Personal Reflections: On Quitting Alcohol and Quitting “Alcoholic”
On February 15th, 2010, I woke up in a plexiglass cage. My skull felt like a thousand tiny jackhammers had been going at it for days. A sickly sweet smell of booze emanated from my pores. A deep sense of regret throbbed in my gut: Why did I decide to go to the emergency room last night instead of follow through with killing myself?
Twenty-seven years old, I knew one thing clearly: my life as I knew it was no longer worth living.
For years I’d been surviving each day under the inescapable sentence of incurable “serious mental illness”. My “Bipolar disorder” had been classified as “treatment-resistant” since none of the medications, therapies, or hospitalizations I’d turned to had really helped. This “illness” had kept me from being able to hold down jobs, maintain relationships, take care of myself, manage my physical well-being, or live independently. I’d spent years circling in and out of hospitals and day programs. I felt full of shame and guilt, humiliated by just the thought of being asked, “What are you up to these days, Laura?”
I fantasized about suicide all the time.
Alcohol had become my best friend, as it was the one reliable thing I could turn to at the end of each day to help me temporarily forget the misery of my “mentally ill” life sentence and find the wherewithal to stay alive for another twenty-four hours. But after waking up that February morning in 2010 and slowly putting together where I was—a psychiatric observation unit in the local hospital that I’d driven to in a near-blackout at 2AM—I knew the time had come to end my current reality. Every fiber of my being was telling me that I couldn’t go on like this any more.
After being shipped off to a nearby psych ward later that day, I spent my time quietly reflecting on the two options I saw ahead of me: I could “play the game” by diligently obeying doctors’ orders and pretending I was no longer suicidal in order to be discharged quickly so that I could once and for all kill myself. Or, I could give quitting booze a shot to see if I might eventually find a way to manage my “treatment-resistant mental illness” without it. After all, when you’re taking Lamictal, lithium, Abilify, Effexor, and Ativan each day like I was, throwing a bottle of wine or two into the mix can make for a pretty messy picture. And “messy picture” was a very generous way of describing what my life had become: a rollercoaster of “manic” or “hypomanic” self-destructive binges followed by periods of despair so overwhelming that I’d spend entire days frozen in the fetal position on my couch.
Something in me decided to give quitting booze a shot. After all, I could always start drinking again if the pain was too much to bear, and I could always kill myself.
The Darkest Hours: Dry and Hopeless
When I was discharged from the hospital, I moved in with my aunt and uncle and began a “substance abuse” day program in a psychiatric hospital basement. Each morning, I’d line up with hunched shoulders to push air into a breathalyzer before joining our sweaty human circle decorated with Dunkin Donuts cups in shaky hands, baggy hooded sweatshirts, and downcast eyes.
In those early days post-booze, I refused to think of myself as an “alcoholic”. I refused to go to twelve-step meetings. I refused to fill out the daily worksheets mapping out what my plan would be if and when I next wanted to drink. All that mattered was that I wasn’t drinking—an accomplishment, in my mind, of unfathomable proportions. All I could focus on was seeing how long I could hang in there for without returning to the bottle.
These were some of the most hopeless days of my life. Without my reliable liquid escape, I was constantly bombarded by the stark reality of my life sentence of “treatment-resistant Bipolar disorder”. I could barely hold on, making it through each day only by relying on the short-lived relief of TV and sugar binges.
In less than two weeks, I was back on a psych ward—this time, against my will. My psychiatrist had picked up on the fact that death was once again beckoning me to her as loudly and clearly as a siren’s song.
This time on the locked unit, I happened to meet a young woman who’d been sober for a few years. We’d both gone to Harvard. We’d both grown up as athletes. We’d both struggled for years to survive our self-destructive minds, and were self-identified with a variety of different “mental illnesses”. In this new relationship, I found myself swept up by an unfamiliar but beautiful sense of identification. For the first time in a long time, I no longer felt alone. I felt seen and understood. When this young woman told me that the twelve-step community had helped her discover how to live a life with “mental illness” but without booze, I couldn’t help but begin to wonder, If it’s possible for her, maybe it is for me, too.
I decided to let her take me to a morning twelve-step meeting once we were both discharged. Within minutes after its start, I felt something wash over me that I couldn’t remember ever feeling before: a profound sense of belonging. A sense of “coming home”.
The twelve-step community would serve as my home for the first three years of my life post-booze. Along the way, I’d remain deeply committed to the program’s principles, attending meetings each day (and eventually “sharing my story” at most of them), working the steps with a sponsor, and sponsoring other women.
As more time passed between me and the bottle and my mind began to get progressively clearer, I began to lock into a profound recognition: I had no idea who I was off psychiatric drugs. I’d been on them through my most formative teenaged and twenty-something years, after all, and the more I thought about this, the deeper my fixation became on finding out who I might be “off my meds”, and what my “baseline” might look like. Against my psychiatrist’s wishes, I made the decision to come off all my medications, which in turn would eventually also lead me to leave behind my various psychiatric diagnoses and retire entirely from my long career as a psychiatric patient—a story that I have expanded upon here and will write more about in this blog in the months to come.
Leaving Behind the Twelve Steps and Life as an “Alcoholic”
The more I began to educate myself and think critically about psychiatric diagnoses, psychiatric drugs, and the mental health system more broadly, the less comfortable I grew with the notion that I “had” “alcoholism”. That I “was” an “alcoholic”, and would be for the rest of my life. That my self-destructive drinking was a manifestation of being “wired differently” than “normies” (what we in the halls called all those people who could drink without their lives falling apart). I realized that thinking of myself as an “alcoholic” who “needed” the “program” was really no different than thinking of myself as a “Bipolar” person who “needed” “meds”—at the end of the day, it was just another label and life sentence. Another existential box that had locked me into a limited narrative of who I was, what my suffering meant, and what I needed to do about it.
The clearer this became to me, the more uncomfortable I got each time I said, “Hi, I’m Laura, and I’m an alcoholic.” Eventually, I couldn’t even speak the words out loud any more. I began to resist the notion that I had to “turn it over” to a higher power if I stood a chance at making it in the world, because it dawned on me that I’d actually been “turning it over” my entire life—to various systems, institutions, and experts who claimed to understand me better than I could, myself. I began to gravitate away from meetings, and I eventually stopped going altogether.
Breaking up with booze, psychiatric drugs, and life as a “mentally ill” person brought me back in touch with my power and agency. With my autonomy. With my inner compass. This, in turn, helped me leave behind the language of “alcoholic” that I’d been using to make sense of my self-destructive drinking. I will remain forever grateful for all that the twelve-step world gave me during those three beautiful years; to this day, I hold it close to my heart as exactly what I needed at that stage of my life. In those church basements and at those hundreds of pre- and post-meeting coffee shop hangouts, I was afforded the opportunity to discover and explore my deepest fears and insecurities. I relearned what it meant to be a reliable friend to others, and to reach out for help from them in return. I tapped into what it felt like to fall in love without booze and psych drugs coursing through my bloodstream. I witnessed others being honest with themselves, and through this, eventually learned how to be so with myself.
When I eventually left the twelve-step halls and the identity of “alcoholic” behind, it wasn’t because I felt the urge to drink again, or had figured out the answers to all my problems. In fact, my reasons were quite the opposite: I still felt a great deal of emotional and mental pain, it was just that I was no longer afraid of it. Through my process of unlearning my identity as a psychiatric patient, I’d come to see that my darkness was in fact telling me something important about myself, about society, and about my relationship to the world. I no longer felt the need to label my struggles and behaviors as “symptoms” of a “condition”—“mental illness”, “alcoholism”, or otherwise—or to try to resolve them with “treatments” or “programs”. I no longer yearned to surrender my pain to authorities outside of myself. I’d started to connect with the sense of freedom and power that comes from leaning into, staying present with, and listening to my darkness, which in turn left me feeling increasingly vibrant and alive. I found myself compelled by a new curiosity to walk into the realm of the unknown—into the existential space beyond all the boxes and life sentences I’d been imprisoned by through the most formative years of my life.
Eight Years After Booze
Today marks eight years since I had a drink. I am not afraid of alcohol, and it’s been many years since I thought of myself as an “alcoholic”. I don’t miss booze—in fact, I barely even notice it when it’s around me (which is a lot). I never find myself “wishing I could drink”, because I know that I can drink—any time I want to. It’s simply that I have no interest in doing so. Discovering what it feels like to stay present with myself feels far more satisfying—especially on the days when it hurts the most to do so.
Each day, I feel deep despair, grief, anger, fear, angst, and outrage at what I see and feel around me in the world. I cry a lot. I often feel overwhelmed by the intensity of my internal experiences until I move through them and come out stronger on the other side. The deep darkness that I was once so terrified of—that once led me so deep into the mental health system and the bottle that I very nearly lost my life—is now a part of me that I embrace, for I know that it’s a sign that I’m alive and awake and aware and connected to myself and the world.
This has been the philosophy that’s guided me through each of the prior 2,920 days, 70,080 hours, and 4,204,800 minutes in which I’ve chosen not to drink, and back to a connection with my inner compass. The philosophy that continues to strengthen my capacity to trust in myself, to listen to the meaning in my pain, and to channel my darkness into the work and writing and activism that fills my heart with such deep meaning and purpose today.