What It’s Like to Get Sober at 20

This post was originally published at www.cosmopolitan.com

It’s one month after my sophomore year of college. I’ve always been comfortable with public speaking, but not today. I’m petrified. I’m slouched in a circle of chairs and I’m about to tell my deepest, darkest secrets to a room full of people with only one thing in common: addiction. I don’t want to be sober. I don’t want to bare my soul to these strangers. But I have to. It’s how I will get out of this treatment center, where my parents are forcing me to be, and back to drinking.

It’s June 2013. I’m 20 years old and one month sober. I should be spending this summer the way my friends are — working, drinking, and taking in the lakes of Minnesota. Instead, I am spending four days a week at Hazelden, an addiction treatment center, in their outpatient program. I blame my parents for the ultimatum they’ve given me: Go to treatment, or move out of their house. I have nowhere to go, so I’ve chosen treatment. But I have no intention of remaining sober once the eight-week long program ends because I do not think I have a drinking problem.

I finish telling the group my story, leaving out details that would allude to me actually being an alcoholic. I pick and choose what to include, hoping that if I don’t mention certain details, it won’t seem like I have a drinking problem. When I finish, I make the mistake of thinking the group will move on. But instead, one of the counselors asks me a question that tilts my world’s axis: “Beth, do you think you’re an alcoholic?”

Every fiber of my being screams, “No, I clearly don’t. I don’t have any idea why I am here, surrounded by you losers and addicts. I’m better than all of you.”

But instead of saying those thoughts, I burst into tears. “I don’t know,” I say.

And it’s true. I don’t know if I am an alcoholic or not. In fact, I know almost nothing about myself anymore. I am so far removed from the person I used to be before beginning college — a happy, confident, responsible woman who didn’t rely on alcohol to make her feel that way. More importantly, I am worlds away from the person I want to be. I want to feel happy and whole again, but it seems impossible without the aid of alcohol.

Let me go back to the beginning.

It’s September of my freshman year of college, and I’m at a party with the women’s rugby team, which I am a part of. I’ve never been drunk. I’d had chances, but I’d always chosen to be the sober one taking care of others. Yet I’d always planned on drinking when I got to college, as if it was a rite of passage. When my new friend offers me a beer, I take it. I drink it slowly, not knowing that the smell of beer will forever remind me of this house — a beaten-down, dingy, college party house — from this point on. I finish one beer, then another, and gradually begin to feel a little bit dizzy. Deciding I like it, I ride the buzz all night. I have a blast, go home, sleep in my bed and wake up perfectly fine. “See, it’s harmless,” I tell myself.

A few weeks later. I’m at a Halloween party with the same people from the first party, my rugby teammates. They’ve become my close friends since I spend most of my free time at practice or games. I now know where I belong. From what I can tell, they’re all having a good time. But not me. My face is buried in a garbage can as I switch between vomiting and vowing never to drink again. One of the older girls lets me sleep at her house rather than risk me getting caught going back to the freshmen dorms. I wake up disoriented, wearing her clothes. Then I laugh about it, because nights like that par for the course in college. Aren’t they?

Before I know it, it’s sophomore year, and my drinking has continuously escalated. I’ve started drinking before class, even in class, bringing vodka or a mixed drink in a water bottle. Sometimes I can’t read my notes from class periods or recall much of what happened. The only people I spend time with are people who will drink with me, and even they are becoming fed up with my drinking habits since they often feel responsible for me after I black out.

One Friday night, I’m in a bar, even though I’m underage. I can’t find my purse or my phone and decide it’s hopeless. So I go home with a guy from the bar. Nothing happens, but something probably would have if my friends hadn’t found out where I was and intervened. I return to the house the next morning to continue the search for my purse and belongings. One of the guy’s roommates says, “Oh, hey, it’s you. Good performance last night.” I don’t ask what he means because I don’t want to know. The amount of shame I feel that morning is unlike anything I’ve ever felt. I feel confused and lost. Losing memories from a night is unsettling. Having no idea what happened to me is concerning. However, it’s not enough to keep me from drinking.

A few months later and I’m at another bar. I’m overdoing it on the raspberry kamikaze shots. I leave the bar on my own, determined to sleep in my own bed. But the next thing I remember is waking up in a hospital bed, my parents huddled in the corner of the room. I am told that I was found wandering around town intoxicated and had a 0.34 blood alcohol level, almost five times the legal limit. The police brought me to the hospital the night before. Big deal. I really couldn’t care less. I’ve been that drunk many times and I always slept it off. The whole hospital thing is a bit of an overreaction and I am more inconvenienced than anything. I just want to leave and return to my life, to my drinking and partying.

Instead, my parents inform me that I can go to rehab or I can move out of their house, where I am living for the summer between sophomore and junior year. I have nowhere else to go, so I choose rehab.

As I sat with the group at Hazelden, the question dangled in the air, unanswered. While I didn’t want to say that I was an alcoholic because I didn’t feel ready, my answer to the counselor’s question was “Yes.”  Yes, I did think I was an alcoholic because I realized my life was no longer in my control and that alcohol was the root of the insanity.

I have never regretted accepting the fact that I was a 20-year-old alcoholic. There have been moments of frustration, moments when I wish I could be like others my age, with a healthy relationship with alcohol. But in those instances, I’ve had to remind myself that I chose to stop drinking because my life is entirely better without alcohol.

It’s now two been 2.5 years since I sat in that circle — 2.5 sober years. I’ve found that a life without alcohol does not make me a boring, unworthy person, as I feared it would. In fact, it’s the opposite. Sobriety has made me a better person because I have been forced to confront my demons. I’ve found that though those demons screamed I was a person unworthy of love and acceptance, they were wrong. Today my life has more love and acceptance than it ever did when I was drinking.

Being sober as young as I am has taught me many things about myself and about society’s perception of alcoholism. People sometimes tell me I am too young to be an alcoholic, or that I would have grown out of it eventually. These conversations tend to be the ones I want to walk away from because I can’t tolerate others’ ignorance about the disease. But then I gently remind myself that I used to believe the same things.

Navigating romantic situations as a sober young adult proved to be more difficult at first. Any romantic or sexual encounters I had had over the past two years, the time I was drinking, had been under the influence of alcohol. I didn’t know how to be myself around men when I wasn’t buzzed, and I felt awkward and out of place. I’ll admit, being sober made me feel less desirable at first.

As time passed, I became more confident about my choices, and that carried over into my interactions with men. I stopped valuing random hookups and focused on looking for an actual relationship. I have now been dating someone for more than one year and we live together. He drinks casually and it doesn’t bother me. He respects my choices and I respect his. Alcohol has never been a source of tension between us, and I don’t foresee that it ever will be. He has a healthy, mature relationship with alcohol and he understands that I do not.

My life in sobriety is calm and predictable. At first I felt like a calm life was a boring life. I craved adrenaline rushes and nights of the unknown. Without those things I felt like a large part of my life was missing, and nothing could fill the void. But I have had to slow down many times and remind myself that a calm life is better than an insane life. I no longer wake up with voids in my memory. I no longer have to send out apology texts after a night of drinking. I no longer wake up hungover.

Today I know who I am, but that innocent girl taking her first drink, the one with her head in the garbage, the one who left the bar with a stranger, the one who didn’t think a BAC five times the legal limit was serious — they all exist inside of me still. They always will. They have to, or else I will forget who I am and why I’ve chosen to lead this sober life.

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