I am a chronic alcoholic, and I’ve been sober for eight years
By Clara How, Jul 01, 2021
Trigger warning: This story contains mentions of depression, addiction, and suicide ideation.
Helen Clare Rozario is a mother to a three-year-old daughter, and wife to a partner she has been with for 17 years. Three weeks ago, she celebrated eight years of being sober.
Alcoholism carries its weight in misunderstanding and stigma, and while there is an increasing understanding of its nature as a disease, there is much to be done by way of education and awareness. At speaking engagements where she shares her journey, many profess to be surprised by Helen’s story — she quips that perhaps, she cleans up well. But it also goes to show that there is still a widespread stereotype of what an alcoholic looks or behaves like.
Today, Helen is the founder of Nirvana Mind, which offers mindfulness and meditation coaching and consulting services. However, she clarifies that mindfulness was not what got her sober — rather, it was discovered two years into her recovery journey of being a chronic alcoholic and addict. She hopes her story will plant the seeds of understanding in those who are reading. She hopes that people realise that they are capable of far more than they think they can achieve and that they are not alone. There are support systems in place to help the addicts and their loved ones.
When I was 25, I attempted a 10 kilometre marathon. I ran till the finish line was in sight, and the next thing I knew, I was in hospital. Apparently, I collapsed and was severely dehydrated. The paramedics took me to the hospital, and on the way, they had to defibrillate my heart in the ambulance.
The doctors said I had suffered from dehydration and severe heat stroke during the run, but they couldn’t understand why my liver had deteriorated so much. They ran tests, and said that perhaps I had a fatty liver. They asked if I drank, and I replied, “On weekends.”
The truth was that when I came to the hospital and the doctors explained what had happened, my first thought was: “Did they find out about the drinking?” I was not grateful to be alive.
I wasn’t the stereotypical picture of an alcoholic — I had a job, friends, family, a long-term partner. People knew that I drank and partied, but had the impression that because I was holding it all together, I didn’t have a problem.
It’s not frequently spoken of, especially in Singapore, but alcoholism is a disease. I have come to understand it as a mental and physical allergy that I have when it comes to mood altering substances.
There are problem drinkers (people who misuse alcohol but don’t require treatment) whose drinking develops into an addiction. However, if the consequences from their drinking negatively impacts the problem drinker, they may be able to stop drinking altogether and life becomes manageable again.
But there are also drinkers who could potentially have a genetic predisposition to alcohol. For the real alcoholic like myself, when mood altering substances enter my body, I have an allergic reaction that manifests itself through a craving; a physical and mental obsession. I realised I had this obsession from a really young age.
The first drink I had was a sip of a relative's beer, when I was nine. I don’t think it’s uncommon for many people to have their first taste of alcohol under family supervision, but for me, the craving manifested, and then mental obsession followed. Alcohol very quickly became something I was always chasing, from a very young age.
I kept thinking about how I could get more sips of beer or wine. My father frequently travelled, so when he was away I would ask my mother if I could try some beer. She would say no, and I would usually be able to convince her otherwise.
My mother and I have been estranged since I was 16. Growing up, we weren’t very connected. I knew she craved my validation, so I learned how to manipulate her to say yes. Alcoholics and addicts hold the people around them hostage, and I’m sure this was the case for my mother. She didn’t have a rule book on how to parent me, and I didn’t make it easy for her with my addiction and mental illness, which I had been diagnosed with when I was 13.
In my teen years, it wasn’t difficult to get hold of alcohol. I looked older for my age and my parents didn’t have an issue with me hosting parties for my friends at our house.
I was seeing doctors for my mental illness (I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression), but I also learnt that I could use and abuse the prescriptive drugs they gave me. I felt like if I had a substance in my system, life became easier. I was always chasing that first feeling of euphoria and courage that alcohol gave me.
As I grew into adulthood, it became easier to camouflage my drinking. People didn’t know about my alcoholism, because I knew how to find scenarios where I could get away with drinking in public. For example, when I was out with friends, I would be that person who kept encouraging people to drink. I wouldn’t drink at work events or functions; I would drink before, or after.
My husband is a musician, and would perform at bars till late at night. As his partner, no one thought anything of me joining him most nights.
To my partner, an alcoholic was that person drinking alone at the bar. But if I was at the club because I’m supporting him, it was okay to be that person drinking alone at the bar.
It sounds like I was in control — which I probably was until I wasn’t, and the bottom came. After my heat stroke and health scare at 25, the next few years until I took my first step into recovery at 29 went straight downhill.
When I was recovering from dehydration after the marathon, the doctors told me to abstain from alcohol for three months. But they had no idea about the extent of my drinking, so they gave me the all clear to drink again. My liver and kidneys had bounced back, and I was told that I had youth on my side. This knowledge, coupled with the fact that I was not grateful to be alive, only made me abuse my body more than ever.
A frequently asked question I get now is: how much was I drinking, or how many drinks are enough to consider someone an alcoholic? But the truth is that it’s not about the quantity. Whether it’s one, or 12 or 20, it is never enough.
To give an analogy, if someone were to be diagnosed with a peanut allergy, they will know to avoid peanuts. For chronic alcoholics like myself, we will keep eating the peanuts and we won’t stop, either because we have lost control, or we will lose control. Our bodies crave it, so the response is to either deal with it, or give it what it wants. Even opening a bag of peanuts can be enough to trigger that craving.
When I was 28, my best friend Shaun flew in from Thailand to visit. We all went out that night, and all I remember was that in the wee hours of the morning, he and my husband were both crying over me, because they didn’t know what I was doing to myself, and why. I don’t even remember what happened that night that caused them to respond this way.
The next morning I was embarrassed that Shaun had seen me in that state. I had always been the go-to person to help my friends, and to organise things. I said to myself that I had to get sober, but a week later I was still in that same place.
My husband came to me and asked, “Who can I call to help?” I gave it a thought, and told him to call a childhood friend whom I used to drink with, who was in a recovery programme. My husband was surprised because we were not exactly close friends, but he made the call.
My friend was aware of my mental illness because I had spoken to her about it, but I was not honest about my drinking. On the phone call, she asked my husband if I had a problem with substances, and he said no. He kept saying, “Helen drinks, but you know, that’s just her. Helen drinks.” There were empty bottles in the house, which he said were from a previous party and we hadn’t gotten around to throwing them out. But those “empty bottles from the party” were found as if hidden, in drawers. He was in total denial.
I looked at this person whom I had loved for 10 years, and thought: “What have I done to you?”
My friend offered to take me to a recovery meeting, but I couldn’t make it to her house twice while sober. Eventually, 1 June 2013 was when I had my last drink. I remembered drinking and feeling so frustrated because my body kept rejecting the alcohol. That same night, I had seen a documentary about Skid Row, a place in Los Angeles with a large population of homeless people and addicts, and imagined going there to drink the way I wanted without hurting anyone until I died.
In that hopelessness I got on my knees and asked for help, which was very unlike me. But somehow, I managed to get to my first recovery meeting a couple of days later in a very bad state.
My body was going through withdrawal symptoms, and I should have been in the hospital to get medical treatment. I didn’t know how I got through those days, but it felt like something bigger than me was protecting me. When I stop drinking, life gets worse for me because I don’t know how to live without alcohol.
A day without a drink went by, and then two. I told myself to get through one day at a time, and work a very strict programme of recovery. The stories of other people resonated with me, and I realised at the first meeting that I was not alone, and I found my tribe of people. A fellow woman in recovery took me through the rigorous programme of action, and there was beauty and comfort in that guidance.
A best friend said to me, “Thank God you found people who understood you. Because we couldn’t.”
Two years into my recovery, Shaun died in a tragic accident. If I didn’t have recovery, I don’t think I would have stayed sober through his death. For some time after, I couldn’t cry.
A big part of coping with the grief was discovering meditation. In the silence and solitude, I found solace. I knew that meditation was a part of Buddhist and Catholic practices, so I went to those centres to try and make sense of it all and to learn more. It was a slow process, but over time, mindfulness found me. I have depersonalisation-derealisation disorder (DPDR), which means that there are recurring moments when I would feel disconnected, as if I was in a different world. Practicing mindfulness helped me tremendously, and in many ways it helped me stay away from alcohol and navigate my mental illness.
I made the decision to go to California for my teacher training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, by the University of California San Diego’s Medical School’s Centre for Mindfulness. Everything unfolded for me during the training, and I was finally able to close the grieving process for Shaun. I thought about hitting rock bottom and wanting to die in Skid Row. I thought of Shaun crying over me during his visit. In the mountains of San Diego, I was finally able to shed tears.
When I came home, I wanted to share what I learnt to help others. I wanted to create a secular programme so people who wanted to discover mindfulness didn’t have to do so in a religious space. That was how Nirvana Mind was born.
Today, I am a mindfulness and meditation coach and consultant, where I carry out individual or group coaching, and corporate sessions. Of late, I have been seeing a lot of professionals who are experiencing burn out, and their doctors or bosses have told them to seek help. Mindfulness is a term that is increasingly being accepted, and these people find me either through word of mouth, or via the Internet.
We all have the capacity to be mindful. So what I try to do (even if it’s a 30 minute corporate session), is to guide them through a practical session so that they can see for themselves, even if it's just for microseconds, that they have the capacity to focus on their body and their breathing.
Mindfulness is about cultivating non-judgmental awareness. Through the tools that we are given, we learn to recognise stress, anxiety, pain and anger before it manifests itself in a heightened state. Once we can recognise these feelings through paying attention to our body, we can respond to them, rather than react. I learnt through my own experience that when you form new habits with mindfulness, life becomes more manageable.
What I try to do in my work today is to plant seeds, whether it’s about being capable of mindfulness, or to share with people how I live in recovery from addiction and mental illness.
I had known about the concept of recovery because the seed of it was planted through my childhood friend telling me about her experience, and I knew about addiction through another best friend who suffered significantly from it. If I had not heard of what recovery was and how addiction affected lives, I would not have known that there were places that one could go to for help. The same way it was done for me, I hope to do the same for others.
I give talks to schoolchildren about my journey. When they grow up, if they, or any family member or friend needs help, hopefully they will remember that there was a lady who came to school and talked about this. While there is more understanding now about the concept of rehabilitation, it is still a stigma, especially in Asia. Education and awareness is so important, because the alcoholic can be very unloving and being able to identify what is happening is extremely hard. I recognise that I truly am one of the lucky ones.
It has been eight years since my last drink, and the one thing that I am the most proud of is being a sober mother to my three-year-old daughter. I’m proud of being a conscious, mindful mum for her and my family.
I work hard at recovery, because I know that one drop could trigger me, and it is not worth the risk. I have heard too many stories of people who don’t come back to recovery, because that’s how intense chronic alcoholism is. Even though things have been hard, especially during the pandemic, I think that my life is second to none. It sounds egotistical, but it’s something a lot of addicts in recovery say, because we are working hard to live.
I know now that there is something that is bigger than me. I have a larger purpose in life, and being of service to others is the essence of it. I don’t have to drink again. I can be a better wife, mother and friend, and overall, a stronger, decent human being.
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about my personal journey with mental health, and my baby steps towards making more intentional choices.
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