I Was A High-Functioning Alcoholic & AA Saved My Life
This week we ran a feature about how some women with drinking problems are turning to moderation, not sobriety. The piece generated a lot of conversation on our site and social media about alcoholism, recovery, and Alcoholics Anonymous. Here is one response to that piece.
I know there are people who can control their alcohol intake. I've been to dinner with them. I’ve watched as they drank one glass of wine, maybe two, and then switched to water.
I am not this type of drinker. I don’t even understand this type of drinker. If I have one drink, I will always follow it with a second. In fact, why have one glass of wine when the whole bottle is right there?
I am 44 and I am powerless over alcohol. I am a strong, independent, well-educated woman, and I have no problem admitting that I have a drinking problem. At least I don’t now, 12 years after Alcoholics Anonymous saved me from myself.
I struggled with alcohol off and on for seven years before deciding to go to AA. Some days, I was so hungover at work after drinking a bottle or two of wine the night before that I'd vomit in the bathroom. When a good friend got married, hungover from the rehearsal dinner, I could barely get my act together to be there for her while the bridal party gathered pre-wedding. (Another bridesmaid had to call to remind me that I had agreed to be there early. I didn’t even remember.)
I went on dates when I had two or three glasses of wine ... before the date began. One night I was walking up the back stairs of my apartment building, wineglass in hand, and I tripped and fell. I remember being so embarrassed that someone could see me while I was sprawled on the steps, covered in wine.
I did not wake up one day and say, “Boy I sure am tired of being hungover, I think I’ll give AA a try!” I tried to quit on my own, many times, over a three-year period. I'd tell myself I was going to quit or cut down and then find myself at the liquor store on my way home from work. I'd visit with friends or family and tell myself that I should only have one or two drinks but I failed every time.
I didn’t want to be an alcoholic. I wanted to find a way to avoid the stigma, to somehow learn to control my drinking. But, when I found myself on my knees, crying and praying — begging really — for someone to help me, I knew it was time to admit that my drinking had become unmanageable. I could no longer pretend that it was something I could "figure out" on my own.
The struggle I describe was a private one. Sure, I drank with friends and family from time to time. But no one knew how much, or how often, I was drinking at home, by myself.
On the outside, it seemed like I had it together: I had a full-time job, never had a DUI, and never drank during work hours. I didn't drink the hard stuff and was quite content with beer and wine. I was what people refer to as a functioning alcoholic.
Not a single friend or family member ever expressed concern about my drinking. This is partly because drinking was normalized in my environment but also because I was hiding my problem. And the trouble with hiding any addiction is that you're the only one who can force help on yourself.
When I first started to think that I really might have a problem, I didn’t know what to do. I was growing increasingly embarrassed by my behavior, which quite frankly, had become life-threatening. I actually woke up one morning to find that candles I had lit the night before, to create ambience while I was drinking by myself, were still going the next morning. That scared me.
I began testing the waters by telling other people about my drinking problem. My ex-boyfriend told me I was crazy and immediately dismissed my self-diagnosis. Another friend tried to talk me out of it. But I knew.
I walked into Barnes & Noble and plopped down in the self-help/alcoholism section and flipped through a few books before finding one that a quiz to tell whether or not I was drinking too much. I wanted further “proof” that would confirm yes, you are definitively an alcoholic and should seek treatment immediately, and this book had something that was close enough for me. (I wish I could remember the title to share here, but I have since given it away.)
The National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has this type of assessment online and I have since referred other people to it.
After taking the quiz, which confirmed my instincts about my drinking, I went to a drug and alcohol treatment center to get a free evaluation. They recommended treatment, which was not a viable or an affordable option for me at the time. So I continued drinking.
I finally told a former boss, my mentor at the time, that I had a problem. She was in recovery and had well over 10 years of sobriety. She took me to my first AA meeting that night. I wasn’t ready. I was still resistant to the idea of being an alcoholic and I didn’t want to be in their group.
But within six months, I was back. My dumb actions were starting to hurt people I cared about and I couldn’t do it anymore. I didn’t want to apologize to friends or let them down anymore. I felt terrible about myself and as much as I couldn’t imagine living without alcohol, I couldn’t imagine living with it anymore either. I was done. I had reached bottom, and I wanted no more of it.
I walked into a meeting and sat there scared, tired, lost, and ready to do whatever they told me to do. I had selected this particular meeting because it was nonsmoking and I remember being surrounded by people who reminded me of my grandfather, the parents of my friends, young guys I would’ve gone to school with, and professional women I could’ve seen in my own office building. These were really normal, everyday people.
I cried the whole time. Afterward, I was given books from Alcoholics Anonymous, The Big Book for example, schedules of future meetings, phone numbers, and handwritten notes of encouragement. I’d never felt that immediately accepted by a group of people in my life, and these were total strangers. They saved my life. I went back immediately and attended regularly (several times a week) for almost two years.
That was 12 years ago. I have attended meetings from time to time over the years, and when I was in town, went back to thank my “home group” around my 10-year anniversary.
Sobriety is not always an easy way of life, particularly early sobriety. It’s tough to say no every time someone offers you something to drink. I felt like I didn't fit in, when all I wanted was to fly beneath the radar. It takes a tremendous amount of courage, willpower, support, and sometimes sheer stubbornness to stay on the path you’ve chosen.
It’s a whole new way of life. But it’s so worth it. I’ve never regretted getting sober. Once it stuck, I’ve never looked back. But this is not to say that from time to time I don’t have a fleeting thought that it would be nice to have just one margarita.
But the great thing about AA — and a common misconception about the program — is that I don’t have to give up alcohol forever. AA just asks that you take it one day at a time. Just don’t drink today, and then tomorrow you can decide again. And that’s what I’ve done. I’ve never said forever, and I don’t think I ever will. But for the past 12 years, any time it crosses my mind, I always say “nah, not today.”
If you're interested in reading more, here are some pieces about sobriety: