I sit in his office. It is the first time I am willing to be honest, about anything. About all of it. About what hurts and what doesn’t and where and why. I tell him the reason. I ask for help. He is the first psychiatrist I have ever visited.
I am twenty-one years old and in my first year of graduate school. Over the past few months, I have found myself abusing prescription pills and taking them for non-medical reasons. It doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but for me, it is. I don’t have any experience with addiction – besides seeing my grandmother fall over constantly, after drinking too much red wine. This is my only taste of alcoholism. Her. I vow that I will never turn into her. I make promises to drink white wine over red wine. To never lose myself. To always stay in control.
For most of my life, I am able to do this. To say no to drugs and drinking. To turn down nights out at the bar in favor of my education and studying and knowledge and learning. I discover I can do hard things. I graduate college early, Summa Cum Laude. I get accepted to a prestigious MBA program. I start to become the woman I have always desired to be. I believe that my ambition will take me through life and allow me to flow into success and into a life beyond my wildest dreams.
Unfortunately, things didn’t turn out this way. Ambition can’t beat a substance use disorder. For four years, I was lost in an addiction to prescription pills. It started with a prescription for opiates and it turned into so much more. My drug of choice was Adderall and Xanax. It was the cocktail I preferred above all else – and it became the only thing I cared about.
When I got out of my fourth treatment center, I was committed to complete abstinence and maintaining my recovery. After I left treatment, I went to 12 step meetings every single day for several months. I started attending therapy, creating sober relationships, reading every book I could get my hands on, and working full-time. I kept myself busy because I didn’t want my obsessive thoughts about using to turn into a full blown relapse. This is what had happened more times than I could count.
At about a year sober, I started believing that I would drink one day. I would fantasize about sitting outside with my boyfriend’s family and happily clinking our wine glasses together to toast our successes. I would think about the way drinking made me laugh and how it made me feel lighter. I remember how relaxing that glass of wine after work used to be. I tricked myself into believing that I never had a problem with alcohol.
I forgot about the hangovers, the embarrassing moments, and the nights I would drive home from the bar completely intoxicated. I forgot about what alcohol did to my grandmother and how there is a history of alcoholism in my family. The truth is that I started romanticizing alcohol. Luckily, I was under the impression that I needed at least five years of complete abstinence before I could start drinking again. I thought that if I could remain abstinent for five years then that meant I wouldn’t abuse alcohol in the future.
During that time, my philosophies began to change and I started to create a life I didn’t want to escape from. I began to notice the way alcohol, even in small amounts, changed the behavior of the people I loved most. I started seeing my old self in the eyes of those who were drinking and I began to want no part of that life. Their glossy eyes from too much alcohol didn’t look much different than the way my eyes would look after swallowing 12 pills of Vicodin. If I wanted to be present, awake, and aware for every moment of my life, then I could not take any substance that would change my feelings, perceptions, and experiences.
I also started accepting how I felt, in every moment. I learned that feelings aren’t facts and I discovered that no feeling is final. I stopped wanting to escape my pain. Instead of running, I wanted to learn how to stay with myself. As the poet Oriah Mountain Dreamer so eloquently describes it, I wanted to learn “how to sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to fade it, or fix it, or hide it.” I discovered that pain was my greatest teacher and I could use it to strengthen my character. I went through heartbreak, loss, and grief completely sober and came out the other side, better for every experience. I knew complete abstinence was the only way I could grow. It was the only way I could learn that I needed nothing outside of myself to fix me. Every answer was inside me.
I have friends who have been addicted to prescription pills and still drink. They tell me they never had a problem with alcohol. I try to not make judgements on anyone else’s recovery, but I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter if I had a problem with alcohol or if I didn’t. I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to use a substance that will change my perceptions, thoughts, or feelings in any way. Life is too beautiful to not experience every single tiny moment, completely aware and awake. If you’re not present in the moment, you miss the thousand or so miracles that start to appear when you make the decision to no longer escape your life.
Alcohol misuse is normalized in our society. We think it’s normal for men and women to blackout and binge drink, to lose their moral compass, and their inhibitions, and make decisions that could harm them for the rest of their lives. I made a few mistakes while drinking. Actually, I made a thousand or so mistakes. In the way I treated others, in how I behaved, in the way I put not only myself, but others at risk. It was selfish of me to drink the way I did. But, I never looked at it that way. I thought my drinking was normal because I could control it and because no one ever questioned me about it. I don’t think it’s normal to consume ethanol. In any amount. As I learned in Narcotics Anonymous, “Alcohol is a drug. Period.”
Glennon Doyle Melton says “dancing sober is just honest, passionate living.” I read these words and I look at my life as a dance. This is what my life has become – honest, passionate living. I know that if I was drinking a glass of wine, even just here and there, I would miss out on moments of true connection. I would miss the way my body and my heart connect to God in every moment.
I think alcohol and drugs block us from our ability to truly connect with ourselves. I never want to disconnect from myself again. Living without alcohol and drugs has taught me to stay with myself, to not escape pain, to see the world in depth, in color – in a way in which I have never experienced it before. I’ve never felt more free.