Ambition, Anxiety, and Alcoholism

By Irina Gonzalez 03/23/18

I didn’t know how to admit to myself that I needed help until it was too late. I lost my dream job.

Overwhelmed woman at desk, multiple hands reaching towards her.
Alcohol was the only way that I could stop myself from feeling the intense stress that coursed through my body.

Like many people with alcoholism, I remember the last drink I had before agreeing to go to rehab. I had just gone on a binge that ended with me losing a brand new job. Already knowing I had a problem—I had lost my dream job a few months prior—but still not truly ready to admit it, I bought a bottle of vodka that I hoped would calm my pre-first day jitters enough to help me fall asleep.

But I didn’t “fall asleep.” I blacked out drunk, woke up the next day hungover, and continued to drink for three days straight in my studio apartment in Astoria, Queens.

Unsurprisingly, I lost that new job instantly. I mean, what else can they do when you don’t show up to the first or second day of work? On the third day of what would have been my return to digital media in the city I had called home for the past 12 years, my mother knocked on my door and insisted that I fly back down with her to my hometown in Florida and go to rehab. I had a problem. My family knew it and I finally knew it. With my head hung low, I paid my rent for the next few months, packed up my suitcases and my cat, and left.

One year earlier, my life had been very different.

I moved to New York City shortly after graduating from high school. My plan since I was young had always been to live in the Big Apple, and so I did. I came for college and stayed. Although I started my career in journalism at the height of the Great Recession, I had a good job at a top woman’s magazine. Like any budding editor-to-be, I jumped from one job to another quickly in my early career. It was the only way to move up, I was told, and I thrilled at every new job, every opportunity for growth, every challenge to conquer. My ambition was my best friend.

But as my career progressed, so did my drinking. I grew up in a Latino household, and alcohol was part of the culture; it was never out of the question when I was younger. Drinking didn’t seem like a big deal, so I mostly stayed sober in my teens and early college years. After I turned 21, graduated college and got a job, social drinking became the norm. Through dates and boyfriends, happy hours and drunk brunches, making new friends and catching up with old ones, there was frequently a cocktail or a glass of wine in my hand. This is what life in your 20s in an exciting city was supposed to be like, I thought, and so I didn’t notice as my tolerance slowly built up and my drinks went from one to two to three a night.

After a few years of climbing the ladder and jumping from job to job, I landed my dream position as a food editor. I was thrilled. I threw a big celebration for myself at my favorite bar, where I drank my share of hard apple ciders (my favorite at the time), took a long weekend to relax, and showed up bright and bushy tailed at the job I thought I would hold for at least the next five years of my life. Eight months later, I was fired.

Three months later, during intensive therapy in rehab, I began to recognize what should have been the early signs of a problem with alcohol. But it wasn’t my drinking that concerned me the most. For the first time in my life, I realized that I had severe anxiety that, when mixed with my ambition, had been largely responsible for my alcoholism.

I didn’t turn to drinking because I had a terrible childhood or to get over some trauma, the way so many of my friends in rehab did, but because I couldn’t handle the intense impostor syndrome that had overshadowed everything else in my life.

The job I had been working towards for years suddenly seemed like too much. I was happy to be there but I had a lot to do as an editor and, as I discovered later in therapy, a lot of pressure that I put on myself. There wasn’t a single day during those eight months at my dream job where I didn’t feel as if I was drowning. But I was also proud and much too ashamed to admit it to anyone, especially my boss, who was kind and supportive but had no idea that 40 hours a week was not enough to do everything I wanted to do there.

I’m sure someone else could have handled it better. In fact, others did, after me. But I was lost. Finally getting what I thought I wanted turned out to be the perfect storm of my ambition, anxiety, and growing alcohol problem. My ambition reminded me daily that I wanted to be the perfect employee and to succeed beyond my wildest dreams while my anxiety whispered angrily that I didn’t deserve this role and that I didn’t have the talent or skills to do everything I set out to accomplish. Sometimes my anxiety screamed this message.

Meanwhile, alcohol told me that it would be okay. She reminded me that she would be there for me no matter what, that I could come to her during my most stressful days and she would take the edge off. She became my best friend, listening to me go over and over my To Do List after I arrived home on a weeknight or helping me “relax” on the weekends. It wasn’t long before weekend blackouts were a normal part of my life.

“I will quiet the voices,” she said to me as I drank bottle after bottle of vodka or wine, whatever I could get my hands on. And get my hands on it I did; as food editor, I often had free samples coming my way. Nobody cared or noticed if I took them home and, um, “sampled” the drinks on the weekends. Every weekend, I just wanted to shut my brain off. I wanted to quiet the ambitious and anxious voices that fought every minute of every day. And it worked.

Alcohol was the only way that I could stop myself from feeling the intense stress that coursed through my body. I didn’t know how to approach my boss and tell her what was going on at work, how burdened I felt, how much pressure I was putting on myself to succeed. I didn’t know how to talk to my friends about my drinking or how to admit to my family that maybe this isn’t what I wanted.

Most of all, I didn’t know how to admit to myself that I needed help until it was too late. I lost my dream job. I got another job and lost that even quicker. I went to rehab in Florida. I left rehab feeling sure of myself, finally recognizing the toxic relationship between my ambition and my anxiety, but had a relapse when I got another high-pressure “dream” job almost a year later.

I finally knew I had to make an even more dramatic change in my life if I wanted to continue to be a recovering alcoholic: I moved. I changed my life dramatically, leaving New York City for Florida and taking a break to figure out my next steps. It’s been two years and I can honestly say that the decision to leave the only home I’ve ever loved was the right one.

With the help of my parents and the long-distance support of my friends, I put my life back together. Shortly after moving, I met the man who is now my husband. I took a step back from my editor career and transitioned to full-time freelance writing, which gave me the freedom and calm to continue to pursue my ambitious dreams but with less pressure this time. I also admitted to myself that I still needed help. Rehab and 12-step meetings weren’t for me, so I found a therapist who gets me through my most anxious moments.

Sometimes, I still have bad weeks that are filled with moments of overwhelming anxiety or too-big-for-right-now ambitious dreams. When that happens, I know now that I can rely on others to help me through it. Most of all, I know that I can rely on myself to conquer my fears, to deal with my stress, and to quiet the voice that still occasionally whispers that I can’t do it. Maybe I can’t, but at least I no longer have to rely on alcohol to quiet that voice.

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Irina Gonzalez is a freelance writer and editor, focusing primarily on food, healthy living, relationships, travel, and Latinx issues. Her work has been featured in VICE, Glamour, Women’s Health, Latina and more. When she’s not working on her book about growing up Russian and Cuban, she’s probably reading an audiobook or cuddling with her husband and their attention-loving kitties and pup.