People often ask me if there’s anything anyone could have said to me years ago to prevent me from spiralling into full-blown alcoholism; if I would have changed my ways and stopped drinking ten years sooner if someone had intervened differently. Honestly, I don’t think so. I was on a headstrong course of self-destruction and I don’t believe anything could have prevented me from hitting my own personal rock bottom. I empathize deeply with those whose loved ones are alcoholics or addicts; try as they might, they ultimately have little to zero control over the outcome. 

Talk to enough people in recovery and just about all of them will tell you that their lives are much better without alcohol. But I didn’t want to give up alcohol. I loved drinking and getting drunk so much, and I didn’t know how to live without substances. It wasn’t until I was forced to change (or else lose everything, including, possibly, my life) that I realized my human experience was deepened and enhanced when I removed alcohol. If I could sit and shake some sense into my younger self, I might tell her this:

It can and will get worse. 

You think you know a bad hangover? Wait until you are on your hands and knees in the bathtub, retching into the drain because your legs are too shaky to stand up. You may understand the dismal feeling of drinking too much, but this will intensify until you reach a point where you are cleaning off chunks of projectile vomit just minutes before meeting a prospective client. I know that passing out on couches or under dining room tables is your current party trick, but it’s not going to be so cute when your face is bleeding from falling into a pile of ice, or you’ve lost a tooth after collapsing onto the pavement. Hard to believe it will go there, right? IT’S GOING THERE. And one day you’ll be sipping vodka from the bottle, alone in your house, horrified by what you see in the mirror. So maybe save yourself the trouble and curb that habit now, k?

Through tackling your addiction head on, you will finally begin to understand yourself. (You may even discover new passions or find a sense of purpose.)

Getting sober may feel like some kind of life sentence (“NO MORE FUN FOR YOU, EVER!”), but in time you’ll begin to understand that during all those years you were escaping life – numbing instead of dealing with challenges – you were missing out on feeling. Sure, you were scared to go deep and feel the uncomfortable thoughts, but ultimately you missed the ride that took you to the good stuff. And you can’t actually recognize or feel the good stuff if you choose to simply opt out. The birthday parties, the weddings, the summer weekends at music festivals: if you can’t do them at first, that’s okay – you don’t need to! Instead, see ALL the movies, hit ALL the restorative yoga classes, or find your tribe of coffee-lovin’ gal-pals who are also doing their best to not drink. Flex different muscles to create a new routine that doesn’t involve alcohol, and try it out for six months, two years. The time you put in will allow for passive and/or intentional soul searching (an inevitable process in recovery). It will give you a greater understanding of yourself, which will build into the self-confidence or maturity that you were lacking all those years, when booze was a necessary crutch for socializing. Eventually, you’ll reach a space where you can navigate the celebratory booze-soaked events assuredly on your own terms. 

You will find joy.

If I close my eyes and try to get inside the head of my twenty-eight-year-old self, I remember always wanting to race through life to get to what was next. I am thirty-eight now, and I live in the same home as I did then. I have walked south to Queen Street or north to Dundas hundreds of times as two people: drunk Jen and sober Jen. Drunk Jen was never satisfied in the moment, never fully comfortable standing still. Life was organized around getting the next drink, be it waiting for a server in a restaurant, or waiting for a Friday night to let myself fall apart. My walk was always a hard pound to what lay ahead, and because of that, I missed out. Now I actually stop to closely examine nature, to talk to my neighbours, or to watch birds jump around a thicket. It is in these simple moments that I find joy. Ten years ago, I didn’t experience those things. Yes, I loved the dance floor at 2 a.m., and I still love dancing, but those feelings were altered, heightened, manipulated by substance. It’s hard to tell how much I was feeling and how much was just the effects of a mind-altering substance. The purity of real feeling is where I have found fulfilment, ecstasy, joy and pain. The pain is difficult, but it is also natural, healthy and an important part of life’s journey. With practice, exploring pain becomes easier, and it becomes an empowering exercise that builds strength.

Your relationships will improve.

Not every relationship survives when you dramatically change your life, but you get better at preserving and nurturing the relationships that matter. When you’re drunk and hungover, you end up bailing a lot. And if you’re itching for your next drink, your body might be present, but your mind is not. When you stop drinking, not only do you show up physically more, but you also learn to live in the moment. When life is about dealing with what’s in front of you, versus constant escapism, you ultimately end up engaging with the people you’re with in a more meaningful way. 

Your newfound clarity will allow you to understand that for years, when you were caught in the cycle of addiction (wanting, getting, consuming, regretting, self-loathing), you weren’t able to live life fully. This doesn’t mean that life will get easy, not at all, but you will gain immense satisfaction upon realizing that your new position – feet anchored on the ground – will enable you to fully participate in it. Once you stop running, you’ll see the endless beauty that abounds. Life is for living, and the journey ahead is full of discovery.

So Jen, you can listen or you can keep going. It’s ultimately up to you. But if you continue to drink until you black out and vomit, if you continue to pretend that you’ll be okay on your current path, let me be very clear: you may not live through it. What a tragic loss it would be if life were to be cut short before you fully understand its beauty.

You can do it. I’m here, your future self, waiting for you.