On Aug. 30, I told the internet that I'm an alcoholic. It was five days after my last drink, four days after I told my parents, and three days after I started treatment. "I read a marathon training book once that said you should always tell people you were training for a race; that way, you'd have extra incentive to not abandon your goal midway through," I wrote on Facebook. "In the spirit of that: I'm a (newly sober) alcoholic. I'm exhausted and overwhelmed but mostly profoundly relieved to not be trying to keep a giant secret anymore."
It felt really important to me that my friends knew as early as possible that I'd stopped drinking, if only because my sneaky addict brain immediately suggested to me that I could just tell some friends I'd gotten sober while secretly continuing to drink with others. The idea of telling people individually via text (or, god forbid, via phone) felt daunting, especially because I didn't feel ready to field a deluge of one-to-one follow-up questions about what had happened and what my next steps would be. Facebook was a quick and dirty notification system, and besides, there was safety in (small) numbers, since my Facebook presence is relatively limited — I've met the vast majority of my 347 friends in real life.
I deal in feelings, though, and my online presence has always reflected that. I've had Facebook for — Jesus Christ — almost 10 years, and my early status updates are oblique, semi-emo references to my feelings, mostly through Dashboard Confessional and Arcade Fire lyrics. The older I've gotten, the more direct I've been about what I struggle with, emotionally and psychologically. I have an MFA in nonfiction writing, which means I spent the bulk of my academic life, and continue to spend a lot of my personal and professional lives, analyzing and telling stories about my feelings. And so I've talked pretty openly online (and in "real life," although online life is plenty real) about being diagnosed as bipolar, struggling to stay stable, attempting suicide, and living with a chronic, fatal mental illness.
There's absolutely something self-serving about that openness. I speak as honestly as I do because it's always been a way for me to connect with others with similar struggles or to reach out to my friends and family, both of which are essential to my sanity and recovery. But I also talk about my alcoholism and bipolar disorder as frankly as I do because I see and want to contribute to a decrease in the level of stigma associated with addiction and mental illness.
For as great as large-scale educational campaigns or Partnership for a Drug-Free America ads can be, I don't think stigma can truly be broken down with sweeping gestures. Those misunderstandings and prejudices are demolished at a personal, individual level. Addiction rates may be steadily increasing, but there's an advantage to that too: When you see addiction up close, when you realize that it can affect anyone, and when you realize it's about "sick" and "well" rather than "bad" and "good," you're able to start seeing addiction with more compassion and understanding. More and more people are (very unfortunately) getting to see that firsthand in friends and family members. Still others are getting to watch addiction and recovery play out in the lives of famous people, which brings the realization that people you like and admire can be addicts too. But it also confirms that treating addiction can be devastatingly difficult, even with the money and power celebrity carries. There's a lot more to be done, but as more people talk honestly about addiction and mental health, stigmas will evolve into understanding.
I'm also fortunate to be in a position where I'm able to speak out — not just because I have a working knowledge of what I'm going through and a basic ability to share it, but because I don't have to fear that I'm putting my career or personal life in jeopardy by talking frankly about my alcoholism. I've heard people say, "I don’t want a recovering alcoholic performing my surgery" (or teaching my children, or flying my plane), but I've never heard anyone say they'd prefer not to read television recaps written by addicts in recovery. And while I don't love the fact that guys I date can google me and immediately find essays about, say, my stints in mental hospitals, I try to think of it as a really, really effective pre-screening mechanism.
It's tempting to say, "If I'd known how good I'd feel sober, I would've stopped drinking years ago," but logically, I know people stop drinking and stay sober when they're ready to and not a single second before. I feel great — both physically and psychologically — but it hasn't been easy. It's work, and I dedicate more waking hours to my treatment these days than I do just about anything else. I've also been put in the awkward position more than once of having to explain precisely how and why I came to realize I'm an alcoholic. I'm not really sure how to respond to statements like, "You didn't seem like an alcoholic." Is that supposed to be a compliment?
And it's been more of a lifestyle change than I ever could have anticipated. There are times when my inability to be in a social situation without a drink in my hand makes me feel point-blank feral. I went to the wedding of a dear friend less than three weeks into sobriety and wanted to claw my skin off with the anxiety of trying to figure out what to make small talk about or hold or do when a room got too loud and too hot as a sober person. (The answers: normal stuff, a soda, and a walk outside.)
But so far, it's been good enough to make me preoccupied with when the other shoe might drop — and hopeful that it won't. I've known for a very long time that my friends and family are the best people in the world, but they've proven it again and again over the past couple of months, whether they're showing up on my doorstep to take me out for a Sober Saturday date (usually Red Robin and a movie) or offering rides to treatment appointments or sending cross-country candy care packages or simply clicking "like" when I post a screenshot of the number of days racked up on my sobriety counter app. And perhaps most important, I've connected with a small, supportive community of women through Facebook, all of whom are sober and willing to listen to me complain about how hard it is not to drink on Seahawks game days or to celebrate the milestones of my sobriety, both big and small. This group is a treasure.
While it sounds so small and so trite, those connections and offers of support and even the likes and comments mean something. I absolutely believe that some of the most powerful words you can hear from another human being are, "Oh. Me, too!" or "Man, I hear you." And so of course I ask for help carrying my alcoholism sometimes. It's so much better than trying to drag it around on my own ever was.