[THERAPY UNSCRIPTED – A WEEKLY COLUMN]
Nobody knew Sarah was an alcoholic.
Nobody would have even guessed it.
She was twenty-three, a college gradate, and highly successful in her corporate job. She owned nice clothes, lived in a nice apartment, and drove an even nicer car. She went to the gym and hot yoga regularly, and she drank smoothies with kale every morning. She had a stacked social calendar and came from a solid, wholesome family. There was no hint of childhood trauma, no history of mental illness. The woman had never even broken a bone.
To an untrained outsider, Sarah seemed completely safeguarded from the ugly perils of addiction.
Nobody suspected she was drowning in wine each night.
During college, binge drinking was just another extracurricular activity. She blended seamlessly into to the young adult drinking culture, into the nighttime pregaming and rounds of shots, into the happy hours and wine tastings and mid-morning boozy brunches. Alcohol was the acceptable stabilizer, the lubricant of social activity, balanced suitably into studying and dorm life and figuring out who she wanted to be when she grew up.
It wasn’t a problem because it didn’t look like a problem.
She wasn’t drinking away her sorrows in the bar by herself, waking up in random beds with shame and regret, ending her nights in handcuffs, or sleeping through morning classes. She was drinking as everyone else was, fitting into college as everyone else was, enjoying the loosening of inhibitions that came with being drunk like everyone else was.
After college, her friends slowed down with the alcohol as they settled down in adult life. The partying cooled. Sarah began working full-time. She moved into her own apartment, away from the college town. Time to be a grown-up.
She didn’t stop drinking; instead, she just restructured and redefined her alcohol rules. She could only have wine on weeknights. The drinking parameters were between 8:00pm and midnight. She needed to walk her dogs and wash the dishes before starting. There was to be no driving under any circumstances. And, never more than two bottles- one was optimal, but two gave her leverage just in case.
It was pretty easy to hide, she told me candidly. I was doing everything right. I wouldn’t be missing work or anything- though I’d usually feel hungover in the morning. Living alone made it pretty easy to get away with.
She kept up this pattern for a year before admitting into residential treatment.
The proceeding event? The epiphany? The infamous tale of rock bottom?
Sarah didn’t have one.
It just felt like it was getting so out of hand, and I don’t want things to get worse…like people at work finding out. It’s embarrassing, you know? I don’t want two bottles to turn into three…or something bad like that to happen.
Sarah found herself at an interesting crossroads, treading on the ubiquitous tightrope between abusing her substance and utterly losing her life and sanity to it. While not everyone who drinks reaches this crux, anyone facing an addiction knows it well. This is after the problematic drinking has begun, but before the consequences arrive. This is before things start falling apart- before people start asking questions, start getting suspicious, start wanting to know what’s really going on. The space here is time-limited, different for everyone, but once crossing over to the other side, the consequences- be it relational, occupational, financial, spiritual, or physical, only tend to compound and worsen.
I don’t think I hit rock bottom. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad.
We freely talk about alcoholism when the entire soul becomes destroyed, but we don’t talk about it nearly enough when the soul just starts to bruise.
Sarah was in the bruising stages when she decided to take a real look at her drinking. At the time, she was still able to somewhat “function,” somewhat able to maintain the compartmentalizing of her use. Few get sober at this point. In her initial recovery journey, she would be surrounded with felons, with chronically ill and utterly dependent people, with people who had been suffering for years.
People would question if she was an alcoholic. At times, she would question it herself.
The convoluted addiction hierarchy is built with the sickest on top, as players strangely compete for ownership for who has the worst story, for who has messed up the most. It’s a virtuous badge of validation, a seal of honor- it’s recognition that yes, I’m sick enough.
By all means, Sarah didn’t have the most colorful, invigorating story. She would be on one of the lowest rungs of this hierarchy. She couldn’t describe homelessness or jail or losing her children. Her confession would not likely evoke tears or tremendously empathetic reactions. Nobody in her life even knew the extent of her relationship with wine. Her bottom was the bottom of her kitchen floor, where she sat cross-legged, wine in hand, mechanically and habitually.
At times, this wouldn’t feel like enough.
At times, she would question if she was sick enough to really get help.
Herein lies the complicated grassroots of mental health. At some point, nearly every individual plagued with mental illness or addiction will question, are my problems valid enough? And compared to others, am I even sick enough?
Sick enough doesn’t have to be wandering the streets in the cold, silent night without a place to call home, though it might be. Sick enough doesn’t have to entail lying on a stiff jail cot because nobody has bailed you out or answered your collect calls. Sick enough doesn’t have to be reached through an intervention or spiritual awakening or steadfast ultimatum, though it might be.
Sick enough can sometimes be the quiet but nagging whisper warning you that this isn’t working.
Sarah listened and respected this whisper, though she would later question and even doubt its validity. She would wonder if she overreacting- she would compare herself to the person who drank three bottles a day, to the person who had multiple DUI’s, to the person who had cirrhosis or ulcers, to the person who everyone knew as a crazy drunk.
In therapy, we would work through these concerns together. Eventually, she would come to terms that her suffering warranted healing, that she no longer had to discredit, rationalize, or suppress her own misery. She would develop her own recovery journey and grow a fond respect for her individual story. She would accept and develop gratitude for being able to recognize her dangerous relationship with alcohol without her entire world necessarily crumbling.
As a therapist, I don’t write these articles to preach or give advice. I write to share experiences and stories about addiction, to portray common threads in human existence. If you see yourself in this crossroads or in this woman, if you know you are one person to the outside world and another person internally, if you have a tiny voice whispering that whatever you’re doing isn’t working, I urge you to really listen to it. Whether you’ve touched a rock bottom or not.
*While this is based on a true experience, all reasonable efforts have been made by this writer to protect utmost client confidentiality. Therefore, names, ages, and other identifying details have been changed, omitted, and/or embellished.