In my early 20s, I went out with a nice guy. Over dinner, he shared that he was on Zoloft for depression. I recoiled. For starters, that’s not first-date material. Secondly, I was rife with judgment. I didn’t want to date someone with a mental illness.
Years later, my husband and I were newlyweds living in Albany, GA. I came home from work one night to find David sitting by a pyramid of empty beer cans. He had lost his job and plowed through the better part of a 12-pack. “Great,” I thought. “I married an alcoholic.” (I hadn’t.)
In both cases, I was looking in a mirror. Drenched in denial, I refused to recognize my own reflection. I bought into society’s stigma of mental illness and addiction and wanted no part of it.
People living with mental illness and/or addiction know they aren’t alone. Plenty of celebrities have come forward with their diagnoses. Earlier this year, NBC’s Carson Daly shared his struggle with debilitating General Anxiety Disorder. Actress Jada Pinkett Smith has revealed her history with depression and suicidal ideation. Additionally, in 2018, TV journalist Elizabeth Vargas revealed her battle with alcoholism and her dual diagnosis of depression.
We commend these folks for their honesty, but wonder about the ordinary people in our lives. How many of them face anxiety, despair, obsessive thoughts, compulsive behaviors, suicidal ideations, an inability to focus, and/or addiction to drugs or alcohol (clinically referred to as substance use disorder, or SUD).
I had a great upbringing with plenty of love, support and opportunity. By all appearances, I was a happy kid, teen and young adult. Convincing as it was, my positive exterior didn’t aways reflect my internal reality.
I felt different, uneasy in head and heart. At times, the wires in my brain moved erratically, spinning in different directions at varied speeds. Occasionally, I’d short-circuit, crying hysterically and finding relief — and release — in a flood of tears.
Don’t get me wrong. I often felt genuine joy in my heart and still do. But for years it was at odds with emotive forces I couldn’t comprehend. Our brains are just a fraction of our total body weight, but when there’s mental illness, the “glitches” in that complex organ threaten our entire well-being.
When I went off to college, I discovered alcohol; its effects, immediate and transformative. Alcohol washed away perceived inadequacies and anxieties. I could finally exhale. Out from under my parents’ watchful eyes, I could drink as much as I wanted. And I did. From the onset, alcohol had an unyielding grip on me. I called it “partying,” but I was really self-medicating, numbing my nerves and soothing my spirit. I got sicker with every “dose.”
The daughter of an alcoholic father, I was no stranger to addiction. After several blackouts, I knew where I was headed. I made my first call to an 800 helpline sophomore year. They told me to go to 12-step meetings. “No way,” I thought. I had hoped someone could fix me. So much for that. (Fortunately, many schools have since started collegiate recovery communities on their campuses.)
The cycle of insanity worsened. So did the hangovers. Consumed by guilt and plagued by headaches and nausea, I repeatedly promised God, myself, and later, my husband, that I’d stop.
But I had long since crossed a line. I no longer wanted alcohol, I needed it. A baffling compulsion to drink overpowered my fading resolve to quit.
Drinking dominated my life. As a TV reporter in Huntsville, AL, I was driven by adrenaline throughout the day. But by late afternoon, I obsessed about my next drink. I couldn’t wait to get home, where I’d drink two bottles of wine most nights. On weekends, all bets were off. I eventually quit trying to control my intake. My elevator was plummeting.
In 2002, after 15 years in the throes of this progressive disease, I hit my bottom.
One evening, my husband, visibly irritated, said, “I’m sick of you getting drunk every night. For no reason.”
“I am too,” I admitted.
My response surprised us both. In a God-given moment of clarity, I surrendered, crashing through denial, fear, shame, anger and self-loathing. Everyone’s “bottom” is different. For me, there was no DUI, job loss or divorce. Just emptiness, hopelessness and defeat. For nearly half my life, alcohol was my solution. That night, my drug of choice quit working.
I looked in the mirror again, this time softening at the reflection. Finally, I felt compassion, not contempt, for the woman staring back at me.
In that moment, I knew I couldn’t live another day with alcohol, but how could I possibly survive without it?
I pulled out the yellow pages and found a treatment center in Nashville, TN. My words were slurred when I made the call, but my mind was clear: I was an alcoholic and I needed help. I checked into Cumberland Heights on June 21, 2002.
That decision set me on a life-changing course. My 3-pound universe was about to undergo a transformation. But the wires wouldn’t settle and sync overnight. There’s no cure for addiction or the mental health disorders with which I would later be diagnosed. But I’d be okay.
My journey of recovery and self-discovery was just beginning.