I will never forget the first time I introduced myself as an alcoholic.
It was Super Bowl Sunday 2012 and, while everyone else I knew was drinking beer and eating bean dip, I was attending my first recovery meeting. The fear I had sitting in that room full of women was indescribable to anything I had ever experienced. And, as I heard myself utter the word “alcoholic” during introductions, I knew my life as I knew it would never be the same again because I had finally let the truth escape me.
The “Perfect” Exterior Unravels
The months leading up to that first meeting were miserable. The harder I tried to hide my secret and keep it together, the worse it got. My “perfect” suburban life had started to unravel. No longer could the white picket fence, or the luxury SUV or the gym membership hide the reality of my drinking. On that fateful morning when my husband sat across from me on the couch and asked me if I was ready to stop drinking for good; I knew I needed help.
It was clear I had a drinking problem long before I admitted it; yet the possibility that I was an alcoholic was inconceivable to me. Like most people, I had a very clear picture of what an alcoholic looked like and it wasn’t me. I had a Master’s Degree; a successful career before having children; a nice house in the suburbs; a devoted husband. But, the reality was no matter how hard I tried to control my drinking or how many times I promised myself I wouldn’t drink for just that one day, I couldn’t stop.
As my drinking escalated from a few times a week to every day, I tried to convince myself that I didn’t have a problem. My drink of choice was wine and people who drink nice wine surely can’t be alcoholics, right? Or, trying to convince myself that I somehow deserved those glasses of wine because of all I did to keep our household running smoothly. And, the list goes on. There was ALWAYS an excuse to drink. For those who have never been there, it’s hard to describe the “need” an alcoholic has for their next drink. In her book Sober Truths: The Making of an Honest Woman, Jill Kelly explains it best as “The sweet relief of having more than enough – for the evening, for the next morning, for the whole weekend. Of having time lie open so that you can sip slowly or guzzle quickly, as fits your need. Of having all distractions and responsibilities fall away so that you and your poison can be alone together. Of having this soul-soothing anesthetic make you right with your world or, even better, make your world disappear.”
Women Alcoholics and the Double Standard
Like many alcoholics, I hid the severity of my drinking from family and friends because I was terrified of what they would think of me if they ever found out. And, even more terrified of what they would think if I ever admitted I had a problem. Because, in my eyes admitting I had a problem and seeking help meant admitting I was weak and had failed as a wife and mother. Whether this was true or not, it didn’t matter because what society told me was a different story. When men got sober it was something to be celebrated; a pat on the back and a “Way to go buddy!” exclaimed by friends and family. In contrast, women alcoholics were portrayed as weak, fragile and often “mentally unstable.” Her friends would whisper to each other how they always knew “something” was wrong and “How sad she couldn’t just pull it together for her family.”
As Rebecca Flood states in her essay, “Stigma and the Female Addict,” “This disease is an equal opportunity destroyer, and in many ways more physically detrimental to women, who get cirrhosis of the liver at twice the rate of men. Even so, they seek treatment less often. The female addict sits in a tremendous amount of guilt and shame, and is afraid to tell even those closest to her the truth about herself. She views herself as a ‘bad’ person needing to become ‘good,’ not as a sick person needing to become well. Many others will view her this way too and it will keep her from seeking treatment.”
Believe me when I say I never set out to be a “poster child” per se for suburban mom alcoholics. However, when I finally did admit I had a problem and seek treatment, I realized that the fear and stigma that had been holding me back for so long continued to hold other women like me back as well. On the podcast, The Bubble Hour: Episode 7 – The Stigma of Alcoholism, the host states, “The reality is that the stigma is one of the biggest roadblocks to getting sober (denial being the other one). Approximately one in ten people in the USA suffer from the disease of addiction, and many (if not most) are high functioning: holding down jobs, raising children, being productive members of society.”
Since I’ve been sober, a number of women have contacted me concerned about their drinking. Some are friends while others are acquaintances, yet they all have one thing in common – they all fear the stigma of getting help. They fear what their family and friends will think; they fear what their neighbors and co-workers will think; they fear losing their children; and somewhere deep down they fear what their lives will be like without alcohol.
Overcoming the Stigma
My life is much different now than it was on that Super Bowl Sunday in 2012. Each morning I wake up sober and clear headed; I find joy in watching my children play instead of watching the clock to see when I can have my first drink; I don’t have to rely on multiple drinks to enjoy social occasions; my husband doesn’t worry about me driving home after evenings out with my girlfriends; and my children will never have to question whether alcohol is more important to me than them.
I share my story in an effort to encourage other women like myself to get the help they so desperately need. I spent far too long hiding behind my “perfect” exterior, while inside I was slowly withering away. I share my story so those who are still suffering can see that there is hope; and that a life without alcohol is possible and worth fighting for. I have been on both sides and where I used to see everything in shades of grey; I now see my world in vibrant, bright colors. And, as Ann Dowsett Johnston says in her book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, “I know that I have recovered my true self. That’s the greatest gift of sobriety: the journey inward – endlessly challenging, rewarding, and profound. More often than not, I feel at peace in my own skin.”
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