“Jenny, do you remember the party when you said that my brother bullied you so much in middle school that you cut yourself?” Mark’s cousin questioned me with her arms crossed and eyebrows raised. “N..no, I don’t remember saying that. But that did happen.” I felt my stomach sink. The discussion started with a question of why her brother either avoided me or acted strangely around me at family parties. I drank copiously at these parties because I had difficulty holding conversations with them otherwise; most were slumlords for family properties and didn’t have hobbies outside of renovating fixer uppers and playing video games. The party in question was on Thanksgiving, one of the most triggering holidays for an alcoholic like myself. Hearing that I blacked out and nobody realized it terrified me. Despite no longer wanting to see her ever again, I am so grateful to that cousin because in that moment I realized I had to stop drinking.
I didn’t know what alcohol tasted or felt like for the first 17 years of my life. Every night as my mom cleaned up the dinner table, my dad unscrewed his mega bottle of sake and beckoned for me to heat up a carafe for him. It was like clockwork. He claimed it helped his appetite and sleep. But eventually I learned that once his words started to slur, I needed to get to bed and shut my door or I’d regret it. My mom dealt with it by taking Ambien and watching TV until she fell asleep, and my sister ran away so many times that I would sometimes forget that we shared a room.
One day, I was brushing my teeth before school when I heard a heavy knock on our apartment door. My sister had been gone for a week now and my mom reported her missing on the second night that she didn’t come home. I remember coming out of the bathroom and seeing the cops standing in the hallway, my sister’s disheveled figure crammed awkwardly between them. I had never seen her look so defeated as she did that day. We learned from the officers that she had hopped on a Greyhound to Montreal but didn’t make it past the border checkpoint. My mom ushered me into the hallway and told me to hurry and catch the bus. Black and blue bruises speckled my sister’s body when I saw her after school.
I’ll spare the grim details of the rest of my childhood and our subsequent move to California, where my parents thought my sister would stop running away from home (of course the issue wasn’t my father’s addiction & abuse). My brain blacked most of it out of my memory anyhow – this is a phenomenon that trauma survivors experience known as dissociative amnesia. I managed to keep myself busy with sports and playing in Peninsula Youth Orchestra which my dad approved of, and when I finally got my first job, I worked as many hours as I could to escape my hellhole of a home. When I wasn’t at work, I was hitting the bags at B Street Boxing. I didn’t want to hang out with gangbangers and go to juvie like my sister. I kept up a similar lifestyle through my first year of college, taking 5 classes each quarter in the hopes of graduating within 4 years with a biomedical engineering degree (a 225 unit major). I even elected to live in the engineering dorms so that I could focus on my studies with similar-minded peers. Great idea, right?
Wrong. During finals week of winter quarter, I woke up strapped down to a stiff, cold cot. I had locked myself in a closet, chugged an entire 1.75L bottle of Svedka, and slit my wrists for what I had hoped would be the final time. My best friend drove 3 hours to my dorm after I left her a cryptic voicemail and she didn’t hear back from me. Embarrassed by my failed attempt and obviously inebriated out of my mind, I tried to grab the gun of the officer that found me, so I could finish the job. I was 5150’d for an entire week before being released back to my dorm where nobody would make eye contact with me anymore. I had to meet with a university therapist weekly for the next quarter. At the end of my first year, I dropped out of college.
While I know this sounds like an extreme experience, I’ve seen countless people deal with some version of it themselves. Whether it’s self-medicating with drugs and alcohol or keeping busy with work, people will do anything and everything to avoid confronting the dark sides of our minds. My mom picks up shifts at the hospital every time they call her, which is pretty much every day she has off. Mark’s mom spends 60 hours a week at her noodle shop. The downside is that when people eventually retire, they will have a decade or two with nothing but their mind and a deck of cards. And if those demons haven’t been dealt with, they will eat away at your soul. The retirement home I volunteered at reeked of depression. I played my flute and handed out newspapers to distract the elderly from the absence of whatever used to bring them joy – their grandchildren, mobility, food with flavor, etc.
My love-hate relationship with alcohol grew stronger during the years I spent trying to piece my life back together after my attempt. I moved back in with my parents (bad idea), got a job at Uniqlo, and took random classes like Spanish, accounting, and anthropology at a local community college. I learned that retail and service workers love drinking together after 8 hours of getting treated like garbage. I still can’t believe that I managed to go out drinking almost every weekday while working 40 hour weeks and taking classes. An older man at my boxing gym took a liking to me and we started what would be two years of alcohol fueled drama. This all felt normal and fun to me since it’s all I ever experienced in life. Thankfully I found my way back into therapy after it ended and within another two years, I transferred to UCSD, interned at the Times, and spent half a year studying international relations & law in France. Living in New York took my drinking to a new level because alcoholism is somehow even more normalized there. Whatever – cheers to my first taste of imposter syndrome!
Fast forward to my first corporate full-time job at LinkedIn. On my first day my manager took us to happy hour and ordered us a round of shots. To this day, the smell of vodka elicits a visceral reaction from me but I suppressed it that time for my paychecks sake. The next time our team went out I told a coworker they could have my drink because of my family history of addiction. “Come on dude, lighten up. It’s Friday and you’re a twenty something. Cheers!” As the only female POC on my team I didn’t want to stick out any more than I already did. One drink turned into three, and this went on for the next year until my second near-death experience that I won’t go into. The following week someone on my team got a DUI. A month later my college friend was supposed to take me to the airport but never showed up. I found out that she had spent the night in jail and got her first of what would be two DUI’s. DUI drivers kill innocent bystanders every day. The saddest part is that they usually come away unscathed and keep wreaking havoc until they hit rock bottom. In my sister’s mandated DUI program, 80% of her class consisted of second offenders.
I didn’t fully understand that alcoholism destroyed my childhood because there were so many other factors (constantly moving, bullies, an absent mother) combined with my foggy memory of the first 12 years. Seeing well educated, ambitious people that I respected destroy their lives with their addiction put me in my place but it didn’t stop me from drinking until my own life was at risk. Yet I could only stay on the wagon for a few months at a time because there was always an excuse to “need” some liquid courage. A first Bumble date, a birthday, wedding season, holidays – it never stops! My sister dubbed me a “little miser” as a child and that’s the only thing that prevented me from degenerating even further; I am extremely frugal but can’t tolerate bottom shelf alcohol after chugging 2 liters of Svedka in 2012. Then in 2020, everything changed.
The pandemic threw everyone a curveball. When the lockdown happened I stopped seeing everyone except my mom since she is a healthcare worker. In May I started spending weekends with my best friend Mark. Mark is a cookie cutter nerd. He loves cooking, coding, and anime. And best of all, he is highly allergic to alcohol. We never had much in common but always got along – in middle school I asked him out because I took a liking to the way he pushed his thick glasses up his nose bridge every time they slid down. I rarely drank around him since I’m a social drinker, so with his mere presence, staying on the wagon became a much more attainable goal. We stuck to outdoor activities like skating, hiking, and picnics. I drank only a handful of cocktails that year yet I was happier than I’ve ever been. This is huge considering my 2020 consisted of moving to the city, getting laid off a month later, and being quarantined with a roommate who thought it was OK to punch MTA for ticketing his car. Mark drove an hour to my apartment every Friday after work with his InstantPot and a trunk of H mart goodies. What more could I ask for – he replaced my screwdrivers with hearty hot pots!
Over the course of the next year Mark and I moved in together, started a serious relationship for the second time in our lives, and road tripped through 5 amazing national parks together (Zion, Bryce, Big Bend, Joshua Tree, & Lassen). We got a couples therapist to work through the initial difficulties of living together after a decade of friendship and our own respective childhood traumas. At that point I only drank at parties because they made me uncomfortable, but then our therapist helped us realize that we could simply stop seeing his cousins if we weren’t getting anything valuable from the parties. It felt so liberating for both of us to stop expending time and energy on the little bit of toxicity left in our lives. Our relationship blossomed so much that our friends started poking fun at how nauseatingly couple-y we’ve become. I’m just saying, it wasn’t my idea to record me singing Jason Mraz’s “Lucky” while Mark played his uke!
I know the journey to sobriety is a long path littered with land mines, but I hope that every addict finds their own version of Mark before they blow off a limb or kill someone’s grandma. My sister unfortunately got lost in the world of drug dealing and prison. I miss her every day. I’m eternally grateful for the inner peace I’ve developed over the years through counseling, meditation, and continuously training with my badass mentor Freddy. All of that gave me a second shot at living a good life.
It’s an uphill battle to overcome any disease or mental illness without constant support. I still get anxious at parties and I still feel the shadow that C-PTSD casts over my life. The difference now is that I can talk openly with almost anyone about my struggles. If you know anyone in a dark place, please lend them an ear with an open heart. Our physical & mental health is all that we truly have at the end of the day 🙂