We aim to publish meaningful stories of perseverance amidst mental health struggles.
I remember there was warm light streaming through the window the morning I started my journey with sobriety. The room was full of an eerie glow that made it feel like time was standing still, or like it was dawn and dusk all at the same time. I was cold and sweating and shaking, and I recall a lot of pain, but mostly what weighed on me was the fear.
In times like that it seems like there is no hope: you feel as though you have slipped between the cracks while the rest of the world moves on. You wonder if you will ever get out, or if you’ll be able to catch up should you succeed.
That is a terrifying thought, and one that often burdened me during that time in my life. I let it get the better of me, and worst of all, I allowed my fear to control me. Fear, I would learn, was the ultimate enemy. It kept me from living, it led me to drink, and then it held me in its grasp while I languished in solitude.
My path to sobriety was not a conventional one, nor was I ever likely to have taken a route like that – I have never been much of a conventional person. I had just turned 22 and was attending college, and I had been drinking hard for 4 years straight. I was young to be an alcoholic, but all the signs were present and clearly known to myself and those around me: I developed an impressive tolerance, prioritized drinking above all else, routinely blacked out, suffered from serious withdrawal, and was generally not at the helm of my own life.
Even at a school famous for its drinking culture, I was known as “that guy”. But as time went on, I went from being the fun drunk to being the lush passed out on the couch at 8 PM — an hour before the party even starts — and that’s not a good look for anyone.
Towards the end I drank constantly, ate little, and vomited often, and as a result developed a bleeding tear in my stomach, a swollen liver, and a multitude of major nutritional deficiencies, among other issues. I was a wreck, generally looked it, and struggled to keep up with the events of my day-to-day life once those problems took centre stage. I was regularly cancelling, rescheduling, and failing at things important to me. I let down everyone in my life and retreated into seclusion more and more. I was a private person to begin with, and it was easy for me to disappear into the woodwork without many people noticing. My close friends became concerned for me, but they recognized that I was walking my own road now — there was nothing they could do to fix me. Most of them needing fixing of their own, just like me. If I was going to change I had to make that decision myself.
When my failing health caught up with me, I was hospitalized, and ended up in a brief inpatient detox at a local hospital while I was supposed to be studying for my finals. I was forced to make a break from the life I knew.
I was failing my classes anyway, and my interest in academia had waned to near non-existence. Everything in my life had come to a halt, and I desperately wanted another chance. So, I dropped out with only a few classes left to go, moved away to a town where no one knew me, and started over at life. Even at the time, I knew that I couldn’t run away from my previous existence and expect it not to follow me eventually, but I felt that I needed a new world to look at, both literally and figuratively.
I found a good job (better than I thought I deserved), rented a little cottage in a quiet, rundown neighbourhood, and began the life I thought I had started when I set out for new pastures nearly 5 years prior. By all outward appearances, I was doing well for myself in recovery, but something felt empty about it. I quickly discovered what a crutch alcohol had been for me, and how it had stunted my personal growth by allowing me to hide from reality behind the curtain of intoxication.
I was not ready for life as I knew it, and this hit me deeply as a person who always desired to see himself as the culmination of his ideals. I had hoped that without alcohol in the picture life would be a breeze, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I was still allowing fear to control my life, even now in sobriety. Over time I would come to learn that it’s essential to be able to accept yourself as a work in progress. We are imperfect, flawed beings, but the incongruity that we manage to embrace can allow us to grow.
For a long time though, I was frustrated, lonely, and confused with life. I relapsed several times; I felt cheated by alcohol and devastated in sobriety; I felt like the identity I had forged for myself in adolescence was gone. Upending my life and beginning anew was not as seamless as I had planned, but there was also no turning back. The fear of failure was more real than it had ever been, and now I had nothing to lean on. I was still too full of false pride to ask for help, and too afraid to seem weak or a burden.
I had forced myself to adopt a new, shaky outlook on the world in order to keep alcohol from slowly taking my life. After all, my viewpoints and decisions in the past had led me into addiction, so clearly they must have been flawed (at least, this is what I thought). It was as if my whole life I had been accustomed to wearing a T shirt and jeans, and suddenly had to wear a three piece suit every day. Something was off about it, but I had already thrown out my wardrobe, and the store was all out of T shirts and jeans. I didn’t feel like myself, but moving backwards wasn’t an option either.
You see, addiction is one of the biggest self awareness checks one can receive. The first step to fighting any addiction is to admit to yourself that you’ve been beat. You’ve been using what you’ve known your whole life to get out of your suffering, but your best practices have failed you. For me, this called into question everything I had ever believed about myself and life as a whole. My brain screamed at me that if I could have been so incredibly wrong once, why couldn’t I be wrong again?
This left me in a position where self doubt became my basic state. I would over analyze every little thing to the point of nonsense, and could never trust my own choices. I wasn’t sure if I liked my new job, but picking a new one was out of the question. What if I was wrong again? I agonized over how best to stay sober, what to do with my time, how adults dealt with their problems, whether anyone would ever love me again — the list goes on. This lack of confidence and self esteem had led me to drink in the first place. I felt as though I deserved the clarity now that I had done the work necessary to get sober, but I was wrong.
Sobriety was not a magic pill: it was the bedrock on which I could begin to build a real life for myself. Sobriety had not cheated me and left me helpless; it had removed the metaphorical restraints on me and allowed me a full range of motion. The rest was up to me. I don’t know how or why I realized this, but as time went on this epiphany became clearer.
Somewhere in that realization I found the strength to reach out to people. I smiled at strangers on the street; I began to make friends; I said out loud the way I really felt instead of what I thought people wanted to hear. Then, something magical happened: as I really tried for the first time in my life, my doubt vanished. All those worries and anxieties I had started to feel silly. The fear that had so long controlled me began to be replaced by fulfilment and satisfaction with my successes. My issues with my own image of myself began to be replaced by genuine pride and hope.
I found a place where I could be bright-eyed and idealistic, and wonder at the world around me. Back in the hospital, there was a vision I had seen which was perfect: a life in which I was confident, happy, and on the adventure of a lifetime. For the first time since then, I began to feel that I was living that life. It was as though I had been given the unique gift of sobriety when my life had been destined for nothingness. My train was headed for the end of the line but for some reason I had the knowledge, will, or sheer luck to get off at the first stop.
To not embrace the fullest life the universe might offer me seemed absurd. I allowed more and more love and beauty to flow into my life and put aside my pain and my strife. From then on, I never felt like taking a drink again.
It has been a long time since then, and life is not perfect, but it is constantly exciting, full of new discoveries, and most of all, worthwhile. As the seasons pass, I find myself learning more, relating to people more, and fearing failure less. We are all so similar; we walk unique paths but each is lined with pitfalls and gorgeous vistas all the same. I was not alone in my struggles, and had no reason to feel as though I needed to be perfect. We are all works in progress, and this is something to celebrate: we’re all in it together.
I often think back to those times in my life when my addiction was the worst and catch myself regretting that I wasted so much time. Now I can see the incredible lesson I’ve been given, and how much it has allowed me to grow and understand myself free from the bonds of chemical dependence. I no longer need to live in fear of failure — instead, I can rise up to face it head on, with the confidence of successes behind me and the knowledge that we all fight this battle.
Perhaps we would be wise to frame life that way: there are no blessings or curses, only challenges. We can use hardship to reflect on who we are and help us to become better. Our condition as addicts is to see hard times, but only we get to decide how we face those hurdles.