Nearly 16 years ago, on January 28, 2003, life as I know it began. I was 23 years old and made a decision to end the single-most important, influential and toxic relationship of my life — it was the day I quit drinking.
I first picked up the bottle when I was 14, a freshman in high school. Looking back, I'm not sure I was ever a "normal" drinker. While the other kids could have a few drinks and sober up before it was time to go home, there were few times that I could stop myself from getting wasted. I loved the feeling of checking out, being able to forget about my dysfunctional family or the pain I was experiencing, even if it was just for a few hours.
My drinking never really went unnoticed. For example, it led me to get suspended from boarding school — the first week I was there. A few years later I got arrested for underage drinking (twice!) and was the only person at my posh private school to have a probation officer. My drinking even got so bad that it inspired my friends to host a mini-intervention after I got wasted at a graduation party our senior year and got into a physical fight with one of my best friends — in front of family and friends.
All of the turmoil shook me up a bit and when I arrived at college that fall I vowed to start afresh. For a while I was doing okay. I wasn't drinking any more than the other kids, I made the dean's list my first semester and even fell in love for the first time. However, a year into the relationship, we started having problems and all of those icky feelings from childhood started rising up again. My drinking picked back up again and I soon discovered drugs as well, and very quickly I fell into a downward spiral that landed me in a rehab facility at the age of 21.
While I have suffered a few hiccups — referred to as "relapses" in the recovery world — I have remained thoroughly dedicated to sobriety. Now a wife (ironically married to that college boy who was my first love) and a mother of two children, it's hard for people to believe I was ever a full-fledged alcoholic.
Over the years, many people (none of whom ever witnessed my drinking first hand, of course) have asked me how I could go so long without a drink. I get a lot of reactions like, "Don’t you think you could have a drink now?” or “Maybe you aren’t really an alcoholic.” Some people have even tried to convince me to take a drink, just to find out.
While there are some things in life that I regret, such as the things I did while I was loaded, getting sober has never been one of them. I often wonder what the trajectory of my life would look like if I hadn’t stopped. Would I have eventually settled down on my own or ended up in a mental institution or jail like so many other untreated alcoholics? Would I even be alive?
One thing is for certain: if I had continued drinking I wouldn’t have the happy life I do today. If you want to quit drinking you need to have a few compelling reasons why, or it is unlikely you will succeed.
Family and addictions specialist Paul Hokemeyer, Ph.D., explains that many who suffer from alcoholism embed the "good" drinking memories in their brain, instead of looking at the negative ways the disease is taking a toll on their physical well being, their relationships and their finances. “They become like toddlers, ruled by their emotions rather than developing into adults capable of making smart and strategic decisions,” he explains.
Therefore, he stresses the importance of knowing exactly why you want to stop drinking in order to achieve success in sobriety. “Combatting the compulsive pull of the brains desire to drink requires hard stops, compelling and intellectually sound reasons, strident discipline and extraordinary courage.”
Here are my reasons:
1. I Realized I Was Completely Powerless Over Drugs and Alcohol
The first of the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous pretty much sums up the main reason I decided to quit drinking. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
When I first started drinking I had control over my drinking. I could choose whether to drink or not. I could make a decision to have one drink or five. At any point in time I could opt to stop drinking or choose to continue.
However, at some point in my drinking career, the decision was no longer mine. I simply could not resist the drink, even when I knew it wasn’t a good idea. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” infamous alcoholic F. Scott Fitzgerald was quoted as saying.
Dr. Hokemeyer explains that all alcoholics are powerless. “This is because their compulsion to drink lives in the deepest, most primitive regions of their brains and overrides their intellectual being.”
Many people in the recovery world believe the first step is the most crucial, because by admitting powerlessness and being honest about your addiction, you are preparing yourself for change.
2. My Life Revolved Around Drinking
Drinking was my main source of happiness, and I literally planned my life around my next drink or drug. While I wasn’t drinking every second of the day or even every day at that, it was always on the horizon. For example, if I had a test or presentation, I could possibly abstain from drinking for a day or sometimes even two, but my next drink was always on the horizon.
My senior year of college I scheduled all of my classes on Tuesday and Thursday, so that I could maximize my drinking nights. The idea was, is that I would only have to stay sober on Monday and Wednesday nights to make it to all of my classes. In theory it was a genius plan. However, I failed to take my alcoholism into account and ended up drinking on study nights too.
Vacations were focused on partying, as was my method of choosing friends and lovers, opting to surround myself by people who consumed substances similar to me. It didn’t matter how important something was, I just couldn’t manage to show up.
Whether it was a flight home, a friend’s birthday party or family event, or even a final exam. I became that person who you couldn’t depend on for anything. If I showed up at all, I would be seriously late and either drunk or hungover. My drinking and drug use was always the priority, no matter what.
Dr. Hokemeyer explains that it is common for people to plan their lives around their disease, managing details in order to postpone the negative consequences of it… until they can’t. “No matter how much they try to control their outside circumstances, the alcohol ultimately wrangles away their control and makes a mess of things.”
3. I Hurt the People I Loved
Because alcohol ruled my life, it came before everything: family, friends and lovers included. There were times I failed to show up for family members, because I was busy getting drunk or nursing a terrible hangover.
When I was drunk, I cheated on my long-term boyfriend, something I would never do if I were sober. In fact, I haven’t cheated on a partner since the day I quit drinking. I would also lie to anyone and everyone, whether it was to cover up my addiction or to feed it. I took money from my father and used it to buy drugs and alcohol, and lied about what I needed it for.
I basically pushed all of the people who loved me away, and was left with party pals and others who were likely suffering from a similar illness.
Dr. Hokemeyer describes alcohol as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. “It gives the illusion of love and comfort, while destroying the meaningful relationships in a person’s life,” he says.
4. I Had No Vision of a Future
Up until my drinking took over, I was a dreamer and a hopeless romantic. I loved to fantasize about the future, what I was going to do, the places I was going to visit and whom I was going to meet along the way. I knew I was in too deep when I realized that I had no clue where I was headed.
I remember somebody asking me what I wanted to do when I graduated college, and I couldn’t come up with anything. I thought to myself, I need to figure out a way to get paid to party. One day I woke up and realized I was totally lost and without a plan, other than drinking, which was incredibly scary to me.
For nearly every alcoholic, the bottle ends up stealing the show, claims Dr. Hokemeyer. “Because it requires so much care and feeding it sucks the life force out of everything else in a person’s life,” he explains.
5. It Got Me Into Trouble
Several times throughout my using there were repercussions, which ranged from damaging or destroying relationships to getting arrested or suspended from school.
When I was loaded I did things that I wouldn’t ever do if I were sober. Some of my behaviors — like cheating on a boyfriend, lying about my drinking and drug use or taking money from family members — were morally compromising. Sometimes I put my life or the lives of other in danger, and many times I even violated the law, indulging in illegal substances, driving while intoxicated or providing alcohol to minors.
I used to blame other people for all bad things that “happened” to me. I often liked to say I was in the wrong place at the wrong time or I simply had bad luck. But the truth was, every single time I got into trouble I was drinking or using. Since I have been sober, the most trouble I have gotten myself into doesn’t extend past a minor moving violation.
Dr. Hokemeyer explains that alcohol is a central nervous system suppressant, and dulls a person’s intellect. This can make incredibly smart people make really bad decisions. “Kind and gentle people become arrogant pricks,” he says. “And otherwise patient and careful people become impulsive and reckless.”
6. I Lost Sight of Who I Was and Became Emotionally Numb
In the final years of my drinking, I lost my identity. I remember my first week in rehab and a counselor asking me about my favorite color. I looked at her blankly. “I don’t know,” I responded. I no longer had interests or passions, goals or aspirations. For most of my life I was passionate about books, art, music and culture, but it had been years since I strolled into a bookstore and found pleasure in the written word. I remember my last night loaded, looking into the mirror and seeing a distant stranger staring back at me.
Even scarier is that I literally stopped caring, about everything. For a long time alcohol numbed my feelings, and eventually, it seemed to eliminate them. However, some mornings, usually after a binge, I would wake up and my emotions would erupt in a dangerously scary way.
This isn’t uncommon for alcoholics according to Dr. Hokemeyer. As a central nervous system depressant, alcohol dulls our emotions over time and makes us terrified to feel anything at all. However, once the effects wear off all of those feelings can surface — which makes it so easy to get stuck in the cycle of alcoholism. You have to drink to quell them.
7. I Was Failing at Life
I was failing at everything in life… literally. My first year of college I was on the dean’s list and up until junior year, when my drinking went full throttle, I was on target to graduate early. But by first semester of my senior year I was failing almost every class I was registered for, many because of attendance alone. I had ruined pretty much all of my meaningful friendships and relationships.
It also led me to lose jobs, and relationships with friends, family and lovers, as I mentioned above. In a nutshell, it isolated me from all the components of happiness and a successful life.
Dr. Hokemeyer explains that this is the case of most alcoholics, as the disease thrives in isolation. However, the opposite is also true: it can be healed by health and healing relationships with other people. “Because alcoholism takes over our rational thinking and distorts our emotional feelings, we’re unable to realize this truth and we stay stuck in the destructive clutches of our disease,” he says.
8. The Bottom Line
When I finally hit rock bottom and started to consider sobriety, a very wise person made a suggestion. "Take a good look at yourself in the mirror and soak it all in," she told me. "All of the emotions, feelings, shame and incomprehensible demoralization, really allow yourself to experience it." I did. What she said next changed my life. "You never have to feel this way again."
She was right. Since the day I stopped drinking I have experienced highs and lows, my heart has been broken, I have been consumed by grief, and even shame — but I have never felt as low as I did on that day.
If you can relate to any of this, you should probably consider putting down the bottle. Or, if you aren't sure if you are an alcoholic, maybe sit down and write a list of ways alcohol has impacted your life and share it with a loved one.
Just keep in mind: many people have regrets about their drinking, but I've never encountered an individual who has repentance about sobriety.
If you or someone close to you is struggling with addiction, help is available.