Choosing sobriety

Nothing in her face or voice or demeanor even hints at a troubled past, a woman who regularly drank herself into a stupor.

But this is the story of Patricia L. and she’s an alcoholic.

To listen to her is to stir inside you the notion that you can’t judge a book by its cover and a stark reminder that confession is indeed healing for the soul.

She grew up in a middle-class home with middle-class values, but by age 12, she was drinking beer and Mad Dog 20/20 almost daily. By 15, she had completely rejected her parent’s upbringing to live the way she wanted, to hang out in bars and nightclubs. The more she drank, the more she was OK with her life. Alcohol made her happy. It made her believe in herself. By 16, she was a high school dropout and pregnant.

After giving birth to a son, she resumed drinking, putting away a fifth of tequila or vodka a day. Sometimes she tried whiskey, thinking she wouldn’t drink as much, but even then the goal wasn’t to stop. It was not to get as drunk, to not lose her car again or end up in places she didn’t intend to be with people she didn’t intend to be with.

“My life was a wreck and I had this baby who had a drunk for a mother,” the Atlanta woman said. “It didn’t matter what my intentions were. Once I picked up a drink, I couldn’t live up to my obligations. I’d forget all about him. I’d think the next day, I’m not going to do this today and I’d do it again time after time after time.”

Alcohol was never to blame.

“What I knew is that I wasn’t the person I had intended to be,” she said recently. “I knew I had to quit living like this, but I didn’t know what this was.”

Experts say alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the country and estimate that there are 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, who suffer from alcohol abuse.

Here’s just one reason, a big one, why we should care about that. Each year in this country, more than 2,200 people die from alcohol poisoning. Put another way, about six of us will die from alcohol poisoning today. Three in four of us will be in the prime of our lives, ages 35-64, and mostly men.

The temptation is to think how lucky it didn’t happen to Patricia. How lucky she didn’t kill herself or someone else during those times she knocked back tequila shots while driving. How lucky her good looks always bought her a pass from police. How lucky she had a sister who cared enough to intervene.

Only it wasn’t luck. It was a moment of clarity and then an introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous, a loosely knit fellowship of men and women who have overcome their drinking problem through practicing the Twelve Steps and strive to help other alcoholics do the same. (Atlanta was the site of the organization’s international convention earlier this month.)

It happened late on the evening of July 3, 1986.

Patricia, then 23, was living with an older sister, who found her passed out on the floor. Her lifeless body screamed what she never had the courage to speak: help.

“I don’t think I could’ve used the words, but my sister evidently was waiting for the right moment because she knew right where to take me,” she said.

At a hospital the next day, Patricia walked into her first AA meeting.

“My name is Patricia and I’m an alcoholic,” she told those gathered.

“That was my aha moment,” she said.

Patricia would spend the next seven days in the detox center and then transition to a 28-day drug and treatment center. Seven days a week, she attended AA meetings. She listened intently as the men and women shared their stories. She began piecing together her own. She learned the importance of being honest, kind and tolerant of others. She began making amends.

“I realized I wasn’t a bad person,” she said. “I wasn’t a bad mother. I was a sick person who needed to get well.”

She made a decision she’d “go to any lengths to stay sober.”

“I started to work the program of recovery outlined in AA,” she said. “It worked.”

Today, Patricia holds an MBA. She is self-supporting and a well-respected businesswoman, mother of two and grandmother of six.

“I shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I should be dead from my drinking.”

Most alcoholics come to AA convinced that they are powerless to change, but the organization doesn’t tell them that. It does offer them a way out. When practiced as a way of life, the organization’s 12-step program can expel the obsession to drink and help addicts embrace a life of sobriety.

“Because alcoholism does not discriminate, alcoholics come from all walks of life — young and old, rich and poor, believers and nonbelievers,” said Jim M., AA’s public information coordinator. “AA welcomes them all. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

If you want to do that, if you want to save your life, admit you have a problem and dial the 24-hour hotline in Atlanta at 404-525-3178 or visit www.atlantaaa.org.

Help is just a click or phone call away.

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