I was an overweight, overlooked yet overachieving kid. I spent my entire youth attempting to meet my father’s unattainable standards and to elicit his unqualified approval. At the time I didn’t have any way of understanding that the standards were simply out of reach and the unqualified approval was a fantasy. In my childish way, I just assumed that I wasn’t working hard enough or couldn’t be smart enough. Through my attempts to be the perfect daughter, I did end up excelling through school and graduating with many awards and honors. However, due to the level of addiction and dysfunction in my family, I did not graduate emotionally healthy.
Besides the one drink my father proudly bought me on my 18th birthday (yes, I’m old enough to have been legal at 18), I was not interested in alcohol until my very first official college drinking party. That was the night it began. I discovered the ticket to two things I wanted more than anything in my life: People who thought I was cool, and relief from searing self-doubt. The card I found was alcohol, lots of alcohol. My life course changed.
I would spend the next nine years of my life living from party to party, drunk to drunk, hangover to hangover and blackout to blackout. All the while, I was desperately trying to keep my overachieving life afloat. It was of the utmost importance that I continue to wear the façade of a young woman who had it all together, who was doing what she was supposed to be doing and living by a set of values I had long since abandoned. I was under the mistaken belief that if my life looked good, then it must be good.
My first step into recovery was almost by mistake. In 1989, I knew that my weight was out of control and that I was out of ideas on how to fix it. I assumed that if my weight were healthy, then the rest of my life would fall into order. So, I checked myself into an eating disorders clinic, which to me just seemed a bit like an insurance-covered “weight loss camp.” Little did I know that this eating disorders clinic treated compulsive overeating as a food addiction and required patients to work a program of recovery. And so it came to be that I, a hurting misfit of a human being, stumbled into a long journey of self-discovery.
My first three years of recovery were difficult. I was still under the impression that my weight was my only real issue. I pretty much ignored alcohol’s impact on my life, and so I lived those few years like a person who had ripped the Band-Aid only halfway off. If the food had been my drug, alcohol was my anesthesia. I was miserable, and my alcohol use increased.
In the midst of these Band-Aid-half-off days, I made the decision to go to grad school to become a therapist (I hope you all see the irony in that choice). I was learning how to“help” other people, working my program of recovery from food addiction and drinking like a fish. Unhealthy behavior is much easier to hide in graduate school than in undergraduate school. Everyone assumes you’re a grown adult who can take care of yourself. I was grown, but I was doing a good job of destroying myself. I just didn’t have any checks and balances. My grades were excellent, my attendance was perfect, I was working two jobs, and I was dying.
One night, while journaling about some new self-discovery, I did something I now see that God used to offer me my moment of grace. I was writing about a childhood incident that was particularly painful and in the midst of that writing I simply decided I didn’t want to feel. I made a conscious decision to cover up my feelings with alcohol and medication so that I could pass out and not hurt. And, that’s what I did. Until this event, my drinking was just “for fun,” or at least that’s what I told myself. But, on this night, I drank to drown.
When I regained consciousness the next morning, the full and unrelenting weight of my hypocrisy landed on my shoulders. I was in school to learn to help people deal with their feelings. Who did I think I was; trying to be an expert in a helping profession while I was doing everything in my power to kill myself one drink at a time? My double life hit me square in the face. My life wasn’t okay. I wasn’t okay. I was stunned by the awakening. I didn’t know it, but what I experienced was grace.
That was my last drink. 1992.
I called a friend that I knew would not judge. She came and picked me up that evening to go with her to a meeting with others who had a desire to stop drinking. I felt like I was home the minute I walked in the door. I surrendered, and my healing had begun in earnest.
Since that time, my recovery has been much smoother. It is far easier to learn and to respond to life in healthy ways when alcohol, excessive food, cigarettes and other drugs are not coursing through my system. Over the years I have enjoyed many paths of recovery; mutual aid groups, my faith in God, Church, professional counseling, and medical care. All of those pieces have come together to set me on a life path I could have never imagined. I have a delightful husband who has never seen me drunk. There are only a few people still in my life that KNOW what a miracle that is. I did finish my Master’s degree and went on to get a Ph.D. I spend my career working to make life better for people in recovery from addiction. I actively advocate preventing addiction for those who do not have it. I enjoy being a trainer and a public speaker on a variety of dependency topics.
In short, I no longer take from my community to protect my addiction; I give back to my community in tangible ways and sometimes in anonymous ways. As a matter of fact, finding ways to bless people anonymously is the most fun of all! These things are small ways of expressing the depth of gratitude that I have.
I do not have any trouble telling someone that I am a woman in long-term recovery. It is important that people see something more than the addict’s mugshot in the newspaper or another T.V. special on the latest overdose death. My recovery is no secret. It is not just a part of my history. It is a part of who I am. Besides the day I came to believe in God, it is one the greatest, single events in my life. It is worth saying it out loud. It is worth showing the world what real recovery looks like, with its ups and downs, successes and challenges. It is my way of helping reduce the stigma associated with addiction for all those who are coming behind me. I can only keep what I give away so; I freely give away this truth: Addiction is a disease that is preventable and treatable. People can and do recover from it to live in a way that is an asset to any community.
The overweight, overlooked, and overachieving girl, was broken, hurt and lonely, and has grown into a woman in recovery. I gave up my drug and my anesthesia in exchange for a life filled with the full range of emotions in living color. That moment of grace on a horrible morning, 24 years ago, saved my life. And for that, I am grateful with my whole being.