Out of the darkness and into the light
Allison Garber speaks the truth about mental illness, motherhood, and an alcohol industry hell bent on normalizing drinking to cope with all of it.
I’ve been taking a lot of photos of sunrises since I got sober.
Maybe it’s my way of desperately trying to capture the feeling of freedom and elation and bottle it up in case it ever eludes me again.
This is what happens after you’ve lived in darkness for so long, only ever being able to watch others dance in the light.
The best sunrises are always the ones I get to witness on Saturday mornings when I wake up at the crack of dawn to join my running club – a mix of elite and recreational runners (like myself). At age 42 and having only taken up running since I got sober two years ago, I know I will never win a race or amaze people with super sonic speed.
I know it’s enough that I keep showing up.
Not too long ago I wasn’t capable of that. I was struggling with mental illness that intersected ever so effortlessly with an addiction to alcohol.
I know, as a woman, that I am not alone in this struggle.
There exists a dark underbelly to the “women and wine” culture that is so revered. One that you can’t see without pushing back the memes, the cocktail napkins, the t-shirts and the “wine lover in training” onesies that are doled out at baby showers.
I know this dark place exists because I lived there.
Alcohol, primarily wine, was my medication of choice. It was the only drug I found to be capable of temporarily addressing my mental illness. And I used it and abused it until it almost took me completely.
The most unsettling thing was that I wasn’t hiding my addiction. I was joining the thousands upon thousands of other women gleefully joking on Facebook about my post-bedtime reward after getting my two children down to sleep for the night. I was sharing what I deemed to be artsy photos of my pinot grigio with poetic captions on Instagram. I was assuring my friends that of course the kids’ birthday party would have wine, after all, I’m not a monster!
I’m not a monster, but I was, and am, an alcoholic. And I, like many other women, were enabled and encouraged in our addiction by the pinking of the alcohol industry.
To know my story, you must know my diagnosis. The civil war that had gone on within my brain since the day I was born finally received specific labels in my early twenties – Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
My anxiety is elevated over a number of things, but the biggest factor is my deep-rooted fear of disappointing people. To be clear, I have disappointed many a person in my life, particularly in active addiction.
This fear of disappointing people would dominate my life, and if the anxiety wasn’t bad enough, the OCD made things almost unbelievable atrocious.
My OCD invited me to a poker game, sat me down in the smokey room and said, “I’ll raise you your fear of disappointing people, and add the responsibility of you needing to do spectacularly ridiculous things in order to keep those people alive. You in?”
I was, of course, absolutely in.
I tried hard to get help, and people tried hard to help me. I went to therapy. I took my medicine.
Yet nothing alleviated the constant demons holding court in my head until I finally found something that did.
The only way I could find a momentary escape was through alcohol.
The incredible writer Ann Dowsett Johnston wrote about this in Drink, a book that covers her own recovery and examines the “intimate relationship between women and alcohol”. Dowsett Johnston states perfectly that, “Liquor soothes. It calms anxiety. It numbs depression. Ask any serious drinker: if you want to find your off button, alcohol can seem like an excellent choice.”
In other words, it really works. Until it doesn’t.
For almost 20 years, I self-medicated my mental illness with alcohol. For the most part, no one really could tell.
During the summer of 2018, my mother was dying, I was overworked, I was struggling deeply with anxiety, my OCD was no longer being effectively managed, and I was drinking close to two bottles of wine a day.
I was still delivering at my job. I was checking off all the boxes as a mother. I was going to the gym and posting workout selfies on social media. I was by all accounts a contributing member of society.
I was also a full-blown addict, whose substance of choice was, and continues to be, embraced and celebrated as a necessary part of womanhood and motherhood.
This is where so much shame comes in.
To admit that I had a problem would mean that I would be kicked out of the proverbial “mommy needs wine” club.
It’s incredibly embarrassing to admit that even when society gives you so much leeway around alcohol, I still found a way to cross the line. You can literally joke about showing up at the playground with wine in a sippy cup at noon on a Saturday and people nod their heads in solidarity.
I somehow managed to take that too far. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.
Because of this shame, I refused to give in and admit I had a problem for the longest time. I entered a cycle that so many other alcoholics can relate to.
I was obsessed with making moderation work so I could stay in the club. I bargained with myself that I would only drink on weekends. I would only have one glass of wine. Two on special occasions.
I made the decision to not drink during the work week on a Sunday night, but Monday mid-morning I was coming up with excuses as to why I needed a glass that night. Can you even watch the Bachelor if you don’t have wine?
Thankfully, I had the Internet to make me feel better. Whenever I questioned my consumption, I only had to click on a few parenting sites or lifestyle accounts for affirmation. After all, if you put wine and dinner together you get “winner”.
To me, a life without alcohol was no life at all. What would I do when I went out with my girlfriends for dinner? How would I enjoy a warm, summer evening at the cottage without a glass of white wine, the beads of condensation collecting on the glass as I place it next to the book I kept picking up but never actually getting around to reading because I’m so buzzed after one chapter.
Laura McKowen, author of We are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life writes, “If something is keeping you from being fully present and showing up in your life the way you want, then deciding to change that thing is an actual matter of life and death, you know? It’s the difference between existing and actually living.”
On October 1, 2018, I finally let go and chose living. I said out loud to someone I trusted that I had a problem. I realized that I was fighting harder to be able to find a way to keep wine in my life than I was to free myself from its clutches.
A beautiful thing happened when I let go; I landed.
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a comrade in recovery was to think back to all the things I loved as a child, before the severity of my mental illness, the trauma and the alcohol.
I went from reading one book every two years to reading 32 in 12 months. I became a tea enthusiast and became quite smug about it on Instagram. I learned new ways to move my body, which led me to discovering running, and I ran a half marathon eight months after taking my last drink (also smug about this on Instagram).
I remembered that as a child I actually loved me.
While that fire over the years had mostly gone out, I found a spark deep down and nurtured it until it was lit once more – finding joy in my curiosity, creativity, quirkiness and ability to enjoy my own company.
There is much to be said about the way we push wine as self-care to women, mostly I think what worries me the most is how it works to numb our senses. How it works to keep us quiet.
While I am not, and never will be, released from anxiety, from OCD, from the struggles so many of us women face – I am no longer hiding.
I am no longer pretending everything is ok. That I can handle it all, or more importantly that wine can rinse it all away.
This past Saturday I woke up in the pitch dark, laced on my shoes, and tip-toed out the door and into my car so as not to wake up my husband and kids. I drove for an hour and lined up for the only road race I would take part in during this weird, surreal year. As I set out on the first of 10km, the run came up over the old railway track I was running on carved through fields of what Sting would have absolutely agreed looked like gold.
I took a moment to be grateful. Grateful that I was no longer hiding in shadows. Grateful that I showed up once again; challenged, imperfect, and no longer quiet.
Dancing in that light that morning, I was unabashedly me.
More Insight: Check out this helpful article on the power of acceptance.