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PEGGY: Middle-Class Alcoholic

For 14 years, Peggy was a heavy drinker. She never thought of herself as an alcoholic, because her drinking and occasional prescription drug abuse occurred within the confines of the upper middle class home where she lived with her husband and three young children. She says, "I had a bunch of cars, my kids were in private school, I looked all right. Problem was, I was dying."

It's been nearly two decades since Peggy has taken a drink of alcohol, but she can easily recall its initial comforting, sedating effect. "I can still feel [my] arm going down and [the alcohol going] even into [my] fingers and just feeling relaxed," she says. "That terrible tenseness would dissipate."



Looking Fine on the Outside

For a long time, it was easy for Peggy to deny she had an addiction. She never drank in the morning or at lunch. Her kids never came home from school to find her drunk. Despite a daily hangover, she would get out of bed each morning, get her children off to school, participate in community activities, keep lunch dates with friends, and shop at the supermarket. "I looked like a normal house wife. I wasn't bleary-eyed, my teeth were fine, my clothes were fine."

Peggy says she went to a lot of effort to look the part. "That was very important because if I looked okay on the outside, maybe I was okay on the inside," she says. But she wasn't. In 14 years there wasn't a day that went by in which she didn't drink alcohol. "I drank in hospitals, having babies," she says. "I mean, I drank."

Peggy's drinking pattern was not that of the stereotypical alcoholic. She didn't go out and have affairs, dance on bar tables, or crack up her car. She drank at home. She didn't start drinking until around seven o'clock each night. But once she started, she would drink until she went to bed, and, the next day, she would be amazed at how much she imbibed -- often nearly a half gallon of wine. She felt horrible physically.

She tried to quit, but her vows of abstinence were always short-lived. "It's amazing: You wake up every single day and say, 'That's it, I'm not going to drink anymore.'" But by four o'clock she knew she would have to take a drink that night. "Then I'd say, 'Well, I'm going to stop at two, or stop at three,'" she says. "I went to Mass every morning and I would pray that I could stop at three drinks, which in fact I did, but they were in vats. The glasses got bigger and bigger."

Wanting to Belong

Like many alcoholics, Peggy at first drank to "belong." It gave her "a level playing field," she says, as well as boosted a low self-esteem. She began drinking at 23, after she married. Moving to a new community where she didn't know anyone was difficult. Peggy felt like an outsider. Painfully shy, Peggy learned that "if I had a few drinks it would loosen me up. I felt as good as everybody else."

Peggy eventually confined her drinking to her home, to avoid trouble. Nor did she "booze it up" on hard liquor. She drank mostly wine and sometimes an aperitif out of a stem glass. However, she drank very large quantities. "You don't have to be drinking vodka out of a bottle," she says. "My drug of choice was wine, and I am a full-blown alcoholic."

I had a bunch of cars, my kids were in private school, I looked all right  Problem was, I was dying

It can be hard for non-alcoholics to imagine the alcoholic's overwhelming desire to drink even when it's destroying life and health. Peggy tries to explain. "In the morning you say, 'I'm not going to drink.' Then you seem to hit like a blind spot in your brain, where you go on automatic," she says. "You're not thinking anymore, 'What about the kids? What about the marriage?'. . .  You just hit this blank spot, and you go to the refrigerator, you open it, and you pull out that bottle of wine."


Seeking Recovery

Today, 20 years later, Peggy is a recovering alcoholic. As for many other recovering people, it took hard work in self-help groups and an intense effort to change for her to surmount her addiction. "I never thought I could change. I didn't think I was born with the coping skills to get through this life," she says.

Coming to terms with her addiction wasn't easy. She blamed herself for her drinking. "I made myself feel guilty. I had friends that didn't drink that way. I didn't want to drink that way, I didn't want to be that way," she says. "But I didn't see any way out. I had to drink. I didn't think I could live without it."

After her marriage broke up, she visited a local rehabilitation hospital. The visit was brief, she says. She did stay sober for 10 days after the visit, but then she relapsed for a year and a half.

Peggy's renewed quest for sobriety began when she passed out in her bed one night and woke to learn that her youngest child had become ill in the night and tried to wake her, but was unable to. Finally, the child had instead woken her 11-year-old sibling, who took care of her. The thought of putting her children at risk was the push Peggy needed to take back control of her life. After staying sober on her own for about three days, she sought treatment.

Peggy says she was "falling apart" when she started recovery. Having to admit publicly that she was an alcoholic was one of the most difficult things she had to face. "I knew I was a drunk. I didn't want anyone in the world to know I was a drunk," she says. "I wanted to die. I remember thinking at points, 'I'm just going to raise these children, and then I'll die.'"

She believes that one of the first steps to accepting the disease of addiction is acknowledging that the drug has taken control of one's life: "Once you admit, 'I'm completely powerless over this, it's got me beaten, my life is ruined,' then you have a chance."


Learning To Cope

Finding spirituality helped her on the road to healing. Once Peggy was in recovery, she says, she knew she had to pray: "I knew that I had to find a God that I could believe in." Peggy says there is now a spirit within her that gives her strength. She says, "If I can keep connected to that, I can do pretty near anything."

It helped me enormously to think that I had a disease, that it wasn't just a moral failure on my part.

Also, identifying her alcoholism as a disease helped. She says, "It helped me enormously to think that I had a disease, that it wasn't just a moral failure on my part." She thinks alcoholics and other addicts should be viewed as sick people.

Peggy also realized she could rely on others and herself to help her recover. Whenever she would think about alcohol, she would call a friend or a member of the recovery group she belonged to. She also devised creative ways to conquer her desire to drink. She had always started drinking before dinner. Now, she would go to shopping malls in the late afternoon and eat dinner at four o'clock and then just walk around. "Having dinner [early]," she says, "took the edge off that terrible urge."

She realizes that there are many different routes to recovery and believes that once a person is given a chance, he or she should go for it: "We didn't ask for the disease, but it's our responsibility to -- once it's presented to you -- grab a hold of some ring and try for your own recovery."

Peggy says recovery has given her freedom to be honest and not wear masks. She describes active addiction as a "terrible monkey on your back, this terrible weight you carry around."

Related Articles:

How Can I Tell If I Have a Problem with Drugs or Alcohol?

Self- and Mutual-Help Groups

Today, after 20 years of sobriety, when Peggy thinks about alcohol or looks at a glass of wine, she is reminded of what they did to her. "I can look at a glass of wine and say, 'There goes my whole life in that one glass. There goes the best part of me.'" Recovery enabled her to learn to love her life and like herself. She says, "I don't want to sign up again for feeling so terrible." 

-- Janet Firshein

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