“Beth, Alcoholic.” Why I’m Thankful to Be Sober at 21

Originally published at http://affectmagazine.com/2014/11/beth-alcoholic-why-im-thankful-to-be-sober-at-21/

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It was 6am on May 7, 2013 when I forced my makeup-crusted eyes open and peered down to realize that I was wearing a faded pastel gown and lying in a hospital bed. As my vision cleared, my gaze fell on my mother in the corner of the small room, arms folded over her striped sweater, no makeup. My blood-alcohol level was .35 when the police found me. It wasn’t the first time I had been this intoxicated, but it was going to be the last.

I had a pretty quick run. My drinking career began during my first year of college, and ended after my second. It all started when I was offered a beer at my first “college” party back in September of 2011. After having an internal battle over whether to accept it, I had two beers that night, and didn’t feel any differently for the first few minutes. Then, the room began to spin and soften a little. I wasn’t sure I liked the loss of control – but I let the buzz hit and I fell in love. There was no turning back.

Spoiler alert: this will be my second holiday season free of alcohol. I know I’m bound to be around it tomorrow, on Thanksgiving, though probably not as often as I am when I am in the college atmosphere. I’m sure the world can relate to the challenge of being around family–and trust me, doing it sober before, during, and after, is a whole other thing. I have a big family, and am the oldest of five children. While I love my family more than anything in this world, they grate my nerves and test my patience with the constant noise and sometimes too-close-to-home jokes. Enter the extended family, and man, it would be nice to have a glass of wine to calm down. But that’s simply not an option for me.

Here’s why.

There’s a fine line between liking to party and living to party. Somehow, without knowing it, I had crossed into the latter. My life revolved around when the next party was, when I could find my next excuse to drink. Eventually I didn’t even need the excuses, I just drank when I felt like it. It wasn’t about the party anymore – it was about feeling “good.”

While I managed to maintain a 3.6 GPA and hold down a job, my relationships started to deteriorate. I burned a lot of bridges and ended up with accidental bruises and self-inflicted wounds. I wreaked havoc on my personal life. I was verbally abusive in my drunken stupors, saying things I would never dream of saying when sober. I started to gain weight and my skin had yellowish cast to it. I went to class drunk and I drank by myself. Regarding all of the above, I always managed to steer the blame away from my drinking. Nothing about my habits was normal, but it seemed like everyone else was doing it. Hey, we were young!

In retrospect, I had all the makings of an alcoholic. Depression. Anxiety. Family history. Addictive personality. I should have seen this disease coming, but that just isn’t how it works.

The days following my hospitalization back in May of 2013 are still a blur, but one thing was clear: my parents were not going to let this incident blow over and give me another chance to prove I could drink like a normal person. They’d given me too many already, and now I needed professional help. In my mind, there was nothing to fix, but I knew that if I wanted to keep living in my house and going to school that I would have to cooperate – for the time being, at least.

My mom made an appointment with a psychiatrist to determine our next steps.  I lied my way through the appointment, and the psychiatrist declared that I abused alcohol and should seek a two-day-per-week treatment. At this point alcohol abuse and alcoholism were two VERY different things in my mind. I clung to her diagnosis because it meant I was not “dependent” upon alcohol. Obviously, that meant I could learn to moderate and control, to stop abusing.

My mom finally settled on an outpatient program at Hazelden Center for Youth, which to my dismay was four times a week instead of two. Like many young people, I was forced into participating in this program. I found that to be a common theme during my time at Hazelden – because I was at a youth center, many people in the program were required by law to be there or forced by their parents. A small number were there of their own choosing, and they tended to be the more cooperative ones.

Walking into a group of about 20 other high school and college students was unnerving. I’d seen movies about rehab, and this came pretty close to their depiction. The chairs were arranged in a circle, and we started the session by standing shoulder-to-shoulder and saying the Serenity Prayer together. In my mind, it was equivalent to chorusing Kumbaya (in other words, I wasn’t about to participate). We went around introducing ourselves, and it seemed like everyone said “addict” or “alcoholic” after their name. Not me.

I drove home and immediately went to my room, purposefully not acknowledging my parents or telling them how it went. My mom gave me a little time and then came downstairs, upon which I burst into tears and said I had nothing in common with those kids, they “were all potheads and that wasn’t my problem.” The first “parent’s day” was two days later, on Saturday. This happened to be a speaker day. During the former patient’s story, my mom started crying and didn’t stop. She cried into her scarf quietly, trying to hide it, which made it worse somehow.

When my counselor asked, “Beth, do you consider yourself an alcoholic?” I was livid that she would ask me that in front of 20 other people–it was clear that I didn’t think so. How could I possibly answer that without sounding like I was in denial? I couldn’t. So I burst into tears instead. That was the best thing that happened to me. After about three weeks in the program, I began to melt the bitch face and warm up to my counselor. After four weeks, I finally said, “Beth, alcoholic.”

Before long, where I was once scared to walk in the doors, I became scared to walk out. Not being there meant less people holding me accountable, so I furiously wrote and posted a Facebook status about what had been happening. I was sick of hiding behind it and wanted to face whatever backlash there would be. To my surprise, there was little. Instead people were kind, understanding, supportive, and gracious. I realized I had many people on my side.

“Graduation” day at Hazelden arrived. I don’t think one single person could understand me through my sobbing. There was still so much uncertainty in front of me as I walked out the doors that day; having more free time meant more time to think and dwell, something which never serves me well. But that’s what AA meetings are for.

Now, over a year and a half sober, it still hurts to rehash some of the details I’ve buried, like the way I treated my mother, or the fact that I still have self-inflicted scars on my arms. But these details are all part of me. Today, I can look in the mirror and love myself–no more embarrassment. Overall, I’m pretty happy, and it’s a feeling that’s real. I’m taking classes, playing a sport, working two jobs and serving as editor-in-chief for my college newspaper. Apart from the first few months of sobriety, I have never contemplated picking up a drink. I know it is not an option for me.

Listen. I still have days where I want to just punch a wall because I’m different than most people my age in that I cannot go out on a weekend and have one damn beer, but I still go to college parties and to the bars nearly every weekend, and temptation isn’t there. I am content drinking my Shirley Temple and watching chaos unfold around me. I enjoy being the voice of reason today. I spent the first half of junior year abroad in Chile. I celebrated my twenty first birthday with sparkling juice and good friends. I have returned to Hazelden and spoken about sobriety to in-patient and out-patient groups. I spent the summer before senior year traveling to New York, Florida, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. I attended the International Conference of Young People in Alcoholics Anonymous in Texas.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I am thankful for all the opportunities the past year and a half has provided me. I am open about my story in hopes that others will realize that life doesn’t have to go to complete hell in order to be an alcoholic. For a long time I struggled with feeling like I wasn’t a good enough alcoholic, that not enough had gone wrong in my life to justify my participation in AA.This is so far from the truth. Even though my bottom was higher than many people’s, it was still a bottom. I stopped digging, and that’s why it didn’t get any worse. Had I kept drinking, it would have.

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