This post was originally published on March 2, 2015.
You will often hear people in AA meetings say that “booze fixed what was wrong with me,” which was certainly the case with Joan. She began drinking later in life to stop the panic attacks and suicidal ideation that had plagued her since her late teens, but the cure soon turned out to be worse than the problem. She later found out that there was another way. This is her story:
I didn’t start drinking until I was 32 because I was I terrified of becoming like my mother, who was an alcoholic single parent. It’s a fear that I later found out was common to people who grew up in alcoholic homes. As a child I lived in terror and chaos, and I was also the one that managed the home for me and my sisters. My mother would be crying and suicidal and I would have to tell her that everything was okay—it was very much like being the parent of a very sick child.
My mother got sober on her second try at Chit Chat Farms (now Caron Treatment Centers). Her first try at sobriety didn’t last very long and her relapse was a very painful memory, because we were all so happy that we finally had a mother—until she started drinking again and the hell returned. The second time she stayed sober by going to AA, but with no sponsor or steps. She then went to grad school to become a drug and alcohol counselor, but later became a classic dry drunk.
I began having panic attacks around this time, but I didn’t talk to anybody about them, because I didn’t know what they were. I told my mother, but she took it personally because she thought it meant that she wasn’t a perfect mother. She had so much guilt and shame that she never dealt with through the steps or anywhere else. She got very paranoid about me and didn’t speak to me for the last 12 years of her life, which would later help plunge me into my bottom alcoholically.
The panic attacks continued, but I still didn’t drink and just toughed it out. I became increasingly agoraphobic, stopped traveling and my world became very small, which eventually cost me my first marriage. I took my first Valium on the day he left and soon started drinking and taking Valium in tandem, a combination that made me feel better than I ever had in my whole life. I didn’t just feel comfortable in my own skin—I felt elated. That lasted three about weeks, but I chased that feeling for 10 more years.
At first I was taking the Valium prescribed to me, but soon I was also scoring it from a restaurant I worked at before I got a job at a surgical office. My boss trusted me and told me that I could write prescriptions for myself, which I did, and I also started ordering large bottles of Valium from drug reps, so I never ran out. I was also drinking, and we had a full bar in the office, but eventually I could only do beer because hard liquor made me black out. I became a walking, breathing mess when those things stopped working for me, so I just had to keep increasing the dosage and booze intake. Once in a while I would have a good time drinking, but by then, it was a total survival strategy, and I absolutely didn’t think I could stop.
During that time I had a number of horrible relationships with men. But my life began to change when an old boyfriend from college re-entered my life. He was the only man who had ever treated me well, but I just couldn’t deal with that at the time, because it was boring in comparison to the drama-filled and unhealthy relationships that I was used to. I lived in San Francisco and he lived in Boston, but his marriage was on the rocks, so we ended up rekindling our relationship and decided to get married almost immediately.
This is where the Higher Power stuff started working in my life. He really loved me and didn’t say anything to me about my drinking and drugging; instead he just had this unbelievable faith and hope that I would get better. I sent him to Alanon because I just thought he was stupid for wanting to marry me, because I had no faith that I could change. I frequently made plans to kill myself by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and two months before we got married, I slit my wrists (but not badly enough to go to the hospital).
We got married anyway, and he went back to Boston and I stayed in San Francisco and drank for about another four months before heading out East with a suitcase full of Valium. Around this time I had also started praying, and I was asking God how I could possibly live without the booze and the Valium. When I got to Boston, I started going to all these Alanon and Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings, and I also went back into therapy, where I finally got honest with my therapist about my drug and booze problems. He simply said to me, “You’ve got to stop.” And I told him I couldn’t. He said, “If you go to a hospital, they’ll take care of you.” As soon as he said that, I knew I there was a possibility of my stopping. I had always thought if I quit the booze and Valium I’d have panic attacks constantly and I really would kill myself, but I believed him for some reason.
Since we got married in San Francisco, we were having our wedding reception in Boston, and I knew I couldn’t stop drinking and taking Valium and go through withdrawal with that coming up, so I kept it up. I made a reservation to go to detox after the wedding, and the nurse who helped me was the first in a series of people who helped me get sober. After my intake she explained, “You were a sitting duck for this disease.” And I burst into tears. Up until that very minute, I felt like it was a moral issue, that there was something horribly wrong with me, which is why I was relieved. I only found out later that she was in AA, as were most of the people on staff.
I was psyched to go detox right up until the night that I was scheduled to go in, and told my husband that I really didn’t need to go. He just looked at me and said, “Your drinking scares the shit out of me.” It was the first time he ever said anything about my drinking, and that’s what propelled me into recovery. I didn’t really start experiencing full withdrawal symptoms from the Valium until after I left the hospital, and it was absolutely brutal.
I didn’t want to go to AA because of the results I saw with my mother, but so many people on the hospital staff were in AA, and it changed my way of thinking so I went. I was a complete mess and really wasn’t able to work when I first got sober, so I went to a meeting every day. We would all go out to Friendly’s (an East Coast restaurant chain) after the meetings, and it’s where I met my sponsor, Louise.
I told her right off the bat that I didn’t want to go to AA because that’s where my mother learned that she could stop speaking to me. Louise said, “This is not your mother’s AA.” And that literally opened the door for me. It took the noose from around my neck that kept me from doing anything positive for myself because of my history, and Louise repeatedly zoned right in on it, which allowed me to do what everyone else in the program was doing. It was one of those golden moments in the fellowship that took me out of the terrible isolation that I was feeling.
That cocoon of shame started to dissolve in my first couple of months and I began to lay the foundation for my 23-plus years of sobriety. My foundation was a series of miracles and gifts people just handed to me that helped me fundamentally change my thinking. I didn’t feel good for many years in AA, but the gifts that I got one after another was of people seeing right into my soul, saying, “This is what she needs,” and giving it to me.
The people that attracted me when I came in were the old timers, and they were very careful with their message to me because I was so damaged. They didn’t say things like, “Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth,” because I would have just left and never come back. If you’d listened to me back then for five minutes, you would have known that.
Louise didn’t let me do the steps right away (even though I was going to three step meetings a week) because I just wasn’t ready. She knew that I would just torture myself with a fourth step, because at 42 years old, that’s torturing myself was all I knew how to do, whether it was with booze, drugs, relationships or even psychotherapy. She made me wait a year because I just had too much guilt and shame and that would have been all that informed my fourth step.
I started meditating right away. I had to do Step 11 and then go back to two, three and four because that’s what I needed. The message I got—going to a meeting every day, asking for help, getting an experienced sponsor, following suggestions that my sponsor gives me—worked for me. I picked Louise as a sponsor because I knew that even though she was soft-spoken, she was very tough.
For me, getting sober was like a perfect alignment of the stars. I was able to go to a meeting every day for the first year because my husband was doing well, but he also would tell me, “The only thing you have to do every day for now is not drink.” He also stopped buying into any of the bullshit that was coming out of my mouth, so I stopped it. He was not taking any of my behavior personally, and he did so with an incredible enlightenment and detachment. He also stopped drinking and hasn’t had a drink in 23 years either (although he’s not an alcoholic).
My message for people who want to get sober is as simple as this: Even if you don’t think AA is going to work, just go. Get a good sponsor (one with a few years under his or her belt and who has a sponsor) and do what that person tells you to do. It’s really as simple as that because you’re not going to have any kind of clarity about what works for you unless you clear up first.