“Sometimes deciding who you are is deciding who you’ll never be again.” ~Anonymous
May 13th, 2011. I finally surrendered to the fact that I had a drinking problem and desperately needed help. The comments from acquaintances, the concern from friends, the complaints from my flatmates, the intensity of my depression, the conversations with my therapist—they all culminated in the decision that I had to break the chains from my liquid abuser.
It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, one that entailed waving goodbye to the life that I had led before and diving into a new one where I didn’t have any points of reference and safety handles to grasp.
At that time, the only option I thought was available to me was AA, so I emailed their helpline on that Friday at 2:43 p.m. Only an hour later I received a response from someone who seemed to care and understood my turmoil and despair, who took the time to share some of her own story, which I could relate to.
I began going to meetings right away, and my friend Federica held my hand for the first two. I felt blessed to have her calming and loving presence next to me while I was full of fear and confusion. I will forever be grateful to her.
I stopped drinking as soon as I joined AA. I started going to three meetings a week. I was aware that my levels of drinking were quite below the average threshold of most of the fellowship members, but I was advised to look at the similarities, not the differences, so I did.
My quiver was now equipped with shimmering new arrows: I had the strength of my resolution, my meetings to go to, the opportunity to mix and match them when I wanted to, a whole community of people I could connect with, and, very quickly, a steady group of friends to go out with after our regular meetings and on weekends.
I had found almost everything I was lacking and more in the space of a few weeks. I know that finding those people was what made it so easy for me to stay sober, because we enjoyed each other’s company and everything we did was not alcohol-related; also, I was never physically dependent. I was an “emotionally dependent” drinker.
What I didn’t know then was that this bubble I had created was a very fragile one because it lacked my personal foundations of sobriety.
Nine months after I quit drinking, on a dating website, I met the man that would become my beloved life companion and husband. I made space for him in my bubble, and he opened up to me the portal to his life.
I became part of an outside world that I had not interacted with and had unintentionally kept at distance since I had quit drinking. I started to feel like the odd one out, and I began to resent everyone else who “could” drink.
I could recognize other people who were problem drinkers but had not made the same decision as me, and I felt it was unfair that they got away with it, that they were the ones considered normal and that I was the one with the problem.
I was a ball of anger that was seeping out toward everyone, but I didn’t know how to process it. I had also started a job that was very demanding and most of the time I was out of my depth.
Gradually, I convinced myself that I could revisit that decision I made on that day in May and that I was ready to welcome alcohol back into my life, but in smaller and more reasonable doses.
The day I decided to drink again was so uneventful that I don’t even remember it. I know it was almost two years after I had quit and that I had a small glass of wine. I didn’t even enjoy the feeling of being tipsy, and I took that as an assurance that alcohol would have never turned into my nemesis, but a presence that I could keep at bay and out of my life when I wanted to. I was proved wrong. Again.
After approximately six months, those synaptic pathways had been retriggered. I was self-medicating my stress and depression caused by a job that I could not stomach, and the familiar shortcut was in a liquor store.
What I later learned is that I didn’t start drinking again because I had a disease. I started for the same reason that I was able to ride a bike years after I last rode one.
On one hand, I had learned through repetition that the quickest way to find relief from my problems was to drink alcohol, and that the pleasure I gained from it activated the reward circuit in my brain; this motivated me to repeat that behavior over and over again by reactivating the neuropathways that had already been established many years before.
On the other hand, I had not built new, healthier ways to address those problems, I had not created new habits, and that’s why I was back standing in the alcohol aisle.
I don’t know how I managed to drink heavily, still holding down that job successfully and completing a one-year life coaching training program. But I did both, and when I moved from London to a smaller town on the coast, I solemnly promised myself and my husband that my drinking would change.
I had left the job I hated so much, and I was studying, searching for employment, and living in a town that I loved. I had no more excuses this time. But, instead of decreasing, my drinking increased because I didn’t have the constraints and responsibility of a job, and that freed up more time.
My Way Out
This time around, though, I knew I didn’t want to resort to AA, because I felt that it wasn’t the right solution for me. I saw AA as a Band-Aid to stem the bleeding of my alcohol use, and if it were torn off, the wound would start bleeding again.
AA also did not delve into the reasons I was making these poor decisions, nor did it prepare the future-me for an alcohol-free life. I also was not comfortable with the idea of being in recovery and going to meetings forever; I wanted to be free.
I didn’t know what my solution was going to look like, but I was open to trying other ways. I made a decision to stop and contacted a local organization. I got myself an appointment, had a brief assessment, and was invited to attend groups and activities there.
I attended a women’s group a handful of times, but I felt in my bones that it wasn’t an environment where my sobriety would have thrived. But by contacting them I had made the official step to accept and see my problem in full scale before my eyes, and, in my mind, I could not backtrack after that.
The second step was to educate myself on what alcohol really was, and I dove into anything I could find—books, podcasts, courses, videos, and online communities like a fish to water.
I learned the impact alcohol has on our physical and mental health; the extent to which it interferes with the neurotransmitters in our brain and affects our central nervous system; how, as a consequence, it causes anxiety and depression; how it kills our confidence bit by bit under the mask of giving us “courage.”
I understood that it’s a solution to a problem, and that the problem can be different for any one of us. And that some people decide to suppress their problem with alcohol; others with food, shopping, or other substances.
I learned that alcohol is a toxin, a carcinogenic psychoactive drug, and a highly addictive substance, and that the reason we get emotionally addicted to it is because it taps on the reward system in the brain.
I came to understand that the affect it had on me was the result of a chemical reaction, not a disease, and it is explained by science; and that it developed into a problem because it was the easiest shortcut I had to solve my issue.
The third step was attending to my emotional recovery and looking at the problems that alcohol had solved for me. This, for me, was the key where freedom from alcohol truly lay.
Setting my sobriety against something that was outside of me and being dependent on a structure to maintain it was one of the things that pushed me away from AA. So, for me, there was only one thing to do. Go back to the source, me, and understand where the pull of alcohol came from.
A few months before I stopped drinking, as part of my endeavor to find a career that had purpose and meaning for me, I had completed the EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) certification. As part of my training, I had to carry out practice sessions with other certified colleagues.
I met a lady who introduced me to the concept of being a “highly sensitive person” and realized that I was one too. I finally found the validation of my being “too emotional,” “too intense,” “too sensitive,” epithets that had been used to describe me and that made me feel wrong.
In my sessions with her, she helped me to uncover layer after layer of emotions, thoughts, and memories that were connected to my drinking and to the pain that I was trying to erase with it.
We started from the most superficial ones, then reached the deeper and most ancient, which is the safest and recommended protocol to use EFT.
The work I did by myself, with her, and with other colleagues along the way helped me to relieve my cravings when I had them and release the triggers that used to make me run to the liquor store like a brainless bullet. It also helped me recognize when I’d started to believe that alcohol turned me into the confident and self-assured person I struggled and strived to be.
I experienced numerous shifts along the way. One of them is that I no longer resent people who drink. I can still recognize when someone has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, but instead of feeling like they got away with it, my perception has changed. I feel like I am the lucky one who got away, because alcohol has no place in my life, and there is not one tiny cell of me that would ever want to drink again.
I know that there is nothing positive that alcohol can add to my life, and that all I need is within me.
I would like to show this to people who struggle with alcohol and tell them how wonderful, rich, rewarding, fun, and relaxing life is without it. And that their body has the capability to do all of the above without it, and that the fun, the excitement, or the relaxation they find in it is short-lived, but the consequences are not.
But I know that we all have our own journeys, and it’s not my place to interfere with theirs.
I already told the most important person I needed to tell, and that is my younger self.
When I went to find her in my memories, I told her that she didn’t need alcohol to be the amazing and lovely girl that she was. I told her that I loved her with all my heart, and that she had all the resources she needed within her to find her way back to herself.
She cried, then she smiled, and thanked me for reminding her and for believing in her.
About Ilaria Longo
Ilaria Longo is a therapeutic coach and certified Advanced EFT Practitioner. She helps people who struggle with stress, anxiety and trauma using a variety of advanced Emotional Freedom Techniques. She is an accredited member of EFT International. You can find her at www.eastsussexeft.co.uk. She also works with people who are at any point of the alcohol drinking spectrum to help them to live a happy alcohol-free life. Her dedicated website for this is www.soberrebel.co.uk.