Every morning I look in the mirror, inhale deeply and say to my partner of eleven years, “Barbara, have I told you I’m glad I don’t drink anymore and I love you?” She always smiles, and she always says, “Yes.”
I often stand in the twilight on our backyard patio in Angle Lake, eavesdropping on neighborhood sounds, watching our acrobatic rat terriers, grateful to tears that I am a clearheaded, productive member of society. My revenge is being alive and well.
Nearly a decade ago, this was not such an idyllic setting. I was desperate to stop drinking. Over 15 years, I had slid from an energetic and fit brick-house full of potential to a bloated, 200-pound, two-to-three-pack-a-day smoker (they were menthol lights—not so bad for your lungs). I was also swilling a fifth-plus of Skyy vodka nightly.
How on earth did this happen? It’s not as uncommon as you might think. I don’t live in Hollywood. I am not svelte, pretty, or rich. I am an anyone passing by; no one could guess where I have been by my present appearance.
Memorial Day weekend 1998 culminated a long career of courting my addictions, which started out being rebellious fun when I was a moderately successful aerobics instructor and personal trainer in Seattle. But by that day in 1998, I was deeply committed to my fifth-a-day habit (and had been booted out of the fitness industry several years before). And that was the good news. Two years earlier, I had been grappling—not for the first time—with crack cocaine. I was just shy of 40 and did despicable things to get that rock.
It all started in the ‘80s, when I had tried snorting cocaine and then graduated to smoking crack. Three weeks after my first pipe-full, I was in crack’s grip. I lost everything, torching $10,000 in less than three years. Somehow, I continued working in the fitness industry, though my mounting addictions were coming with appalling personal cost.
All my relationships were based on heavy “recreational” drinking and drugging because it made everything “more fun.” I distinctly recall one woman telling me I was “boring” when I attempted to rein in my consumption. She would later reprimand me for my intake at a party where she had been staggeringly drunk. Hypocritical to my warped perceptions then, it now seems—to my sober mind—beyond comprehension.
As I approached 40, I had begun having sex with dangerous men for five-dollar rocks. I remember vaguely wondering what in the hell I was doing in a seedy motel while the sane part of my brain clamored for me to stop. And I was showing up at the dealer’s apartment in a company uniform, waiting hours for drugs, morbidly fascinated with my own inconceivable behavior.
My drinking escalated. Before I went into my favorite bar for my nightly routine of four or five beers with whiskey backs, I’d detour to the liquor store, buy a pint of cheap vodka and five airline-size vodkas, and shoot three of them in rapid succession. Empties were tossed behind a bank of bushes in back of the bar. The pint was for when I got home to watch TV and pass out with. Years later, Barbara and I went by that restaurant and saw those tiny discards, at least 100 or more. I was comically scandalized at that glaring reminder of where I’d been.
During a relatively calm period among all the excess, in June 1996, I met Barbara while out dancing. Having emerged from a booze- and drug-infused relationship, I wasn’t drinking myself to a full-blown stupor just then. Miraculously, I had also exorcised crack, and was beginning to function at some acceptable level. My sense of humor had returned; I dominated the dance floor again.
I acknowledged to Barbara that I drank too much; of course she already knew. The non-reptilian part of my brain recognized that somehow she was important to me, but I didn’t know how. I had absolutely nothing to offer. She saw the spark that once was, and began at that moment the difficult task of bringing me back, though neither of us knew it at the time.
For 18 months I tried everything to modify my drinking. Barbara and I made pacts; I broke them. I would curb the excess, then crash, each time harder than before. In private, I fell to my knees, begging God to make me stop. My drinking escalated to where I began to have what I call “gray outs.” I wandered in the night, waking up naked on the couch with no recollection of getting there. Aching bones tormented me, vodka oozed from my pores, I coughed so hard I saw stars and my hands shook. My speech was stilted and my head spun when walking or driving.
In May 1998, Barbara and I went to a party, and I drank myself into a maudlin crying jag. After she left the next morning, I began drinking to level out. I was scheduled to work later that day but had reasoned, as drunks do, that I didn’t need to go in, throwing back booze until I passed out. The normally unflappable Barbara came unglued the instant she heard me slurring on the phone. That day, May 28, I tearfully vowed to go for treatment because I knew my “luck” had just run out. I was finally sick of being a sick, fat, tired, endlessly hung-over reclusive victim of my own behavior.
I made the arrangements and stayed in rehab two weeks. Barbara visited me every single day. I stood out because the innate leader in me was sober for the first time in 15 years; I was truly eager to see what I could do. It wasn’t easy, but not because I wanted to drink. I had to learn to function—how to relate to people without my vodka crutch. My body took 24 months to come back to some semblance of healthy performance. Five years ago I quit cigarettes too.
In December 2003 I began working again for the couple who had justifiably fired me years earlier and own several fitness clubs in Seattle. Barbara graciously supported me, and I cleaned houses while building my personal-training business. I updated my certifications with grueling home-study courses and struggled to regain my teaching style.
May 2004 heralded my 48th birthday, seven years of sobriety and my passing the American Council of Exercise Personal Trainer exams. In December 2004, I quit housecleaning to work full time training clients and leading group exercise classes.
Now at a functionally fit 51, I own a tiny successful wellness company. My lungs are “supra-normal,” I can leap 26 inches vertically several times in a row, kneel on a stability ball while tossing a medicine ball and do a couple sets of plyometric clap push-ups. I choose nutritionally dense, organic food to fuel my mind and body and with no effects from my long career of vile habits, I am in better shape than when I was 34. I am running at peak potential, and boy, is that exciting! I cannot imagine putting one drop of liquor in my mouth, one line of cocaine up my nose or lighting up one single cigarette. Why? Intense daily flashbacks of that dark place.
I refuse to be victimized by my past for an instant longer now that I am sober. I am lesbian. Alcoholism is rampant on both sides of my family. I suffered chronic sexual molestation at the hands of older relatives as a child. All these issues may have contributed to why I abused alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. But coming out of that slide was something I finally decided to choose.
If you are in the throes of any destructive behavior, get whatever help you need to do the work required to tame it. You must want it on a visceral level. I assure you it is worth each hard task you must do. Finally, stop being a victim and take responsibility for what happens in your life. No one can do that for you.