My talented cousin shares her personal story of sobriety

Marianne Chilco is known to me as a talented, intelligent, loving and personable family member. She is my cousin, but we did not grow up together and so like most people, she has a personal story that was unknown to me. We never know what people are or have been going through.

I am sharing this with all of you because she writes so poignantly about the connection between trauma and addiction, as well as about personal resilience and recovery. I am also sharing this because Marianne is willing to share in the hopes it helps at least one other person. If that person is you, please let me  know so I can pass it on to her. Trauma and resilience is driving my current work, but nothing helps us understand the issue like a personal story. Thanks to my cousin for her inspiration and insight!

Ten years free

By: Marianne Chilco

This anniversary of mine – a milestone only some of us want or need to reach – calls out for a celebration. But the tenth anniversary of the day I quit drinking will go by without fanfare. I may make a silent toast to myself with a wine glass filled with Perrier. But why a wine glass? Could that be a stubborn remnant of the cherished ceremony of drinking? A sign of vulnerability to the unbreakable bond with alcohol?

Not at all. I’m pretty sure I bring it up only because the use of a wine glass by an ex-drinker seems a little suspicious. Something us former addicts can recognize immediately – deception, delusion. But I check my motives and decide I don’t care why I drink my sparkling water from a wine glass. It’s enough to know I couldn’t be happier that it’s Perrier in there instead of wine. Or any other alcohol that has stolen so much time and energy from my life.

As long as it wasn’t gin – my first, messy foray into underage drinking – any adult beverage held great promise for me, though red wine and beer became the go-to beverages for most of my 20s, 30s and 40s.

How much? Too much and never enough. Never first thing in the morning, but often at lunch. Always at dinner, right up to bedtime. “Oh come on, “ I would often hear when I talked about an uncomfortable, growing dependency. “You don’t drink that much.” And compared to some, that was true. But I knew what compelled me to drink, and saw it plainly for what it was: a massive, unchecked psychological problem. Which is why those three decades were strewn with strategies to break my dangerous addictive pattern, or convince myself I didn’t have one.

No drinking on weeknights. No more than two drinks a day. Okay three. Only wine. Only beer. No drinking at home. Drink only every other day. No drinking alone. Only drink alone. Cold turkey for a whole month. Let’s celebrate!

The conflict within my head and heart raged every day, whether I drank or not. It was always too much and never enough, a contradiction cited by many who share their addiction story. My drinking caused disruption in my relationships and my work, but the greatest toll was on my psyche. Am I really that woman who needs a drink before all else? Can I really not figure out this problem?

Each failed attempt, and there were many, to reduce my dependence on alcohol ended with grave disappointment and another checkmark in the unworthy column. Seventh of eight siblings, I grew up feeling pretty invisible. Add an unrelenting insecurity and an overbearing, angry father and you’ve got fertile ground for an underdeveloped sense of self, a young soul left wanting.

It’s a common cycle no matter what the source – little sense of self, little self-respect, fill that aching hole with whatever feels like relief. Then it’s gone and there’s little sense of self, little self-respect. Fill that aching hole.

In the fall of 2005 my father was dying. I had always been afraid of him and always loved him. Another conflict. The cancer medicine loosened his tongue and his defenses. I sat on the end of his bed one night while he talked for the first time about his father’s cruelty, and he cried – a rare, painful act. Finally, I thought. All my life I could see hints of that vulnerability and sorrow in his eyes, even at his most angry. Now it was plain; we were not so different.

I had many months to prepare for my father’s death and, in that time, I felt myself moving closer to the decision I knew I had to make. When he moved to palliative care, it was time. I had forgiven him and myself and, with that, my problem with alcohol simplified, feeling more like burnt wreckage of the blame and shame that had defined our relationship. I needed to end it completely, and it was important to me – as a silent declaration of deliverance – to do it before he died.

Helped by authors Allen Carr and Byron Katie, I found a new way to see my addiction. I realized my reflex thoughts – about myself, about my perceived need for alcohol – were so negative and so engrained that nothing short of learning to think anew would unstick me. I called on my resolve – not to keep from succumbing to my next drink – but to invite it boldly in and watch it weaken as my own strength rose to challenge its nonsensical claims and belligerent hold.

On October 15, 2005, a few weeks before my father died, I took my last drink – a simple ceremony conducted alone. One small standard drink swallowed with intention and without remorse or joy. I chose whiskey – something I didn’t usually drink – to symbolize a fresh path. I felt a little anxious, but dead certain this would not only be my last drink, but my first step inside the life I always wanted and knew I deserved. And it was.