The very public struggles with substance abuse of the rich and famous make addiction seem like a problem of excess suffered by the affluent. But what if the woman struggling with substance abuse is right in front of you?
Lindsay Lohan can leave rehab and immediately resume designing leggings. Amy Winehouse can launch what seems to be her fiftieth comeback tour. What can you do if you're just an average American woman, one like you or like me, one who reads and comments on Jezebel?
A very brave reader (who, for obvious reasons, wishes to remain anonymous) sent me the following reflection on her alcoholism, and I'd like to share it with you as a reminder that women with substance abuse issues aren't famous or pathetic or to be scorned; they're a diverse group of people spanning all age groups, races, socioeconomic status, and geography, and their disease is complicated, difficult, heartbreaking.
I am an alcoholic. A puke in my own shoes, don't show up when I say I will, drunkest one at every party, can't be trusted, beer-for-breakfast lush. None of these things on their own define alcoholism, but they are signposts I came across along the way.
More super fun signposts? The pity on the face of the deli owner selling me my second 12-pack of the day at noon, my mother (completely reasonably) suggesting we cancel my upcoming wedding because rescinding the invitations would be less humiliating than whatever I might do in front of all our friends and family on the day, belligerently picking a fight with a 300 lb Eagles fan and being escorted out of the stadium, the dude selling me my nightly magnum of wine saying incredulously, "Wow, you're in here more than I am!," the photo on my drivers license where my swollen face and sallow skin are my most prominent features, losing my job because I couldn't bring myself to show up to work, creating so much chaos for my boyfriend that he never knew what he was coming home to- I might have broken something, or passed out in a forest of empty bottles, or swallowed all the Xanax in the apartment. I was a mess, not someone you wanted to be friends with or date or emply. If I had been an active alcoholic for longer, I have no doubt that it would have gotten much, much worse.
But let's be clear- despite every shitty, insane, selfish thing I did when I was drinking, I was emphatically not enjoying myself, or enacting some kind of sinister master plan to wreak havoc on the good people of the world. I didn't even have a sinister master plan to brush my hair.
Rather, I felt I was doing what I had to do in order to survive. I saw no alternatives except self-medicate or suffer horribly. Ultimately, quitting alcohol cold turkey landed me in the hospital and almost killed me, so that instinct to keep drinking lest I literally die was not entirely incorrect. I'm not malicious, I was terrified.
But the experience of witnessing an active addiction is very different from the experience of having one. From the outside, I looked carelessly cruel and weak. A lot of people in my life thought I was just having too much fun and that I could snap out of it at will. Because people who aren't alcoholics can put down a drink at will. My drunk behavior was objectively terrible: immature, selfish, dishonest, on and on. I was very aware of the discord that I created and I hated myself for not beinga ble to get with the program. But I couldn't will myself to behave differently any mroe than I could will my hair to grow faster.
For me, early recovery was a constant battle against a persistent, but warped survival instinct. Every minute without drinking was like hurling myself off a cliff and hoping a magical unicorn I had never seen before would break my fall. I don't fault anyone who flinches in the face of that kind of unrelenting fear. I didn't commit to recovery out of an act of willpower, or deciding to be good instead of bad, or because enough people shamed me into it. Rather, I was lucky enough to experience a wholesale shift in my perception and lucky enough to find a support system that helped me nurture a new, healthier reality. Which is, by the way, something I have to work at every damn day.
There was a seriously daunting amount of wreckage to clean up when I eventually did get sober. I'm restarting my career from square one, for example, and healing some very damaged relationships, all without my favorite coping mechanism: getting wasted. But I was sober for my wedding and the best tacos of my entire life and my sister's college graduation and for a photography class that has turned into a really rewarding hobby. The fun that I have now is authentic, and so is the angst. When I make choices, whether I fail or succeed, I do so with my eyes open. Sometimes that perpetual awareness sucks, but I'm grateful anyway because the future that I can see now doesn't involve jails, institutions, or a miserable alcoholic death.
Many women aren't so lucky and that shouldn't make them contemptible or pitiable or stigmatized. When society tells a woman she is hopeless- a lost cause, a waste of resources- why is anyone taken aback when she can't prove them wrong? In the absence of a universally effective, universally available treatment for addictive conditions, the only safe assumption is that we're all doing the very best we can despite some pretty formidable obstacles.
Until society removes alcoholics and addicts from their litany of derision, voices like Anonymous need to be heard and heeded. Thank you for sharing your story, and best of luck as your recovery continues.