How I Learned to Show Up for Life Without Alcohol

By Ada 08/29/19

Sobriety means—or will come to mean—different things for different people. But I can attest to one thing: The path is beautiful, and the difficulties you may encounter along the way are worth it.

Woman at shoreline in front of setting sun, clouds, ocean
Not all of it is a struggle, there is so much to take delight in Photo by Kylo on Unsplash

You would think that being smart enough to get into an elite university would mean I’d be “smart enough” about recognizing the signs of my disease. It took me a nearly fifteen-year drinking career, a six-year engagement, at least five psychiatric hospital visits, and maybe fifty face-to-face run-ins with actual, imminent death before I knew something had to change. 

Forced to Change

This time, the change would have nothing to do with my intellectual rigor, the dynamic quality of my ideas, or really anything in terms of my personal pursuits. Neither was this about a spiritual makeover of sorts, or a renewed commitment to my health. I was forced to change or face the end. I hadn’t even turned 30 yet.

My engagement—a union with an emotionally absent partner, the result of my desperate need to not be alone with my demons—was becoming more and more codependent, unhealthy, and financially dominating, and less and less loving, protecting, viable. Still, we smiled in all of our pics. 

The hardest thing to admit was that I could no longer pursue “the life of the mind” when my own mind was lost—null—from an almost continuous state of being under the influence.

The process of recovery has not been easy, even three years down this road. While I have since become comfortable not drinking, and with telling people that I don’t drink, it wasn’t always that way. There were times I felt not only uncomfortable but sad, and at times jealous or angry, wishing I could have a drink. There were times of full-body anxiety that made the sober life seem like another kind of death sentence. 

But I am fiercer now. I defend my right to be well. 

Recovery as Self-Love and Self-Preservation

When Audre Lorde said that self-love is an act of political warfare, I think part of what she meant is that if I care about myself, then I have to defend my sole, autonomous house—my body. I take Lorde’s words to heart when I think about my own recovery—that I indeed have had to become defensive about my health. Being in active recovery is a lifelong process of sticking up for yourself—your best self and your worst self. It is also a way of being that demands you treat your body as a temple, rather than an outhouse. 

Now that I haven’t touched a drink in three years, not only have the clouds lifted, but I know what to do when life gives me rain. 

Today, I have to be diligent about my health and about the truth of my alcoholism. It is a disease with branches in the family tree(s). It is also a disease that can go from dormant to full-fledged before you’ve had time to give it a name.

The myth of drinking as self-care (at least for some of us) was apparent in the ways I had been taught to “decompress” from the stressors of graduate studies, a place made all the more difficult to navigate as a black, mixed-race woman (who has struggled with anxiety, depression, disordered eating, and of course drinking—my favorite form of self-love and self-abuse). 

The truth is that I loved drinking enough to have developed a habit of it. At the time, I loved what drinking did for me (despite the pain of what it was doing to me). It brought me a social life, it furnished me with (false) self-confidence. 

It also stole time from me. So many years spent in various states of relative alarm—how to get my drinks for the day and morning after, if I had enough money (somehow I always did), would I be able to last through that 12-step meeting without a drink?

Clearly, I wasn’t ready to heal yet. 

I can’t tell you when I became ready, or precisely what day it was; I had been on and off the wagon so many times that I’d stopped believing in myself. 

What I did want to believe in was the line of thinking that told me I could control my disease and drink like normal people. If I could control it, maybe I would be “cured.”

Seizures, Psych Wards, and Liver Failure

My thinking changed when I had my first withdrawal-induced seizure. 

Or was it after my second major stint in a psych ward? When did I become ready to change? Was it when I resorted to hiding liquor in shampoo bottles? Oh, I know—it must have been when my eyes started to turn yellow (though I remember still drinking—at that point, having to drink—in the face of these obvious symptoms of liver failure).

Eventually, the dreadful condition of being caught in the throes of all kinds of dependency caught up to me, as they do for the luckier alcoholics among us. 

When you’re in the midst of active addiction, it’s the drug that keeps you “alive” and “well.” But when you’re in recovery, you see the drug for what it is—the thing that is killing you and keeping you unwell. To complicate matters, your drug was your best friend—the friend who was there when you were stressed, sad, or having suicidal thoughts… never mind that it was the same friend who implanted these thoughts in your mind to begin with. 

Not everyone thinks of alcohol abuse as an illness or disease, and that’s okay. What isn’t okay is the promotion of cute slogans like “wine not?”—in a world where more women are abusing alcohol than ever before. 

Getting sober from alcohol coincided with my decision to withdraw from my studies abroad. Becoming dependent on alcohol had largely destroyed my independent spirit—the same one that had guided me to want to study abroad in the first place. 

For years I had chosen alcohol as my drug of choice—what I “used” when things were going well, not well, and also when I was well, or unwell. My kind of drinking was pure self-destruction—mind you, I had continued to tell myself it was a feasible form of self-care. Plus, I deserved it. At the end of the day, if you worked hard, you deserved some kind of reward, didn't you? That's why they invented martinis, wasn’t it?

I’ll spare you the details of my last hospital stint, but it was arduous, and at times left me hopeless, wanting to burn the wagon if possible. Now I had to learn to live and cope with life without that substance, and accept that in the end, the drug chose me.

I Made It Out Alive... And I'm Thriving

Fast forward three years, and what I really want to talk about is all the amazing things that can happen when you're not drinking—being willing and able to forge authentic relationships with people, for example, and learning what it means to heal emotions through the body. Oh, and meeting people, whether romantically or as friends, does get weird, though in some ways more exciting. 

The list is long, and I am learning new things about myself, but I think it imperative we put a new spin on recovery rhetoric—not all of it is a struggle, there is so much to take delight in. There are things that will pleasantly surprise you (like getting a real good night’s sleep). 

I eventually accepted that my kind of sobriety from alcohol would have to be a total one.

Because the severity of alcoholism lies on a spectrum, there are people who can drink alcohol and not become addicted (must be aliens), there are folks (total weirdos) who can just stick to one drink. But I know after many years of trying and lying to myself, that I am not one of them… and never will be

Likewise, there are many ways to get sober and no one right path. Sobriety means—or will come to mean—different things for different people. But I can attest to one thing: The path is beautiful, and the difficulties you may encounter along the way are worth it.

This summer I am celebrating three years (okurrrrrrr?!) of sobriety from alcohol. I do not define myself any longer by my disease. Of course, I work to ensure I never lose sight of the fact that my disease isn’t ever “going away,” but recovery sure beats bodily warfare, chronic sickness, and a fear of the future. 

Today, I identify as an artist, a writer; and more specifically as a Catholic witch, poet, and intuitive. If you told me during my drinking years that I would one day not only make it out alive but drink-free for over 1,000 days, I’d say you were lying. But here I am, not just surviving but thriving. I have my sad days, but I let them be what they are. It’s good to cry sometimes. It’s good to feel your feelings. Now, I have an array of tools and ways for navigating those feelings, especially when I think of the darknesses of my past. But mostly, and most importantly, I feel excited for the future. Now, I show up to life. And as long as I can show up to life (and for life), my intuition tells me it is bound to be an amazing ride.

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Ada is a writer and educator who lives in Toronto. IG: wednesdaythepoet