Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Beating Alcoholism

By Shoshanna Schmalz

Alcohol has always had a place in my life. Since my earliest memories, my parents always drank in the evening and at social events. My mother started to really have a problem with alcohol addiction when I was about twelve. She was drunk every evening. She wasn’t a mean alcoholic, rather an over-loving alcoholic. She would want me to sit with her while she rambled on, slurring her words. Half of the time I had no idea what she was talking about and often she would forget what she was talking about mid- sentence or repeat herself endlessly. I felt a deep emptiness and sorrow. I felt powerless to help her. I started to avoid her when I knew that she would be plastered drunk. I was disgusted. When I was a younger child she was the most loving and caring mother, but as an alcoholic there was nothing there but a hollow, blubbering shell. She would wake up late morning and begin drinking straight away. In the mornings I could still have a meaningful conversation with her but by mid-afternoon she wasn’t there anymore. The house reeked of vodka and was always a mess. Many times I had to help her just to walk to the bathroom, she fell a lot and would get hurt. I have two older brothers and two younger siblings who caught the brunt of this during their early childhood. My older brothers and I helped take care of them as much as we could, but they were often left to fend for themselves. My brothers and sister and I began to disregard her and toward the end of her drinking, we were sure that she was going to die soon and we accepted it.

There was a lot of shame that came from having an alcoholic parent. I didn’t want anyone to know and we always tried to hide it. We wouldn’t bringing new people home. In 1999 mother went through a two week dryout program and has been alcohol free since. She has returned to be herself, a loving and supporting mother and grandmother. She lives knowing that alcohol is simply not an option for her.

My father always drank, but he was a different type of alcoholic. He never drank until he fell but alcohol definitely played a role in his life.

Addiction runs in families and four of my mother's brothers and sister have had struggles with alcohol addiction. That is five out of eight. As well as her grandfather. All three of my father’s siblings are alcoholics as well as many of my cousins. Both of my grandparents on my father's side were alcoholics and I remember as a very young child my father taking my grandmother to rehab. I am one of five siblings. Two others have had struggles with alcohol but I am the only one who has fallen into deep alcoholism.

We grew up very poor and we were always moving so there is no place that I really come from. I was born in Jerusalem to American parents. When I was two we moved to the States. We lived in Montana, Oregon, Arkansas and California. At 12 we moved back to Israel and moved several times within Israel. Although our home was full of love as a child, there was always an underlying feeling of unworthiness and unbelonging. I had an illusive belief that people that had means were happy and didn’t have worries.

I must add that overall I had a wonderful childhood experience, full of love, inspiration and adventure, but this story is about the role that alcohol played in my life.

As a way to escape and find security, I married before my 20th birthday and had two children by the time I was 22.

My addiction to alcohol started gradually and by all logic I should have known better. Alcohol was a natural outlet for me because it was familiar and comfortable.  As I fell into alcoholism, I knew what I was doing even in the earliest stages.

When I was 29 my husband and I moved our family from Israel to the suburbs of Chicago with nothing. For the first couple of years in the States my husband was a trailer driver and I was left alone with two young children most of the time. One evening, a few weeks after we got there, I went into the supermarket and saw the beer aisle. I thought that it would be really nice to have a beer and relax. So I bought a six pack. I think that I had two beers that night and it felt good. The pressure was off. I drank every night after that until I finished them and then repeated it a couple of weeks later. Then I got pregnant with my third son and stopped drinking. After he was born I began doing the same thing, even while I was nursing my infant. I noticed that the amount that I was drinking was slowly going up. Instead of two beers I was having three to four beers at a time. But I still wasn’t drinking every night. After a year and a half I got pregnant again with my fourth child and stopped drinking again. I remember thinking that he was my savior from alcoholism, but almost as soon as he was born I began drinking again (while nursing).

Between the birth of my two youngest children, my husband and I opened a business and success was almost immediate. But with the success came many long work days and constant stress. I was constantly juggling work with taking care of the kids and home. I was also in a very emotional and verbal abusive relationship with an extremely controlling husband.

At that point our marriage was falling apart and I didn’t care about his feelings toward my alcohol or anything else. There was no love or compassion, I was far from any family and I had no friends. I knew that I was falling into alcoholism but the relief that it gave me was stronger than the fear and in the beginning I still believed that I controlled it. Slowly I started to crave alcohol, like a burning sensation in the back of the throat or the larynx. I knew that I had a problem but denied the extent of it, or damage that I was causing to myself and others. Now I realize that I could not see the effect that I was having on my children because I dismissed my importance or the impact that I had on their lives. I dismissed my self-importance as a mother. I didn’t see that it was a big deal.

Gradually, my evening drinking started earlier and earlier in the day, sometimes even before I left work. Many times I picked my kids up from daycare after I had already had a couple of drinks. I would be very careful not to get too close to anyone so that they would not smell it. Driving drunk was routine for me and I made all my plans around my drinking. I would drink until I fell asleep every night and that was usually on the couch. In the morning I would walk around the house collecting empty and half full cans that I had misplaced the night before. I hid the cans under other trash in the garbage so no one would see how many were there. Many times, in the morning I would not remember what had happened the night before. I pretended to know what the conversation was about while trying to remember or figure out the situation.

I tried many times to stop drinking by myself. I would stop for a few days at a time but the pull was too strong so I would fall back into it. These falls were devastating to me, I felt guilty and like a failure. My real addiction to alcohol lasted for about four years.

At 36 I started to look in the mirror. I had reached success by many peoples standards. I had an unlimited Platinum Credit card and I could buy whatever I wanted. I had a fancy car and big house in the suburbs and a successful business. But my life was empty. What was it all worth if I found pleasure in nothing?  At that time I weighed close to 300 pounds because of the excess calories, I was an alcoholic, I worked all the time and I was in a bad marriage. As a child I had connected happiness to money and I found it to be a myth. I had to make a change. I knew that there had to be more meaning than this to life. I didn’t want to die this way and I knew that I had more to give to my children. I decided to leave everything. I separated from my husband and moved back to Israel to be close to my family. My parents were shocked at my state. I could see the worry in my mother’s eyes. She helped me find a therapist but I still couldn’t find the strength to quit. I didn’t want to go away from my children to rehab. I tried again to quit on my own but fell back after ten days.

My husband also moved back to Israel and took formal action to try to take my children away from me, (he later cancelled it). I was scared and the shame was immense. I didn’t want anyone from the outside to know. I remember my therapist telling me that one day, after I recover, I will not be ashamed anymore and that I would be able to talk about it openly. I did not believe her.

Then one morning I woke up and couldn’t find two of my four children and I had no idea where they were. I was supposed to get them ready and send them to school and they weren’t there. I had to wake up my sixteen year old son to ask him what had happened the night before. The lost look and look of total disgust in his eyes as he told me, changed something in me. This was my wake up call, my rock bottom.

My therapist helped me find a closed dryout facility and within a couple of weeks I checked in. The thought of giving up alcohol scared me but I made the decision that I was going to surrender myself to the care of others. I would simply do whatever they told me to do. I obviously didn’t know how to do it on my own so I gave myself to them trustingly. It felt like I was letting go of all control in my life.

My mother and daughter accompanied me and helped me sign in. I remember joking around with the doctors. When they left and I walked into the ward I saw people sitting in a circle in a group meeting. They looked ragged and worn and a strong sense of flight came over me. I wanted to run. I felt like I didn’t belong there among those people. I was not like them. For a second, the thought crossed my mind that I could still catch my mother in the parking lot, but I knew that I couldn’t leave. I needed this, so I stayed.

We had group meetings twice a day and lots of chores. It was not fun and mostly I remember being bored. Most of the people that were in rehab with me had been there many times prior. This made me realize that it is not a quick fix and that relapse is a real possibility. Almost daily people were signing themselves out so that they could go and drink. One of the ladies in my room had been to rehab seven times. I stayed and completed the two week program.

When I got back home I still struggled with cravings, especially during the first few days. My children gave me strength. They acted as though they had gotten their mother back “fixed.”  I remembered getting my mother back and how wonderful it felt. They did not fathom that I could still fall back into drinking and I could not let them down. So I stayed strong and adopted my mother's way of thinking, alcohol is simply not an option for me no matter what. As the time passed it got easier and easier.

As I write this I am 39 years old and nearly three years alcohol free.

In order to overcome the hold that alcohol had on me, I had to go deep within myself to untangle and sort through tightly intertwined emotions and beliefs. This is what I know to be true, based on my own experience with alcoholism.

My alcoholism sprouted from emotional agony caused by my inability to cope with my internal negative emotions. It may seem as though outside circumstances cause alcoholism, but they do not. Alcohol is a vice, a symptom of emotional distress. I was stuck in constant loops of self pity, blame, shame, self-hatred, guilt and denial. I was oblivious to these loops. Because I was unaware of these thought processes, they were impossible for me to change.

Self Pity and Blame: Self-pity can be very consoling. If you are pitying yourself, then you are blaming others, and outside circumstances for your situation. Feeling sorry for yourself is the opposite of taking responsibility. If you are feeling sorry for yourself, then you are under the false pretence that you are the victim of outside circumstances and the victim of other people's behaviors. In other words, you don't feel as though you have control or power in the situation. One of the best lessons that I received from my alcoholism is that when I blame others for the situation that I am in, I have to wait for others to change in order for the situation to change. But when I realized that I am the only one that can make a change in my life, then I quit blaming others. Others can only do to me that which I allow and agree to take from them. If others treat me poorly and I stay, then I am the one that is allowing them to treat me this way. It is not them that is to blame, they are only doing what they know how to do based on their own internal dialogue. When I blame another, I am giving them the power over my life. Imagine your life as a car that doesn’t stop and you choose which seat you want to sit in. You can choose to sit in the passenger's seat. You can choose the back seat or you can choose to be in the drivers seat. No matter what seat you choose, the car will still go. Imagine that you choose the passenger’s seat and let someone else drive, but you continuously blame them for taking turns that you did not want to take. As I let go of blame, I gained strength in the knowledge that I am in control my life. If I am in charge then I am the only one that is responsible for my alcoholism and I am the only one that can change the situation.

I took the power in my life back by letting go of blame and checking within myself what I need to do in order to change the things that I wanted to change.

Shame: The shame experienced as an alcoholic, or any shame, stems from feeling less adequate than others. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I couldn’t control my alcoholism. I was worried about people finding out so I stopped being social and stop putting myself into social situations all together. The shame made me hide, both emotionally and physically. Shame is one of the lowest emotions you can feel. It is the opposite of self-worth. I was ashamed of who I was and what I did, I didn’t feel worthy of anything or anybody. Even just going to the park with my children was emotionally difficult.

Self Hate and feelings of inadequacy: Self-hate is extremely destructive. I hated myself and could not believe that another could love me. I felt as though I was not worthy of love. So I searched out in a relationship that which I felt I was worthy of, and settled into a destructive marriage and stayed there for many years. In retrospective, I could not have had any true, meaningful relationship with this mindset. If you don't believe another can love the true you then you never really show them who your true self is. I was constantly hiding of who I really was.

When you hate yourself you find reasons to reinforce the self-hate in every situation. It is a constant dialogue in your mind. When I met someone new, I would begin to imagine myself through their eyes. I became acutely aware of aspects of my personality and my body that I disliked the most. I would imagine that the other person is only seeing these aspects and I couldn’t just flow with conversation or act naturally. I would cut conversations and interactions with other people short. When you see yourself in a certain way, you cannot believe that another sees you differently.  When you hate yourself, you give up on yourself and you do not feel like you deserve more than your lot, so you don't strive for better.

The cycle of the self-hate and the feeling unworthy, is one of the hardest cycles to break. When you think this way then you can only see that which reinforces this way of thinking. When someone compliments you, you may feel as though they are patronizing you. But if somebody points out something that you did wrong, you will take it, own it, dwell on it and grow it. You will beat yourself up over it and play the recording of how stupid you are over and over again. Whereas, a person that believes in themselves and loves themselves, would not take it to heart. Rather, they would realize their mistake, learn the lesson that the situation is offering and grow from it.

We are not born all-knowing, therefore, a person who does not make mistakes does not exist. There is only the person who chooses not to take the lessons by way of dwelling or blaming (including self-blame). When you don't learn from a situation then you are likely to repeat it. Self-hate feeds and reinforces itself with every loop. The lower you feel, the harder it is to pull yourself up. This loop makes it very difficult to pull oneself out of alcoholism. You feel as though it doesn't matter anyway.

Guilt was my constant companion as an alcoholic. I felt guilty about what I was doing to others, especially my children. I felt guilty about what I was doing to myself. I felt guilty because deep down I knew better, and I knew that I was responsible, even though I was not consciously aware of it and outwardly blamed others and outside circumstances.

These loops of thought are self feeding and hold you down and lock you in their grasp and constraining boundaries.

Not only was I having these negative dialogues within my own mind, but the people in my life, especially the people closest to me, were blaming me for my alcoholism as well. They didn’t understand me. This made me go further into my own hell. This just made me hide myself from them more and live in complete self-isolation. Alcoholism is lonely.

My addiction to alcohol made my mind manipulate itself. It twists your truths and morals around in such a way that it changes the way that you think about alcohol, justifying your drinking, in order to satisfy the addiction. As an alcoholic I would wake up in the morning and be disgusted with myself for drinking. Many times I would swear to myself that I would never touch another drop of alcohol. I would look at myself in the mirror and tell myself that I'm going to stay connected to this feeling and I never want to drink again. But as the day progressed, my hatred and disgust would begin to fade and my mind would talk itself into drinking. I would tell myself that everybody has a drink in the evening and that I'm not going to hurt anybody by drinking. An alcoholic's mind tricks itself as the hour to drink approaches. I often compare what took place in my mind it to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This is one of the hardest things to overcome. You can't trust your own self.

The addiction to alcohol is progressive and intensifies with time. The longer the alcoholism is allowed to flourish, the deeper the roots and the harder it is to break. The earlier it is caught, the easier to overcome. There will not be a point in the future that it will be easier than it is at this moment. What started out as casual drinking slowly matured into the demon of alcoholism, gradually taking over my life. As it spread through my mind it slowly engulfed every component of my life, shadowing it and choking out the love, happiness and meaning of each aspect. Alcoholism filled those spaces with guilt, absence of caring, impatience and bitterness. It's numbing. I lost love for life, lost love for self, lost love for others and lost purpose. I quit enjoying my children and my home.  I lost hobbies and friends. Nothing had meaning for me but the alcohol. And the alcohol became my best and only friend. It feels like a warm blanket that drowns out the pain. This is an illusion though, because the alcoholism brings with it far more pain than I had prior and most of the pain that I was trying to kill was the pain brought on by itself.

Understand that we are each born individual and unique and we all come into the world the same, as equals. Each of us are worthy of love and understanding.  We lose this belief because of experiences we have along the way and things that are told to us in our life.

Denial or partial denial of the addiction is why it can take so many years to get help. You cannot see the extent of your problem (or don't want to see) and you believe that you can quit anytime if you really wanted to.

To make any kind of true lasting recovery, you must first admit to yourself that you have a problem.  This can be extremely difficult to do because once you admit that you have a problem then you must take responsibility for it. The alternative is to give in to the alcohol knowingly.

In order to break the denial and get the full lesson needed to overcome alcohol you must first reach your own personal rock bottom. This rock bottom is different for each person. It is such a low point that you cannot go lower. You feel as though you are choosing between life and death. You cannot lie to yourself any longer. You have to face the truth and admit to yourself that you have a problem. You realize that this is what your life has become and you may end it this way.

This breaking point is usually triggered by a very traumatic moment or a series of events brought on by alcohol. When you reach this breaking point you are faced with a life or death choice. Either you admit and take responsibility and reach out for help, or you admit and you give in to the addiction. In both cases you cannot deny it to yourself any longer. Those who choose the latter parish. This is because you quit resisting and give into the alcohol knowingly. You accept it as your fate.

For me the breaking point was when I woke up in the morning and could not find two out of four of my children, one of whom was six at the time. My children were fine. My daughter, who was 14 at the time left to sleep at her grandparents house. My six year old had called his father to come and get him because he was hungry and there was noone there to feed him and I was “asleep.”

Once you admit to yourself that you have a problem, then you must be able to admit to others and ask for help. Asking for help can be one of the most difficult things to do. What I found is that once I asked for help there was a huge weight lifted from me. I was not alone any more and I could lean on another for strength. Another thing that I found is that people who were close to me knew I had a problem anyway, whether I admitted it to them or not. You must be able to ask for help.

The physical addiction to alcohol can be just as difficult to overcome as the mental addiction. Your body physically craves it and needs alcohol just to feel normal. Without alcohol your body shakes uncontrollably and you feel sick. You cannot physically function without alcohol. You cannot move. The physical craving feeds your mental craving. I tried many times to break my addiction by myself, but I was unable to. You cannot think rational thoughts while your body is craving alcohol nor can you think rational thoughts while you are influenced by alcohol and these are your constant states of being.

The physical addiction must be broken before you can begin the mental recovery. Knowing as an absolute truth is that you are the only one that can pull yourself out of alcoholism is key. No one else has that power. The work is yours. But with saying this, I will also say that you cannot do it alone and you do not need to do it alone. Reach out and find help. I still religiously continue group meetings and personal therapy.

Therapy is very important. When we are stuck in the destructive loops of thought, another's perspective can show us a different way of thinking and help us break the loop. I have a very talented and dedicated therapist, Adi, who slowly helped me work through my personal demons. She showed me rays of light that I did not see and and planted seeds in my mind of other ways of living. These seeds flourished.

Surround yourself with people that build you up and avoid those who do not.

Understand that you cannot beat yourself up enough or put yourself far enough down to break the cycle of alcoholism. The further down you are, the weaker you are, the less power you have and the more likely you are to break. You can only inspire yourself out of alcoholism. The further you lift yourself up in your thoughts the more power you gain and the more worthy you feel of change.

You can help yourself out of alcoholism by focusing on the positive things that you want in your life and the positive things that you want for yourself. Whatever it is that you focus on in your life is what expands. This is because, the only moment in time that your life is happening is in the current moment. The past is gone and the future is not here. Everything that we dwell on in the past is inhibiting and everything that we think of in the future is only a projection of our current thoughts and expectations. It is not actual. It is only an illusion. If we can keep our current thoughts focused on positive things, our entire life experience will change to a positive one. As we change our current thoughts, so will our projection and expectations of the future change. Our overall life experience will be tilted into the light rather than the darkness. Therefore, if you are focusing on not wanting to drink anymore, it is still the "drink" that is in focus, it is the subject of the conversation. What your thoughts are on is what is receiving airtime in your life and gaining power. You are giving your addiction strength with every thought upon it. You must find things to focus on that are outside of the alcohol. Being in the clutches of alcohol can make it difficult even to see the smallest ray of hope to grab onto or find enjoyment in anything. Alcoholics who had a hobby or interest prior to alcoholism can visualize themselves enjoying them again. It may help to focus on a role model, someone that you can aspire to be like. Find a vision of yourself that you enjoy, without the alcohol, how you would like to be. Hold that vision in your focus as much as you can. When you feel yourself being pulled into the loops of your mind, pull yourself out and bring your new vision into focus. This mental process takes time and practice but if you can persevere, you can do it.

If you can look into your own mind as an observer and completely understand these loops of thought, you can slowly remove yourself from them, and if you can keep your thoughts positive, you can beat the addiction. I am not saying that it is not difficult to quit, but it is possible, and there is hope.

Through healing alcoholism, I was able to sort through my own personal demons and heal my life. I see my alcoholism as a gift.