health

Sarah used to break into people's homes in search of alcohol. A pregnancy changed everything.

Content note: The following deals with addiction, eating disorders and suicide. For 24-hour mental health crisis support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Sarah* is an ordinary Australian woman, who happens to be a recovering alcoholic. Now three years sober, she spoke to Mamamia’s daily podcast, The Quicky, about her path to rock bottom and how she found her way back again.

“It just crept up on me over time. I didn’t always have what they called in AA ‘the allergy’, which is an abnormal reaction to alcohol. I could put it down once I started, and it didn’t faze me whether I had it or not. I was quite a normal drinker on the outside looking in. But the allergy developed over time, where I cross this line, and I know there’s no turning back. Once I start drinking, I can’t stop.

I found that I would try all sorts of methods to try and stop drinking. I would try all sorts of methods, and that would include putting rules on it, like: I’m allowed to drink before midday, or I’m only allowed to have a bottle, or I’m going to switch to just wine or light beer. But then what I found is that trying to use those techniques actually made it worse… What I found is that what I resist persists, and gives it fuel and energy. It catapulted me into quite catastrophic events.

“I tried to show everyone else in my family that I wasn’t drinking, and I would lie to them. I’d start stealing alcohol, and I’d start stealing money for alcohol. I would take it from the fridge and then drink it and then fill [the bottle] up with water and hope no one would notice. I would have intentions to replace it later, but I’d forget because I’d be drunk. So I’d be hiding the bottles around the house.

“I was deeply ashamed of my behaviour, and found that I couldn’t do anything about it. I was powerless. My family noticed what I was doing, and then they would try and control me. They put locks on the bar fridge. They would take my money. They would have restrictions on times I should come home. And what actually happened as a result of that is [my drinking] got worse, because I had no choice. I had no defence against a first drink. Eventually I started breaking into people’s houses to get their alcohol, or I’d be waiting for my mum and dad to go to bed so I could sneak out to the shed and drink the methylated spirits, because I just needed that relief. I couldn’t stand being in my skin. I wanted to rip it off. I couldn’t breathe. My head was chaotic and it would be such a chatterbox, that the only solution that I had was alcohol. It relieved me of me. I needed it. It was like air to my lungs.”

Sarah ended up in rehab. Her family wanted her to get better.

“Initially I was relieved to get away from my family; not because they were awful, just because we were hurting each other so much. It was too painful for all of us. Because I don’t suffer alone — I take people out with me.

“The rehabilitation [facility] I wanted to go to had a six-month waiting list, and I knew I was going to die if I didn’t get help within the next few weeks. I took an attempt on my life. As a result of that something in me changed. It was a miracle I survived and there was a reason I was alive, and I knew I needed to find out why that was… I believed I didn’t deserve help, but in that moment after trying to take my life, I realised that I needed to accept help.

“I actually really loved rehab. There were other people that were experiencing the same thing I was, and I didn’t feel alone anymore. That was such a comfort and quite empowering. I was so relieved, because I felt like a freak my whole life. I knew there was something wrong with me, but I didn’t know what it was.

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“They also gave me tools to deal with what I was going through, and they also explained to me that I had a disease and that I had to do certain things in order to get well. Previous to rehab, I had tried quite a few solutions; I tried many psychologists over the years, I tried medication, I was on anti-depressants but they didn’t seem to work for me. I tried health retreats, I tried therapy, acupuncture, other natural remedies, and nothing seemed to work. I just progressively got worse.

“Through rehab I was then instructed to go to a homelessness shelter, because we understood that my family were enabling me, and that I had to be let go and I had to take responsibility for my recovery. I had to do a lot of work to do that. I went to Alcoholics Anonymous. I also did some drug and alcohol counselling, and I also sought some other services, like financial management. Because my life was total chaos by the time I had reached that point. I needed help in every area of my life, whether it was relationships, finance, employment, education, health. I was very underweight — just everything. But day by day, I’ve been able to piece that together with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and other services.”

Sarah had struggled with her health well before her addiction. Alcohol took its toll.

“I had also been dealing with an eating disorder — anorexia — which developed later into bulimia, and then the alcoholism crept in. And that’s not everyone’s case; that’s been my experience. I think the damage with the eating disorder was actually worse, and collectively my body did take a big hit. I was severely underweight and my organs were starting to pack in. My mind was quite fragmented, and I was very foggy in early sobriety. I found it took a while for my brain to clear — a good 18 months.

Watch: Your body, after a year without alcohol. (Post continues below.)

Video by Mamamia

“There were periods in early sobriety where I actually thought I’d done permanent damage to my brain. I would be talking and I’d miss words, or I’d go to the fridge but then go to the cupboard instead and I’d stay in there for half-an-hour not knowing where I was.

“I’m now studying honours in sociology and writing a thesis on women’s alcohol consumption, of all things. So what I’ve found is that my body has actually fully recovered miraculously, and I’m very blessed in that area because that’s not always the case.”

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Mentally, it’s been an ongoing struggle. When Sarah is faced with an opportunity to drink, a battle rages in her head.

“Some people have described it as the shitty committee, and I really identify with that… It’s all just chaotic, and there’s an argument with multiple voices in your head. For me, I can be feeling quite fine, and then I just have this bizarre mental twist where a drink would be a good idea. And then this argument ensues where I’m thinking ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘yes’, ‘no’. I’ll use all sorts of reasons to justify a drink, whether it’s ‘I feel good’, ‘I feel bad, ugly’, ‘I’m bored’… There was one time [pre-sobriety] I had a magic eight ball, and I was like, ‘If it says yes, I will drink.’ And I shook it, and it said ‘no’. But then I’d go, ‘Oh, best out of three.’ I would try and justify it whatever way I could, to make sure that I’d have a drink. And then I would say, ‘Well, at least I tried.’ And that was enough.

“But there wasn’t a reason why I needed to drink. It was just because I was an alcoholic, and I was predisposed to drink and drink destructively. It was a suicide by instalments.”

“On my last drink, I got pregnant.”

“On my last drink, I actually got pregnant to a one-night stand, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I debated for a long time whether I would have this child or not. I was terrified of bringing a child into an alcoholic life, and I didn’t know whether I could stay sober for it. But I’d always wanted children, it was something that’s always been a dream of mine. I was terrified of either decision, but I decided that I would have an abortion, because I knew I had to get sober for me, not for someone else.

“That was a real turning point in my sobriety. It was the time that I was able to let go of alcohol, and really take it seriously, because effectively something had to die for my drinking. And that’s the point I had to reach. That was my rock bottom. I had to really understand that it was life or death, and I had reached a point at that stage of my drinking that it was over. It was not a party anymore. I knew that if I was going to take it further, I was going to die.

“Abstinence isn’t the solution for everyone. But it is for me. What I would say is that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to live like that anymore — you need to reach out for help. I had to reach out for help, and it had to come from me; no one could do this for me. It was something that I had to do for myself.

“Today, you couldn’t even pay me a million dollars to have a drink. What I have on offer in my life far exceeds any monetary amount. It’s a wonderful life that is full of purpose, love and fulfilment, and that’s because now I get to stay sober and help other alcoholics. And what I didn’t understand is that was the purpose I was looking for my entire life. I’m so grateful that I’m able to use my experience to help others now, because all of that pain and suffering isn’t a waste any longer. And I don’t have to run from the beast any longer. I don’t feel like I want to rip my skin off; I’m comfortable in my own skin. But I’ve had to do a lot of daily work in the process and get a lot of help. I haven’t done it alone.”

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Alcoholics Anonymous: 1300 222 222

*Full name withheld, but known to Mamamia.

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