Holding the bottle by the neck, I took several gulps of the tequila, then I announced, “The faster you drink it, the less you feel it!” This was the first time I drank. I was 15. My memories of the night are blurry, though some were, and still remain, quite clear. I certainly remember cleaning vomit off the floor when I woke up the next morning.
One might think that drinking to the point of vomiting and almost blacking out might have caused me to swear off the stuff. But, no, despite having some regrets about my foolish behavior while drinking, I was sure I wanted to drink again. Soon. I wanted that sense of ease and comfort that came with that first drink.
It was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The burning warmth in my mouth, running down into my throat, the tingling that grew stronger as it spread throughout every cell of my body. It made me feel like nothing mattered and that everything was going to be OK.
Despite the problems my alcoholism caused me, I continued to drink for 11 more years. The external consequences for my drinking were not severe. I’ve never been arrested or homeless or lost a job because of my drinking. Inside, though, I frequently wanted to die. I thought I must be “crazy” because I kept drinking and “doing this to myself.”
I’ve written before in this column about how I ended up at a 12-step recovery meeting. In those meetings I learned from the experience of others who lived in recovery thanks to what we call “working the steps.” I learned three key pieces of information that allowed me to successfully recover from alcoholism.
Part one is about my body. If I take alcohol into my body, a phenomenon of craving will develop. I describe this as an allergy because it’s an abnormal reaction in my body. After allergy is triggered and the craving begins, I will have no control over how much I drink; I will always drink more.
Part two centers in my mind. No matter how much will power I use to try to stop drinking, no matter what the consequences are for my drinking, there will come a time when my mind tells me it’s safe to drink. It won’t necessarily make any logical sense. There is a peculiar mental twist that will happen in my alcoholic mind and I will think it’s perfectly fine for me to take a drink.
The real problem I have is that my mind tells me I can drink. People who aren’t alcoholics frequently don’t understand what this is like. Non-alcoholics can use reason or common sense; they can learn from their experiences. And they can usually control how much they drink. For example, if they start feeling sick, they might stop drinking. Not so for most alcoholics. It’s quite a dilemma. A body that’s allergic to alcohol, and a mind that makes me forget I’m allergic.
Part three is my solution. I need to rely on a power greater than me to remember I can’t drink safely. A lot of people call that power “god,” or “higher power.” What we call it doesn’t matter. What that power looks like doesn’t matter at all. The important thing is that we tap into a strength that is more powerful than our own will power or logic.
Thankfully, I was able to use the 12-step program of recovery to begin having a connection to the power greater than myself, as I understand it. The desire to drink was lifted, and I rest easy in the fact that I can’t drink safely. It’s not a big deal for me anymore, as long as I continue expanding my spiritual life and my connection to my higher power.
In the loose network of people living in recovery, we often talk about sharing our “experience, strength, and hope.” On Sunday, I celebrated 21 years of continuous recovery. My life today, even during my darkest days — the days that were the impetus for beginning this column a few years ago — is better than I ever dreamed it could be. I’ve recovered from a seemingly hopeless condition of body and mind through a connection with a power greater than me, and for that, I’m truly grateful.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. Her small business helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.