Today is my ten year anniversary. For the last decade, I have maintained my sobriety 100%. My life has remained totally alcohol-free since the late 90s.
If you are doing the math, you are realizing that I did not drink on my 21st birthday. And that I quit drinking after my freshman year of college. I will add that I do not even sip champagne at New Year's or drink the wine at church.
A lot of people ask me how on earth I could have been an alcoholic at such a young age. The answer to this is that many alcoholics are born that way. In my family, it seems to be genetic: two grandparents, one parent, three siblings and several extended family members have all been afflicted with this disease. At least 2 have died in alcohol-related deaths. So whether I began drinking at age 16 or age 43, the results would have been the same: I have and will always have a problem controlling my drinking.
When I tell people that I really only drank for two years, they are even more confused. How did I realize I had a problem after only 2 years? After all, the majority of college freshmen are binge drinkers, especially on the weekends, and especially at large state universities. But by the time I was about 12, I had seen the effects of alcoholism on my family. Thanks to my mother's lectures and descriptions, I could rattle off the signs of an alcohol problem as easily as my multiplication tables.
By the time I was a senior in high school, alcohol was readily available to me, and like most young people, I was all about experimenting. Gradually, I began to see some bad signs...
Blackouts were my first sign that I may not have a normal and healthy relationship with alcohol. Yes, many novice alcohol drinkers have blackouts. But I was having them about once a month. And it wasn't like certain parts of the evening were hazy. I'm talking about the WHOLE NIGHT. Once, I woke up in my dorm room, dressed in party clothes, with a trashcan next to my bed and a concerned note from my friends. To this day, I do not even remember going out AT ALL. I have no idea what I did or where I was. Think about that. It's kind of scary to be that out of control.
If I wasn't blacking out entirely, I was drunk to the point that I had to be carried out of the party. At every party. Having "just two" didn't compute in my brain. Where's the fun in that? The whole goal of the evening is to reach the if-I-have-one-more-I-will-barf buzz and keep it as long as possible. Duh. But of course, I am an alcoholic, so the stopping point for me was always "just one more and I'll stop." Remember the girl at the frat party who was always found sitting on a step, slurring and crying and asking everyone for a cigarette? The one with barf all over her tank top and mascara smeared all over her face? Who had to be baby-sat by her girlfriends? That was me. Every weekend. And by weekend, I mean Wednesday thru Saturday nights. Alcoholics are always up for a party.
My ability to increase my tolerance for alcohol was frightening. By the end of my first semester in college, I could put down 10-12 beers. They were like soda pop to me. I weighed about 130 pounds. I was drinking this amount of beer in less than 2 hours. I'm no good at math, but it's pretty safe to say that I was far over the legal driving limit. I remember strategizing on Friday and Saturday nights, using complicated formulas to ensure maximum alcohol consumption: "Ok, if I don't eat anything between noon and six, and then eat as many breadsticks as I can an hour and a half before I leave to go out, I should be able to drink 2 extra beers before I barf." -- Who does that??? That is not normal!
It wasn't just the urge to drink as much as I possibly could, as quickly as I could. Just like any other alcoholic, I didn't give a rat's ass what the beverage was, I just wanted as much of it as possible, as quickly as possible. If you are a normal person, and you despise tequila, when you go to a party that serves nothing but tequila, you are probably going to drink water or soda pop all night. Not the alcoholic. They will think, "Crap. I hate tequila. This is going to suck." -- and then they will line up the shots and down ten of them before you can blink an eye! That makes absolutely no sense. It's like someone who hates broccoli eating 2 pounds of it, just because it's there.
One of the worst signs of an alcohol problem is a change in personality. When I was drunk, I became hostile and angry. I tried to pick fist fights with my friends. I literally wanted to punch the snot out of anyone and everyone. If you know me in person, this concept is laughable. I am such a wuss that I won't even do wheelies on a bicycle. I have some friends who have never even seen me lose my temper. But when I drank, I turned into a psychotic bitch with the shortest fuse you've ever seen. It would take nothing to set me off.
As you can probably guess, denial plays a huge role in an alcoholic's life. Example thoughts:
"I am totally ok to drive." (Um, no, you're not!)
"That guy is HOT." (Riiiight)
"She's not that pissed at me. (Um, you just made out with her boyfriend.)
I look smokin' hot right now. "(Is that why your hair is plastered to your skull and you can't walk?)
"My skirt is totally covering my butt." (You just flashed an entire room of total strangers.)
"This party is awesome!" (...if by "awesome" you mean that you are the only person on the dance floor because it's 4am and the party is over.)
"I don't know. I guess someone stole my keys." (Actually, drunk ass, you dropped them somewhere.)
I did something else that my just seem like strange behavior, unless you too are someone familiar with alcoholism: I became extremely possessive with my alcohol. If I brought my own alcohol to a party, I would label it with my name, patrol the fridge to make sure no one stole it, and refuse to share so much as a sip with anyone. You see, I have the brain of an alcoholic, and the thought of running out of alcohol was terrifying to me, especially when I was under 21. This is why you hear of alcoholics hiding bottles everywhere. It's because they don't ever want to run out. Of course, I knew that hiding alcohol was a sign of alcoholism, so I fought the urge to do this. If I didn't hide it, I must not be an alcoholic, right?
I used to (and strangely enough, still do) pressure my friends to drink as much as I did. To an alcoholic's brain, as long as everyone else is drinking like you do, that means your relationship with alcohol is normal. If everyone's jumping off a bridge, then it must be an OK thing to do. This is why it's common to see an alcoholic hang out with other alcoholics. Now that I am sober, I have watched other alcoholics grow visibly uncomfortable around me, especially when I tell them that I am sober because of my alcoholic tendencies. Other alcoholics will often stop talking to me or pressure me to drink, even when I have said, "No, thank you" several times.
And I can spot an alcoholic ten miles away. Some people have gay-dar, I have alcoholic-dar. Now, I'm not as adamant about it as my mother, who honestly believes every third person on the planet is a raging alcoholic, but there are a lot of them out there. Some are like me, and become alcoholics from day one. Others cultivate their addiction over a period of decades. A few, like my grandmother, wait until a life-changing event (in her case, the death of her husband) happens. They turn to the bottle to soothe themselves. But I can always spot them, sometimes within minutes. Their actions are so familiar to me, it's like looking in a mirror.
Ten years ago today, my family came home from vacation to find me blitzed out of my mind. I had remained at home, claiming I had to work at my waitressing job, when really what I wanted to do was throw a huge keg party and spend the majority of the week finding my next drink. (Lying to loved ones takes a back seat to booze when you're an alcoholic.) After the parties were over, I had to clean up the house before they got home. Part of this cleaning involved disposing of the leftover alcohol. So I decided to have "just one" margarita while I cleaned up the house. It would be such a shame to pour the tequila down the drain. By the time my family got home, I was slurring my speech as I mopped the kitchen floor. My mother, a recovering alcoholic herself, knew instantly what was going on. To this day, the look on her face -- a mix of fear, anger and guilt -- haunts me. At that moment, I knew that I could not keep drinking and have a good relationship with my mother. I could not bear the thought of making her feel that way ever again.
That was the last time I ever drank. I quit in a very unusual way -- cold turkey, and without the assistance of Alcoholics Anonymous. This is VERY unusual, actually. I have never even been to an AA meeting, although I'm not saying I will never go to one. There is no cure for this disease.
I would be lying if I said that I never want to drink alcohol. I never tried gin or Midori before I quit, and I think melontinis and gin & tonics smell wonderful. I know I would have loved them. And yes, there are certain times when I miss the stress-relieving and social lubrication benefits of a drink. Luckily, I have found that Xanax and cigarettes are excellent substitutes. And (non-alcoholic) beer is now what I crave when I've had a long day. I guess you can take the alcohol out of the alcoholic, but not the alcoholic out of the alcohol aisle. The worst times are when I'm out with my girlfriends, because I do miss getting a little buzzy (ok, a LOT buzzy) with my girlfriends. I never did like looking sloppy drunk around guys. Not that it ever stopped me, back then. And I still fight the urge to escape reality, boredom and difficult emotions with substances. (Hello, Vicodin!)
But somehow, I have managed to say "No, thank you" to alcohol for the last ten years.
If you recognize yourself or a loved one in any of my descriptions above, you might want to look at this quiz. A score of 8 or more indicates a possible problem with alcohol. My score was 19.