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Alcohol was Clare’s friend when she was isolated. Then she hit rock bottom and it was a long, hard climb back

It’s hard to reflect on my years spent abusing alcohol. The memories feel pale, bleached, as if I’ve stripped away all their colour and horror in order to move forward.

I prefer telling the story of my recovery. I focus on lessons learned. Let’s call it self-preservation.

But there are a few things I wish I had known.

I wish I’d known I could stop drinking. I wish I’d known I just needed the right help.

I wish I’d been able to see the pain of those who loved me. Although, maybe, on top of everything else, that would’ve been too much. 

But I’m glad I didn’t know how long it would take, how hard it would be.

The story I don’t like to tell

I had used drugs and alcohol my whole adult life, but not in a way I thought was problematic. In our alcohol-drenched society, I was just another party girl. I didn’t think I had a problem.

But as life became harder, I started using alcohol to feel better. It became something I turned to when things weren’t going well.

I can pinpoint the moment it started to unravel.

I’d been with my partner since I was 22 years old. We got married, had our first daughter and then, a decade later, our second daughter was born. So we bought a bigger house up in the hills.

I really didn’t want to move. I loved where we lived. It was close to the city, I knew all the school mums and I had a great job nearby.

Our new home was an hour’s drive away and I was stuck at home with a baby. I adored her, but going back to being a stay-at-home mum was hard.

I felt awfully isolated and things started becoming problematic. Anxiety and panic walked through my door and the bottle followed close behind.

I would play with my little one all day. Then, when it was time to pick my eldest daughter up from school, I would grab a six-pack of beer. That first beer marked the transition from a long, lonely day at home into an evening ritual of homework, cooking and dealing with my unhappy marriage.

Then I’d have another beer while I was cooking dinner. And another one when I was eating dinner.

That was all, I wasn’t getting drunk. But I was doing it every day and my husband didn’t like it.

It wasn’t really about the beer, it was about taking the edge off. It’s always about what lies underneath.

So I did something about it. I saw my GP who diagnosed an anxiety and panic disorder, and I started taking medication. I also didn’t drink for 18 months.

Then it was Christmas and New Year’s and I was like, “I’ll just have one drink!”.

By March, I was drinking every day again. It can be hard to see, to feel, the slide.

Meanwhile, my marriage was imploding. It’d always been complicated but now it was intolerable.

Once the kids were in bed, my husband completely shut down. Even as he sat next to me on the couch, I felt deeply alone.

Alcohol was my friend. And so I would welcome her every single night, chasing the numb, following the lightness she would bring.

One night, it all came to a spectacular, horrible end.

My husband and I had a huge argument and I left the house to drink. I bought a bottle of vodka and spent a messy night in a motel. By the time I got home the next morning, he’d packed my bags.

I didn’t see it coming. It was over.

I kept drinking.

Our girls stayed in the family home and we alternated weeks there with them. I was living half my life in a granny flat at Mum’s house and half back with my girls and the ghosts of my marriage.

I kept drinking.

The separation turned nasty and I stayed at Mum’s full time and had my daughters on weekends.

After a year and half of this, Mum had to move, so I shifted into a room at Dad’s.

I was going backwards fast. I felt like I’d failed at life.

The beginning of the end

I drank every drop of alcohol in Dad’s house. I stopped answering the phone, my lawyer’s emails, their calls, any calls. I couldn’t bear to open mail in case it held more anxiety-inducing news. The noise in my head was so loud, I drowned it out with alcohol.

My oldest daughter was now at university but my little one stayed with me on weekends. It was hard, but I’d stay sober when I had her. As soon as she left, I’d drink and cry and drink and cry and drink some more.

It was devastating for my family. That’s the collateral damage of substance abuse. Mum and Dad didn’t know what to do. They both love me so much and had done so much to help. This was breaking them.

Dad became depressed. I could see the joy was gone from his life. He started going to group therapy for friends and family of people with substance abuse issues.

In those forums you hear a lot about “enabling” or, as they call it these days, “removing the negatives”. That’s when people support you in ways that make it easier for you to continue your addiction.

People do it because they love you. My parents gave me food and shelter and support, picked me up when I fell. Dad paid my fines so I wouldn’t lose my driver’s licence. It was generous and loving, but it meant I had more to spend on alcohol.

They made it easier for me to stay in that bubble because they loved me. They knew I was going through enough and they gave me a space to feel loved. Unfortunately, I took advantage of that.

I desperately wanted to stop drinking and I tried many times. I just couldn’t get it to stick. So I asked Dad to help me, to be my “prison warden”. I started working, going to AA and group therapy. I stopped drinking.

But then it all unravelled … again.

I’d lie to Dad. He’d go to swim laps and I knew how long he’d be gone, so I’d go to the bottle shop and drink before he got home.

He’d drop me off to AA meetings and I just couldn’t walk through the door. I knew I’d be drinking after and I couldn’t bear the shame of it.

I burned with the lies and I’d drink to wash them away.

Trust the process

I knew what I had to do, I just couldn’t get it together.

My sisters rallied. I guess it was an intervention of sorts. They did the admin and research, and they took me rehab shopping.

We chose a residential rehab based on the therapeutic community model. It relies on “community as method” to facilitate change in individuals. How you are, how you behave, how you engage with the group; these all shine a light on your own behaviours.

I’d always assumed that once you decide to go to rehab, you just pack your bags and off you go. But it’s more complicated. Most people have to medically detox first.

I didn’t because, at this stage, I wasn’t drinking every day. But if you are drinking daily, then stopping drinking on your own is dangerous. You can die. You need to detox under medical supervision.

The day I went to rehab, I was so nervous. I had no idea what to expect. Who would I end up in there with? People worse than me? All I could do was surrender. Following my instincts hadn’t worked so I had to trust this process, follow this path.

The first three weeks were brutal.

You’ve got to be clean — you have urine and breathalyser tests every morning and night.

You can’t leave. If you do, you’ll lose your bed and you can’t come back. You can’t smoke, you can’t have sugar, you can’t bring any food in. You can’t have your phone, TV, magazines, books.

At first, I was only allowed to talk to my daughters once a week for ten minutes.

You’re stripped completely bare of the comforts you’re used to. All you can do is look inwards and that’s terrifying.

To make things worse, I was admitted in March 2020 — right when COVID-19 lockdowns kicked in. Visitors were banned. Our intake group of 32 dropped down to 11. It was a long, claustrophobic three months.

One crack of light was my developing friendship with another resident. It was comforting to find someone to connect with.

But you’re not allowed to have that in a therapeutic community. One-on-one relationships — platonic or romantic — are banned. They disrupt the community-as-method model.

Once I got over the outrage, I decided to learn from this experience. I had to work on my co-dependent tendencies.

My epiphany

I’d had no idea I was co-dependent until I got to rehab. In retrospect, it was pretty clear.

When my marriage fell apart, I was terrified to strike out on my own. Truly, deeply terrified. I didn’t know how to be alone, to make financial decisions, to rely on myself.

This was the power of doing rehab in a therapeutic community. It took a group to shine a light on my patterns of behaviour. My fear of standing on my own two feet had been my undoing. Now I worked to make looking after myself my strength.

In the outside world, I wouldn’t have been able to do the intense work I needed to do to get better. I had to physically put a barrier between me and my life; between me and alcohol.

If I’d known how long I’d be in rehab, I might’ve baulked. I was in for 18 months — nine in residential rehab and another nine in a transitional recovery home.

So many fall out of rehab because they put a time limit on their recovery. I didn’t do that.

If I could give any advice to anyone contemplating recovery, it would be this: do not put a time limit on it.

Surrender to the process; it’ll take as much time as it takes.

It was a gruelling, painful 18 months and I couldn’t have done it without my family.

Their greatest gift was their relentless love and support. They cared for my youngest daughter so I could maintain shared custody of her. Mum, mostly, would have her on weekends and bring her in to visit me.

I’ve now been sober for three years, one month and 14 days. And, yes, every minute counts.

I’m also studying for my counselling diploma. I’m a peer support counsellor for the rehab centre I attended. I have a beautiful flat by the sea. I’m a strong, independent woman managing all the things I always feared.

And I don’t miss alcohol at all.

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