‘Everything went dark, and when I came to, I had no idea if I had been out for 5 minutes or 5 hours. There was no one left to call, and no one was coming.’

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“My name is Emily, and I am an alcoholic. Making the decision to share these words in such a public way has been terrifying. This was the story I was never going to write. It would reveal a piece of me that would tattle-tail on a past me, a lost me, a destructive me. It would out me. It would label me – label my kids, which above all else, was my greatest fear. I rationalized not sharing this part of myself publicly, because I felt this was my burden to carry; not theirs. But the truth is, it’s not a burden; it’s a gift. In fact, it is the greatest gift I have ever given myself and my children.

I have been so afraid to open up publicly on this topic. We all want to be loved and accepted, and part of me has held on to old ideas about addiction and recovery, worrying about what others may think. Worrying about the folks who might view me as weak or damaged or just plain weird. Addiction destroys families, kills dreams and breaks hearts. This is a heavy topic, which is partly why I’ve shied away from it. But here I sit, a person in recovery – a sober mother, who escaped the odds of a doomed alcoholic fate, and it feels incredibly selfish not to open up and start a dialogue about it. Raise your hand if you’ve ever assumed that alcoholics are typically the homeless guy under the bridge, drinking cheap booze from a brown paper bag; (you can’t see me, but my hand is raised high). This is exactly what I used to think, in fact I had no idea that pretty little girls from affluent East Coast towns could wind up alcoholic.

I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Boston, Massachusetts. It was a privileged city to reside in, with bragging rights to an excellent school system, and lots and lots of ‘old money’. It was generally assumed if you lived in Newton, your family was wealthy. This was not the case for us. We lived on a street paved in McMansions and huge Victorian homes, and our little 2.5 bedroom / 2 bath ranch-house was mighty out of place. I almost always felt like a misfit. I felt like everyone else had been given a ‘how-to’ manual for life, except me. Granted, I was vibrant and social on the outside, but on the inside, I felt like I was too much and not enough all at the same time. That was, until I found alcohol.

Little girl posing in dance recital costume in photoshoot
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

I started drinking at what felt like a normal age – 12 or 13 years old. I was in 7th grade, and I can’t remember whose house I was at, but I do remember drinking Budweiser from a can with a bunch of my peers. One of the boys there said that I’d know it was working when I couldn’t feel my teeth anymore. I wanted to make sure I was doing it right and that it was working, so I kept clacking my teeth together, checking to see. And then it happened, I chomped my teeth together one more time, and they felt tingly and numb. In that moment, I felt a sense of belonging that I hadn’t felt in a very long time, if ever. I loved how I felt, and I wanted to feel like that again as soon as possible.

At this point in my life, I still had a healthy fear of drugs, but my perception of alcohol and being drunk, was that it was all really cool, (and I wanted to be cool). But more so, I wanted to feel cool–to feel okay. When I was a Freshman in high school, I went to visit my older sister at college. I used to collect Absolut ads, and plaster my walls with these torn-out-of-magazine pages. (Red flag?) I had somehow acquired a gift set of Absolut ‘nips’, (3 bottles to be exact), so I packed them with me to take to my big college weekend. I presented the bottles to my sister and her sorority sisters when we were getting ready to go out. They were a big hit, and gained me instant approval. Everyone would take a sip, then pass it to the next person. I remember having a distinct fear of running out, there not being enough, and fear that I wouldn’t get drunk enough, so I snuck extra sips when no one was paying attention. That night sealed the deal for me that college was the life for me. I had never felt so cool or pretty or fun or RIGHT in my entire life, and I owed it all to alcohol.

Woman in black dress smiling in front of bouquet of flowers who would one day be an alcoholic
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

Falling In Deeper

High school was filled with finding as many opportunities to drink as a teenager could. The fear of (some) drugs began to fall by the wayside, and the natural progression of ‘experimenting’ became a pretty high priority in my life. I struggled. In every sense of the word. By 15, my parents had separated, I was in the beginning stages of a decade-long eating disorder, I was skipping school regularly, I was smoking pot daily and I was just plain depressed. It was the 90’s, and we weren’t really having the mental health conversations we are having today. A.D.D. was the hot-button topic, and getting diagnosed with it won me an endless supply of Ritalin. Hooray! We finally knew what was wrong with me. But Ritalin made me feel high; not calm. And I soon discovered that if I ingested a 30-day prescription over the course of 2 days, I could get a lot done. I also found that sharing the wealth with others, won me instant friendship. I began to hang out with ‘the bad kids,’ because I had worn out my welcome with all of my other friends. I was also able to convince myself that they were much worse than me, therefore I did not have a problem. I think I was just really lonely and lost, and looking to connect by any means necessary – and drugs and alcohol provided that.

I managed to (barely) graduate from high school. I had abandoned every single one of my dreams and conceded to the idea that none of it was possible for me. I quit playing soccer (my last source of discipline), and made plans to attend a local city college. Like countless other times I convinced myself I would get my stuff together – this time would be different, and that I would ‘apply myself,’ something teachers had told me for years I was not doing. But once again, like every other time, drugs and alcohol took precedence over everything. I still could not draw the line from my drinking and using to the mess that my life was. In fact, I thought surely if I got out of Boston, I would be a totally different person. It just so happened I had a friend living in Prescott, Arizona, who needed a roommate ASAP. I took it as a sign, and impulsively decided to move my whole life and booked a flight. In recovery, we call this a ‘geographical relocation.’ Many alcoholics share about doing this–picking up and moving in an attempt to escape yourself. But the problem with that is, wherever you go, there you are.

Teen who barely graduated high school purses lips in selfie
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

Cross-Country Move

In Prescott, I felt like a big fish in a small pond. The entire town is centered around a neighborhood of bars called ‘Whiskey Row.’ I got a job waiting tables at one of those bars, and I felt like I had arrived. And for a while, I had. I almost immediately began dating the local pot dealer / line cook at the restaurant I worked at, which was a great set up for me since I was still a daily pot smoker. Ironically that relationship kept me somewhat ‘normal,’ as he was surprisingly responsible and ambitious. That relationship came crashing down 2 years later, when I discovered he had been cheating on me with one of my close friends. It destroyed me. But it was also an excuse to take off running. It was an 8 month decline in to the grips of real alcoholism and drug addiction. I began abusing cocaine and drinking almost daily. Then one day I found myself coming down from a 3-day run. I was alone in my studio apartment, where I was several months behind on rent and dodging an angry landlord. I began to shiver uncontrollably, even though my thermostat was cranked up to 90 degrees. Everything went dark, and when I came to, I had no idea if I had been out for 5 minutes or 5 hours. I had a distinct feeling of alone-ness. There was no one left to call, and no one was coming. I could die there, and no one would even know. The only way I can describe that feeling was a complete lack of God, connection or hope.

I continued to drink and use, and by this time I was many years deep in to an eating disorder that was intent on killing me. I didn’t know how to stop doing what I was doing. I lost my job bartending, because I couldn’t even show up for that anymore. My electricity had been shut off for weeks, because I was no longer paying that bill either. I would sell small amounts of drugs to support my own habit. I was surprised and terrified to learn that the local police knew me by first name–they were watching. I could feel the end nearing, and I finally did what all tough guys do eventually; I called my mom.

Asking For Help

I managed to convince my mother to fly me back to Boston by admitting I was an alcoholic (something I did not believe was true), and telling her I was ready for help, (another lie). Truthfully, I just wanted a one-way ticket out of Prescott. I spent about a month in Boston, digging the hole even deeper until one day, while alone in the house of someone who had allowed me to stay with them, I felt a sense of despair I knew I would never be able to shake on my own. I was absolutely trapped in the horrible cycle of promising myself that ‘today I will not throw up or drink or use,’ and then by the morning hours, I was engaging in all three of these behaviors. I felt absolutely defeated, and while I had never been truly suicidal before, I picked up a large butcher knife, and held it toward my wrist praying for the courage to just do it. But I couldn’t, and I knew I wouldn’t, and in that moment I broke. I called my mom one more time, and said, ‘If I don’t get help, I am going to die’.

Alcoholic woman smiling while holding up rock n roll hand sign
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

Getting Sober

Within 48 hours I was shipping back out to Arizona, only this time I was headed to an all-female, inpatient treatment in a tiny town called Wickenburg. I arrived on June 30, 2004. It was a dual-diagnosis facility that would address my eating disorder, as well as any co-occurring addictions. Going to rehab put the brakes on all of my addictions. It provided a 47-day safe-haven and because I knew that this was literally my one shot, (we definitely didn’t have the money to do this again and again), I took it seriously, put my head down and did the work.

My aftercare program took me to Southern California. I was immediately immersed in a 12 step program, and found dozens (if not hundreds) of other young, sober people. I attended sober events, coffee shop gatherings, dances, parties, dinners and so forth. It was exactly what I needed; to see that getting sober did not mean that my life, or my fun, was over. I was deep into the sober life and the sober fellowship, and for about 2.5 years, my life was on a major upswing.

Relapse is not a requirement, but it is a part of my story, as it is for many an alcoholic. I was a couple of years sober, and my eating disorder had resurfaced. The very eating disorder that had helped to drag me in to the depths of my own personal hell. I was at a loss, and felt like I would never fully recover from it. My weight was fluctuating, and my eating disorder told me, ‘you didn’t get sober to get fat.’ Any concept of God that I had, was a punishing entity. I felt that just when things were going well for me, God would pull the rug from under my feet. What I didn’t realize was that I was the one pulling the rug. And once again, I found myself loaded. 2.5 years sober, 4 women who I was mentoring, countless commitments, weekly meetings, all out the window.

I remember when I rationalized myself out of recovery, I told myself, ‘if it gets bad enough, I’ll know where to go this time.’ But here’s the thing about addiction, you don’t always have a choice. You can be sick as hell, and ‘know where to go,’ and stay drunk and loaded anyway. You can be dying on the inside, and missing your old life something fierce, and stay drunk and loaded anyway. You can bury countless friends who also decided to roll the dice one more time, and stay drunk and loaded anyway. Addiction is an illogical beast. It is cunning, baffling and powerful. It robs you of options, choices and your dignity. Deciding to get in the ring with alcoholism just because you’ve had a taste of recovery, is a losing battle. I ‘decided’ I wanted to get sober again, many months before I actually got sober again. But when I did finally start putting days of sobriety together, I experienced what I can only describe as grace. And this became the foundation of not only my sobriety, but a newfound relationship with a God of my own understanding.

Woman who got sober smiles outside in front of wood wall
Photo by Aurora Vilchis

Today I am incredibly grateful to have a wonderful, supportive husband / partner, who is also in recovery. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to share, and we are able to hold each other accountable. Our two sweet daughters are a daily reminder of our why. All I ever wanted was to become a mom, and being given the honor of being their mother is probably the biggest reminder for me, to continue to do the work to stay sober. I have a lot to lose, today, and I owe that all to my sobriety.

Sober bride and groom stand holding hands outside smiling
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

If you look up the word ‘recovery’ in the dictionary, it means: the regaining of or possibility of regaining something lost or taken away; restoration or return to health from sickness. And this is exactly what I have found since September 25, 2009. That’s 9 years, if you’re not up to doing the math. I have spent the past 9+ years regaining myself. I used to really resent that I was an alcoholic, and felt that something had been taken from me. It felt unfair that my response to substance was unlike that of my peers. It felt like a handicap or a punishment, that I should have to endure life without so much as a well-deserved glass of wine at the end of the day, (but who was I kidding, I have never been a one-glass-of-wine type of gal). Sobriety has been an infinite source of gifts. It has been the foundation to everything good in my life. I can’t truly be grateful for my recovery, without also being grateful for the path that led me to it. Addiction used to feel like something bad that happened to me, but today, I choose my alcoholism so that I can choose my recovery.”

Sober mother stands holding baby beside husband and daughter besides plants
Courtesy of Emily McAllister

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Emily McAllister, 40, of San Clemente, California. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her blog. Have you overcome your addiction? We’d like to hear your journey. Submit your own story here, and subscribe to our best stories in our free newsletter here.

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