By Shelley Richanbach, CADC, Founder of Next Steps For Women
In Part 1 of this post I shared the very early years of my substance abuse with alcohol. I will now share how I opened the door towards recovery after substance abuse took a turn to alcoholism.
Knowing what I know now, it’s no wonder that I misused alcohol.
For me, anxiety showed up early on and stayed a constant. Depression began to cycle after puberty. Alcohol and nicotine worked extremely well to ease the chronic dis-ease I felt. But, like the subject of addiction in my family, anxiety and depression weren’t spoken of.
I left home at 18, married at 23 and had 3 children by the age of 30. Pregnancy and small children curbed my interest and use for about a decade for which I felt a sense of relief. Turns out I don’t have a drinking problem after all, I thought, smugly.
But this is where addiction is deceiving. I could go for lengths of time without over doing it and would be quite successful. But when I am honest, though, one drink was never enough.
For me it was easy to keep up appearances of super mom, super volunteer, and super wife. I could separate my drinking from my responsibilities with few consequences (or so it appeared). “Work hard, play harder,” was my mantra.
I was kind of proud of the fact that I could keep up with the boys and imagined myself getting invited to parties to liven them up.
I’ve since learned that this is considered High Function alcoholic drinking.
A therapist warned me early on about my capacity for alcohol, telling me that women processed alcohol differently than men. She explained that it takes longer to metabolize and is stored in our fat cells. In this way a woman can build tolerance. Given my family history, I was told that I should be aware and take care.
I still remember my first thoughts. “Wow, that’s worth knowing. I’ve never heard of that,” followed by, “But that won’t happen to me.”
Between my early thirties to mid-forties I began to experience occasional panic attacks and a re-occurring nightmare. With the help of an experienced therapist, I came to understand that I had repressed a childhood of physical and emotional abuse that began before I had words.
Most alcoholics and addicts learn to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs because of early childhood trauma, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression, panic attacks, ADHD and many other symptoms. Our brains have become unable or never were able to produce self-soothing chemicals. We want (crave) something, anything, to feel “normal”. Alcohol and other drugs have the capability to replace our brains’ naturally produced feel good chemicals hijacking the brain’s mechanisms to self soothe.
Once I began to have some understanding about how my brain functioned and that it wasn’t my fault that my brain had ceased to manufacture what both it and my nervous system needed, I had crossed the threshold on my journey to wellness. Too bad I had already crossed the threshold to addiction.
As I've progressed through my recovery, earned an Alcohol and Other Drugs Studies certification from UC Berkeley, and become an alcohol and drug abuse counselor, I now understand my alcoholism for what it is - a brain disease that starts with alcohol abuse.
Abuse changes the brain, too, making a person more susceptible to the key risk factors for developing the disease of addiction. You see addiction - whether its to illegal or prescription drugs or to alcohol, changes how the brain works and it's these brain changes that cause behavioral changes that make it possible for an addict / alcoholic to consume any amount of their substance of choice.
Risk factors, (genetics, early use, mental illness, childhood trauma and social environment) cause each person's brain to interact differently with alcohol or drug abuse. A person with no risk factors may heavily abuse drugs or alcohol with less chance to result in the disease, for example.
In my case, I had 4 out 5 key risk factors (childhood trauma, early use, mental illness and genetics), and now understand how those played a role in my developing alcoholism (one of the diseases of addiction). I also understand that with alcoholism, I can never have a drink, as compared to someone who has abused alcohol for years and learns to re-drink. This is the difference between alcohol abuse and alcoholism.
By becoming willing and open to learn, I was able to work through the biggest roadblocks: stigma and shame, and to accept the reality about the misbelief that I could somehow control how much I drank. Sometimes I could, but mostly I couldn’t. I made a smart decision to stop before I lost all control and really hurt my loved ones and myself.
Addiction is a progressive disease. It only gets worse over time, never better—even after long periods of abstinence. Addiction is a developmental disease - one that often begins in adolescence - and one that always begins with substance abuse.
I will write more on this in the coming months, but for now, I hope this share can help parents grappling with their son or daughter's drug or alcohol abuse better understand how this disease can develop. What can appear to be a rite of passage could be an unexpected segue to a lifetime of struggle.
Shelley Richanbach is one of three Bay Area moms writing Parent to Parent ~ a blog sharing concerns about substance abuse. Lisa Frederiksen, Author Speaker Consultant and Founder of BreakingTheCycles.com, and Cathy Taughinbaugh,Parent Recovery and Life Coach and Founder of Treatment Talk, round out the Parent to Parent team. Check back every Wednesday as one of these moms will share their expertise and personal experiences with substance use, abuse, addiction and recovery. And if you find yourself in any one of their stories, consider attending their March 3, 2013, Substance Abuse Workshop for Parents.