I don’t know why or when I became an alcoholic, but at 28 years old I had the terrible realization that I was one.
In retrospect, people had been talking to me about my “partying” for years. Parents, bosses, friends, bartenders, but no one came right out and used the word “alcoholic.” OK, maybe a couple of people said that word but I thought they were being judgemental.
I did know that I had gradually begun to hate my life and that horrible things kept happening to me. From the ages of 18-28, I had 11 jobs, 11 apartments, totaled four cars, got arrested three times (all alcohol related), got married, then divorced. I couldn’t answer my phone because of the collection calls. My life was in chaos all the time. Over and over, and over again, I woke up with shame and regret. Occasionally I’d get the determination to change, but within a few days, I would find myself back at a bar.
As my friends started achieving their goals, I lowered mine and found new friends. I scoured bookstores for self-help books and tried therapy. Nothing worked. I became suicidal and started having fantasies about how I would end the unbearable pain.
I held onto the fact that I had never gotten a DUI as proof that I was not an alcoholic. DUI’s were common amongst the people I was hanging out with and since I didn’t have a single one—I thought I was doing pretty well. Like every other piece of proof I had, I lost that one too. Sobering up in a jail cell is pretty horrible. There’s nowhere to hide if you need to pee, much less if you are trying to hide from what your life has become. I finally realized that drinking was the common denominator—whenever something bad or painful happened, alcohol was present.
The next night, I went to my first AA meeting, but to be honest I only went to keep my boss from firing me. The only things I knew about AA were what I had seen on TV. I imagined it to be a group of really sad old men telling sad stories in a grey room that smelled musty. What I found was the opposite. The people at the meeting were happy. They were laughing. They seemed to be having fun. Everybody was acting like this was no big deal. I must have looked terrified because someone asked me if it was my first meeting. He took me to a table where some women were sitting and introduced me to them. They gently forced me to sit down.
Over the next year, those meetings would change my life. I would learn about alcoholism and I would find freedom from it. In rooms full of cigarette smoke, convicted felons, and suffering people, I learned what it felt like to be a part of a real family. I experienced the growth, love, and community that I had spent years searching for in bars.
My life was gradually restored to one that I’m proud to live. It taught me lessons that aren’t unique to addicts:
Practice Gratitude—People in recovery practice gratitude every day. When you hit bottom, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself. But each day, life gets more manageable. In the beginning, I was told to write down what I was grateful for that day. My list included things like: woke up without a headache, my car was parked where it should be, and I made it to work on time. Now that it’s been over a decade, I take these simple things for granted but can easily remember when my life wasn’t so simple.
Get a mentor now—Everyone asks “who’s your sponsor?” when you’re new. It’s annoying. If you say “I don’t have one yet” they start introducing you to people. It’s your first priority—get a sponsor. It felt weird and incredibly vulnerable to ask someone to be my sponsor but I walked right up to a woman I had never met before and asked her if she would sponsor me. I had been watching her and I found that I wanted to be more like her. I was tired of trying to explain to people why I didn’t have a sponsor yet, so I forced myself to ask her for her help.
Pray—The only church I had ever been exposed to was the Catholic church and I thought prayers were something you had to learn and recite. I was instructed to pray twice a day on my knees. I was told to be honest and ask God for what I wanted and to tell him what was bothering me. They said, “Even if you don’t believe in God yet, pray anyway—eventually, you will believe.” And they were right. I always believed in God, but I had no idea that he would listen to me, now I know he does.
Progress over perfection—We all have a lot of junk we need to fix in every area of our lives. I wanted to get in shape, get out of debt, find a boyfriend and, travel the world—all while I was still physically shaking from withdrawal. As the weeks and months went by, I always thought I should be further along. My sponsor gently reminded me that it was OK if I wasn’t perfect and to just keep trying to do the “next right thing.” Jesus gives all of us grace and knows that we are not perfect—we live in a broken world and are broken people. If you try to improve yourself and stumble, cut yourself some slack. Figure out what happened and try to do better next time. Stop measuring yourself up against unrealistic expectations and beating yourself up when you have to work hard at it.
It’s been 13 years since I’ve had a drink of alcohol. When I came to the horrible realization that I was going to have to give up drinking, I thought my life was over. I imagined my future as a single cat-lady who watched Lifetime alone on Saturday nights. I was wrong.
My life began when I quit.
Yeah, my credit score still sucks and I still wish I could lose some weight, but I’ve been married for 10 years to one man and have been faithful to him. I have some kids who are freaking adorable and charming. I have a job where co-workers ask me for my feedback and then use it. When I moved into a new house, friends showed up to help. That may all sound like normal stuff to a normal person, but for me, it’s a miracle.
If you have ever googled “how to know if you’re an alcoholic” or any version of that, I just want you to know that you are not alone. There are thousands of us sitting in AA meetings telling stories and laughing. You’ll find people of all ages and all backgrounds. Some of us were worse than you and some of us weren’t as bad, but we all lost control at some point and couldn’t figure out how to get it back. AA meetings are free and low-commitment. Try a few out. Listen and see if anybody has a similar story to yours. AA is not the answer for everybody, but it is the answer for some and it was for me. It led me to the God who saved me. In those rooms, I found community. I stopped trying to hide from God. I found out He loves me and that He could actually change my life for the better.
Not only did God forgive me for the things I had done, but he used all of my mess to bring me close to him. Without alcoholism, I don’t know if I would have ever tried to pray or ask him for forgiveness.
I can actually say I am grateful that alcoholism took me to a place where I would cry out to God for help. I am grateful that I was desperate enough to try things that I was sure wouldn’t work for me. I didn’t just stop drinking. I started to experience life as a free person. I learned that God gives his grace out the nanosecond you ask for it. And it is powerful. There is a song that says “like a tidal wave, it washes over me,” When I think back to the moment I found out about that, I still tear up. I am free from cravings but more importantly, I am free from shame.
What strikes you most about Heather’s story, and why?
Where do you feel like you’re hitting bottom or ignoring a common denominator that shows up in all your pain spots?
We all have addictions (ways we numb, cope, self-medicate) that rob us of the life we were made to live when we keep them in secret. Whether it’s drinking, shopping, TV, drugs, sex, eating, or whatever—freedom can begin when we’re honest enough to face it. What would it look like for you to face one of yours? (Hint: Great ideas might include telling someone, going to a meeting, asking for help.) Pick something this week and do it.
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