Relapsing on Mouthwash

By Vicki Hogarth 04/11/12

The meetings I went to were creepy enough for me to avoid the program altogether—and eventually relapse while gargling. Then I realized something had to change: me.

Breakfast of Champion Alcoholics Photo via

“And you’ll go to AA meetings?” my therapist asked, on my last day at a standard 28-day rehab center.

“Yes,” I said, though secretly I was thinking, “I will go for a few weeks until the guilt of lying to you wears off and I can use my busy schedule as an excuse to forgive myself for not going.”

The truth was, I hated AA, at least the few meetings I was forced to attend with my fellow rehab patients. I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea of saying, “Hi, I’m Vicki, and I’m an alcoholic,” only to have my embarrassing statement met with a huge “HI VICKI!” from the entire room. Why did these people seem so thrilled to be alcoholics?

The first meeting I went to out of rehab was as depressing as I imagined it would be. A woman cried about getting so drunk that she passed out and couldn’t pick her kids up from school and an older man said AA was the only family he had left since he’d been disowned by his real family.

“Oh God, I will never be these people!” I thought. I felt confident enough that I had got myself to rehab before I seriously messed up my life. I was only 31 years old, and while my 20s had been a bit of a roller coaster, at least the only person I had really hurt was myself. Sure, I had lost a few writing contracts because I missed deadlines due to being too drunk to formulate a story, but I had never done something so irresponsible as leaving children stranded somewhere. I wasn’t like them—I couldn’t be.

I stuck to taking swigs of mouthwash, convincing myself that I wasn’t really boozing. It only took a matter of days before I was a complete wreck.

When a cake was brought out at the end of the meeting to celebrate someone’s first year sober I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of the party. I watched people refill their coffee cups and grab a slice while I gathered my coat.

“What is it with reformed alcoholics and cake with coffee?” I thought. “Aren’t we supposed to like downers? When I make it to the end of my first year, I want a one-year anniversary turkey. I want to get zonked out on tryptophan and remember what it feels like to be dopey.”

I half-heartedly made it to a few more meetings before I had to stay late one night at work and missed the one meeting a week I usually went to. That was all it took to cut the cord between me and AA. And I was relieved. Besides, I still had lots of friends, and even though most of them drank, they still invited me out. I could handle myself around booze. I didn’t need meetings. AA was meant for people who had nothing left.

The truth was, while my close friends were supportive, my peripheral friends treated me more like a party favor. “This is Vicki, our sober friend!” they would say when introducing me to new people. When nights turned into early mornings, that’s when I become the human breathalyzer. “Seriously, how drunk do I seem?” people would ask. 

“Pretty drunk,” I would usually respond, bored out of my mind. I could usually have fun until around midnight, but after that I was no longer on the same wavelength as everyone else, and I wondered if my own problems with alcohol were really that bad. If all these people were so acceptably drunk, what was so wrong with my old lifestyle?

As months went by, the novelty of my sobriety wore off, especially for me. On stressful days at the office, I’d watch my coworkers grab beers from the fridge after hours while I sat at my desk sucking back on a Diet Coke. I felt childish, like I wasn’t allowed something everyone else was allowed to have because I had been bad. “Do I really have to pay for the rest of my life for how I behaved before?” I thought.

As my stress level at the office grew, so did my resentment towards my sobriety. I had nothing to turn myself off with, and I hated myself for ever going to rehab because I felt like everyone I knew would hold me to the promises I made forever. I contemplated moving cities, just to be in a new circle of people who didn’t know me.

One morning before work, I was gargling mouthwash. Instead of spitting it out, I swallowed it. The buzz felt good and, though I promised myself it would be a one-time thing, it was only a matter of an hour or two before the high wore off and I wanted to feel it again.

Before I went to rehab, I was a wine drinker. Wine has about 12% alcohol, versus mouthwash, which has about 27%, not to mention a lot of other ingredients that do serious damage to the liver. I couldn’t bring myself to buy alcohol, because that would have meant that I’d returned to the world of active drinking, so I stuck to taking swigs of mouthwash, convincing myself that I wasn’t really boozing. It only took a matter of days before I was a complete wreck. My lower back ached more than it ever had when I’d been drinking actual booze, no doubt on account of the damage I was doing to my organs, and my blood pressure rose to the point where I thought I was going to have a heart attack every time my buzz wore off. Within two weeks of binging on mouthwash, I had to leave my job and needed to detox with medical support. 

For all the resentment I had harbored towards my sobriety, I was dying to get back to how I felt when I was drink-free while I was coming down. I missed the Vicki who had tons of energy, who could handle her bouts of depression and who people liked being around. I finally appreciated the person I had become through not drinking, and I was determined to become that person again.

When I got back on my feet for the second time around, my phone rang less than it used to. I wasn’t a party favor anymore; people were scared of me. “Who drinks mouthwash besides homeless people?” one friend asked me.

“Desperate alcoholics,” I replied, accepting that maybe I was one after all.

Friday and Saturday nights grew lonelier, with me mainly staying at home alone in my apartment with my cat, save for the odd birthday party people felt obliged to invite me to. One particular Saturday evening I was so lonely, I picked up my AA meeting book. “If there’s a meeting tonight and it’s walking distance, I’ll go,” I told myself. And sure enough there was—a meeting described as “Young People Saturday Night Sober,” at 10pm. “10pm?” I thought. “And young people? This is at least worth checking out to tell my friends about.”

I walked two blocks to a church where a 30-something year-old guy was smoking outside. After telling him the Cliff Notes version of my story and why I hadn’t given AA a chance in the past, he insisted on bringing me in and introducing me to everyone before the meeting began.

To my surprise, we didn’t walk downstairs to a basement. Instead, we walked into the main room of a beautiful old church where about 40 people ranging in age from about 20 to 45 were sitting in the pews drinking coffee and talking. No one seemed sad. In fact, from the sound of laughter and upbeat conversation, I felt like I had come across a secret society for people who were perhaps just like me. Was it possible that being a reformed alcoholic didn’t have to be that bad?

As I was being introduced to everyone, I reached out my arm to shake hands with someone and realized it was a girl I knew, a friend of a friend. She had always been bubbly and full of life, not someone I thought would have demons. As our eyes met and she recognized me, I expected her to be embarrassed. Instead, she said happily, “Sit with us! I always wondered if I’d run into you around here.”

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