‘10 years ago, I sat in the corner of a jail cell wondering how the girl sitting there can be the same one who was the lead in her high school musicals.’: Recovered alcoholic shares sobriety journey

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“On May 18th I celebrated ten years of sobriety. This anniversary is important because it means that I’ve now been sober longer than I drank. Ten years ago, I sat in the corner of a jail cell wondering how the girl sitting here can be the same girl who was her father’s favorite, who was the lead in her high school musicals. Today, I accept that I am both, the good and the bad. It says in the Big Book ‘no matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.’

My past is the greatest possession I have. It’s not an autobiography—it’s a reference book meant to be taken down and opened and shared. I think that’s really important because I used to be so ashamed of the things I did and the hurt I caused my loved ones. Today, I use my past to help others because others have so freely used their pasts to help me. This is how we recover—one alcoholic sharing their experience, strength, and hope with one another.

Early Experiences with Alcohol

I started drinking when I was 13 years old for a lot of reasons: I was sexually abused when I was seven, and I was bullied a lot in grade school, but the biggest reason I started drinking was because I am an alcoholic. I was born an alcoholic and had alcoholic tendencies before I even started drinking because alcoholism centers in the mind. For example, we had woods behind our house growing up. Our favorite summer pastime was exploring the woods looking for a vine to chop down and swing from. Eventually, the vine would break, and we would begin our search for another. We all knew the certain demise of our activities, but we kept swinging anyway. If that doesn’t explain alcoholism, I don’t know what does. When you know you’re going to suffer, but the high feels so good, you swing anyway.

It turns out that the high doesn’t feel that good in the end. First, my drinking was magic, then it was medication, and then it was madness. Drinking at 13 years old was magic. I had arrived. The first time I smoked pot, I was rolling around a field kissing some boy, and I ended up getting chiggers all over my body. I either didn’t notice because I was either so high or I simply didn’t care—the magic was too good. Talk about addictive behavior. Bugs literally implanted themselves into my skin, but I didn’t mind because I felt like I belonged for the very first time.

Throughout my drinking career, I had a lot of moments of clarity where I saw the self-inflicted damage and I wanted to change. My first moment of clarity was when I was a freshman in high school. I went to Catholic school, and we were sitting in adoration. I had a spiritual experience where I felt like God forgave me and held me. I felt washed in love and that I was finally good enough. I felt that God took a little girl who was molested, who was bullied, who felt ugly and said, ‘You are mine, you are perfect.’

But then, as my drinking progressed and as I developed an eating disorder, that feeling went away. It’s easy for God to love a victim—the things in my past at that point were done to me. I thought, to have a relationship with God, I had to be perfect, and I wasn’t willing to do that, or maybe I couldn’t. Because vodka did save my life at 13 years old. It gave me a way to cope with what happened to me, and a way to run from the emotions I wasn’t ready to feel. When I got drunk, I felt forgiven, loved, and held—not by God, but by alcohol. Vodka became my higher power.

College and Beyond

I got to college, and my addiction took off. I remember the dean telling me ‘If we catch you with alcohol in the dorms again, you will be expelled.’ I nodded my head, thinking, ‘How am I going to hide my drinking now?’ because, at this point, I was a blackout drinker. I was arrested two more times and was kicked out before my freshman year was over.

When I get to my second University, I was good for a while, but then the same thing started happening. The friends I made when I first arrived distanced themselves from me, or maybe I distanced myself because they didn’t drink the way that I did; instead of changing my drinking, I changed my circumstances. It was always easier to bend my elbow and take a sip than it ever was to do the work to change. I surrounded myself with people who would co-sign my behavior.

Moments of clarity kept peppering my drinking career. I would wake up in an unknown house with bruises all over my body and not know how they got there, having to look at the mail to figure out the address where the taxi could pick me up. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this, and I also knew that I couldn’t stop. I remember praying to the God I thought had abandoned me to lock me away so I would stop hurting myself and others. I distanced myself from my family and my friends; I only dated those who weren’t available because I was terrified of anyone seeing the real me.

My sister stayed with me once a week during the last part of my drinking, she would sit me down every week before she left, and we would game plan how to fix my life. She always left with so much anxiety, but I would promise her that I would stay on track and have a quiet week. And then the call would come, again, where she would have to bail me out of the mess I’ve inevitably gotten myself into.

This is a progressive illness, and as time went on, I became more volatile, impulsive, and unstable. I was afraid to travel, I was afraid to see my family. I was isolated and alone and still convinced my problems centered around everything but alcohol. The problem couldn’t be booze because it was the solution. This is how cunning this disease is. I kept getting arrested. The last time, the judge mandated that I wear an anklet that alerts the court if I drink. When I was finally forced to stay dry, I saw that I needed help. I was 22 years old with 4 DUI charges, 2 public intoxication charges, and 2 charges for possession of marijuana. I went into rehab on May 18, 2012.

Rehab and Recovery

In rehab, I found out I was not alone: other people thought the way I did, and other people couldn’t stop drinking. I learned that alcoholism is a disease and my having it is not my fault—it’s not a question of willpower. This is important because it took a lot of the shame away, and with the lighter load, I was able to confront and take responsibility for the things I’ve done. Those first few months were uncomfortable, but I moved into a sober living home near campus so I could finish my degree, and that helped. I went to at least one AA meeting a day, I got a sponsor, and I worked the steps. I developed a new relationship with a Higher Power, and I named her Big Mama. I had to set aside what I thought I knew about God in order for this program to work for me.

It took 6 years to graduate college, but I finally got my degree. I had my graduation party at the sober living home, and strangers brought cakes and desserts and told me how proud and impressed they were with me. Slowly my disordered eating corrected itself. After I graduated, I moved around a lot—I got to travel without fear of getting lost. I became a carpenter, and I got the opportunity to work on some impressive projects. I applied for graduate school, and I was accepted to the Yale School of Drama.

I remember thinking to myself, ‘How could someone like me get into a place like this?’ They take all kinds, I guess. Out of the many people that applied, only 13 got in, and Big Mama put another recovering alcoholic into the class with me. We helped each other get through another miracle of sobriety.

In grad school, I fell in love in a big way. I was able to give my whole heart to this person, and I was able to be there for them in a mostly healthy and functional way. It didn’t end up working out, but today I don’t run from my feelings. I try like hell to feel them, and that is not something I used to do.

After grad school, I got an opportunity to work in New York City. I always dreamt of living here, and sobriety made that a reality. I can afford my own rent; I can take care of not only myself but a dog and a plant.

Living in Sobriety

This year, I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. My drinking career put me in vulnerable situations where I was taken advantage of. Jiu-Jitsu is a game-changer for an assault survivor. Today, I walk into the gym with a little more self-assuredness than I had the day before. Jiu-jitsu gives me something tangible to focus on and improve on. It surrounds me with a community of people who invest time and energy into not only their own physical and mental well-being, but into mine as well.

One of the biggest gifts of sobriety is the opportunity to be a responsible member of my family. I have three brothers and sisters, and we are very close. I talk to my parents at least twice a week. I don’t have to hide or mask who I am or what I’m doing; I live an unapologetic life. My drinking separated me from my family, and I couldn’t show up for them. I remember the first time my brother asked me for advice, I was floored!

It’s the little miracles that keep me going today. I remember not having food in my fridge, or if I did, it would be spoiled. Today I celebrate finishing a jar of peanut butter. Having clean clothes and, while they might not be folded in a drawer, actually wearing them! I can go on a date and have confidence that I’ll be able to remember every moment the next day. I can make plans with friends and show up when I’m asked.

I still have a long way to go. I’m selfish and self-centered. I’m vain and can be obsessive about how I look. I interrupt people in the middle of sentences, I forget loved ones’ birthdays, and I have a tendency to lie about meaningless topics from time to time. I’m a mess, but I’m a sober mess, and I’m so grateful I have the chance to progress in a positive direction.

One piece of advice I would give someone in recovery: don’t rush through the good stuff. When I was drunk, I felt paralyzed. I saw my friends and my little brothers mature as I stayed the same age. I’m the second oldest of four children and there came a point where I felt like the youngest. They explained this in rehab: when someone becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol at a young age, the frontal lobe is disrupted, basically blocking the person’s ability to mature. When I got sober, I became obsessed with ‘catching up’ to my peers. I went into overdrive, my career became my identity, and I didn’t feel like I was good enough if I wasn’t constantly performing, evolving, and improving. I’m only now learning the lesson of patience and tranquility.

They say in the big book you will be happy, joyous, and free. Sometimes in sobriety, I may not be happy, and sometimes I may not be joyous, but I will always be free—one day at a time.

A woman sits alone on a pier by the water wearing a green jacket
Photo by Keenan Constance

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