September 30th, 2019 was the one year anniversary of the last day I took a drink.
Understandably, I’m feeling a lot of feelings as I write this, but the two emotions that stand out would be a perfect blend of disbelief and pride that I am willing and able to share that opening sentence.
A few years ago, I made the decision to be more public about my experiences with mental illness, having been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder in my early twenties. It started out slow, a few posts subtly alluding to my challenges on social media and then culminating with my appearance on a CTV primetime special, “In Their Own Words: A Bell Let’s Talk Day Special”.
In that interview conducted by the amazing and talented Marci Ien, I joined a number of other mental health self-advocates from across the country, sharing our stories of living with mental illness. While I went in thinking I would be guarded and share in a “roundabout way”, I ended up being incredibly vulnerable, sharing some of the darkest moments of my journey with mental illness.
And this is the thing – mental illness can be ugly, and scary and disturbing. And, because of all of these things, most of all, mental illness can be exceptionally isolating.
I wasn’t immune to this phenomenon, and it was in these times where I felt most alone and hated myself the most, that I found comfort in alcohol.
I considered myself a good mother, a good wife and good at my work. On paper, I was checking all the boxes. I did “all of the things.” I was adequate in my day-to-day operations. If you looked at my life from the outside, you would be fairly certain I had it relatively together. If you were able to step inside my head, you would learn very quickly that I was falling apart.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to recognize the triggers for my anxiety and OCD. When I am tired, have too much on my plate, am not carving out time to decompress, things begin to spiral and my mental illness becomes unmanageable. For the most part, I’ve been able to “catch” these triggers and reel myself back in before it leads to crisis.
For the most part.
Last summer was the perfect storm of these triggers with the added devastating news that my mother, who is my best friend, was dying.
Looking back today, it’s obvious that I should have hit the pause button. I should have asked for help. Instead, I stayed on the train. Faster than a speeding bullet, I spiraled out of control. Like many mental health crises, it was ugly, it was scary and it was disturbing.
It was isolating.
Instead of reaching out for support, I reached for a drink and I numbed the anxiety; I numbed the obsessive thoughts and I numbed the exhaustion I felt from having to follow through on so, so many compulsions.
Still though, I didn’t see I had a problem with alcohol. I wasn’t getting DUIs, I wasn’t forgetting to pick up my kids from school or missing work.
To be clear I wasn’t excelling at anything, but I was functioning.
Besides, my drink (drinks, let’s be real) of choice was wine. Wine is acceptable, especially if you’re a busy mom. That’s what all the “Mommy Needs Wine” memes tell us. This mommy wine culture allowed me to hide in plain sight. It allowed me to post multiple artsy pictures of my wine glass on Instagram with witty captions describing a harrowing and eventful bedtime routine for the kids.
Had a long day at work? Have wine! Kids aren’t listening to you? That’s why they make wine! It was not until I stepped away from drinking that I truly saw how inundated women, and especially mothers, are with these messages.
These marketing tactics can be particularly dangerous for women with mental illness; they position excessive drinking as not only acceptable, but encouraged.
For me, alcohol was exceptionally efficient at treating my anxiety and OCD. For a few hours each evening, I was able to shut down my brain – including all rational thought – and escape the pain. This is, obviously, a short-term fix.
There’s a quote that I found in my online sober community which travels from a woman named Jessica Nigri: “When you drink alcohol, you are just borrowing happiness from tomorrow.” I find this such an apt description for my experience; in order to escape from my mind for a night, I would steal any joy that I might be able to find from the next day.
There is no overly dramatic “rock bottom” story for me to share. Like many other problem drinkers, I just got really tired of being really tired. When I decided to stop drinking, I reached out to a few friends, two of whom I knew to be recovering alcoholics, and I told them I was in trouble. I knew in my heart that I couldn’t take that revelation back once I put it out there. I would have to be accountable.
The thing about asking for help is that you often get it. The help that I received led me to a freedom that I could never have imagined. Very cliché, but also very true.
That does not mean that this process has been free of pain, anxiety or OCD. It does mean that I have gained the confidence and courage to face all things head on. I have not escaped. I am not “free from” but I am “free in” my challenges now.
On October 1st, I celebrated one year of sobriety. It isn’t the finish line, not even close, but it does serve as a marker for me to take a moment and look back on the most transformational year I’ve experienced in this lifetime.
In the last 12 months, I cared for and said goodbye to my mom after her battle with cancer came to its unfair end. I took up running, and ran my first half marathon a little over a week after my mom passed. My heart has stretched out to widths and lengths that I never knew possible, where small moments with my family are treasured for the beautiful gifts that they are.
I’ve learned to breathe. I’ve learned to say no. I’ve learned when to step up, and when to sit down.
I don’t know what the future has in store for me, but I know I’ll be present for it all.
While it takes bravery to put that out there, the hope is stronger. For it is hope that I cling to in believing my story could pull someone else out of darkness.