Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park, celebrating 1 year of freedom right before my 50th birthday
Hi, I’m Amy and I had a severe alcohol use disorder. I don’t know if I am or was an “alcoholic” as there are many different definitions floating around out there. While the label may be helpful for some, health care providers aren’t using it much anymore, and focusing on this word may do more harm than good. Even when I was routinely drinking at least a bottle of wine per night and was clearly psychologically addicted, I wasn’t physiologically addicted. Believe it or not, only 10% of those who drink excessively are physiologically addicted.
I didn’t drink in high school but I more than made up for that with binge drinking in college and law school. I made plenty of bad choices, had some blackouts, and endured horrific hangovers but it seemed like most others did too. When I started my legal career at a big firm in the mid 90s, I traded my Keystone Light and Long Island iced teas for wine...white wine first then red wine. Elizabeth Vargas describes the progression of alcohol consumption as Magic, Medicine and Misery. Red wine was my magical cure-all elixir and while I loved wine-tasting parties and trips to wine country, I wasn’t a wine snob. I liked most red wines and I prided myself in being able to consume many glasses and still get up early the next morning for a jog. Whenever I had an inkling that I was consuming too much (usually in the throes of a hangover), I consoled myself with the notion that I was just a social drinker and never drank alone like those “alcoholics” do. I didn’t need alcohol but I thought it made life more fun, made me more fun, and helped me connect with colleagues and clients. It became part of my identity.
By the time I hit my late 30’s, I had 2 preschool aged kiddos, a busy career as a civil litigator, and a husband who had recently been deployed to Iraq and then to Afghanistan. It was around that time that I discovered the power of a glass of wine on a weekday evening to relax and unwind, quiet the mind that was almost always thinking about work or what a bad mom I was, and help me fall asleep when my head hit the pillow (or earlier). I didn’t know then that we are much more likely to become addicted to alcohol when we use it for stress relief than when we drink socially, and my brain did exactly what it was supposed to do. It developed a tolerance, and I started to need more and more for the same effect. It wasn’t long before a glass a night became at least a bottle almost every night. I started picking wine not by names or labels but on alcohol content. Like other licensed attorneys in California, I dutifully and somewhat nervously attended my 1 hour of substance abuse education every 3 years, typically leaving reassured that I must not have a problem because I wasn’t as bad as those other folks who told us about their stories. And besides, wine didn’t talk back to me, it didn’t get in trouble at school, and it was the glue holding the proverbial shitshow together.
As a friend once said, “Alcohol is the great escape until it isn’t.” In my mid 40’s, a family member made a comment about my drinking after a long weekend together. It was more of an observation than a criticism, but it stuck with me and I started to question my consumption. Unfortunately, my answer for the questions was just more drinking so I could ignore them, and I didn’t make any changes. I wasn’t driving under the influence, I wasn’t showing up drunk for school events (despite my jokes about a cash-bar for parent-teacher conferences), I got my work done, and I knew many people who drank as much if not more than I did. I was well aware of recommended maximums but kept trying to convince myself that those didn’t apply to me as my body was somehow different (perhaps due in part to my height - ha). I had to have wine pretty much every night - whether home or on a trip. We’d go to national parks as often as possible and after hiking and exploring all day, I’d consume wine at night in the hotel room. My mental health was declining to the point of suicidal ideation and beyond, but I sadly didn’t connect the dots with my alcohol use. I then embarked on a self-improvement mission, and given that I didn’t like being so dependent on alcohol and setting a bad example for my kids on how to cope with life’s stressors, I started my 5 year journey with attempts to moderate and get control. I tried all the rules - only 2 drinks per night, no drinking on weeknights, no drinking after 10pm, you name it. Nothing stuck.
I was so disciplined in other areas of my life, but I just couldn’t seem to moderate my drinking. The cognitive dissonance kept growing as I continued to do exactly what I was trying not to do. I’d wake up in the middle of the night, upset that I had consumed a bottle again, vow that I wasn’t going to drink that day, and break that promise to myself come evening. Wash-rinse-repeat. Groundhog Day, over and over. Whether I was beating myself up for the night before, wondering about why I was struggling to make this change, deciding what my attempted maximum would be for that night, or figuring out what I needed to get done before I could start drinking, I was thinking about alcohol almost all the time. I was a prisoner to my own mind and it was just getting worse. Many years prior, when I was appearing in dependency court as a volunteer CASA for foster youth, I saw a mom whose kids had been removed by Child Protective Services due to her substance abuse. I couldn’t imagine then how a mom could choose a substance over her children, but as my misery grew, I understood. Alcohol had become my best friend and was always there for me to help me numb and escape, and I feared that if push came to shove, I too might choose a substance over my kids.
Miraculous Mindset Shift
When the Covid19 lockdown hit in mid-March 2020, I had just started another attempt at moderation - a Lenten resolution to not drink on weeknights - and was failing miserably. I had managed to shed 20 pounds of extra weight the previous fall, and I knew that excess alcohol was not going to help me maintain that healthier weight nor would it help me avoid getting covid myself. I did a 28 day paleo-type challenge in May and managed to white-knuckle my way through not drinking, only to immediately resume my usual heavy consumption when it ended. I started googling “Am I an alcoholic?” and bought a book called This Naked Mind but set it aside. A few weeks later, I embarked on a 3 week cross-country roadtrip with the teenagers and our new puppy, and I knew I needed all my wits about me for those middle-of-the-night forays outside strange hotel rooms for the puppy’s potty breaks. I managed to have only 2 drinks during that trip but hit the wine hard again when we got home.
I decided to start reading that book and was so relieved when the author Annie Grace encouraged readers at the very beginning to keep drinking while reading the book. Phew. Time for some..very...slow...reading. By the time I finished the book, I was sold on trying the Alcohol Experiment, a challenge to give up alcohol for 30 days as an experiment of sorts, filled with daily emails and videos. That 30 days included my husband’s birthday, my birthday, a family trip to Montana, and my niece’s wedding - go big or go home, right? It wasn’t easy but it was WAY easier than I ever anticipated, thanks to the mindset shift I experienced from the book. Instead of telling myself I “couldn’t” drink or “shouldn’t” drink, I no longer wanted to drink. My conscious mind knew for years that alcohol wasn’t serving me, but Annie’s book convinced my subconscious mind of this truth and I was finally able to align my behavior with what I wanted to do. Freedom at last!
As alcohol finally became small and irrelevant in my life, I felt this inescapable tug on my heart to help others reframe the role of alcohol in theirs. I didn’t know how or when I’d do that, and then I received an email from This Naked Mind about their next coaching certification class. I’d never envisioned myself as a “coach” for anything beyond my daughter’s preschool tee-ball team, but I’d also never felt so compelled to pursue something as this pull to become a coach and help those who are struggling like I was. As Ram Dass said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” As the founder of Reframing Alcohol and the head coach at Euphoric AF ,https://euphoricaf.com/euphoric-coaches I now have the great fortune of accompanying others on their journey to free themselves of the chains of excessive alcohol use and become the best versions of themselves.
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