Every night I take a pill. It’s a drug some recovering alcoholics see as the “answer.”
With the medication in my system, even a few sips of wine will make me violently ill. I’ve come to find my ”answer” after years of trying a variety of treatment programs and therapeutic approaches. One thing is certain …there are no easy answers and for many, there never is an answer.
People like me are keeping a secret, overwhelmed by shame and guilt. As a professor in the health field, I feel compelled at this point in my life to reveal my secret, hoping it might help others. Yes, I am a recovering alcoholic.
My journey is unique, as are the journeys of all recovering alcoholics. I had my first glass of wine at 27. It wasn’t part of my upbringing. No one in my family drank to excess and alcohol was not common in the Midwest suburban house of my 1950’s childhood. But when my mother died, I bought a big bottle (and I mean big) of Gallo wine and drank until I felt better and then felt worse. Even though the aftermath of drinking sometimes made me feel sick, I liked the initial feeling that gave me a break from grief.
After I completed my doctoral work I could afford to move into an apartment by myself. I lived in a cute little studio apartment in a brownstone. I felt I was living the equivalent of a Mary Tyler Moore life. My social, political and work lives were abuzz with activity.
Gradually, I began to crave wine, especially when I came home from work. I needed to relax, to escape the stress and loneliness of my life. Drinking a glass, then two, then three, became routine. Clearly I was dependent on alcohol but I was only peripherally aware that it was becoming a problem. When I adopted my daughter things changed for quite a while. During her first five years I did not drink heavily. But gradually, the desire for wine each night started again. An unhappy marriage and my daughter’s learning disability presented huge challenges and consumed a lot of emotional energy. My drinking intensified to a bottle of wine every night.
My tolerance grew so that even drinking a bottle usually did not bother me. For the most part I did not have hangovers. I did not drink during the day and did not drink before work. Over time I began to drink during the day on weekends. I loved sitting in front of the television on Sunday afternoon, a fire in the fireplace, watching a football game and drinking wine.
I began to understand my “triggers.” When driving home from work I was pulled to the liquor store. By buying one bottle at a time, I prevented myself from drinking more than the allotted bottle.
I’m not sure exactly when I knew I was an alcoholic. None of my family or friends spoke to me about it. About ten years ago I attended my first AA meeting. It was difficult to listen to some of the testimonies. They spoke of abusive and alcoholic families, homelessness, unemployment, physical violence, crime, jail time, and separation from children and more.
Many times I said to myself…that’s not me! Am I really an alcoholic? I did not hear anyone who had “my” story. I couldn’t imagine myself as a speaker. What would I say? My story was boring in contrast: I drink a bottle of wine each night, I fall asleep and go to work the next morning. My daughter wants me to stop. My experience, while tragic in a lot of ways, did not compare to those who had lost everything.
For many, AA really does work. It provides stability, support and, for some, a family they never had. But for me, I could not connect with the idea that only by turning my life over to the power of God could I become sober.
I decided to try an outpatient rehab. Many AA members have been in at least one, and usually more, rehab programs. I looked into the programs in my area and found one that was mentioned during AA meetings. I didn’t want an AA based program but could not find a program with any other approach.
I think I was the only one who attended voluntarily. Others were court-mandated. The advantage of the program was that I was able to spend an intensive period focused on my addiction. During our morning sessions, group members shared their experiences and how it felt to be abstinent (not fun). It was helpful to listen to others. However, the approach was punitive. If you admitted to drinking you were scolded; thus, no one admitted to drinking during group. Our truth-telling came at lunch.
During my time there I learned a lot. I learned that alcohol is out of your system pretty quickly. If you have a random urine test after 12 hours of sobriety, you won’t test positive. I was told that marijuana stays in your system and blood tests will be positive for a long time. I was also told that intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) do not work unless they are followed by something else like AA. But since AA did not work for me, I would have to look elsewhere.
I did notice that the mission of the therapy organizaion was making money and, if they could, help people maintain sobriety. There was not enough staff. My group leader had to do all intakes, the administrative work and take full responsibility for one of the groups. Several times she asked group members to go ahead without her, leaving a bunch of alcoholics to heal themselves.
After that experience I felt my options were running out and I was frustrated. I looked into other programs but most were based on the AA model. There was one exception, a group called Women for Sobriety (WFS). We met in a YMCA. In WFS there was a routine to meetings but fewer rules. The volunteer group leader chose a theme for the meeting and those who wanted to participate discussed the theme as it related to their alcoholism. Contact outside the group was frowned upon. While this group was much more appealing, I knew I needed more than one meeting a week.
About this time, my daughter let me know that she did NOT want me to drink again. She saw me drinking wine at night, getting sleepy very early and going to bed. There were times when I lost my temper and yelled at her undeservedly. When I attempted to stop, she was very supportive and proud. Once she got a tattoo on her shoulder with the date of my last drink…, which of course was not my last drink.
She began to get very angry with me so I hid my drinking. Of course, she found out when she noticed empty bottles concealed in various hideouts. Trips to the recycling station were fraught with fear that my daughter or a neighbor would see all the bottles being dumped each week.
Searching the internet, I learned about medications that would decrease interest in drinking. I don’t recall anyone mentioning this option. In AA we were counseled that medication is not a substitute for God. So be it, but I was willing to give it a chance.
After many phone calls, I found a psychiatrist who specializes in substance abuse. Dr. V. is a wonderful, caring and gentle man. During these past three years he has maintained a positive attitude, making it very clear that he knows I can shake this addiction while, at the same time, not minimizing the difficulty of my journey. When I slide, he is there coaching me to get up and start again. One thing that helped me stay the course is that Dr. V. has no rules. My decisions are my decisions alone, not a decision made by giving myself to a higher power.
We discussed all the treatment options. At first, Dr. V. strongly encouraged me to take Antibuse or Difulsuram, an old medication which, if you drink alcohol while taking it, causes a strong reaction including nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, flushing of the face, anxiety, and difficulty breathing. The reaction can result in hospitalization. I was not keen on this option since my cravings were strong and I did not know if I could maintain sobriety.
When he suggested an inpatient stay I was shocked. I couldn’t be THAT bad! Denial is a major defense for alcoholics and has not completely left me.
Periodically I was able to stop drinking with the encouragement and love of friends and family but I was unable to maintain my sobriety for long. I loved drinking wine but my consumption was at a dangerous level. I wanted to be like others who could drink every now and then. But I came to realize that this was impossible for me. I wasn’t feeling very good about myself. I felt self-loathing and remorse.
Finally I decided it was time to try inpatient treatment. I called Dr. V. and he arranged for me to be admitted to an inpatient detox and rehab hospital. My daughter was hopeful and supportive. We drove to the country on a chilly fall evening. The admission process was very lengthy. After about five hours, I said goodbye to her and was escorted to my room.
My guide, a staff member, gave me a short tour. It was quite a place. The building was huge, built in a colonial style, similar to some country clubs. My room was pleasant, but sparse, a bit institutional. I was told that this is the place where the wealthy go to detox. They also take people who have really good health insurance as I do.
In the morning I was given the schedule, starting with meds. We lined up. One by one we went to the nurse’s window. She dispensed the meds and watched us swallow them.
Breakfast in the dining room was beautiful and the choices were great. Each day there was a schedule of events. Usually it included a series of group meetings. Presentations were made at some and interactive exercises were conducted at others. I was later told that since we were in detox and, not therapy per se, there would be no therapeutic sessions.
People came and went pretty quickly in detox. The idea was to get the drugs out of your system and then go on to a treatment program. I experienced some withdrawal in the form of exhaustion. All I wanted to do was to go to bed but they didn’t let me. The withdrawal lasted about two days and then my energy level was back to normal.
On my second day two women who became friends were admitted. Martha, an older woman, was addicted to the prescription drug Oxcycontin which she took for chronic arthritic pain. She was also severely depressed. She lost her husband five years ago, lost her home in a hurricane and had no family. Apparently she was a regular at the hospital.
Debbie was addicted to sleeping medication. Because she had such difficulty falling asleep, her physician prescribed ever-increasing doses, which led to addiction.
My stay at the hospital lasted seven days and it gave me with a much-needed break. However, when I was discharged I faced the same issues. I was sober for a while but it didn’t last long. Another failure.
Upon discharge I was referred to a program built around Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). I began DBT training. DBT is a cognitive type of therapy in which you learn skills to help deal with the triggers of addiction. Dr. V. was very enthusiastic about giving it a try.
I joined a DBT group of eight women, each with a different story; most had an eating disorder or addiction to opiates or prescription medication. We learned an array of tools to deal with the problems of everyday life. For example, imagery and relaxation are used to funnel emotions in a positive way. I found this to be very helpful and I continue to use these skills today. I am also seeing a therapist who combines psychotherapy and DBT. She has a similar approach to Dr. V.
However, even with DBT, I continued to drink off and on. My consumption of wine decreased but I knew that it continued to take a toll on my health and longevity. So I took the plunge and began taking Antibuse: one pill a day, one day at a time. In addition, Dr. V. suggested that I try a medication called Vivitrol which is a monthly injectable, long-acting formulation of Naltrexone, an opioid receptor antagonist. If used for the treatment of narcotic addiction, it blocks the euphoric effect of opiates such as heroin. Vivitrol also reduces the cravings for alcohol although the exact physiologic mechanism is unknown. I found a physician who agreed to give me the injections.
This brings me to the past six months. I am taking medication and seeing a psychotherapist. I send a text message to Dr. V every night to tell him that I took my pill. He is, so to speak, my enforcer. During this time I have been sober for the most part. Wine does not have the same effect it once had. I can safely say that I don’t enjoy it as in the past. Football games are OK without wine. I now drink Blood Orange soda with lime seltzer. I know that if I drink wine it could potentially drive my resilient daughter over the edge. I could be banned from her life. This is especially painful now that I have a beautiful granddaughter. The incentive to stay sober is strong.
Will I ever have a drink again? It’s hard to imagine my life without wine but imagine it I must.