Coming Out as an Alcoholic

By Jowita Bydlowska 03/04/16

Public disclosure about my alcoholism has been my greatest weapon against relapse.

Coming Out as an Addict

It started with a guy. I was into him, but I was more intrigued by what he talked about: some kind of a secret society that catered to alcoholics and helped them get sober. The guy said nothing about me needing to check out the secret society, despite the fact that three out of six dates were me in a blackout, including a New Year’s Eve party that was hosted by the secret society. (I had no idea that I was the only drunk person there, but my dancing later became a famous anecdote.)

On our seventh date, I told the guy we shouldn’t be seeing each other because by then, I read about Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and was aware of the suggestion about not dating when just getting sober. I asked him to take me to a meeting. He was the first person I came out to as an alcoholic. That first meeting was emotional and scary, but also exciting. Many women came up to me afterwards and we exchanged numbers—not that I planned on calling anyone but, annoyingly, they would call me.

My excitement about being sober didn’t wane for a while, even though AA confused me and I had a lot of questions about its god-everything dogma. But I stayed sober for a long time from the time I attended that first meeting. And because I was fully in the stage known as “pink cloud,” where sobriety seems like a five-star accommodation in Fiji, I needed to share my joy with the world. I was in my twenties, so there was another reason I wanted—needed—to disclose my sober status. I was mostly surrounded by people who drank, who hung out in bars, who were normal drinkers but who always wanted to meet for drinks instead of coffee.

I sent a group email to my school friends. I invited the close ones, but also the ones I drank with on occasion. We met at a sushi restaurant. I had prepared a short speech—I felt I needed to ease their minds about me still being me, but I also felt aggressive about having to defend my sober status, should anyone have a problem with it. I wondered if I would lose some of these friends, if my sobriety would be seen as intimidating, if it would possibly decrease invitations to hang out—because who wants to drink and feel guilty looking at the girl with ginger ale?

I kept thinking about a friend who came out to me as gay in the 12th grade and how she ran out of the coffee shop before I had a chance to tell her that it was fine and I didn’t care what she was, that I loved her anyway. So I was hopeful, too, that my coming out would be a good thing and I would get the support I needed outside of the rooms of AA.

My friends seemed baffled from the get-go. We ordered sushi after my speech and for a while, ate in silence. The silence brought on a sense of dread that came over me, heavy like a mattress. I thought of ordering a beer and shouting: Just a joke! I’m fine! I can still drink!

"So, can you still drink?" a friend asked.

"No, I can’t. That’s the point."

"What happens if you drink?"

I didn’t want to tell them the AA version—that it’s slow suicide, or that if I don’t miraculously die, I will lose everything—so I said that I didn’t know, but I just shouldn’t.

The questions stopped and we went back to eating.

"Should we be asking you questions?" another friend said after some time.

I thought back to my friend’s coming out and how I didn’t really have questions. I accepted her. And the way my friend asked sounded as if she wanted to help—as if she felt they should be asking questions, because maybe that’s why I asked them to meet me, but what was the big deal?

I relaxed.

I told them about the meetings, how kooky they were. I said that I was still “good” to go out with them, but maybe not to bars.

"Whatever you need," I heard, and suddenly I felt foolish for making my situation a big deal.

"We should have balloons and a clown and you should all clap," I joked, and everyone relaxed too.

After my coming out, I decided to stop revealing my new incarnation as a sober alcoholic. Occasionally, I had to tell people I didn’t drink, but no one—ever—questioned why. Many times, I was dying to tell them the dramatic reason for it, but there was no need.

I got back with my ex-boyfriend. I told him I was an alkie. He warned me he wouldn’t change his lifestyle—he liked to party—but I told myself it didn’t bother me—anything to not be alone (I’ve discovered since then that I’m quite co-dependent). I continued not to drink, even though we went out to parties together and I was tempted sometimes. In retrospect, getting back into dating wasn’t the smartest thing, but the co-dependent heart wanted what the co-dependent heart wanted, and AA kept me in check for a long time.

After three-and-a-half years of sobriety, I relapsed—and as things got darker, my coming out became a necessity because I was scared, and because I wanted everyone—not just AA—to keep me in check. Eventually, in 2013, I came out big-time by writing a book about my biggest relapse. Once that happened, I had to keep coming out in the media, because of publicity and public responsibility. I became the queen of coming out. I also got sick of it quickly and I defended my story—somewhat indignantly. But as hard as it was, my honesty about my addiction gave me the platform to talk about it and, hopefully, serve as a warning or a lesson to those who were still struggling.

It’s 2016 and I still get emails from people who are drinking themselves to death: people in small towns where rumors spread like fire, people who aren’t sure if they have a problem, moms who drink in secret and are terrified of getting help for the fear of repercussions—an email from a mother of four and a wife of a well-respected doctor still haunts me. I also get emails from people who got sober, too, but keep that a secret. It’s sad, but addiction is one of the least understood conditions and there’s still judgment attached to slapping a metaphorical sticker on your chest reading, “Hello my name is _______ and I’m an alcoholic.”

I’m no hero for taking on this public disclosure—my disclosing has been called another form of “self-harm” in one article—and I am often overwhelmed by the desperation so prevalent in the emails I get. I struggle a lot to stay sober and there are times when I want to just write back, “After the book I fucked up, so go somewhere else!” But even that shows sobriety is at least worth a try, and whether you become an inspiration or a warning to another addict, your story can still help.

No one can force an addict to get sober and no one can force anyone to slap that sticker on to their chest, but from my experience with the public revelation, I know that it can help others know that they’re not alone and perhaps inspire them to let their loved ones know that they need support, because death is the only other solution to outsmarting the demon that’s killing you anyway.

As for my coming out “test” group, not one of my friends turned out to be a secret alcoholic, but one person referred his friend to me who struggled. I took the friend to a meeting—albeit he went back to drinking, at least he knew where to go if he ever decided to try not to die.

Jowita Bydlowska is a regular contributor to The Fix. Her memoir Drunk Mom was published by Penguin.

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