In the wake of Robin Williams’ death several days ago, a lot of people have been talking about mental illness and the shame and stigma attached to it, and I’m glad that it’s being discussed. I think we need to look at mental illness the same way we do a physical illness, without blame or shame attached.
I understand what it’s like. I underwent a severe depression during my teens, and have battled depression and anxiety off and on throughout my adult years. Those experiences will probably make their way into one or more of my blog posts in the future. But what I really want to talk about right now is addiction.
As with mental illness, addiction carries a certain stigma, making many who suffer with it ashamed or afraid to admit it. And if they can’t admit it, they can’t get help. If those of us who suffer from it can’t talk about it and share our experiences, it will continue to be misunderstood.
Not many people know this about me, but I have a drinking problem. I was doing pretty well, with six months of sobriety, until about a week ago, when I had a relapse. The very next day, Robin Williams was found dead of an apparent suicide.
Like many other people, I was stunned. I already felt horrible about drinking, and the news about Robin Williams made my heart that much heavier. In one of the articles that was written about him that day, I found a quote that spoke my own truth so clearly: “It [the addiction] waits. It lays in wait for the time when you think, ‘It’s fine now, I’m OK.’ Then, the next thing you know, it’s not OK.”
Since that day, I’ve felt this persistent nudging in my spirit to “come out”, so to speak.
So yeah. I have a problem.
I was doing so well for a long time. After my teens and early twenties, during which hardly a day went by when I wasn’t either drunk or stoned or both, I found God and got completely clean and sober. Quit smoking cigarettes, everything. That lasted for well over a decade.
Then things started to change. I went through some adjustments and life changes and became what I like to think of as a more balanced person. And I guess I thought that because I was achieving balance in other areas of life, that I could do it with alcohol, too. I thought, hey, I’m not the same person I used to be; I can handle it now. I’d abstained from drinking or using drugs for so long; I was strong. I felt pretty confident that I could drink in moderation and keep it under control.
Boy, was I wrong.
Let me tell you about the kind of drinker I am. Aside from a couple of years in college, when I drank an average of six days a week, I have never been a daily drinker (a daily pot smoker, yes, but not a daily drinker). I’ve never had a serious physical dependency on alcohol. I’m a binge drinker. That means that I can go for days or weeks without a drink, but whenever I do drink, I can’t seem to stop.
Drinking doesn’t have the same effect on me as it does the average person. As soon as alcohol hits my bloodstream, it produces a very intense craving for more. It doesn’t matter if I plan to have only one drink or if I plan to just get a nice mellow buzz. Once I start, there’s no stopping me. And that, folks, is a very dangerous way to drink.
So my experiment in drinking moderately soon degenerated into finding sneaky ways to drink more. If we were having guests over for dinner and serving a bottle of wine, I’d buy my own little tetra pack of Cabernet or Merlot to hide in the pantry and secretly supplement the drinks that everyone else saw me having. Sometimes after drinking at a restaurant or get-together, I’d make a quick stop at a convenience store to buy another one for the road. At parties, I’d keep getting refills until even I had lost track. I almost never had just a pleasant buzz (not for long, anyway). It was usually, at the very least, moderate drunkenness, and often it went well beyond.
As a result of this kind of drinking behavior, I’ve suffered, and my family has suffered. Let me tell you about a few things I’ve been through in my life as an either direct or indirect result of drinking alcohol.
When I was 14, I had to have my stomach pumped. I literally almost died the very first time I drank because of the amount of alcohol in my bloodstream. A little bit later that year a couple of men in their twenties bought beer for my sister and me and another friend from high school, and once I was sufficiently drunk, one of those men took me into the woods and raped me.
You would think that with my first experiences with alcohol being not just unpleasant, but downright traumatic, I would’ve quickly learned my lesson. But that’s just not how it works. It was like the seed of alcoholism was inside of me from the start, and just needed a little bit of alcohol to water it and bring it to life. Because from the very beginning, my relationship to alcohol was unhealthy and twisted, something that seemed to have a life and shape all its own, not of my making or in my control.
On many, many occasions, starting with my very first drinking experience, I’ve had severe blackouts where large chunks of time were completely missing from my memory. I’ve gone on crying jags and into rages, have hit people, broken glass out of doors (which resulted in me having an open gash down my finger and being kicked out of the house by my parents). I’ve missed classes and even exams in college because I was too drunk to wake up in the morning. I’ve driven off the road into a marsh, giving myself a concussion. I’ve made a fool of myself more times and in more ways than I can count. I’ve also worried my parents and my husband more times than I can count. I’ve betrayed their trust and their faith in me.
Alcoholism is a nasty, insidious disease. It’s something that no one is proud of having. If I had cancer or diabetes or hypertension, I wouldn’t be ashamed of my disease, afraid to tell other people for fear of what they’d think of me as a person. But for a long time, I’ve wanted to hide my drinking problem, even though alcoholism is in my genes in much the same way as a predisposition for heart disease or diabetes can be in a person’s genes. My grandfather was an alcoholic, and several other family members have suffered and struggled with addictions as well.
I’ve not given up the fight. I still have those six months under my belt, and I’m pushing forward, determined to invest more time and effort into keeping myself healthy and sober. I’ve joined a great program called Smart Recovery, which I highly recommend. I’m determined to do this for both myself and my family, especially my daughters.
If you’re reading this and you’re struggling with an addiction, please know that you’re not alone. We don’t have to hide in the shadows, ashamed of ourselves. That will only make us weaker, and the addiction stronger. Let’s come out of hiding and reclaim our strength. Let’s support each other so we don’t have to go it alone.