I was a "functioning alcoholic" until I wasn't

Feb 14, 2018

I was a "functioning alcoholic" until I wasn't: An Our Hope Advisory Board Member's Story

Until 1996, it appeared I was leading a charmed life—happily married for 10 years to a wonderful man, two beautiful, smart, healthy kids, a successful 16-year career as an Executive at a Fortune 500 Company—and then the façade began to crumble... 

We only fool ourselves

I fooled myself into believing that no one knew I was drinking about a fifth of vodka a day, hiding empties in my desk drawer at work, in the dining room china cabinet, in the neighbor’s trash, under car seats.  Sound familiar?  How about the humiliation of having the bottles in my desk found by my boss and being offered a very compassionate referral to the company’s Employee Assistance Program that I knew I wouldn’t take him up on?  Maybe you can identify with having your frustrated, concerned, increasingly resentful husband hide a video camera under the Christmas tree pointed at the freezer where you kept one of your bottles? Humiliation, guilt and shame? Yes, but not enough to get help, so I drank even more to numb out those feelings.

The answer:  Move for a fresh start (a.k.a. run away).  Right.       

The kids were happily ensconced in a new school (thank goodness, the administrators and teachers didn’t know that their mom was an increasingly hopeless lush) and I was getting by at work when my husband said he was seriously thinking about accepting a new job 300 miles away in Grand Rapids.  Wouldn’t it be great—I could move back to my home state, live close to my beloved mom, retire and be a stay-at-home mom for the first time, and my husband would finally be happy in his job after his chances for continued success at his Fortune 500 company had been ruined by moving three times since we’d met to benefit my career.  And yes, I could start fresh and really commit to getting sober.  Except I couldn’t.  I was devastated by the thought of leaving my career behind and afraid of becoming a real mom for the first time.  But we moved and I got to run away to a very scary place.

I was determined to be the perfect PTA mom, helping in the kids’ elementary school classrooms, serving on committees and attending all of those meetings that involved parents should, but I did all of those things increasingly drunk.  When my husband left for work and the kids went off to school, I filled the new emptiness in my life with vodka.  Oh, I was so cunning…I’d go to a different store every day to get my fix.  Of course my husband figured out what was going on and actually called the grocery stores to get purchase records.  How dare he!  Boy, was I a good victim. 

He begged me to get help, so I allowed him and the kids to drop me off at my first AA meeting.  So. Very. Mortified.  I was NOT one of “them” and knew it wouldn’t help. So, I didn’t really listen to any of the wisdom in that room and picked up with a vengeance afterward.  My next “bottom” came soon after when my 8-year old daughter found a bottle hidden in our bedroom, told her dad and they both confronted me.  His words are forever engrained in my consciousness:  “Your mom loves her bottle more than she loves us.”  All I wanted was another drink to numb out the agony of that moment.

A non-discriminatory, equal opportunity disease

People who knew my little secret just couldn’t understand how, with so much going for me, I could have let myself become the alcoholic I was.  What none of them (or, at that time, I) really, truly understood was that this wasn’t a matter of will power or a moral lapse, but that I had 4 out of the 5 key risk factors for developing the non-discriminatory, chronic, relapsing brain disease of alcoholism…

  • Genetics – While there isn’t an “alcoholic gene,” per se, I was born with my brain wired by two families with alcoholism running silent, but deep.  Add to this the fact that I am female and therefore, biologically more likely to suffer the effects of chronic alcohol abuse than a male, and you have a problem waiting for the right place and time to strike, especially with the other risk factors present.  It’s important to know that I also have an alcoholic sister who is gratefully in recovery after two Residential Treatment stays at Our Hope.  More about that later…
  • Childhood Trauma – To be clear, there is NO physical or sexual abuse/violence in my past, but my early childhood was emotionally traumatic.  My parents were divorced when I was 8, my brother was 6 and my sister was 2.  My mom did her best to keep the contentiousness away from us, but one of my clearest memories was hiding in a closet and overhearing my mom tell someone that my dad had said I was a honeymoon accident.  Not only did my dad not ask for joint custody, but my mom had to fight for every dollar of child support she was owed.  Add to this the fact that we moved away from the only home I had ever known, my best friend and our beloved dog, Button, to a new place 400 miles away when I was about to go into 7th grade, and you have a recipe for a very insecure adolescence.
  • Social Environment – Heavy drinking was “normal” on both sides of my family.  Cocktail hour began every day at 5 and at noon on the weekends, even earlier on holidays—of course you celebrate Christmas morning with Whiskey Sours!  It looked like fun to me, except I hated the smell of cheap Sherry that was always on my paternal grandfather’s breath and I knew my uncle had died alone on his bathroom floor, his body riddled with cancer in an alcoholic stupor.
  • Early Use – Probably the biggest factor in my case was the fact that I started drinking when I was a freshman in high school.  I never had just one drink to look cool, but I drank to get drunk because it made me feel cool—my insecurities seemed to melt away.  The legal drinking age was 18 then and I could easily pass for 18, fake ID in hand.  I suddenly had older boyfriends and the older, popular girls paid attention to me.  I did well enough in high school to get into college, then grad school and continued to rely more and more on how socially acceptable I felt when I drank.  I even started drinking before exams because it helped me relax. Little did I know that I had begun changing my brain chemistry when my brain was most vulnerable.  I literally invited my genetic predisposition to alcoholism to take over.

Thank goodness, I didn’t have the fifth risk factor for alcoholism/addiction, mental illness.  I know that many women, in particular, suffer from a co-occurring mental health disorder and I’m grateful every day that my alcoholism wasn’t complicated by depression or any other psychiatric condition.

The circle of acceptance and a guardian angel

I started drinking to be more socially acceptable.  By the time we moved to Michigan in 1996, I was not only no fun to be around, but my drinking had made me socially unacceptable.  I drank myself into further isolation.  By 1998, I was no longer a “functional alcoholic,” I was a pathetic, 42-year old mess of a raging alcoholic at the bottom of the “circle of acceptance” and in danger of losing my husband and kids. 

I tried again to get serious about getting sober by seeing a wonderful private therapist named Annie.  Among many other things Annie helped me understand was that I really couldn’t stop drinking on my own—I was powerless over alcohol.  I tried to blame anyone but myself—when I told her I drank because my kids pushed my buttons, she said, “They’re YOUR buttons.”  That made so much sense and to this day, I remind myself that I create and control my own “buttons.”  Still, I kept drinking; going to more than one AA meeting bombed and not ready to listen, much less ask for a Sponsor.  Then, my guardian angel moved to Grand Rapids…

Karen and I had been best friends for as long as my husband and I had been married, but had never lived in the same city.  We bonded quickly over too many beers at Rugby tournaments and our growing families took great, booze-filled vacations together every summer from 1986 on.  When her husband took a new job in Grand Rapids, they moved close by in August 1998.  This person who knew me better than just about anyone was undoubtedly appalled when she saw what a mess I was, though she never said so. 

Again, I fooled myself into believing she didn’t know, but of course she did.  She came to my house to pick me up to go shopping the morning of November 18, 1998 and it was obvious I had been drinking already.  Then, with these words, she helped me find my turning point, “I will always love you unconditionally.  I will never judge you, but if you ever hurt your children, I’ll never forgive you.”  She doesn’t remember saying those words.  In fact, she remembers saying, “I will always love you unconditionally.  I will never judge you, but if you ever hurt your children, you will never forgive yourself.”  I went to my favorite AA meeting that night and asked for a Sponsor. 

I’ve never looked back.  By the grace of God, not once in 15 years have I even had a craving for a drink.  I surrendered and accepted the fact that I was an alcoholic. At first, I had a tough time with the concept that a higher power was in control, but someone in that room one of those many, many nights I kept going back said I could make anything my higher power, including that group.  So that’s what I did.  I was accountable to a power greater than myself and listened to every word spoken by that wonderful group of people in recovery who were dedicated to the 12th Step, service to those suffering. Believe me, I know I’m blessed to have finally found an answer that seems so much simpler than many people’s answers.  To this day, I work the Program the way it works best for me.  And that means I keep going back, being one of “them,” a recovering alcoholic. And I don’t have that “first drink.”

I started back up the arc of the circle of acceptance and guess what happened?  I was no longer isolated.  As I began recovering, I gradually learned to like myself, accepting myself for who I had become.  Today, I’m comfortable in my own skin, so I’m more socially acceptable than I’ve ever been and I don’t need a drink to make me feel that way.

From bright-eyed early recovery to the joy of service

Karen said I had a new sparkle in my eyes within a month of getting sober.  She and I grew closer than ever and even started a small catering business together.  We had a blast for 7 years and even made a little money along the way.  However, we both started losing our passion for the business in 2009, so we folded it and decided that we’d each find a charity to throw that passion back into.  She chose the Humane Society of West Michigan, I chose Our Hope.

As I mentioned, my sister is also a recovering alcoholic who benefited tremendously by two stays in Residential Treatment at Our Hope.  I was determined to find a new charitable passion that had something to do with recovery and Our Hope had meant so much to my family, I decided to contact them.  I wrote an impassioned email offering to donate my time and talent (I didn’t have much treasure to offer with two kids in college!) and tried to send it via their then cumbersome website. It wouldn’t transmit, so I copied it and sent it via snail mail.  It was perfect timing, since they were in the midst of trying to stay afloat and desperately needed help with Marketing, my area of expertise.  The Marketing Committee I worked on throughout 2010 created a beautiful new website and a Facebook page, all based on a positioning I helped to shape.

I was asked to serve on Our Hope’s Board of Trustees in October 2010 and have been thrilled to serve for the last 3 years.  Service to Our Hope truly has done more for my continued progress in recovery than I could ever do for this wonderful organization.  I only hope to continue to help inspire even one more woman suffering from the chronic brain disease of alcoholism and/or addiction to get the treatment she needs to be able to discover the joy that recovery brings.

My name is Maggie Ellwood and I am a gratefully recovering alcoholic, thanks to my higher power, my guardian angel, AA, my wonderfully supportive family and Our Hope.

p.s.  I have forgiven my father, accepting him for exactly who he is, and my resentment toward him no longer lives rent-free in my brain.  My children (now adults) are both well-adjusted, light-to-moderate drinkers who waited until after high school to have their first taste of what is poison to me.  I am still happily married to the same great man.

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