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On Learning to Swim: My First Sober Christmas

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The first Christmas I remember drinking my way through, I was 19. I carried an “iced tea” bottle full of Jack Daniels everywhere. No one suspected a thing. I giggled through Christmas Eve service, sending the scent of whiskey floating over heads bowed in prayer. They just thought I was being a brat. That Christmas was when I first realized how easy it was to conceal my constant drinking.

Before I met the tragic, star-crossed love of my life (it’s alcohol!), spending the holidays with my family had been a stressful, miserable and achingly empty experience. I know in my head that everyone is not suddenly perfectly happy just because it’s the holiday season. Doesn’t it feel that way, though? We all put on our happy faces. How can you tell who else is faking? We all talk about fellowship, comfort and joy. Where do those things live? I could never find them. Were they avoiding me? What did I do?

I know in my head I’m never alone in this. So many of us are drowning in depression in the dead of winter, in the thick of presumed Holiday Cheer. It doesn’t matter what I know. It still feels like slipping through the cracks. It still feels like playing hide-and-seek when the seeker forgets to look for you.

Then I found the quick fix. The miracle cure.

God, it’s so easy, isn’t it? A few sips and you’re alive again. You can talk and laugh and dance again. Everything that hurts feels so far away. Everything that scares you feels so quiet. You can play nice again. Everyone loves you. Everyone laughs at your jokes. (I assume. I mean I wasn’t paying attention, but why wouldn’t they?) You smile. You enthusiastically hug all the people who insist on wounding you over and over and over again. It’s warm, it’s safe, and you never want to live anywhere else. Until it wears off.

The Holiday Cheer you find in a bottle is fleeting, but great news! There is always another bottle. Even if you have to overdraw your bank account to get it. When your health bar is low, you drink a potion. Repeat ad infinitum. You will survive. A couple miniature rum bottles up your coat sleeves at church. A tumbler of wine stashed in your brother’s car at the family gathering. You came prepared, and you will survive.

Vomit in your sister’s bathroom. Nurse a hangover in fetal position in the guest bed that used to be yours. Vigilantly scout for empty rooms to duck into and, um, “recharge.” This is surviving. This is happy. This is Holiday Cheer. Isn’t Christmas magical?

I got lucky. I met people who cared about me. As a person. As an individual. Not just as a part of the collection of family members. Not as a missing piece of the obligatory set. Not as a fraction of something else so large and busy and overwhelming I only feel lost inside it but as something whole and independent and worthy of value on its own.

The people who cared about me as a person made me want to be better. For them and for myself, too. They made me want to heal. Really heal. Not just survive. Not just play nice. They made me want to thrive. For them and for me. I am now nine months sober, and this is my first holiday season without alcohol.

Sobriety hasn’t “cured” my depression. Sometimes, it feels like it’s made it worse. When I first got diagnosed with depression and anxiety, my doctor told me, “Be careful not to drink too much. That can worsen your condition.”

I nodded quietly, but inside I laughed. I thought, “Funny. Drinking is the only thing that actually makes my condition better.”

Sobriety hasn’t cured my depression, but it has shut off all the white noise and let me see clearly the work I have to do. I’m healing. Really healing. However, I’ve still only just started, and life is still scary and hard. Once again, the radio plays songs of contentment and anticipation. Once again, I can’t relate. I’m drowning, and I don’t have my handy life preserver. I am drowning, but guess what? I am learning to swim.

So here’s the question. Where do you find this Holiday Cheer if not at the bottom of a snifter? I am looking for it in replying to text messages, making time to see my friends, caring for the lost, confused and lonely ones I meet. I am looking for it in hot cocoa, trees wrapped in lights, small children in comically oversized coats they will have grown out of by April. I am looking for it in stalwart self-protection, unflinching self-honesty and total self-acceptance. I am looking for it in the compilation album of Shania Twain’s greatest hits.

The other afternoon as I walked down the icy Chicago sidewalk underneath a pitch-black 4:30 p.m. sky, stereotypical sobriety cigarette in hand and Shania’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good!” in my headphones, I noticed a small bounce in my step. A slight smile twitching in the corner of my mouth. No booze necessary. Where did that come from? Look at me, I’m learning to swim!

I’m not just going to survive this holiday season. I’m going to thrive.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Thinkstock photo by Digital Vision.

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10 Things You Shouldn't Say to a Recovering Alcoholic

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I’ve thought a while about these. Now, keep in mind, they do not apply to everyone. Some people may not care about some of these things being said to them, but I think they shouldn’t be said to a recovering alcoholic. I looked back at the last two years of my sobriety and thought of the things that have upset me. Maybe you can relate. If you think of anything else, let me know in the comments section.

1. Do you think I might be an alcoholic?

Only you as an individual can answer this. Sober people can only offer their opinion. Remember, admittance is the first step to recovery, no matter what program you choose to follow. I can’t count the number of times someone has asked me to diagnose them as alcoholic. Just because we are sober doesn’t mean we can immediately tell you if you are an alcoholic or not. If you are to the point where you are asking others if you are an alcoholic, you may want to meditate, pray, whatever your belief system is, or see a professional and figure out if you are or not. You are obviously asking for a reason.

2. Can’t you just drink less?

Now, I know not everyone understands what alcoholism is or how it works, but this question is so rude. We quit drinking for a reason. If we could handle our alcohol consumption, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. No, we cannot just drink less.

3. Do you think ____ is an alcoholic? 

No, just like I can’t tell you if you are an alcoholic or not, I sure as heck can’t tell you if some third party you are asking about is either. There is a lot wrong with this question, aside from the obvious. You are also spreading someone’s business and not allowing them to tell people on their own, if they are in fact alcoholic. If you think someone is an alcoholic, sit down and talk to them. Tell them what you think without being accusatory or automatically labeling them an alcoholic. There is a lot that comes with that designation, and you don’t want to use that word for nothing.

4. One drink won’t kill you!

Actually, one drink could kill an alcoholic. It can kill them immediately or it could kill them in the long run. We quit drinking and decided to admit we had a problem with alcoholism for a reason. This means we can’t drink anymore. That one drink could send us into a bender or a lifetime of drinking more. We quit drinking because we couldn’t control our alcohol consumption. This would be like asking a recovering crack addict if he or she can handle just one more hit. Not only is this question rude, it is basically saying you don’t believe or trust your friend since you are questioning them.

5. If you don’t drink for fun, what do you do then?

If you rely on a drink to have fun, then you might have a problem. A huge part of recovery is learning and exploring different ways to stay happy. We have learned to have fun without outside stimulation. It is very difficult to do, but we did. This isn’t to say we don’t think about the drink frequently. We just know the only way we can continue to be better people is to not have a drink for the rest of our lives.

6. Do you care if I drink?

No, it is your life and your decision. You don’t need an alcoholic’s approval to drink around them. Just because you drink in front of us doesn’t mean we will steal your drink from your hands and chug it. The last thing anyone wants, who is having to make a major life decision, is to feel like their friends and family can’t be themselves around you. Be you. If we have an issue, we will say something. Don’t change yourself for us.

7. You quit… for good?!

Yes, we are alcoholics. We can’t stop and start and stop again when we please. We are sober for life. Although I may have relapses, my goal is to quit drinking for life.

8. You are not an alcoholic!

I didn’t realize we shared a brain! You don’t know what it took for us to get to the point where we admitted we had a problem with alcohol and where we are in our lives right now. If someone says they are an alcoholic, trust them and don’t question it. If you tell someone who is struggling with the beginning stages of sobriety that you don’t think they are an alcoholic, they may latch onto that and question it and continue drinking.

9. Hold my drink.

No! I will not hold your drink. I don’t drink, I’m not going to babysit your drink for you. If I’m holding it, I might take a drink. Sure, we build up a respect for our disease and manage it the best we can, but that’s like dangling a carrot in front of a horse, or putting a pipe full of drugs in the hand of an addict. You are basically setting us up to fail. It very rude and disrespectful.

10. I don’t understand alcoholism.

That’s fine, we don’t expect non-alcoholics to understand this disease. The only people who can truly understand it is the alcoholics themselves. You may have someone very close to you and have seen their struggle for sobriety, but you don’t see it from their point of view, as the alcoholic. It’s very different on the other side. What we can do is try and tell you as much as we can about our disease as we know it, what we are doing to make ourselves better, and how you can help us achieve it.

Now, as you can see these are personal pet peeves. They also go within certain contexts of conversations.

Do you really dislike hearing a certain phrase uttered to you? Share it in the comments below. Please also explain the context of the phrase so we can easily understand it.

Follow this journey on Free From Secrets.

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Thinkstock photo by Mr Korn Flakes

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Just Below the Surface: My Relationship With Alcohol

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I have this frequent nightmare where I’m underwater, just below the surface of a pool. The water is as grey as the skies above, and I’m cold. So cold. There are brown autumn leaves resting on top of the water, gently rippling from the breeze above. Somehow I know that they are from my parents’ Catalpa tree. I’m in their pool. I stretch my hand toward the air, but for some reason I can’t reach the space where water and breeze meet. And throughout the dream I’m calm. Too calm, even though I know I’m drowning.

Awake, I know the dream isn’t real. But it is.

It starts with the sound of the cork squeaking out of the bottle, making my heart skip with anticipation. Even as often as I hear it, it still feels forbidden and exciting. As I pour it, the weight of the bottle feels as familiar as that dream, down to the gurgling sound of the pool filling up.

But it’s the first sip that really gets me. The taste of the tart white or bitter red on my tongue. The feeling of warmth that coats my belly, gives me courage and makes me believe I’m funnier. It tells me I’m better with it, and I nod my head yes in agreement. I know I should stop at the bottom of the first glass, but I pour another and sometimes another. My head is still above water, I think. I keep drinking.

And when I do, it drags me swiftly down. Instead of thrashing to save myself, I go calmly with chagrin upon my face. I know the place it takes me all too well, and I’m comfortable there, despite knowing the extent it holds me back and pushes me down.

At the bottom of my third glass, the numbness comes. Pain, hurt, bills, everything is gone. It’s only me and my stemless glass. Eventually, I sink.

I’m drowning again.

I’ve heard plenty of stories about how my grandfather loved the bottle a little too much. He would come home angry from the bars night after night, frightening my mom into tears.  And my mom started smoking as a young girl. She tried to quit for years, but never could.

Am I addicted? Hell if I know. I know I don’t feel addicted. I feel stuck. And I know I don’t want to be an addict. I don’t want the blood of an alcoholic, or a smoker, or this ticking time bomb of DNA to define me. I want my work, my mind and my kind nature to define me. I want me to define me.

I am so fucking tired of the cycle. I’m tired of the headache every morning. And I’m tired of that nightmare. I want to dream of blue skies and rays of sunshine instead of grey waters and chill in my bones. I want to watch my children play with clear eyes, instead of through the fog induced by last night’s choices.

I’m also completely afraid. Afraid of knowing who I am sober. Afraid of regaining control. Afraid of asking for help. Afraid of not drinking. Am I ready to commit to that? Is that what I want? What I need?

That’s it. This is where it ends.  It won’t control me, like it controlled my grandfather. I will not drown at the bottom of the bottle.

But first, let me finish this glass.

***

I wrote the essay above months ago with editing help from the folks at Yeah Write, but didn’t share it out of fear. And my situation hasn’t changed. I drink at least two glasses of wine five nights out of the week. I hate to read that on paper, but I don’t know how to change. Or where to begin the change. Maybe it this essay will be it. Maybe not. But I have to start somewhere, because I deserve the chance.

This essay was originally posted on Danielle Dayney’s blog

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What This Popular Instagram Account Was Secretly Teaching People About Alcoholism

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The Instagram account @louise.delage is not what it may seem. What appears to be a 20-something-year-old’s documentation of a trip to Paris actually holds a much deeper message.

The account gained over 100 thousand followers quickly because she seems to nail the balance between picture-esque views and photos that show she has a great social life going for her.

What one may not pick up on, is that almost every photo includes either Louise holding a bottle or glass of alcohol or has one somewhere in it. After about a month and a half of the account being run, with 150 posts, “Louise” released a video explaining the reason this account was made.

The video was made with a French production company in partnership with Addict Aide, a company that aims to raise awareness about alcoholism in young people. The goal of this account was to show how easy it is to hide such an unfortunately common and potentially fatal addiction. Nowadays especially, photos posted with young people and drinks are so common. If you see that a friend is constantly posting photos of them with drinks, say something. Check in with your friends. You never know who may be suffering.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

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Please Consider This Before You Joke About Needing a Drink to Make It Through the Day

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A while ago, I was at a picnic. It didn’t take long before people were joking that adult beverages were needed, and everyone laughed… everyone except me. Now, I’m not a humorless person, I laugh all the time. I just don’t think those jokes are funny.

Every single day, more than once a day, someone around me will mention alcohol. There’s a constant barrage of advertising, internet memes, drink recipes, casual jokes. I’m not a person who needs a trigger warning, but I really wish it all would stop sometimes.

Let’s set the scene. I am an alcoholic. For me, drinking was fun for about five minutes, back in high school. I think I had a normal teenaged love-hate relationship with the drug until I was an adult.

When I was 19, I woke up one day feeling crappy. The crappy feeling just wouldn’t go away. It stuck around all summer, dragging me down. I was suddenly terrible at my job. I was becoming apathetic. I didn’t know it, but I was depressed. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, hadn’t the faintest clue how to fix anything.

My depression worsened, and as that happened, anxiety bubbled up and reared its ugly head. After a few years of feeling lost and alone, I found a lot of friends who were interested in drinking and partying. Things spiraled out of control around me, and I just watched it all go by. I wasn’t having fun, though. I’d have fun in the moment, sure, but the bad feeling was always lurking around the corner. I can see now I was trying to chase it away.

At 21, I left home. This gave me the freedom to drink every night without fear of judgment. So that is exactly what I did. I drank to feel nothing instead of feeling bad. Alcohol became my crutch. Fast forward several years of addiction and misery, and I had a breakdown. Finally, two years later, I found myself in recovery. As my mind and body recovered from the hell I’d put it through, my concurrent disorders slowly became manageable.

Today, I’m open about my recovery. I don’t lead with that when I’m introduced to someone, but I don’t hide it either. Sharing has helped me learn how widespread the problem of addiction is. Every time I tell someone I’ve been to treatment, they tell me about how their dad went to rehab and they never told anyone, or their sister is an addict and they don’t know what to do, or they’ve lost someone as a result of alcoholism… the list goes on. Everyone I speak to seems to have a story about addiction negatively affecting their lives.

So why do we make these drinking jokes? I believe it’s because the topic is uncomfortable, and there’s still a lot of stigma. Personally, I had a fear of telling anyone about my addiction for many years, and that was because I felt like people saw addicts as pleasure-seekers. I wasn’t having fun, though. That was important. I was just trying to function in a world where I didn’t even know how to get out of bed.

If you are one of those people who jokes casually about how they need a drink to get through the day, please consider this. The person you’re talking to may be trying not to drink. They may have an addict in their family. Statistically, they probably do! They know someone, somewhere, somehow, and addiction has touched their life. Maybe a simple joke doesn’t affect them negatively, but maybe it does. Maybe they’ll even laugh – I did it for years. I faked a laugh as I felt more and more alone.

Addiction affects more people than we realize. If we can educate each other and think twice about making jokes, the stigma won’t stand a chance.

Image via Thinkstock.

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What My Anxiety Is

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Crippling.

If I’m being quite frank, it has the power to destroy my day. It has the power to send it reeling into the depths, with no hope for return and for no apparent reason at all. It will shut me down completely. The only option is to succumb to it, to get it over with and move on. I let my mind run rampant with fallacies, just long enough to mute it for a little while.

A nightmare.

I dread falling asleep because the night is dangerous. My day is done, and there’s time now to review what I’d done, who I interacted with and all I’ve said. There’s time now to consider all of the possible outcomes of my actions, primarily the negative ones. Perhaps, I upset my boss, and I’ll be fired tomorrow. Perhaps, I’ve disappointed my parents.

Burning Bridges.

I have always been close with my family. Now, I feel like I can no longer be. What if they don’t accept my anxiety? What if they call me weak or dramatic or tell me to suck it up? What if they cannot understand that I cannot control what goes on inside of my head? What if I upset them? What if it’s this way for the rest of my life?

Living.

Both in the past and the future, but never the present. I reminisce on days when I felt the utmost joy, no worries, no anxiety back when days like those existed. They are the most beautiful thing in my mind. They are also the most torturous. I can’t go back, no matter how hard I try. So, I try to look toward the future and imagine how wonderful things will be, and I can’t get there fast enough. That’s exactly the problem. I am not there. I am here, and I can’t be. I don’t want to be.

Illogical.

I am consistently fearing the worst in every situation, regardless of how nonsensical it may be. Even if I know the outcome will be positive, there is (at the very least) a sliver of me that worries the tables may turn. Some may call it protecting themselves, but not to this extent, not to this frequency.

A gift.

My anxiety is a lesson. I am constantly learning things about myself and about others that amaze me. I’ve learned I am strong. I am more than strong. I am a warrior, and I am a survivor.

I’ve learned I can relentlessly fight every single day. I can wake up, fight again every morning and go to sleep knowing I survived another day. I’ve learned my relationships are stronger than my anxiety. I am hopeful to learn of my family’s support, despite the plaguing doubts. You cannot change your family, so you love them despite the differences.

I am able to decipher when I am being unreasonable, when my mind has carried me too far yet again. While I am still unable to stop it, I am able to recognize it. That is more than I could ask for from myself.

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