Guest post: "Accepting my alcoholism gave me a way out - so why are we still scared of the term?"
Sarah Hepola recounts the highs and lows of her drinking years, and explains why she no longer fears admitting she had a problem
Author of Blackout
Posted on: Tue 23-Jun-15 12:15:51
(49 comments )
Not long ago, I was having dinner with a friend while visiting London. The last time I'd seen her, we were tipsy in seafoam green dresses, two bridesmaids wobbling in silver heels with cocktails in our hands. Now, I no longer drink. A glass of seltzer sat on my side of the table, a glass of red wine on hers.
"Would you say you're an alcoholic?" she asked.
"I would," I said, and her eyes went wide. I could sense her looking around for the next thing to say. I'm sorry? Are you sure? That's okay?
"Alcoholic" can be an uncomfortable word. People's minds go to dark places: they see a woman pulling a secret bottle out from underneath her pillow. Someone lying in the gutter, drinking from a paper bag. The images don't line up with the real alcoholic women I see on a daily basis, with their easy laughs and their gentle hugs. They are mothers and high-achieving professionals and community leaders. Some of them have rough stories, and many of them are like me: the gutter was an internal place, a kind of soul-sickness. From the outside, we looked like we were doing fine - perhaps even great. But a fundamental shift had happened on the inside. Drinking had taken the wheel.
My romance with alcohol started at a young age. I was the first among my group of good little girls to start stealing sips from our parents' stash, but by high school, most of my friends were drinking, too. At university, we all hit the walls - late-night ragers, free-flowing pitchers of beer, jugs of wine. This wasn't a drinking problem; it was freedom.
There were signs that my drinking didn't look like other people's: I had blackouts, periods of temporary amnesia induced by too much alcohol, and though I tried to avoid them, they kept happening. I was also a girl who "held her liquor," which turns out to be a bit of a stretch. But I took pride in drinking men under the table, and many evenings I maintained just fine. While other girls vomited in the toilet and passed out on the couch, I kept going till dawn.
My mind resisted the word itself. I still had my job, my apartment, I had never woken up in jail - how could I be an alcoholic? Then again, I had woken up inside other kinds of prisons, many times.
It's this relentless quality, more than anything, that was probably my undoing. I couldn't moderate. I watched friends open a bottle of wine, enjoy two glasses, and then put the cork back in the top. How did they DO that? Even when I was drinking by myself at home, I threw out the cork as soon I had pulled it, because that prop was no longer necessary. Not finish this bottle? But why?
For a long time, this quality masqueraded as normal. I was surrounded by the binge-drinking culture of young adulthood, where drinking to oblivion on occasion is accepted, even encouraged. By my thirties, I was living in New York, and the city lined up to support my bad habits: bars open till 4am; beer sold all night; cab drivers to take you home when you are too sloppy for the subway.
I had a series of near-misses. Falling down stairs, waking up in strange places, passing out on the couch with a pot of water on the stove, which did not end well. Friends started taking a step back. I had to do something about my drinking, but quit? Completely? I took quizzes for alcoholism, and read books, and talked to strong, smart women who had been there. I knew I had the bug. Still, my mind resisted the word itself. I still had my job, my apartment, I had never woken up in jail - how could I be an alcoholic? Then again, I had woken up inside other kinds of prisons, many times.
At first, saying the words "I'm an alcoholic" felt like a death sentence. Every time the phrase left my mouth, I felt an electric zap. I was fallen, tainted, a failure. As time passed, I began to see the words differently. The phrase became less of a noose and more of a rope which I could climb to get out of a hole where I had spent many years. The women I met who were alcoholics were big-hearted, honest, courageous, the kind of women I had always wanted to be. I started wondering why society treated this like a bad thing, a dead-end, when it was really the opposite - a way out.
It's been five years since I had a drink. I no longer flinch when I tell people I'm an alcoholic. It's just part of who I am. I know it startles other people when I say the words, because of their own associations, and I wish I knew how to make that moment a little easier for them. But part of what I try to do now is worry less about other people: am I entertaining them? Do they like me? Am I good enough? That was my drinking brain, always trying to be "on". Now I try to let go, and be whatever I am. An alcoholic, sure, but so many other things, too.
BLACKOUT: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola is published by Two Roads books, priced £12.99, and is also available as an ebook.
By Sarah Hepola
Will you drink again, Sarah?
I have a very close friend who was very open about her alcoholism, and had been five years out of rehab completely dry when she relapsed - she discussed her experiences in exactly the same terms as you, along with her relief that while she would always be an alcoholic, she would never drink again. Lots of self revelation, etc etc (she's a writer).
She has now been drinking again for over a year. She admitted to relapsing after seven hideous months denying everything, and took herself back to support groups, engaged a mentor through AA etc, but only briefly. She is still drinking, but has now convinced herself that no-one can tell. I have twice attempted to ask her about it, but despite many years of being dry and completely open about her past with everyone, she is now right back into lying, manipulating, and trying to hide it. It's very interesting to compare the sober woman who spoke in the same terms as you (pretty much to the letter) to the woman struggling to hold her life together today, while destroying her family, her community involvement, and her self-esteem.
I spent a lot of time listening to her. Now I am expected to ignore her drinking and watch her destroy her family all over again as I am not entitled to an opinion.
The real alcoholic women I see on a daily basis are not the community leaders and successful professionals you speak of, except on fb, where miraculously life is rosy. In rl they are trying desperately to hold onto to those roles, whilst making excuses to pop out for fifteen minutes, coming back stinking of booze, letting everyone down, and lying to everyone in the vicinity. They are mothers, undoubtedly. Often with teenage daughters being lied to on a daily basis, told that they are reason their mother drinks, having panic attacks, and leaving people who rely on them in the lurch.
This doesn't stop them being big hearted and honest when they are sober.
Please don't minimise the 'associations' people have with alcoholism. It is an inherently selfish disease where the alcoholic does not much consider the damage they are doing to their family and friends (or contrives to allocate blame elsewhere). I find it interesting that your self-realisation consisted of realising you need to think less about other people.
Alcoholism is a bitch of a disease.
I am pleased you are dry, and I celebrate the strength of anyone who can get this far. Please don't relax your grip.
I should perhaps have said 'is unable to', rather than 'does not' in my associations paragraph. As the disease is in control, rather than the individual, it's not a point of blame.
This is rather the point of the 'associations'. They are associations with the disease itself, not individuals, but separating the two when you are living with the individual is nigh on impossible.
I think that Sarah's friends are not as strong or self aware as her, in confronting her own problems with alcohol,, she's shocking them into realisation and they don't like it.
Alcohol is an addiction which some people can cope with , and it harms or even kills others. It's the drug of choice because of course society loves it. We live in an alcoholic society in a similar way to an obesogenic one.
It is a hideous thing to be. I am dry now - for 20 months - after years of abusing myself, my family and everyone around me. I had no thought that I was in the wrong. The behaviour I exhibited was never my fault - oh no, always a reason to blame everyone else when you're a drinker like this, and I know now that the pain I caused people ,especially my dh and my eldest dd was immeasurable. Only now am I beginning to repair that damage.
I meant to say many congratulations to you sarah and to you molly It takes a lot of courage to face yourself.
In rl they are trying desperately to hold onto to those roles, whilst making excuses to pop out for fifteen minutes, coming back stinking of booze
Really? That's your definition?
It is an inherently selfish disease where the alcoholic does not much consider the damage they are doing to their family again, really? Does not much consider or in real life is so entrenched in their addiction they actually can't put their family first.
You post in such a naive way about alcoholism, do you have ANY experience?
Did you even read my posts thorn? Only you pretty much echoed my point that that it was the alcoholism that rendered them such, not anything intrinsic to the individual.
And yes, plenty, thanks. When you spend days trying not to end up a basket case because of someone else's drinking habits, and trying to keep their family and life together because they are so addicted they don't recognise the destruction they are causing, it's interesting to read the sanitised version.
But y'know, don't actually read my posts and feel free to comment on what you thought you read, anyway.
Naive, my arse.
I know everyone's perspectives will differ but my experiences echo Mads. I have met people as described in the op but that seems to be a temporary step on the way down to eventually being the guy who takes his kids for three ice creams on the drive home from school and taking a quick nip of cognac in each bar passed.
Really pleased for you OP.
All I know is that when I was so deeply addicted to drinking, nothing really mattered except ME. No one else was even in the frame - until the next morning when the realisation of what I had done started. Still, that was just an other reason to blot it out. Not proud to say that, but that is how it was
I think it's unfair to question Sarah as to whether she will drink again. Part of recovery is acknowledging you have no control over alcohol and therefore you take every day at a time.
I'm sorry about your friend mad woman. Hopefully attending AA again will help. It's arguable stopping it in the first place is what may have caused the relapse, though I know some cope without it.
Addiction is selfish, but it's also a symptom of what is essentially a horrible disease. People don't choose addiction and some are more susceptible than others. It doesn't make it any easier to witness, obviously
As the daughter of an alcoholic, I recognise MadWoman's depiction. Once, when sober, she collapsed on the floor. I asked if she had been drinking...she said not. Actually she had a brain tumour and the drinking masked the symptoms. By the time she was diagnosed (dr thought it was the drink too) she was terminal.
Good luck to those on the wagon.
Actually Mad, reading your post really brings it back to me. My teen years were awful. She died 20 years ago and I am mid 40s. Makes me sad, but I cringe at some if the memories.
Thornrose, not sure where you are coming from, but Mads post resonates absolutely with me. Your comments sound like a couple of her apologist friends who saw the hostess with the mostess side of my mum...not the sadder, darker side which was riven with depression and lack of confidence.
This is slightly off subject but I find it hard to understand why the government is thinking of banning "legal highs" and not alcohol. I know banning anything is counterproductive but there are such hypocritical double standards in our society.
Because they get a high revenue of tax from alcohol sales, same with cigarettes.
Madwoman great insight. I don't drink and haven't for five years. I'm definitely an alcoholic and got sober through AA. My first thought on reading the thread title was theoretical, 'oh yes we're afraid of the term and maybe dropping the anonymity is the way forward' rather than, I'll read this and see how I identify to keep myself sober
Every alcoholic needs to recognise that they could drink again and actively work on not drinking. Your question is vital. Literally.
I have been worried about a friend's alcohol consumption for a while. I don't think she's a full-blown alcoholic as far as I know, but is obsessed with drinking at any given opportunity, even when no-one else is drinking or has had enough. We have been out with children at a child-related activity & she says 'I could do with a wine/beer now.' That rings alarm bells for me and she has told me her mum nags her about it, but she has to realise for herself. She has some health issues so doesn't help herself with the drinking. Any advice from those who have been there?
Re legal highs - unregulated and dangerous from one ingestion. Alcohol - fine in moderation. Food is also abused, would you ban that? . It's the drinking to excess/wine o clock culture that needs to change.
Sorry Madwoman I don't even remember posting that. [embarassed]
Reading what you wrote
sober in the cold light of day and then seeing my reply makes me cringe.
JustDance Legal highs are not necessarily dangerous from one ingestion, also people can be addicted to drugs from medics.
Alcohol is not nec. fine in moderation it depends on the alcohol and who's drinking it. It is also a drug remember. I agree the general drinking culture needs to change. I live 50% of the time in Fr. and although the youth culture around booze is different to ours, the older people are not moderate drinkers, they drink a lot (with meals so they don't think it affects them) and also drive.
I said I wouldn't ban alcohol , the regulation doesn't seem to work does it? but neither would I ban other drugs.
it's ok thorn - and I'm sorry I snapped. Alcoholism is a pig of a disease. I am pretty raw about the whole subject at the moment, and Sarah's blog post was so very close to the words of my friend before she relapsed that I recognize how very tentative sobriety is. (And how essential). I'm not trying to demonise alcoholics at all - but to sanitize the effects of alcoholism is not helpful for addicts or their friends and families. I'm sorry if I came over too strongly, but honestly, I am nothing but supportive.
Hi I'm wondering when someone has a drink problem. Is it they start drinking in the morning or need it every day? Most nights I feel like a drink, don't drink every night but feel like it. When I've worked a 12 hour shift I always have a drink after to relax. Rarely drink during the day and get bad hangovers which is maybe a good thing as stops me from doing it too often. Just sometimes wonder that I drink too much, usually in the house and wine as don't get out much. Thanks.
Thanks for posting Sarah, I'm glad that you have your life back.
However I have a point of view that I'd like to share, as 'alcoholic' to me doesn't make me think of women in the gutter or swigging from a bottle under the subway. It makes me think first of 'selfish' & if you said to me that you were an alcoholic then I would judge you & you may think its unfair, but frankly my empathy around alcoholism has already been drained dry & then some. I'm not trying to be unkind to anyone suffering from the addiction but I have a longlasting bitterness that I can't shake off.
I was married to my husband for 12 years & looking back I think he had an alcohol dependency then, but it was at Uni & the culture was to drink all night every night. I joined in. I also joined in smoking cannabis with him as it was the cool thing to do & I wanted to be cool. We left Uni, had jobs & I stopped drinking & smoking (cannabis not nicotine) but he didn't. Fast forward 10 years & we were married & DS1 was a newborn & DH was fully into the grip of alcoholism. All previous attempts to talk with him about his drinking were met with day long sulks with me desperately trying to cajole him out of them, outward verbal aggression & he would manipulate me with guilt if I asked him to not spend 8 hours at the pub every Saturday. If its relevant, DS1 was unplanned.
For the next 4 years DH would hold down an executive role perfectly well, he was earning a lot & he had control of the finances as his job was in the financial services so I trusted him, we didn't struggle for money so his drinking had no affect on our day to day finances so I don't know even now how much he was spending. What I also didn't know, & looking back I feel so foolish for not seeing it, was that he had picked up a pretty hefty cocaine addiction along the way. The 2 went hand in hand, he started drinking every day in a horrible rough pub & they all took cocaine & cannabis in the pub garden but the landlord was also doing the same & they had warning systems in place if the police came round.
DS1 didn't see his father apart from weekends until he was 4. Every night DH would stay at the pub until about 7m which he knew was DS's bedtime whilst I was on my own, he never did a night feed, changed a nappy or bathed or got up in the morning until I had gone to work & DS was at nursery. He had him for one morning a week, on a Saturday while I had a lie in & he took him to the pub at 9 so he could have a drink in the garden with his mates who were also there at that time. He had a cruel EA streak & any time I tried to discuss his drinking or his parenting he would shut me down, pile the blame onto me for nagging & make it all my fault. I had no family nearby & nobody I could turn to. I couldn't bear to tell my parents that my marriage was a sham & a failure & something was badly wrong as at the time I assumed it was all my fault. I told him once that I felt like a single parent as I did 100% of the parenting & he just exploded, I ended up cowering in a corner & he went to the pub & to punish me he didn't talk to me for 2 days.
How DS2 was conceived I don't know, our sex life was non existent by then along with any semblance of married life but I remember initiating sex one night as I was trying to be a 'good wife'.
When DS2 was born something shifted in me. I finally saw that he was never going to change & that me & my 2 beautiful sons were always going to come second. Second to the alcohol, to the pub, to the coke, just second & we would never be more important to him than all of those things.
So I left him, it just took a chance comment one night when I asked him to change DS2's nappy whilst I was putting DS1 to bed & he was sitting drunk on the floor watching a film, he said something about not having to do it if he was single. And that was it for me. I can't explain it but I told him I was leaving, the next day he moved into the pub & I left him & divorced him. He continued with his addictions, he lost his job, moved from home to home leaving when he couldn't pay the rent, he was really good at making people feel sorry for him.
Everyone turned against me, his friends would shout at me in the street. I hadn't told anyone about my reasons for leaving him as I was too ashamed so people who knew us both accused me of taking his sons away from him. His family accused me of breaking our family apart & that I was wrong & golden boy was in the right.
But my story has a happy ending, I was lucky enough to have a supportive family who welcomed me back & parents who paid the rent for me for a couple of years whilst my bankruptcy went through due to the debts he had taken out in both our names, the marital home was repossessed & he had forced me to sign various loan agreements through our married years. Now I live with a new DP who has shown me what an adult relationship should be & I have 2 gorgeous sons.
ExH has been through detox & is now clean & not taking alcohol or drugs, he has just started paying maintenance for the boys & he has a new job & a new relationship himself, he sees the boys every couple of weeks. He has permanent health issues because of the alcohol & will probably die young.
I do not have the experience that the OP has mentioned in her post, I didn't have the easy laughs & gentle hugs. My 12 years of living with an alcoholic didn't include big-hearted, honest, courageous people. My experience taught me that alcoholics are selfish, manipulative & will grind you into the dust on their way to get the next drink.
So for you Sarah yes, it may be empowering to tell people you're an alcoholic, you may wonder why society sees it as a bad thing. But I'm sorry, I truly am, but if you tell me you are an alcoholic then my feelings towards you will change & I will distance from you. I cannot see alcoholics as harmless people just like me anymore. I realise that the addiction will manifest differently in everyone & that many alcoholics will not display the EA tendencies of my exH but someone else's addiction controlled me for over a decade & I will not go near that addiction again no matter whom it inhabits. I don't care if I'm wrong.
I may be flamed for my post, I will probably have to name change as this outs me to anyone who knows me but its been cathartic writing it & I'm grateful for the space here to explore what happened & to tell someone about it, (DP has never asked & I did try to talk to a clean ExH about it but he just cut me off & said all he can do is apologise & he's already done that so there's nothing more we can discuss).
I wish you well Sarah & everyone who's struggling with alcoholism, its cruel & relentless. To those who still live with a partner, family member or friend who's in the grip of addiction, then remember the three C's
that I later discovered through Mumsnet You didn't cause it, you cannot control it & you cannot cure it. Only the addicted person can make the decision & some do & some don't but you don't have any control in the decision making. You do have a choice about whether to live with it or to leave, & that choice you can make.
Thanks for reading, its waaaay longer than I anticipated
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