Through a Glass Darkly: A Journey Through Alcohol Addiction and Recovery

Author Kate Smith details her struggles with alcohol addiction and quiet triumphs in recovery

February 28, 2022
Sliver of light through glass

I am in recovery from addiction to alcohol.

It’s taken me over 30 years to be able to write that sentence.

Thirty years in which alcohol has shaped my life, my relationships, my work, even (especially) my brain. Since my early 20s, alcohol has been my constant companion, a crutch that was always close to hand in good times and in bad. As they say in addiction circles, “at first it was fun, then it was fun with problems, then it was problems.” Somewhere my constant companion and I crossed the border from fun to problems, from heavy drinking to addiction.

Once that border is crossed, there is no amount of self-denial, promises or self-flagellation that will give an addict the golden ticket back to the “promised” land where alcohol is nothing but the fun, romance, relaxation and sociability that our culture promises it to be. Like fantasizing about going back to the days when my face was smooth, my hair was dark and I could spend all day, and often a fair part of the night, in 4-inch heels, the yearning to return is a chimera. I can never go back. As an addict my choice is between recovery, or once more climbing back onto the endlessly spinning wheel of fear, despair, remorse and denial that was my life in active addiction.

This is the story of my journey through recovery. It is a story I am writing as a way of reclaiming myself, of understanding the reasons for my addiction, what it has meant, and who I am and can become through recovery. I am not a recovery expert, but I hope that perhaps telling my story will help others who struggle. Recovery is not a destination, it is an ongoing, never-ending process. No matter how long I am sober, no matter how much work I do, my brain will never go back to my pre-drinking brain. The uncomfortable truth is that my brain has been permanently altered by my drinking. I will never be able to have “just one.” I am an addict, and I will be an addict for the rest of my life.

Many recovery stories seem to be V-shaped — spiraling down, shedding self-control, self-respect, jobs, relationships, before hitting “rock bottom,” a moment of utter desperation, asking for help, becoming sober and embarking on the path of recovery, ever upwards into a sunlit life of joy, spiritual awakening and hangover-free mornings .

My recovery was not like that. It was more like decades of being adrift at sea, sometimes tossed by storms, sometimes in sunlight, sometimes coming within sight of land but always being carried out again by the unrelenting undertow of my addiction. It has taken 30 years from the time I realized that alcohol had become a problem in my life, to the time when I can say that I finally entered recovery.

In the decades through which I struggled, I tried just about everything. I went in and out of the rooms of AA multiple times, I went on silent meditation retreats, I did a two-week 12-step retreat in California, I tried hypnotherapy, health farms, counselling, willpower, quit lit. But although I strung together weeks and sometimes months of sobriety, the undertow always carried me back to the bottle.

I remember sitting in an AA meeting, probably 17 or 18 years ago, and hearing a man share his story. He had just come from the doctor who had told him that if he didn’t stop drinking he would be dead within a year. He described alcohol as a huge tentacled monster. He could get so far from the monster and think that this time, he had escaped, but it would always slither out of its hole, wrap itself around him and drag him down back into the darkness. He was desperate, but he couldn’t stop. I remember thinking that at least I hadn’t reached that stage, but deep down I knew that the monster was waiting in the darkness for me too. It waits for me still.

The only thing I didn’t try was rehab; I don’t remember even thinking about rehab, which seems odd in retrospect. I was suffering, but in denial. I didn’t want to admit to being an alcoholic. I was ashamed, scared, at times desperate, but my addict brain was happy for me to “play” with recovery safe in the knowledge that it was still in the driving seat. Rehab would have been an irreversible step too far, and I was not yet desperate enough for that.

Addiction gradually locked me into a prison whose walls were made from shame and secrecy. These are the coconspirators that keep addicts stuck on the wheel, preventing us seeking the help that we need, forgiving ourselves for falling into a trap we didn’t know was there or being honest with ourselves or others. Recovery for me is about tearing down that wall, brick by brick. It means being honest, talking about it, even when dragging “it” out into the light feels like standing naked in front of a crowd of strangers. It means learning not to be ashamed by understanding what happened to me and why, and it means coming to see myself not as a weak, broken person, but as a person who can finally own up to and speak the truth about myself.

I do not call myself an alcoholic. For me, the distinction that society likes to make between alcoholics and drug addicts plays into the fiction that alcohol is not a drug, that it is not highly addictive, not toxic or carcinogenic, in fact not dangerous at all. It casts addiction as a moral issue and alcoholics as people who are weak, self-indulgent, irresponsible, “bad.” It pushes responsibility for the human, social and economic costs of addiction onto addicts, and away from the multimillion-dollar alcohol businesses that profit from hiding the ugly truth of the drug they push under a glossy cloak of sophistication, sociability and sex.

The distinction between alcohol and drugs is false. Despite what society and the alcohol peddlers want us to believe, alcohol is a drug like any other, and I am an addict like any other. My substance “of choice” (although really there was very little “choice” involved) was alcohol, but there the distinction between me and someone addicted to meth, cocaine, marijuana, sex or shopping is about as meaningful as the difference between someone whose booze of choice was Pinot Noir (mine, preferably Central Otago, because, you know, terroir, etc.), whiskey or meths. It’s the same hell in different clothes.

As Gabor Maté puts it in his book “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts”:

“There is only one universal addiction process. Its manifestations are multiple, from the gentler to the life-threatening, but in all addictions, it utilizes the same brain circuits of pain relief, reward and motivation; it imposes the same psychological dynamics of shame and denial, the same behaviors of subterfuge and dishonesty. In all cases it exacts the same price of inner peace, harm to relationships and diminished self-worth. In the case of substance addicts, whether in thrall to nicotine, alcohol or illicit drugs, it also jeopardizes physical health.”

I am in recovery, but I am not recovered, I will never be recovered. But after more than 30 years of holding my shame like a sharp knife that cut me deeper the harder I clung to it, I am now recovering the truth of who I am through understanding and telling the truth of my addiction.

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