A journey to sobriety

Published January 05 2016

I spent a long time in graduate school. I got a master’s degree and a doctorate, and it took me 10 years. I did everything slowly on purpose, from stringing out my classes to taking summers off to travel and changing research topics again and again. My adviser eventually pulled my stipend to force me to finish. Even then, it took me another year. In August 2005, I sent my adviser an email at 2 a.m. to inform him I was going to abandon my dissertation. He wrote back ordering me to his home the next morning. We spent from then until November working side by side, page by page, to get me finished. I remember writing, “If you say I must defend the indefensible, I will try.”

So I was not a model graduate student. My dissertation was barely adequate. But I defended it and was granted leave by my institution to call myself “doctor.” “All the rights and privileges that entails,” I believe says the letter that bestows the degree. I didn’t graduate feeling like I’d earned any rights or privileges. I was lost and bewildered and had little idea what to do next or how. It was all supposed to be so much easier. My mother had done this. Her uncle had. How was I failing so painfully?

I was failing because I am an alcoholic. I began drinking either early or late, as alcoholics go. When I was 5 years old, I stole a bottle of liquor from my parents — crème de menthe — and got drunk, threw up and hid the bottle so I could do it again. I ate toothpaste to conceal the smell. Already I knew that drunkenness was shameful. Already I knew to lie. Two or three sporadic binges aside, I didn’t really drink again until my senior year in college. That’s when I began in earnest. Graduate school took me so long because, almost from the outset, I drank to intoxication nearly every single day.

I would awake at 10 or 11 a.m., go to class, work for perhaps an hour or surf the Internet in the lab, leave work at 4 p.m., and drink. A glass of wine with homework. Whiskey while studying. Then until I stumbled to bed or passed out on the sofa. I did this practically every day. I regularly drove drunk to get more liquor and cigarettes. I became obese and sedentary. The greatest efforts I invested were in the lies I told to protect and maintain my access to alcohol.

Alcoholism often is entwined deeply with a sense of entitlement. I was wildly defensive about my academic talent, my value and the scope of my contribution. I insisted on believing I was doing something worthwhile, because the truth was so manifestly the opposite: I was wasting a great deal of everyone’s time and money. No one had any patience for me, and I had too much for myself. I slowly lost the thing I should have cared most about: the respect of the people invested in my success. I betrayed a great deal of support and confidence so that I could drink myself to oblivion daily.

Alcoholism isolates us first emotionally; we become internalized. We can’t share what we do, because we know others don’t approve of the way we drink. My internal process became a sea of resentment. I wanted to be able to conduct my drinking unmolested. But that conflicted with other things I wanted, like relationships and a degree. I did have relationships. Like many relationships among younger people, they began based in part on my apparent potential. They ended when that eventually was revealed as corrupt. My drinking was always more important to me than any other person was. Nothing mattered if it interfered with my ability to drink.

Eventually, drinking isolated me so thoroughly that I was literally locking myself in my bathroom, sitting in the bathtub, drinking vodka and cutting myself. I would watch little smokelike curls of blood dissipate into the bathwater, imagining some black bile exiting my body to be replaced with clear, pure water. By this time, I had a fiancée and soon-to-be stepson. And by this time, I recognized my problem. I would stand in the bathroom with the bottle of vodka I kept hidden in the access panel to the plumbing where it wouldn’t be stumbled upon, pour myself four ounces in a plastic cup, look in the mirror at myself and go, “You are ruining three lives with this drink.”

I would say it out loud but quietly enough that I’d be the only one to hear it. And then I would drink. And then I would sit in the bath, and if I’d remembered to bring my knife, I’d cut myself again. This was my routine, over and over. This is what my alcoholism wants from me. From this haze of entitlement, self-hatred, selfishness and pity, my adviser dragged a dissertation out of me, a testament not to my fortitude but to his.

Days before my graduation ceremony, I was arrested for drunk driving. My blood alcohol content was 0.19. But because my arrest was across a state line from where I lived, I was able to conceal it from most of the people to whom it would have been a topic of serious concern. My fiancée was distraught and enraged, but I always had been successful in lying to her. Our relationship counselor had growing suspicions about my ability to function. I convinced them both my BAC was only 0.11 and that I’d been pulled over for a routine stop, not dangerous swerving.

All throughout this time, I was seeing a therapist of my own as well. For years. I was “getting help” that some people knew I needed. But I almost never spoke to her about my drinking. I used it as a balm for the other childhood pains I imagined were my real problem. The pains I used as an excuse for my drinking. The things I drank at furiously.

I graduated and stagnated. No work. No purpose. And yet I married. Seven months into our marriage, our counselor told us, “There is no hope for this marriage, unless he addresses his drinking.” I finally reached out for help. I went to an inpatient rehab starting in early 2008. I began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous while there.

Among alcoholics, I am fortunate in that I have not yet relapsed. I have worked the 12 steps of the program in AA despite the fact that I am not particularly spiritual. I was offered a postdoctoral-like position in a hospital about six months into my sobriety. Sober, I was able to devote the talents I was born with to the tasks I was given with more industry. Within 18 months, I was promoted to a principal-investigator position.

Today, I have changed positions again and am now a program manager at a large academic hospital on the East Coast. As I write this, I have been continuously sober for 3,169 days. I haven’t cut myself deliberately since day 4. My depression and entitlement have flared occasionally. My self-sabotage is a constant companion that I work regularly to minimize. Sobriety, like everything else in life, changes over time. But my alcoholism has not abated. There is no safe amount of alcohol I can drink.

But I don’t miss alcohol. I’m not ashamed of being an alcoholic, even though I’ve done many shameful things. My marriage didn’t survive, but I wish my ex-wife well, wherever she is. I’m sorry for what I put her and her son through. I did my best to make amends, but some things are unamendable. I continue to attend AA meetings. There, I have discovered many things I used to search for at the bottom of glasses but never found. I guard my sobriety first, and everything else is second, because if I am not sober, nothing else will persist.

In sobriety, I have become healthy and useful. I quit smoking seven years ago. I’ve published a score of peer-reviewed papers, won grants for my institution and made differences in the lives of the patients who seek care. I have a new life partner. Together, we have begun running marathons. My partner, a biochemist by training, is “normal,” as we say. But she respects the work I have to do for my sobriety. We have a dozen pictures of ourselves, hand-in-hand, crossing finish lines of races. I’ve risen in my profession. I have, as the program promises, become intuitively able to handle situations that used to baffle me.

Graduate school is a crucible by design. I, like many of us, fanned the flames hotter with mental illness and resistance to aid. But I have emerged. I am a researcher. I am a marathoner and a triathlete. I am a partner. I am a mentor. I am still a student in and of my life. And I am a sober member of AA. My graduate education taught me to build tools and investigate the world. But my sobriety, and AA, taught me to live in it.

Dr. 24hours Dr. 24hours is a pseudonymous health-systems engineer and researcher at an academic hospital on the East Coast. Follow him on Twitter.