“Like many who struggle with addiction, my wake-up call came in the form of a series of unfortunate events, each one a neon sign blinking, ‘this is a problem,’ rather than one single event,” says Dani D., 34, who’s been sober for seven years. Dani’s story echoes that of many alcoholics: The drinking was fun, until it wasn’t. And deciding to get sober? That was hard as hell—but worth it, every day.
“It is so powerful to hear women’s stories of sobriety,” says licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor Beth Kane-Davidson, director of the Addiction Treatment Center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. “It’s dealing with a disorder, just as if you were dealing with diabetes or cardiac issues, and people are much more open these days to saying, ‘This is the disorder I had, this is what I did to recover, and this is how my life is now.’” The more women talk about alcoholism, the easier it becomes for women to get the help and support they need, she says. It’s time to end the stigma.
Here, eight women reveal their struggles with alcoholism and how they got—and stayed—sober:
1) ‘It began to feel as if I were living two lives—only one of which I could remember’
“Throughout my teens and twenties, I’d been drinking recklessly and desperately, trying to viciously combat the social anxiety and despair I frequently felt. Alcohol had become my go-to escape, a ticket to a world where I could be more social, more wild, and less weighed down by anxious thoughts. Of course, the temporary highs that I experienced always left me with a patchwork of clues to put together. I’d wake in the mornings wondering what I’d said or done, baffled by how I’d returned home or where I’d woken.
“For years, after each hazy night filled with poor decisions, I’d wake and think to myself, I have to quit drinking, but I never actually imagined doing it. The errors in decision-making started out harmless enough—a public make-out session with a stranger, a sharp-tongued rebuke of a loved one—but the older I got, the more serious the errors became. Business trips turned boozy. Car keys slipped easily into the ignition. It began to feel as if I were living two lives—only one of which I could remember.
“When my alcohol misuse began to impact my work, I knew things had gone too far. When I couldn’t keep it to the weekends, when I couldn’t keep it to a social activity but instead took to drinking alone to calm my racing mind, I knew I had to seek change. From my doctor, I got the name of a therapist who specialized in addiction issues. It was the first time in my life that a professional had stated clearly—and without an ounce of hesitancy—that I had a problem. Something about that—the expert acknowledging what I’d known to be true for so long—changed the way I saw my alcohol-focused life. Something about the words she used and the hope she had for me made me realize that I didn’t have to keep drinking.
“Every day it’s a choice—and many days it’s not an easy one. But, for me, it’s always proven to be the right one. I never wake up with regret. I never wake up wondering where I am or who I might have been the night before. As I often say to those struggling at the beginning of sobriety: It gets easier, but it’s never easy. Seven years in and there are still difficult days, but I wouldn’t trade them for anything. Sobriety changed every aspect of my life for the better and, had I never given it a try, I never would have known the woman I have come to be.” —Dani D., 34, sober for seven years
2) ‘Sober is the new cool’
“After moving from Texas to Florida at age 15, I was naturally searching for new friends. Drinking seemed to be my ticket into the ‘cool kids’ crew. Mixed with just the right amount of curiosity and boredom, this quickly led to binge drinking and using harder drugs. By the time I was 21, I was addicted to alcohol and cocaine.
“As a result of my substance abuse, I developed anxiety disorder. I would drink to manage my anxiety, unknowingly feeding it at the same time. I tried moderation and rules around drinking, but happy hour somehow always turned into sunrise, and back to the bottle I’d go. Meanwhile, I still managed to work, pay my bills, and even go to the gym, which convinced me that it wasn’t a problem. This continued for many years, until one day I reached a breaking point: I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired. The hangovers. The shame and guilt. The anxiety. It had become too heavy to carry.
“After another bender, I dropped to my knees in prayer. I wasn’t a religious person, but I was desperate for a change, a miracle. From that day forward, I never drank or used cocaine again. I simply became willing to do things differently.
“I made a commitment to try sobriety, developed a strong spiritual practice, and eventually found yoga. I decided not to let my relationship with alcohol affect my ability to be social or have fun. I started feeling and looking better—along with my bank account, might I add. After a year, I accepted sobriety as a lifestyle, and I’ve been on a mission ever since to show people that sober is the new cool.” —Carly Benson, 36, sober for nine years
3) ‘I wouldn’t trade all the shit I endured over the years for what I have today’
“As far back as I can remember, I had two elements of mental illness: a low level of constant anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder. These chemical imbalances were the perfect breeding ground to foster a binge-drinking problem.
“To quiet my mind and shed my once pervasive ‘nerd’ identity, alcohol was the perfect antidote. I didn’t realize that not everyone partook in underage (and then, of age) drinking—and that my behavior wasn’t considered the norm. As many of my peers in recovery say, first it was fun, then fun with problems, and then just problems. All the ‘peace’ and confidence drinking provided in the moment would be completely erased the next day, as my body and mind would be wrecked by the physical and emotional ravages of the night before. Losing phones, breaking bones, ambulance rides to the hospital for safekeeping. These weren’t normal rites of passage.
“It took a second hospitalization for alcohol poisoning in the course of 1.5 years to finally shake me. I needed help; I needed to get my life on track. But how?
“When I returned to Washington, D.C., after a fateful hospitalization in New York City, I knew I had to reach out for help from a professional. Through my health insurance, I found an intensive outpatient program that I could attend for five weeks, in the evenings, and still work full-time. But I had just turned 24 and didn’t think about quitting in terms of ‘forever.’ Just for now.
“Suffice it to say, ‘just for now’ became months and then years. I learned to face breakups and family deaths and toxic workplaces and falling in love and being an auntie and living on my own without drinking. I wouldn’t trade all the shit I endured over the years for what I have today.” —Laura Silverman, 34, sober for 10 years
4) ‘My mom said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re an alcoholic.”
“After college, I moved to Cancun, Mexico, where I found people who drank and used drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and GHB the same way I did. It got to the point where I would go on days-long cocaine binges, skip work, and barely be able to take care of my day-to-day responsibilities. I even injured myself, breaking my arm and my nose, during blackouts.
“In spring 2012, I met my now-husband, Fernando, and we began dating. He became irritated with my drinking and using habits and was sick of cleaning up after me and taking care of me. He often pointed out that my alcohol issues weren’t normal. In May 2013, I went on a friend’s bachelorette party trip at an all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana, and I promised Fernando I would control my drinking.
“On the second day, I did what I always ended up doing: I blacked out. I woke up to texts from Fernando saying that we were over and he was sick of my behavior. I was devastated and spent the rest of the weekend drinking and crying. In the airport on the way back to Cancun, I had a breakdown. It was my moment of clarity. I was on the phone with my mom crying and telling her that I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My mom said, ‘there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re an alcoholic.’
“That statement hit me like a ton of bricks, and I knew in my heart it was true. I made a decision on that day that I would not drink until further notice. I had no idea at that time how long that would be, but I knew I had to try something I’d never tried before, which was cutting out drugs and alcohol completely from my life.
“When I got back to Cancun, I began reading about alcohol use disorder and educated myself on why I drank. I started a blog about my sobriety and began forming connections with others through the online recovery community. A year into my sobriety, I tried 12-step meetings, and I also found meditation and CrossFit to be helpful. Every good thing I have in my life is a direct result of choosing recovery every single day.” — Kelly F., 32, sober for four years
5) ‘I awoke after another blackout binge-drinking night and realized that I’d written a suicide letter’
“If you’d met me eight years ago, you may not have guessed I was a high-functioning alcoholic. As a lifelong chameleon, I was adept at diverting your attention in order to hide the fact I was living another side of myself in the shadows. I had a husband and children, a nice home, a career, and an engaging manner to distract you. All the while, I was numbing myself by binge drinking and desperately chasing a joy that somehow I’d never actually found. Outwardly, I was vivacious and self-confident, but inside I felt unworthy and hollow as my behaviors blanketed my soul in a shame I fought to ignore.
“My moment of surrender came when I awoke after another blackout binge-drinking night and realized that I’d written a suicide letter, which I didn’t remember. It hit me like a ton of bricks that I couldn’t predict my drunken behavior anymore. My fear of a life without alcohol and feeling like an outcast was less than my fear of death or harming someone else. Don’t get me wrong—I’d tried many times over the years to moderate or stop drinking, but somehow on February 6, 2010, I was utterly willing to change anything and everything.
“That day, with the support of my husband and sister, I looked up 12-step meetings. Walking through the doors of my first meeting, I began a horrifically difficult journey toward learning to live again. I stepped over the threshold in a cold sweat of fear, with no idea how I’d ever make up for my mistakes or how I’d ever fit in again.
“The good news is that I’ve learned to walk with my chin held high and no secret shadows in my life. I’ve relied upon my family, friends, faith, and that program to help get me where I am today. I now have a flourishing career in a new field and a stronger marriage and friendships, and I found that joy and self-worth I’d been chasing right inside my own self.” —Julie Elsdon-Height, 45, sober for eight years
6) ‘It’s about creating a life that’s so good, you don’t need to numb out from it’
“I don’t have a dramatic rock-bottom story. In fact, not having a rock bottom was one of the things that nearly stopped me from getting sober at all. I had a very fixed idea of what a problem drinker looked like, and I wasn’t it. I was convinced that things weren’t ‘bad enough’ for me to have to quit completely.
“Even at the height of my drinking, I worked out. I ran. I got promoted. On the outside, things certainly looked fine. I was succeeding at work and keeping everything together. I wasn’t pouring vodka on my cornflakes or drinking and driving. But every night, I had this irresistible urge to hit the self-destruct button.
“In April 2013, after a particularly brutal hangover, I looked at the calendar and realized I had exactly six months to go until I turned 30. Suddenly, the idea of taking my problem drinking with me into the next decade seemed incredibly sad and depressing.
“In my previous, half-hearted attempts at quitting, I’d always white-knuckled it by myself and spent the whole time feeling miserable, annoyed, and lost in my own head. This time, I spent a lot of time reading books, listening to podcasts, and trying to educate myself about alcohol and addiction. I started writing a blog and reached out to other sober bloggers. Those small steps made such a difference, as I began to meet people who were sober and—shockingly—really enjoying life!
“I’m nearly five years sober now and I couldn’t be happier. I passionately believe that sobriety shouldn’t be about missing out or feeling deprived—it’s about creating a life that’s so good, you don’t need to numb out from it.” — Kate Bee, 34, sober for four years
7) ‘Who was I when I wasn’t getting wasted?’
“I’ve been on a winding journey trying to find my way in the world since I was 17. As a little girl, I felt different from everyone else. In high school, I was sexually abused and picked on. However, I believe I was born an addict. I started experimenting. Not long after, I became part-time student, full-time connoisseur of alcohol and drugs. I had found my niche, my people, and fervor for life.
“I ended up going in and out of some of the finest rehabs in the country, many of which I walked out of. After a missing person’s report was filed and pleading from my family, I decided to try the treatment route again. Give or take a few years, and I had a brief period of sobriety, but I wasn’t completely honest with myself and others around me.
“One day, I woke up in the hospital after a long and drunken stupor across the country. On the outside, I was a compilation of scars, bruises, and crappy CVS makeup. On the inside, I was broken and scared. Who was I when I wasn’t getting wasted? I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror. I was terrified to live and terrified to die. That day, I had my last drink. The emotional bottom that I had hit couldn’t compare to the possessions I had lost and the close calls with death I had encountered. I went to detox and immersed myself into the recovery world that was around me.
“Through time, persistence, and taking a hard look at myself, I have come to find a life that can’t compare to anything I have ever imagined. Today, I have the best of friends and best family, and I’ve had some of the most amazing adventures because I am sober. Unfortunately and fortunately, I’ve had the chance to live two lives, one of deception and one of triumph. Because of that, I have become set free from the chains that once bound me down. I have come to know true happiness, joy, and serenity.” —Tori Skene, 25, sober for one year
8) ‘How could I have a problem if things were going so well?’
“At 38, I had what looked like an enviable life. I worked at a prestigious law firm in New York City, lived in a great apartment, and had a tight set of family and friends. But I also had an awful secret—an alcohol and cocaine addiction that had worsened to the point of drinking and using around the clock. I was what’s known as a high-functioning addict, looking like a relatively normal person to the outside world.
“I had been on a downward spiral for 10 years. At first I only drank at night. Then I started drinking at lunch. I swore I would never drink in the morning—that was for ‘real’ alcoholics—until the morning I had to drink to steady myself for work. Ultimately, I added cocaine to keep me awake and what I considered alert.
“Finally, one Monday morning on my way to work, I thought I was having a heart attack. Feeling like I might die, I somehow decided to reach out for help and checked into a detox unit. It saved my life. That day, I admitted to my friends and family the secret I’d been carrying for so many years.
“In addition to addiction, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, which I had been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. I was prescribed an antidepressant to treat my depression appropriately. After leaving detox, I threw myself into recovery. I took the antidepressant religiously. I went to outpatient rehab and immediately started going to 12-step meetings. I became willing to do whatever it took to not pick up a drink. Part of my recovery included writing a memoir, Girl Walks Out of a Bar, about my struggles and journey in sobriety.
“Still, as a lawyer, I feared telling anyone at work about my struggle or even my recovery because of the stigma surrounding addiction and mental health disorders. However, when my memoir was coming out, I had to come clean at work. I was thrilled by the understanding and compassion I received. The process of telling people made me realize that these issues touch everyone, whether it’s through their own experience or those of family or friends. Now I advocate publicly for smashing the stigma I once feared. Today, sobriety has given me a life beyond my wildest dreams, and I could not be more grateful.” —Lisa Smith, 51, sober for 13 years