“Hi, I’m Dani, and I’m recovering from alcohol addiction. I have chosen not to identify as an ‘alcoholic’ because I simply disagree with the term. It portrays alcohol in a different light from other addictive drugs and substances. Would you call a person addicted to cocaine a ‘cocainaholic?’ No. Ever heard the term ‘heroinolic?’ Likely not.
Addiction is not a disorder. It is a normal biological response to addictive substances, and logically, gets worse over time, the more frequently you consume the substance. Something is not wrong with you if you become addicted to alcohol. Perhaps you have unresolved trauma or other mental health challenges to address and work through, but you do not have an incurable disorder.
Labeling people who openly and outwardly struggle with controlling their alcohol consumption makes them seem ‘other’ or ‘lesser.’ It separates us from them. We think we couldn’t possibly end up like them. They are alcoholics, something we could never be. But the separation is an illusion. Addiction does not discriminate. The stigma of ‘alcoholism’ assuages our logical wariness toward a substance that, at first, smells and tastes awful, and too much of it makes us violently sick — a reaction our body developed to help save our lives. Alcohol is an addictive substance like any other drug, and the damage left in its wake is staggering. If we are ever going to cure our society of the misconceived notion alcohol is the antidote and not the poison, we must be honest with ourselves about what it really is, and why we really want it.
I watched this show called ‘Rescue Me’ when I was in college, and the protagonist, Tommy Gavin, was an alcoholic — a man in his 40s who was a firefighter in New York City. Traumatized by the events of 9/11, he took to the bottle and never looked back. Watching this character’s harrowing journey of addiction unfold throughout the seven seasons of the show was agonizing. He was a slave to alcohol, vodka in particular, and no matter how many times he promised to quit, made it a couple weeks, hit a worse rock bottom than the last time, and kept going back to the bottle.
It tore me up inside because in some ways I already connected to his character. I drank too much and acted stupid, got sick, started fights, hurt myself, and still kept doing it almost every weekend. But, I was still in college, and binge drinking (and its effects) were normalized, even encouraged. Surrounded by people engaging in the same destructive, repetitive behavior, I was unaware I had already begun the proverbial descent down the rabbit hole. It made no sense to me that he couldn’t stop, not for anything.
‘Why can’t he just have one drink and put it down?!’ I’d yell at the tv, a pit forming in my stomach, almost as if my subconscious already knew what awaited us. But I ignored it, hard, because he was an alcoholic. I was not. I couldn’t be. Fast forward 8 years, and there I was, cast in the dreaded lead role of the fallen hero who’s actions made them almost impossible to like, despite being the protagonist. I fit the role, and after a while I accepted it. I chose alcohol over everything over and over and over again, no matter how bad it got. How was this possible?
Actually, it’s more probable than possible when you take an honest look at our society. Have you ever consciously been aware of every time you are exposed to alcohol in some form over the course of a week? A weekend? A simple trip to the store and back home? More places keep selling it. Quarantine normalized it. Many social and professional situations encourage it. Advertisements are overwhelmingly positive, and therefore a gross misrepresentation of their product.
Picture a drunk person. How many times have you ever seen a drunk person used in an advertisement for alcohol? They’re always on the precipice — the elated, bubbly magic right as you ‘cheers’ and take the first sip. We all know 99.9% of drinkers don’t stop there. So, is Big Alcohol embarrassed of their actual customers? Ashamed of what effects their product is responsible for? I believe so, otherwise the homeless human beings you see begging on the streets would be cast in commercials for what kind of life alcohol creates.
As far back as I can remember, I was desperate for a way to get out of my own head, to quiet the noise. I started drinking because everyone was doing it, and I quickly noticed alcohol caused a feeling I had never had before: blankness in my brain. With the wires deadened, I couldn’t overthink my words or actions, and I acted too impulsively to be shy. I was suddenly the life of the party after 20 years of social rejection dysphoria, and that new, delicious attention overshadowed the fact my life was becoming anything but a party. I always said I could stop if I wanted, like any addict, but the reasons to drink always outweighed any reason to stop, no matter what my life situation was at the time — college, my first job, my second job, moving to a new state, graduate school, getting engaged, giving birth to my daughter.
Everything changed, except nothing changed. Outside I could shift my world, push and pull the pieces in different directions, toss out the ones that no longer served me. Inside, I couldn’t shift anything. I didn’t know how to release the demons and face my mental health challenges head on. Denial is one stubborn, pugnacious son of a b*tch. I never learned to drink responsibly. I started experiencing blackouts almost immediately my freshman year in college, and they continued, only increasing in frequency throughout my 20s. I had a list of excuses that rolled off my tongue like a sweet spanish ‘r.’
I didn’t care what anybody said, or thought, or how sick I would feel, because every time I drank it strengthened the false belief alcohol improved my social experience. As a struggling introvert who did not understand my own brain growing up, once I found a magical elixir that gave me fake confidence, I lost the ability to muster any level of it authentically. I convinced myself people would not want to be friends with me unless I drank with them all the time. When we weren’t drinking, most often we were talking about it — recounting what we did and didn’t remember about the night before, the week before, and planning for the next time we’d do it again.
My world became a hellish prison of my own creation. I truly felt miserable when I wasn’t drinking. Each day it felt as if I was dragging my body knee-deep through molasses while everyone else just glided on their feet through air. Thinking about the next time I would drink became my only solace, until I could drink again. Unable to take steps toward any real change and improvement of my mental health, I just gave in every single day because I didn’t know what else to do. It felt like all I had. I told myself it was a bad habit, but not that bad. I mean it was just a couple beers, or half a bottle of wine at night… or both.
But those few drinks at night eventually weren’t enough. Your body adjusts to alcohol’s effects and biologically stops reacting the way you crave, so you drink more. I started craving drinks during the day and finding reasons to give in to the cravings. I found excuses could flow unlimited, while discipline felt harder to unearth than gold. My ‘bad habit’ was an addiction. I knew it somewhere deep down, after I turned 30, but I couldn’t admit it. Not even at all. I pushed it out of my mind at every suggestion.
Then I woke up each morning in the same exact place as the day before — dejected, disconsolate, and already thinking about the first drink I would have that day, before I’d thought about breakfast. I was physically and mentally addicted, an ‘alcoholic’ by society’s definition of the word (and Mirriam Webster’s for that matter) but accepting that truth meant I would have to stop, and that seemed a fate worse than death.
I wish I was being hyperbolic. At 30 years old, a time in my life where, as a child, I pictured I would have everything together, I literally had nothing together. I’d fallen so far from the high-achieving high school student who dreamed of becoming an author who loved to learn, be active, and have new experiences. But fully acknowledging this circumstance was too painful. So, I developed coping mechanisms. I told myself I had never really wanted any of those things, and they weren’t meant for me. Everyone else had the problem. I didn’t have a drinking problem… I couldn’t.
I once threw back shots and sipped nasty tasting vodka/juices for the sole purpose of going out and getting drunk; to be the sexy, fun party girl of my 20s. Or, so I thought. It took me a decade of addiction to realize it had me back then in college. I was already using it to fill a void, to hide the immovable gut-wrenching conviction that I didn’t fit in. My reasons for drinking evolved in ways I barely noticed, until I stopped to look back with binoculars.
In my 30s, I drank because I needed an escape; something that was mine, that felt good, and put a figurative band-aid on the open wound inside my soul which I didn’t know how to heal. Any self-esteem I’d once been able to muster had dissolved. At some point, I turned my anger inward. I still took it out on other people when I was drunk, that’s for sure, but the core of my anger, my hate, my disgust, was at myself. An assault of ceaseless, intrusive negative thoughts would leave me exhausted and emotionally depleted at the end of every day.
I was failing at being a mother, failing at being a partner, failing to keep a house together, a family together, and myself together emotionally; failing to chase any goals or dreams I once had for myself. I chased nothing but the buzz as if it was all I had. I felt too tired, in every sense you can imagine, to do anything else. In a lot of ways, I had given up, and figured, ‘Why not at least feel OK once in a while? At least so I can pass out and go to sleep.’
I hid my problem well from the outside world, which made it much easier to lie to myself about having one. I tried anything and everything to avoid accepting the obvious truth which glared me in the face every time I looked in a mirror. Things were getting worse. I wasn’t a kid in college anymore. This was my real, one and only adult life, wasting away before my eyes.
My mental health was deteriorating. My relationships with my loved ones were suffering. My relationship with myself was a constant state of cognitive dissonance: I needed to stop drinking. I couldn’t. Once I felt that buzz, every promise I made to myself or anyone else evaporated. Nothing else mattered but holding on to the delusion of happiness. I couldn’t feel real happiness anymore, so this was all I had. It had to be enough. I chased the feeling to the bottom of glass after glass, bottle after bottle, late night after late night, but it always left, and left me in shambles.
I promised many times, mostly to my fiancé and my parents, that I would quit, but I never promised myself. In fact, I usually knew I was lying even as I made those promises, even if I desperately, with every sinew strung between my bones, wanted them to be truths. My promises served the purpose of mending relationships, and trying to alleviate everyone’s concerns I had a problem and would do this again. I was never making the decision for myself, and that’s why it never stuck. No matter what anyone said, and no matter what happened, I remained convinced that without it my life would be miserable and I could never handle reality.
Let me give you a snapshot of my reality while drinking: I was hungover more days than not. I was miserably tired every morning and lacked the energy to be present for my students or my daughter. I said thousands of things I didn’t mean. I caused intense stress and worry to my parents, as well as proving to be a financial burden. I wasted thousands of dollars. I missed bills, appointments, deadlines, and opportunities. I ignored true friends to drink with people who did not care about me. I stopped exercising, writing, or doing any hobbies I used to enjoy. I gained a lot of weight, even after my pregnancy.
I felt chronically ill and actually considered I might have an auto-immune disease. I doubted my ability as a mother and my worth as a human. I punched my fiancé in the face, while he was driving. I drove drunk. I crashed my car. I caused multiple scenes that could have gotten my fiancé arrested. I screamed at the top of my lungs in front of my daughter. I was short and irritable with her when all she deserved was patience and love. I ignored my duties and responsibilities as a mother. I embarrassed myself multiple times in front of my fiancé’s family, my own family, and countless acquaintances. I questioned the purpose of life and if I could ever feel true joy again. There was nothing pretty or proud about it.
Alcohol had biologically hijacked my brain. It put tape over all the holes, swept my stresses under an internal rug, and placated me over and over again. Hush, drink this, it will feel better again. It locked me away in a purgatory from my real life, where as long as I could keep this feeling, really, a feeling of feeling nothing, I would be okay. If I could just stay like this. If I could just hold onto this… maybe it will be okay. Of course, I could never hold onto it. My logical mind knew that was impossible, yet the thought of never having that feeling again seemed a fate worse than death.
So. The big question. After a decade addicted, how did the switch flip? As I sit here writing, I am truthfully confident I will be sober for the rest of my life. How is that possible, when just three months ago I was convinced of the opposite? I never went to an AA meeting. I didn’t rid my house completely of alcohol and lock myself away from the world.
In fact, I feel comfortable going to bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. I drive past liquor stores and feel no desire to stop and go in. I can be around my fiancé or friends if they are having a drink and no longer feel the gut wrenching notion I am missing out. After everything my relationship with alcohol had put me through, up until 70 days ago, I still wanted to keep poisoning myself and hiding in the maze I’d come to call home. Our brains believe what we tell ourselves we want. Now, I actually don’t want to drink. I worked my butt off to retrain my subconscious mind to believe the truth. Stop lying. Stop running. It can be different. It has to be. There are two ways addiction ends: recovery or death.
To save me from the latter, which I escaped more times than luck should allow, it took one final morning, waking up hungover, feeling the shame so heavy like it could have buried me there in bed forever. I had no choice but to get up and go through my day, but I could barely look at my daughter, face my parents or my fiancé, or even look at my own face in the mirror. That day, without anyone else telling me, I said to myself, ‘Danielle, you are done.’ I accepted the truth that I had been killing myself to cover up. Alcohol had taken me away. I was an addict.
Drinking takes away your ability to be rational, but increases your conviction you are being rational. I remember being convinced the night before that I was making the right choices. That scared the heck out of me. I was 32 years old. A mother. A woman engaged to be married. And I couldn’t trust my own decisions. What kind of life was that? I was back in the exact same place I had been a million times before. The moment my eyes opened, puffy and tired, and I looked at the ghost of a once vibrant, joyful, spirited girl staring back at me, begging me to let her come back; my epiphany came. Nothing had changed. Nothing was ever going to change. My fiancé was going to leave me. My parents wouldn’t trust me with my own daughter. My child would suffer secondhand from my struggles, and she deserved so much more. Some mornings, I would wake up after a bad night and feel nothing. Swallow it, ignore it, keep it buried, push forward.
That morning, I knew with certainty I could not ever feel so low, empty, and hopeless even one more time. I had used up my last chance. The next time, it would kill me. I had never allowed myself to really appreciate how many times I’d put my life at risk. My stomach sank below my waist and a hot wave of nausea came over me suddenly like somewhere in my soul knew this was the last time I’d make it. Even if I survived, the pain of indignity and self-loathing was unbearable. I would die if I had to feel this way again.
That was it. That day, I decided I was done. I had to be done. I had depleted every ounce of energy I’d once had to maintain the lie and power through the shame of my drunken choices. I simply could not live like this anymore. I don’t know why it didn’t hit me 1 year, 5 years, or 10 years earlier, but clarity finally came around like a baseball bat to the face. Dani was gone, and I was absolutely desperate to find myself. I was terrified and trembling as I held my daughter that day, surviving one minute at a time, but the idea of losing everything was finally scarier than the idea of living without alcohol.
I decided I needed some way of memorializing this feeling. Inevitably, as with anything we try to give up, it’s normal for our conviction to waver and fade with time. That is why so many people who quit drinking stay sober for a year and go back to it because they’ve forgotten how bad it was. They start to believe the lies again, and the excuses and denial come back. I could not let that happen. So I wrote. I journaled extensively that day, both in writing and voice memos, to capture the authenticity of my emotions. For the first few weeks, when I struggled physically with strong cravings and moderate withdrawal symptoms, I came back to my memories and the gravity of my decision came flooding back to the forefront. NO. Never again.
It wasn’t easy. It’s still not always easy. For many of us, sobriety is where the journey to healing begins. In order to see what’s possible, you need to remove the poison that is preventing your brain from working faithfully. The cravings were strong for a few weeks, because my body needed time to physically recover from a decade of damage. I didn’t stop thinking about it either every time I felt stressed and started doubting my resolve. The difference was that I didn’t give into the subconscious lies. I knew now that they were lies. The more days I was able to go without it, the easier it became to process my alcohol-dependent thoughts and come out on the other side deciding I did not actually want to drink. This still happens multiple times a day. When something is a part of your daily life for so long, it is normal for it to stick around in the peripheries of your consciousness. Each and every time I say no, I feel stronger. It had once seemed as possible to me as living on the moon. Then, like a recovering addict fairytale, the long awaited day came at last where I stopped saying, ‘I can’t drink, I shouldn’t drink…’ and started saying, ‘I don’t want to drink.’
I once thought drinking made me the best version of myself. Now, approaching three months of sobriety as I finish writing this, I can confidently say I have never felt prettier, more loved, more capable, more hopeful, or more generally awesome than I do right now. I am not fine all the time. My anxiety, depression symptoms did not magically vanish. However, they have dissipated because my mind is clear enough to confront them instead of running and hiding. I know the best version of myself lies ahead, and I hadn’t believed that since I was a young girl; a different Danielle, before my decade of addiction. The feeling is so beautiful, that sometimes it hits me and I cry tears of pure gratitude — to God, the universe, whatever saved me.
I always imagined sobriety to be scary, like re-entering the world after being in a coma, everyone looking at you weird and treating you differently. Your life would be unrecognizable: Boring. Isolating. Defeating. Lacking. In a delicious twist of irony, sobriety allowed me to realize that those adjectives actually described my life while I was drinking. Alcohol blinds us from seeing the truth. Life is hard, and no addictive substance will ever succeed in making it any easier.
Quicker than some, I became dependent on a substance that will, in a matter of time, gain power over everyone who consumes it. I found my ‘fix’ for life, but it was like trying to fix a house that kept falling apart every time you set the spackle down. The more patches I filled, the more cracks showed up the next day. My life isn’t suddenly perfect. I have days where I feel like crap. The bottom line is this: Those days are never, ever as bad as the days I was hungover, dealing with the repercussions of a drunken escapade the night before. They are never as sad, lonely, or hopeless as the days I spent tethered to alcohol. Solving your problems for real takes work, discipline, and accepting that you will feel pain and discomfort, that it’s OK. You have control. The days can be hard, but now, they are mine. I am in control again. And the possibilities of a life untethered are endless.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Danielle Huggins. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Submit your own story here and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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