, and illness were essentially the same. I felt defeated. The details of my life were inconsequential. Alcoholism was rooted deep inside of me.
I believe in my heart that my decision to get sober is the bravest thing I have ever done. My decision to remove myself from alcohol was impossible to ascertain. My life became so deeply unraveled as a result this mind-numbing alcohol addiction. At times I did not want to be on this Earth. I could not fathom having an alcohol-free life. I wore a functional mask of self-preservation for my entire life. I could not comprehend what it might be like to remove it without something to lubricate my world. I questioned the representation of normalcy. Was it attending yoga classes, getting 8-10 hours of sleep per night, drinking smoothies with flaxseed every morning, and meditating to the sounds of nature?
I slowly learned that showing up for daily obligations and following through on plans and promises were important parts of my process for achieving better health. I did not have to mask my imperfections in order to get out of bed each day.
I began to cognitively dissect my life in charts, lists, and mental graphs. I would list alternative choices of activities I could do to cope when I had urges to pick up that drink. I read self-help books obsessively with highlighter and pencils clutched in my hand. I journaled, pondered, and wrote my future goals with careful dots at the beginning of each one. I read and dissected The Secret with my thick, pink highlighter and made vision boards. I was trying to figure out what I could do instead of taking action to do it. I utilized scholastic methods to construct order into my chaotic mind.
I soon had the epiphany that my constructs had to be put into action. Those blessings that I could choose to do as a young woman were byproducts of taking care of me from the inside out. I slowly learned more about myself and alcoholism. Ultimately I was taught becoming well would occur naturally when I chose to treat my alcoholism by attending 12-step meetings, finding a sponsor to help support and guide my recovery, extensive out-patient therapy, and taking only prescribed medications. It also included practicing and honing healthy coping skills.
I would love to say that I remained sober since 2007. There were times when I made poor decisions and the safety of my perfectionism won the battle. I was able to complete my Master’s Degree program and to proudly walk across stage at graduation to receive my diploma. I suffered a few setbacks at the hands of my own poor choices and fear of living without alcohol. Sometimes remaining sober was so difficult that I began to substitute other behaviors to numb out my feelings. I became a workaholic, barely squeezing eating and sleeping. When I did eat, I did so obsessively weighing myself and fearing food. I allowed my hard work and dedication toward working on my health and recovery to be overtaken and overshadowed by these substitutes. With amazing support and coping skills that I had begun to internalize, I was able to pick myself up and try again.
On October 16, 2011, I hit a bottom. Unfortunately since 2007, I had begun to suffer deeper, more profound consequences. I realized that participating wholeheartedly in my recovery was the key that would always unlock the door to my happiness. I could only do this with courage, hope, support of friends/family, and faith. It was essential to attend 12-step meetings and practice the steps daily. I never thought I would have the courage to remain sober.
As of this writing, my life and thinking has changed dramatically. I attend 12-step meetings regularly and work intensively with a therapist. After the devastation and humility of two job losses, one a direct and one an indirect consequence of my drinking, I am currently blessed with a wonderful job. I earned my family’s trust and have amazing friends. I have learned how to participate in relationships and about healthy boundaries. I have been blessed with a reliable car, a safe home, and a steady income. I am grateful for these material things; however, I am ultimately learning about myself today. My true blessings are learning how to be present, supporting and guiding others suffering from addiction. My self-pity turned into wholehearted motivation to reconstruct my life.
My recovery always comes first. I have heard this concept described using an analogy: When an airplane is about to crash, adults are instructed to place oxygen masks on themselves before the children. The adults must help themselves before they can assist the children who have not developed skills to survive crisis. This is true of my recovery. I can only fully be there for others if I am active in my recovery work. My dedication to my treatment is my oxygen mask. Although I am often consumed with fear at the uncertainty of life and hardships that inevitably come, I feel brave when I am able to walk through that fear sober. It is an inexplicable feeling waking up in a safe place, under warm, cozy blankets; however, that starchy, tangled blanket is a not so distant memory. I am one bad decision away from dreary fluorescent lights blinding my restless eyes. Each new sober day allows for infinite cherished moments and possibilities…and a life I never imagined.