Thursday, June 2, 2011


Recently I've gotten several emails from women who are wondering about their drinking, and they all say the same thing:  I don't know where I fit.

These are women who haven't lost anything; they still have their jobs, their families, their health.  They haven't been arrested; indeed many of them are surrounded by family and friends who don't think they have a drinking problem at all.

But they know something isn't right, and they are beginning to suspect their drinking is at the root of it all.

Many of them say they have tried a recovery meeting or two, and they feel like they don't belong as they listen to others' tales of woe.  I'm not that bad, they think.  And they are right.  They aren't that bad.  Yet.

One woman put it beautifully when she said she feels caught in purgatory; she knows she doesn't drink socially, like most of her friends, but she doesn't feel 'bad enough' to attend recovery meetings.  She said she felt like she doesn't fit in anywhere.

My opinion - and bear in mind this is my opinion only - is that they are caught up in what I call emotional addiction.  They aren't addicted to alcohol; in fact they can go for a few days at a time and not drink.  Physical addiction to alcohol takes emotional addiction to a scary new level; you get to the point where you have to drink.  If you don't drink you start to sweat, tremble or shake, or you are hit with crippling anxiety.  Sometimes all four.  When you are physically addicted to alcohol you start drinking without your own permission, desperate for relief from these uncomfortable symptoms.

Emotional addiction comes with its own discomfort, but these symptoms can be easy to miss, because they feel like all the reasons most people drink - to relax, to unwind, as a reward for a hard day, to be more social.

When I was emotionally addicted - before I had to drink - my days started to revolve around thoughts of a drink.   I would wake up in the morning feeling achy and hungover, most days, and a few cups of coffee or a brisk morning walk would clear my head and set my resolve:  not tonight.  I'm not going to drink tonight.

By three or four o'clock, though, the tape in my head had changed:  just one. Only one drink tonight.

I hated the witching hour - the hours between 5pm and 8pm - when dinner, dishes, bathtimes and bedtimes collided with cranky kids and a tired husband.   For working Moms just coming home from their job these hours are a whirlwind of activity laced with guilt that these crazy hours are the only times they see their husband, or their children, during the week.  

All I wanted to was to unwind, relax, make these hours more palatable.  A drink - or two, or three - provided instant relief from existential itchiness and guilt.

By six o'clock a drink felt like my God-given right, dammit, for making it through another long day.  I was careful while the kids were awake, but as soon as they were tucked into their beds I would head downstairs for just one more that inevitably turned into more than one.

I would wake up the next morning, achy and contrite, and the cycle would begin again.

Sometimes something would happen - an alcohol fueled fight with my husband, or an embarrassing call to a friend, and I would resolve not to drink for a while. I would usually succeed for a few days, but when the witching hours arrived my subconscious was still preoccupied with the not-drinking.  Here's me not drinking, I'd think with a mixture of pride and longing.  I was irritable, edgy and short with the kids.  Eventually a drink seemed like a good idea, if only to get my fun-loving, relaxed self back.

I started keeping a mental list in my head of all the reasons I couldn't be heading for a drinking problem (I never, ever said the "A word" - alcoholic - even to myself).  I had thriving children, a good job, many friends.  I didn't blackout (back then I didn't know the definition of a "grey-out", when memories get fuzzy or full of gaps), and I didn't drive drunk (driving after having a few didn't count, in my book, because everyone does that, right?).   I stopped with no problem at all during my pregnancies.  I was athletic, social and active.

I missed a big signpost: people who aren't developing a drinking problem don't walk around with lists in their heads about why they can't possibly have a drinking problem.  

I lived in this purgatory for years.   When I'm honest with myself I can see signs of a problem as far back as my twenties, when I would rally co-workers for a drink after work as often as possible. I never, ever attended events that didn't involve alcohol. I was usually the first person to arrive and the last to leave.

I can look back now and see where I crossed the line between emotional addiction and physical addiction.  It was subtle, quiet, sneaky.  There were no arrests or embarrassing moments at a party.   Somewhere along the line I stopped questioning myself about my drinking.  I became too afraid to try to stop - even for short bits of time - because I didn't want to learn that I couldn't.   I surrendered to denial. 

I'm talking about all this because I know, now, that emotional addiction will - always - lead to phsycial addiction eventually.  It may take years, like it did for me, but the elevator only goes one way:  down.

There is good news, though.  Because of the internet, more and more women are exploring their drinking from the safe distance of the other side of their computer monitor.  They are joining chat rooms, reading blogs, forming communities where they don't have to fear running into someone at the grocery store the next day.

Women are starting to get honest with themselves before the physical addiction kicks in, when they are in that purgatory where they know in their gut that their drinking is a problem, but they aren't about to go to a recovery meeting.  Not yet.

Getting sober when you're emotionally addicted to alcohol is hard.   It is a lot like dieting; how many of us wait until we're visibly overweight to lose those extra pounds?  How many of us wait until our health is at risk before we buckle down and do something about it?   How many of us lose those extra ten pounds, over and over, without really committing to a lifetime of healthy eating and exercise?

It's like that for people who are emotionally addicted to alcohol.   We stop for brief periods of time, convince ourselves we don't have a problem, and scratch our heads in bewilderment when months - or weeks - later we're right back where we started, or worse.

There is hope, though.   If you're reading this blog, or Crying Out Now, or joining chat rooms for people trying to stop drinking - GOOD FOR YOU.  If you are listening to that niggling voice that tells you drinking is a problem, one that is getting worse, and reaching out to talk to others who understand - you have all my admiration and respect. 

It is nearly impossible to make any meaningful changes in your drinking, in your life, alone.  So don't be alone; go find the people who understand.  We're everywhere, if you're looking in the right place.

Some people believe getting sober online isn't 'real' sobriety, and that recovery meetings are the only way to maintain meaningful sobriety. I believe, too, that to succeed long term you will need a network of support and understanding in your 'real' life, because virtual friends can only take you so far.  But if getting honest through the relative anonymity of the computer screen helps you take those first few brave  - and terrifying - steps towards recovery, I'm all for it.

At Crying Out Now there is a blogroll of sober bloggers, or bloggers trying to get sober.  Go check them out.  Look for your story in their stories.   Join the Booze Free Brigade - now over 840 members strong - and reach out to people; don't sit silently reading.  Go tell your story - type out your thoughts and fears and be surrounded by empathy and understanding.

I try not to live in regret, but I will always, always wish that I had the courage to explore my drinking when I was in purgatory.  I knew the resources were out there, but I was too scared to look.

Don't wait until physical addiction kicks in, because you won't see it coming, and although purgatory is bad, physical addiction is hell.

So please, go look.


  1. I think that the people who look like they are emotional drinkers are also addicted to alcohol.

    The Big Book talks of it being a mental obsession and a physical allergy. Listening to Joe and Charlie Big Book studies (available for download for free online) helped me understand this. They go into detail as to how an alcoholic's body processes alcohol. It helped me understand why once I had one sip that that always led to a binge.

    From your description I would be classed as an emotional drinker but you can bet that once I had a sip of alcohol the biochemical reaction (physical allergy) in my body began and I was powerless to stop.

    I did go long periods without drinking. I have no doubt that had I continued I would have ended up a daily drinker. The key word in your post is that little word "yet". There's so much grace in that little word.

    ~ Hope

  2. Oh my gosh, this describes me exactly. I wasn't yet physically addicted but that emotional addiction was strong. It got me through those same dinner hours, or so I thought. This is an awesome post!

  3. Ellie - this is an amazing post. I lived in that purgatory most of my drinking years. Thank you for putting words to it. Hopefully someone will read this today and get out of their own purgatory.

  4. I am not sure why I have been drawn to these stories and the women who live them. I am not a drinker, but was married to an addict, and I now have a child who struggles with addiction. So, I think I find hope in your stories, and I feel compassion. I find myself adding names to my prayer list. I just wanted to applaud you for sharing your testimony and reaching out to others who struggle. I am amazed at how many are there, and they need people like you who share and care, there is another side, another ending.

  5. This post describes what I went through with drinking EXACTLY. I've tried to say this in my own posts so many times, but you did such a beautiful job writing it out (which is why you have Crying Out Loud and I don't). :)

    As if your websites weren't already helping tons of people, this post will speak directly to people who are really still in the questioning phase. When I picture myself during the questioning phase 2 years ago, I know this email would have spoken volumes to me back then.

    Well said, Ellie. Love this one so much.

  6. Thank you Ellie. This post really spoke to me, and helped me deal with what I've been feeling for the last year.

    I am scared of what might happen when I hit the tipping point. And I did feel that I didn't fit in at AA meetings because I hadn't yet "hit bottom"...but I didn't want to hit that bottom!

    Sign me sober since May 31, 2011. Thanks.

  7. This is me EXACTLY!!!
    Thank you Ellie for being my voice.

  8. Ellie,
    First of all, let me say you look Fantastic! I was reading your blog regularly a year or so ago, but I exited the sober-mom conversation (over at Booze Free Brigade) last summer, just because I felt my ideas were too radical, and probably not supportive to the women in 12-step programs.
    Anyways ... I appreciated this post, and I mostly agree with you. But I have the same old nagging question ... does it really serve anyone if people (and I'd put myself in this category) with an emotional "addiction," or attachment, to alcohol call themselves alcoholics? While I see the risks of continuing to drink, and the advantages of putting the stuff down, for good, I do think people who aren't physically addicted had an easier time "getting sober" and I'm not sure it makes sense to include them in the statistics.

  9. This was my life as well.
    I love that you said "the elevator only goes one way". THIS was a big reason I decided to get sober. My progression was quick, and I had to get honest with myself and admit that even if it got "better" or I cut back, I would find myself back where I was and worse, soon later.
    I wasn't that bad either....yet. I wasn't a tragic story like on "Intervention". On the outside we had a the perfect family and even my husband thought so. In doing step 1, I have a really hard time admitting that my life had become unmanagable, because I was trying my HARDEST to manage it. And I thought I was doing a damn good job. Ironic, isn't it? I was successfully hiding my problem from my husband, family and friends. It had become my job.
    Around day 20 of sobriety, I questioned my alcoholism because staying sober had gotten easier. I thought, "I must NOT have a problem, because I'm not obsessing anymore and this is pretty easy" .....but I consider drinking again and I just don't want to go there. I don't want one drink. I want the whole bottle. I'd be able to have one drink once in a while, but it would be to prove that I could...not because I want to.

  10. I think I was somewhere in between purgatory and hell, you know? It IS a confusing place to be and I don't think I really even saw it completely for what it was until I stopped drinking. And I still get confused sometimes, as you know.

    I feel for people in that place because I know how truly confusing it is. You're not THAT bad...but you KNOW you think about alcohol differently than other people. And yet, you can't really see how deeply rooted your life is in drinking.

    Anyway. Thank you, Ellie. What you're saying here is so important.

  11. This is such a great post. Thank you for sharing. As a young woman raised by two alcoholics, I read this from a child's perspective. If you didn't watch Oprah's final show, she played a scene from an alcoholic family that Oprah felt reflected what alcoholism does to the unit. In the scene, the mom was crying on the bed because her husband had relapsed, and their three year-old daughter was standing by her, consoling her. I feel like even now, at 27 years-old, I am still consoling my parents. I don't want this role. My dad often talks about getting sober, but he never follows through. They both make excuses, tell lies, pride and selfishness bigger than themselves. I understand this is a disease, but I also understand this is a choice. They have gotten sober before, so this isn't their first merrygo round. But it's not my choice, and I'm weary of being playing a role that isn't mine.
    I guess I am tired of excuses, tired of having to circle around their lives, tired of the lies, tired of the self-pity, tired of the selfishness, tired of being told I should understand they have a disease, it's not their fault. But isn't alcoholism just a symptom of a deeper problem? In that case, it's not a disease, it's a choice to not uncover the true source of masked pain.

    What would you tell someone like me, who has had two alcoholic parents for her whole life, but doesn't want this role anymore.

  12. I am somewhere near purgatory I guess. I don't physically crave alcohol but after that first glass I just want more. If I never had it I would be fine. One is too many and 100 are never enough. I am trying to get healthy and the drinking is my biggest stumbling block. It sets up a cycle of horrible food choices that lasts for days.

    I follow your blog along with cryingout now and many others but I never comment. This is my first time. I'm so glad I did. Just typing the above and re-reading it has been a moment of clarity for me. I can continue to follow this path which even if it doesn't lead to full fledged alcoholism really isn't serving me all that well, or I can choose something different. That word, choice, feels very empowering to me. I can choose a different path...while it still is a choice.

    Thx for being here Ellie.

  13. Thanks, everyone, for your insightful comments! Wow, there is a lot to respond to here.

    To the anonymous who talked about your parents: I'm sorry for your suffering and pain. I don't think that just because alcoholism is a disease you should have to accept any behavior you don't want to be part of. Nobody can force an alcoholic to get sober, but you can put up boundaries in your own life. A good friend said to me once: "I can have unconditional love without unconditional acceptance", and I think that is one of the wisest things I've heard when it comes to loved ones who are addicts. You have every right to put a boundary up and refuse to be part of their lives unless they are sober, and even then it is your choice. I know for a fact that the threat of losing my family, my husband, my kids, was a huge part of the reason I got sober and stayed that way. Sadly, that isn't always enough, but it keeps you and your family safe.

    Goddess Durga - I don't think whether or not someone calls themselves an alcoholic matters at all. I know it is a big stumbling block for people who aren't physically addicted, and it probably leaves people in purgatory for longer because they don't consider themselves an alcoholic. I don't think it matters. I've often said that it doesn't matter how much you drink, or how often, it matters what it does to you. If drinking any amount with any frequency is holding someone back from living their life to their fullest, then I think stopping drinking, or getting sober, or whatever they want to call it, is a good thing.

    Ann - your comment made me tear up. I'm so glad you felt comfortable enough to comment here, and I'm even happier that putting your thoughts into words made you feel just a bit lighter, maybe even a part of something bigger? I'm so very glad you're here, and at Crying Out Now, and reading other bloggers. Keep reaching out - I promise you it will help. Feel free to send me an email anytime. I'm here. (my email is

  14. Thank you for this. I shared it with someone I love. It's amazing.

  15. I just discovered this blog and Crying Out Now recently. I am one of those drinkers who never encountered "technical difficulties" like a DUI or an accident (mystery bruises notwithstanding), but I know my drinking is escalating to a bad level. Your bravery with coming out about your drinking is making me really take a look at my own habits and realize how much they are controlling me, to the point where I feel paralyzed. I don't want to stop, because drinking brings relief, but it is th reason I need the relief in the first place!! I'm terribly sorry about the loss of your father. I lost my father four years ago and that was when my drinking became daily. When I think about it, it was also the time I left a really high-stress career, which gave me the luxury to sleep hangovers off. Thank you so much for sharing your story. I plan to read every one of your posts. I have been reading all day here and at Crying Out Now and I hope I can find the strength to stop. You have a been an enormous help in opening up my eyes to the inevitable. Your story, Look, was one of the best posts I have ever read on how easy it is to go from daily drinking to addicted. I can't thank you enough for sharing, so I will stop :)