Despite having alcoholism in my family history, I only found out that I had my own issues with addiction when I became a journalist. It never crossed my mind to drink before sunset when I was in university, but when I landed my first position as an editor, it suddenly became normal to drink champagne at 11am, and I liked it. A lot.
I mean, if you’re at a morning cocktail party for the opening of the latest Chanel store and everyone else is doing it, then why the hell not?
I was a highly functional alcoholic, at least as far as work was concerned. I’d go to the office every day and somehow pump out reasonably good articles with a bottle of Gatorade mixed with vodka in my purse.
At home, though, my sink was full of dishes, my floors were dirty, and I didn’t really care about anything else besides just making it through the day and getting back to my apartment where I could chase my pills with a bottle of wine and pass out.
I finally took a medical leave from work and checked myself into rehab last year. It worked for me, at least for seven months. It felt great to finally not rely on alcohol and benzos to calm my nerves. I went back to my old job as an editor at a media outlet whose name I won’t mention, after being clean for three months.
Before that, I hadn’t gone more than a week without alcohol in about 10 years, and there I was going to the office every day without a hangover or alcohol in my purse and hitting the gym every morning or at lunch.
I was even writing the kind of articles that I used to think required a great big glass, or sometimes bottle, of wine to get through and drinking Diet Coke and Perrier at press events instead of champagne.
Unfortunately for me, there was a new girl at the office who took an immediate dislike to me. Maybe it was because I was so open about coming back from rehab. I don’t see the point in keeping things like that a secret, since, if your story can help someone else who might be afraid to ask for help, then why not just be honest about it?
Besides, what else could I have said: “Hey guys, sorry I’ve been gone so long, but I JUST got back from filming 'The Real World: Miami!'”
Or maybe it was just the fact that I looked fucking awesome. When you stop drinking for a long period of time, your eyes get brighter, your complexion evens out and you lose the weird beer belly you used to think was just a part of getting older.
“If Vicki loses another pound, we won’t see her anymore,” she once remarked aloud to the editorial department when I came back from pumping iron at the gym at lunch (and, by the way, I was actually gaining weight in muscle, so her remarks weren’t even accurate).
Given that, pre-rehab, I used my lunch breaks to meet friends for drinks or run home to my apartment to chug a couple beers down, I took this as an insult to my newfound healthy lifestyle. It felt like she was insinuating that I had just replaced my addiction to alcohol and pills with anorexia. Whether or not that was really what she meant to imply, it pissed me off, nonetheless.
“You lose a lot of weight when you stop drinking a case of beer a night,” I piped back, unashamed of the person I used to be, because I was so proud of the new person I had become.
If she wasn’t making comments about my weight, she was pointing out my typos, as if they were some giant misfortune that couldn’t be fixed by the copy editor. She did this to all the editors, but I took it personally, and the constant antagonizing eventually broke me, even though I should have been able to just laugh it off, given how ridiculous a person she was.
But despite how laughable it should have been to me, after seven months of sobriety and feeling good about myself, I started to feel sick on my subway ride to work each day, agonizing about how uncomfortable I knew I was going to feel for the 9-10 hours I spent in my cubicle across from her.
One morning, after I had finished working out at the gym before heading to the office, I was gurgling Scope while getting ready for work. As the 30 seconds of having it in the back of my throat went by, I started feeling anxious about the day, wondering what flaw she might try to point out about me or my work that day.
As I was about to spit it out, I swallowed it instead. It was gross. I mean, you’d never eat a toothpaste sandwich, so why would anyone ever drink Scope? The problem with addicts, though, is that it’s not about the taste or the pain your addiction requires to take effect; it’s about the high. Sometimes the pain is even part of the pleasure.
That’s why you can’t even bring perfume or nail polish remover to rehab; they’re afraid you’ll get desperate and drink it. I didn’t understand it at the time, but when I swallowed that first mouthful of Scope, I understood.
Since I hadn’t had a drink in seven months, it took only a few minutes before I had a buzz going. I took yet another swig.
“Fuck today!” I thought. “If she’s going to harass me, I’d at least rather be in a state of mind where I don’t really give a damn.”
I convinced myself it wasn’t a real drink. I mean, what’s the alcohol content of mouthwash, anyway? Apparently enough.
I went to work kind of dopey, but it wasn’t obvious I was buzzed, since everyone knew I had been so proudly sober for so long. I just pretended that I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before, and that seemed to cover up my Scope binge. Besides, I didn’t smell like alcohol, just overly minty, like I had come back from the dentist.
I did it again the next morning, and then I started piling up on Scope at the drugstore, so I could have it at home too. I was too afraid to buy alcohol again, in part because I was worried that it would mean that I’d actually returned to the world of alcoholism, and also because I didn’t want to accidentally run into anyone I knew while buying alcohol.
Scope seemed like a “normal person” thing to buy, and while it was gross, I started swigging a lot of it.
Eventually, having Scope in the morning before work and here and there at home in the evening wasn’t enough for me. I wanted the option of having it all day, despite working in an open-concept office.
I switched brands to a yellow-colored Listerine, which I put in one of those Kombucha bottles you read so much about on xoJane. No one could really tell the difference, at least when it came to looking at the bottle. When it came to my behavior, that was another story.
One day I was so completely drunk at work, one of my coworkers sent me an email that said, “Dude, what’s up? You’re acting really strange.”
Instead of telling her the truth -- because who would ever want to admit that she was drinking mouthwash, even though I’m telling all of you right now -- I blamed it on not sleeping.
She wrote an email to my boss, suggesting that she take me home, and she did.
When I got home, instead of hitting the drugstore for more mouthwash, I made an emergency appointment with the psychiatrist who got me into rehab in the first place and decided to it was time to leave my job.
I had no real savings, and no concrete plans for the future, except to deal with my relapse as soon as possible. After all the work I had done to sober up, I had gone back to having a puffy red face, as most alcoholics do, and the whites of my eyes looked almost transparent. In just a mere few weeks of binging on mouthwash, I was back to being a complete mess.
In the mirror, I only saw the ghost of my past self, one that I thought I had exorcized from my body and mind, but apparently it was still lingering there waiting for me to get weak. I felt like a failure, even more so than ever before, because I knew what I was doing this time, and I felt like I chose to fail.
Instead of harping on me for falling off track like I expected her to, my psychiatrist congratulated me on the seven months I managed to stay sober.
“Relapsing is pretty normal,” she explained. “You can get to a point where you think you can test yourself again. They just don’t tell you that in rehab because they don’t want you to feel destined to fail.
I couldn’t go back to my old rehab because, as government-funded things go, they had no room for me at the time. . Instead, my psychiatrist put me on Valium, a prescription that would lower in dose for three weeks until I finally got off of that too. She also insisted that I live with my parents for at least two weeks, and that I had to go to the pharmacy every day in person to pick up my daily Valium, in case I decided to overdose.
It was hell at first -- night sweats, a palpitating heart, no appetite, a lack of desire to do anything but just lie there with my brain awake but mostly blank and my body unwilling to shut down. I would stare at the clock and just wish that someone could put me into a deep sleep for a week while the coming down part worked itself out.
But, having been through it before, I knew that after a week of lying on my parents' couch watching Dr. Oz, the withdrawal symptoms would be manageable.
I also knew that this time was different. When I first went into rehab after about eight years of alcohol and prescription pill abuse, the self-reconstruction phase was a lot like renovating an entire house; this time it was more like cleaning up after a really wild house party.
Today marks my 30th day re-sober. I may have relapsed in the most disgusting way imaginable (well, maybe nail polish remover would be grosser), but I put myself back together.
I can’t blame the new girl for my relapse; it’s my own fault for letting her get to me. In some ways, maybe I should thank her, for pushing me to leave a job I hated and a person I hated being around.
Sure, I wish I quit without the relapse as my justification, but I learned something from relapsing, too: It’s OK to fall, as long as you are willing to get up and fight again.