My Life Before Recovery: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

I think of my life two years ago as a layer cake composed of the good, the bad, and the ugly. The “good” was a very thick layer at the bottom that formed the foundation of the cake: a wonderful, loving, supportive family; a challenging and interesting profession in the law working with people who had known me for years and who generally appreciated and valued
my contributions; lots of friends from many walks of life; a lovely home in a great neighborhood; and many other gifts, including good health, economic security, and the intelligence to do my job well. The “bad” was a much smaller layer on top of the “good” – a workaholic tendency, negative self-talk and self-criticism, some overeating, a challenging relationship with my father, an imperfect husband, and so on – not uncommon in the life of a successful, mid-50-year-old, first-world professional.

The thin layer of “ugly” on the top of the cake was alcohol. After eight to nine years of alcoholic drinking, that thin layer of ugly was seeping down into the other layers of my life and poisoning them. The more I drank, the more contaminated my life became. In my last four to five years of drinking, I could no longer enjoy any leisure activity without pouring alcohol on
it. Gardening, cooking, sewing, camping, hiking, socializing, traveling – you name it – it was all being mixed with booze. My disease insisted on being fed when I wasn’t working. Undoubtedly, it was just a matter of time before it would also insist on being fed at work.

The poisonous, saturating layer of alcohol wasn’t helping my “bad” layer either. All my fears, self-doubt, insecurities, workaholic tendencies, shaky relationships, appetites, and so on were worse when I drank. The self-loathing that I began to feel about my drinking became a perpetual addition to the “bad” layer; it took every negative quality in that layer and made it worse.

My alcoholism snuck up on me in my mid-40s. In general, I had been a “take-it-or-leave-it”
drinker most of my adult life. In fact, having witnessed the havoc that alcoholism can create in a family, I was doubly determined not to fall into that trap. My father had been an alcoholic, and I was not going to be like him. However, the disease was like a fish in the ocean that kept
getting bigger and bigger. I didn’t notice it growing. In the meantime, I was losing my strength as age, daily stresses, and a few major life changes had me turning to alcohol for comfort and joy. The day came when I couldn’t reel the fish in. I had crossed a line and I couldn’t turn back. I had to drink. It was no longer a choice. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. I had to get to the buzz level I wanted and then hold that level of buzz for the rest of the day. The fish was stronger
than me, and I knew it.

I did not want anyone to know that I had slipped into alcoholism. I may not have had the gift of denial, but I was a control-freak perfectionist and I knew how to be sneaky and cover my tracks. Thus began about a decade of devious, obsessive behavior focused on keeping up appearances and not letting anyone see my growing dependence on alcohol.

What kinds of things did I do to hide my drinking and alcohol consumption?

  • Drank before and after events, so the amount I consumed in public looked normal.
  • Purchased hard alcohol in little “airplane-sized” bottles to hide in my purse or briefcase – but only alcohol that came in plastic bottles so the bottles didn’t clink together.
  • Bought hard alcohol in liquor stores all over town, so no one store or clerk got to “know” me.
  • Bought wine in disposable paper 1-liter cartons – again so I could hide it in my briefcase or tote without the weight or noise of glass.
  • Bought three-ounce plastic travel containers and poured alcohol into those to keep with me during the day – especially on weekends or evenings.
  • Switched to vodka – at first “regular” and then 100 proof – because it took less to maintain my buzz. Also, didn’t I read somewhere that you can’t smell vodka on someone’s breath?
  • Hid “my” stash of alcohol in secret places in the house so bottles of wine weren’t mysteriously disappearing from the wine rack and levels of hard alcohol weren’t going down.
  • Developed elaborate systems for disposing of empty bottles.
  • Snuck alcohol onto airplanes so I could drink on flights – without my husband or (if he wasn’t with me) other passengers observing the amount I was drinking.

My disease progressed over time, and in my last year of active drinking I reached the point where work was the only area of my life that I hadn’t poisoned. The barriers to not drinking at work were starting to crumble. Working over the weekend? Staying late at the office? Doing a task that feels somewhat routine or tedious? Let’s make it more fun by adding alcohol. Not
too much, mind you – just enough to bring on the buzz and take the edge off. Of course, I would keep coffee and mints at the ready, just in case my breath could give away my secret.

No one has told me that they knew I had a drinking problem. I never got caught. I was never confronted. I never had a friend or relative take me aside and ask, “Is everything OK?” I went into counseling in the winter of 2015 and tearfully shared my story with my counselor. I finally “came out” to my husband in June of that year. He had no idea that I had become an alcoholic. Neither of my children (in their 20s) knew that my drinking had gotten out of control. Starting in fall 2015, I told a few friends that I had gone to an outpatient treatment program and was now regularly attending 12-step meetings. They were also shocked.

You could say that I got away with it. Except I didn’t – because I never fooled myself. I knew what I was doing and how bad things had gotten. As an adult and a professional, I had worked hard to earn the respect of others, not in a false, insecure way, but by acting in a way that earned respect – being honest, reliable, hard-working, thoughtful, and sometimes maybe even
a little wise. At the same time, there was an inner voice that constantly told me that I actually didn’t deserve respect. When I was in my active addiction, I was leading a double life, a secretive life, a dishonest life. In my soul, I knew I needed to get into recovery and get sober.

As of this writing, I have just over two years of sobriety and recovery under my belt. What is my life like now? There is no comparison. My “good” has gotten even better, the “bad” is manageable, and the “ugly” has all but disappeared. My brain and life are no longer hijacked by booze. The mental energy I used to expend scheming about the purchase of alcohol and tracking the disposal of the evidence is a thing of the past. The fish is but a minnow in the lake, albeit one I watch closely and take very seriously. I now look ahead to retirement, grandparenting (fingers crossed!), and vacationing with anticipation rather than dread. I have two years of alcohol-free living under my belt, including leisure activities (book groups, parties, barbecues, and work events), home tasks (cooking, sewing, gardening, and entertaining) and travel (conferences, vacations, long weekends). I enjoy all these things without constantly obsessing about where the next drink is coming from and how I can hide it from others.

I still think about alcohol. I miss being a “take-it-or-leave-it” drinker. It would be nice to enjoy a glass or two of wine to take the edge off. But I am not going there; I’m not feeding that fish; I’m not kidding myself into thinking I can ever “drink like a gentleman” again. Through the support and wisdom of three 12-step groups that I have grown close to (including one at the OAAP), I now have other tools to help me handle life’s ups and downs. I appreciate the support of the OAAP and its confidential recovery meetings for lawyers. Instead of a thin layer of “ugly” seeping into my life, I am slowly working on creating a nice layer of peace and serenity. Having that layer of calm and tranquility soak down into the rest of my life would be a fine thing indeed.

– Choosing the “Good”