Ever read a recovering addict’s story and thought “OMG – that sounds just like me”?
That was my reaction exactly after meeting Emma, recovering addict and author of Em’s Sober Journal.
Spooky, in fact.
In this candid look at her years of addiction, and her struggle to change Emma delves into the darkest days of her past, and demonstrates her passionate desire to change. She talks about her higher power, her self-imposed strategy to succeed and the value of her growing “recovery family” online.
I’m so grateful to Emma for her eloquence, honesty and observations – I might even write my own story one of these days too!
Emma – know this – your story is so important. You are strong, insightful and inspirational.
We salute you!
Emma, hi… let’s start with finding out a little bit about you… who you are? where are you? what do you do?
My name’s Emma and I’m 35 years old. I live in a town called Torquay in Devon, where I grew up and have recently relocated to recover after 15 crazy years of addiction and chaos in London. Until last year, I was an English teacher, holding down what probably would be viewed as a “successful life”. I used to work in advertising before that, and I’ve always been a high achiever… something I think definitely perpetuated my addiction and prevented me from seeking help earlier (I am very self-willed and think I can analyse my way out of anything!). Now, I’m all about living a life of peace and integrity.
I don’t have everything figured out yet, but I’m learning that that’s okay!
What brought you here? I mean, you must have some kind of “drinking/ drugging/ addiction story”… care to elaborate?
I am an addict through and through, I know this now.
My drugs of choice were alcohol and cocaine, but in reality I would take anything put in front of me and my illness can – if I’m not careful – spill into other areas like shopping, health anxiety and Facebook stalking and other obsessive behaviours!
I started drinking aged 11 and before I was even of legal age I’d checked most of the boxes that most alcoholics and addicts eventually do. Being arrested? Check. Wetting and soiling myself in public? Check. Drinking alone and in the morning? You bet. I didn’t discover drugs until my early twenties but when I did I used them for the same reasons I drank: to quell a gnawing tension inside me that wasn’t responding to anything else. I recognise this now as the cravings of an addict; the gaping hole that constantly asks to be filled; “washing machine head”. Whatever you want to call it, I had it.
In my twenties I was the very definition of “the party girl”. I worked hard and played harder and made (and wasted) a hell of a lot of money. At the time, it seemed like everyone was going hard at it, but I know now they probably weren’t doing it in the same way as me, or for the same reasons. As I got closer to my thirties, the party girl routine was growing tired. People started to comment on my behaviour, which – when drinking – was completely erratic and sometimes extremely reckless.
I began suffering the ill effects of substance misuse, the most severe of which were those on my mental health. I routinely self-harmed and started to think I had a serious mental illness. None of these concerns, however, were enough to make me stop drinking or consider the fact that drinking may have been exacerbating my mental state if not flat out causing it.
Because I am bright and self-starting, I managed to hold down two very successful careers for a long time and I believe my pride and ego relating to these things told me I couldn’t be an addict. Addicts don’t hold down jobs and get promoted do they? Well, yes, actually, they often do. I did, and I was a train-wreck on the inside. Eventually though, things started to progress, and things I was able to do in my twenties (all nighters on weekdays, a quick glug in the morning before work, simply “doing life”) became nigh on impossible to sustain.
I was spoken to at work about my absences (all drink/drug related) and I struggled financially. My relationships were a mess as well. I would choose romantic partners based on their “sensibleness”, thinking they’d sort me out and give me some stability. They never did. I actually orchestrated one long term boyfriend’s own addiction to cocaine, and I left the other because he was “tying me down” and not letting me be the free-spirited hedonist I was destined to be forever. ‘Relationship geographicals’, I call these.
I preferred to be labelled as psychiatrically unstable if it meant I could continue drinking and using
But no matter what I did, I couldn’t stave off the inevitable. When my mum suddenly passed away in 2015, things got dark…quickly. I used her death (and it’s not easy admitting that) as an excuse to get worse, not better. I isolated and my flat became a shrine to alcohol and cocaine. These two substances became the sun around which my life would orbit for two years. I cannot even bear to recall the number of lies I told over the course of those two years, to myself as well as others.
My life was saturated in self-pity and wine, until one night in December, facing the prospect of no more wine left in the house, I calmly took enough tablets to floor a Great Dane. Believe it or not however, I still had another drink in me. Such is the strength of denial in active addiction, I preferred to be labelled as psychiatrically unstable if it meant I could continue drinking and using. I was completely in the dark, still, about the impact drinking and using had had on my mental health. A couple of weeks later, I had my last drink and drug. Coming round in a hotel room with no recollection of how I got there or what I had been doing for the preceding 3 days, I had no options left other than to admit defeat.
I had tried, and if I wasn’t careful, addiction would win. At this stage I had nothing left. My relationship with my family (who had to witness me nearly dying, being brought back to life, then choosing to drink again) was in tatters, I had nowhere to live and my job was pretty much over since I had to return – under my Dad’s supervision – to Devon. The day I realised this was the day I attended a twelve step meeting for the first time.
That was 10 months ago now.
What was your drinking/ using/ addiction like at the point you decided to quit?
At the end of my drinking and using my life was basically one big blackout.
I had been signed off work – with depression and anxiety I am now convinced were alcohol related – and I was trapped in a cycle of drinking and using and sleeping it off. The sleeping it off became less important than the using eventually and I was drinking and using more than ever, chasing the relief I wanted.
Hell, it WAS my life, so I wasn’t going to give up without a fight
At the end stages, the relief wasn’t there to be had anymore because the periods of lucidity and consciousness grew shorter and shorter until it looked like drink = immediate blackout. The drink and drugs were no longer doing what they ought but I couldn’t envisage a life without my “old friends”. It was this conundrum, plus a feeling of total apathy about whether I lived or died, that made me take a massive overdose that resulted in me needing to be resuscitated. After this, I tried my best to work out a way in which drinking could remain a factor in my life.
Hell, it WAS my life, so I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Even after nearly dying, I was still trying to manipulate the situation so that my “mental health” was the thing that was messing up my life, not my chronic addictions to alcohol and drugs.
… and the final straw, for you, was what, exactly?
The last blackout I had was for 3 days, during which time I terrified family members, attempted another overdose, and checked myself into a hotel. This – for reasons I can’t fathom since, to be honest, this type of erratic behaviour was par for the course behaviour for me by the end – was the last straw.
Something must have told me that, if I didn’t face up to the fact that alcohol and drugs were the problem here, I could lose my family and my own life. Scared and beaten, I pitched up at a twelve step meeting that night.
Subconsciously I realise now, this had been the step I had been avoiding all my life to the point where I wouldn’t even Google “AA” or “rehab” or anything like that.
I choose to believe a higher power got me there just in the nick of time.
Do you see yourself as being in recovery… If so, how? What do these words mean to you? If not… how so?
I absolutely identify as a recovering addict and being part of a strong recovery community has been integral in my journey.
Straight away I saw the value in listening to others’ stories and for the first three months in sobriety I ate, slept and breathed recovery. Recovery for me looks like putting as much energy into getting well as I did my drinking and using. I am very active in the recovery community both locally and online, have a sober Instagram and follow other recovery advocates for inspiration and support. Recovery for me means a lot more than giving up alcohol and drugs, it means recovering from a mindset that will – without fail – make drinking and using look attractive to me. I have a very convincing internal narrative that tells me substances equal relief and reward and if I don’t keep myself well – in thought and through action – that narrative will ALWAYS take me back to a drink/drug.
Hearing others share their stories, and sharing mine with others is the weaponry with which I attack this narrative of insanity!
So, you stopped/ changed your lifestyle (congratulations!)… how did you do that? How did you manage after you stopped? What did you do to motivate and maintain your abstinence? Any hints or tips, sources of inspiration for people seeking to do the same?
I initially entered into a twelve step programme and worked through the steps with a sponsor. This worked for me, but it’s definitely not the only way to recover and I need other things outside of fellowships to motivate and engage me on a daily basis.
The only thing you really need in order to start the recovery process is a willingness to reassess the mechanisms you’ve been using to cope.
You need to be open-minded enough to accept that you may have been wrong all along and this is not easy to do. The other element to my recovery that is absoltely vital is communication with other alcoholics and addicts.
I would go so far as saying that fellow survivors of addiction are some of the most empathetic and loyal friends I have ever had the privilege of meeting and I consider my “recovery” family as precious as my biological one in many ways.
Addiction is a very selfish and isolating condition – it wants us to be alone and it feeds on our suspicions that no one else is suffering like we are. This is a fallacy and the only way to expose it is to meet others who have trudged the same difficult path we have. I found that once I’d removed the substances from my life, I was left with my head and often this is simply not a safe place to be! I view recovery as a very holistic thing and it has to be the main focus in my life, because it informs every other area.
Without my recovery, I can lose everything I have and I must be willing to go to any lengths to protect and feed it. In many ways, obsessing about recovery has been a replacement for my obsession with substances. Some might say that’s not particularly healthy, but it’s definitely better than the alternative!
Not drinking alcohol (for example) can be a very stigmatising thing… were you prepared for that? How did you deal with it? How did others around you deal with it?
Unfortunately we live in a society where the words “alcoholic” or “addict” are almost synonymous with the terms “failure” and “weak”.
Things are improving, but there’s still a way to go before the illness isn’t laced with some amount of taboo. The more I recover, the more aware I am aware of the social and commercial narratives around alcohol and how the product is marketed, particularly towards women and young people. It is truly baffling, once you stop and think about it, that a neurotoxin responsible for countless deaths, is sold almost as a lifestyle product.
The other thing that I noticed is that because drinking is so enmeshed with our culture in Britain, so intrinsic to our way of life, people often don’t know how to respond to someone who backs out of the arrangement.
I’ve had every reaction (“just one won’t hurt”, “is your life boring now you don’t drink?”, “what do you do for fun?”) but they all come from the same place: a belief – whether subconscious or conscious – that those who don’t drink alcohol anymore are damaged in some way, or defunct in terms of “being able to handle it”. This is something I believe must change before we are really able to look objectively at alcoholism and addiction as the serious illness they are and this is why I don’t hide it. People need to see recovering addicts as survivors rather than personal failures, just like we would view a person who’d recovered from cancer.
I think the stigma around addiction is ultimately based on the – still rampant – belief that addicts CHOOSE to be addicts.
This is simply not true, and is evidenced by the mess I’ve made of my life. Who would choose to be homeless and jobless and strapped to a stretcher because they couldn’t afford a bottle of wine. No little girl says “when I grow up I want to be an alcoholic!” It’s easier, I think, for the general public to see the public health crisis we’re facing because of alcohol as the result of personal failings, rather than a wider problem in which they are complicit. It’s a cosier thought, and I get it, but it’s not as simple as “just saying no” for us addicts.
Saying all this, the reaction I have had to my giving up drinking have been overwhelmingly positive.
Once you start talking about it, it becomes clear that nearly every one of us has personal experience or knows someone who has struggled with substances. People just don’t understand the disease and that’s not always their fault.
You’ve been sober/ clean for a while now. Are there any manifest benefits in your life that not drinking/ using has afforded? What are they? Any advice for people reading this… heh, can we learn from any of your mistakes?
I’ve been sober now for ten months and my life has changed in almost every imaginable way.
I have a clarity and presence in my own life now that I didn’t know was possible. It sounds corny but it’s true. I think the mistake most people make in recovery is wanting everything to happen yesterday. I want to be totally well and I want it right now.
I have to accept that recovery from addiction is a journey and that it is not linear.
Time doesn’t equal experience or achievement and for an overachiever like me that has been hard to accept!
Another thing I’ve struggled with is guilt, shame and wanting so badly to make it up to people that I’ve ended up in situations that are unsafe for me, such as co-dependent relationships. I want so much to be liked and approved of that I sometimes go against my instinct and forget to set healthy boundaries. The good thing about recovery, however, is that you can always correct a mistake and it should never be dwelled upon.
If I’m being lackadaisical about my programme, I can ramp it up. If I am isolating I reach for the phone now instead of the bottle.
Contributing to a Recovery Blog is a big deal to some people – how come you wanted to be involved? How so…?
Adding my voice to the growing number of voices speaking out about addiction is hugely important to me, for both selfish and unselfish reasons!
I get a lot of catharsis from regurgitating my tales of woe that no amount of therapy could touch! Less selfishly, I believe it is my duty to share my journey in recovery. Had I known about the support network that exists online I might have been less frightened in my rock bottom. Yes, I want to change perceptions and improve understanding of the illness of addiction but my main objective is to let other addicts know they are not alone. I have faced some criticism in my personal life for sharing my status as a recovering addict and it is a risk.
But I think it’s one worth taking, even if just one person gets something from my story.
And finally… after all this – what’s next for Emma? Plans? Goals? Fears? Pleasures?
My only concrete goal for the future is to continue my journey in recovery.
That can be my only plan.
Others are pointless and waste energy.
Recovery changes your perceptions and rejigs your entire value system.
I no longer really care about money, prestige or “success” in a traditional sense.
I really want to work in the addiction sphere, with and for other addicts.
I really want to continue speaking out about my own experiences with the hope this helps others.
For the first time in my life, I am excited about the future and am beginning to envisage one that is happy: that’s more than enough for me right now. In other words, watch this space.
About our subject, Emma:
Emma describes herself as an alcoholic and drug addict that has been in recovery for nearly one year (at time of writing). She is author of her own blog, Em’s Sober Journal, and her self-professed manifesto is simple:
“I want others like me to know they are not alone. I suspect I’ll operate in a very muddled, stream-of-consciousness style way, sharing thoughts on addiction, alcohol, mental health and all the shit that comes with it…”