Overcoming addiction isn’t an easy path and it certainly isn’t an easy one to walk alone. Capsule chats to a woman whose drinking reached a peak during this latest lockdown and led to her seeking treatment at Auckland rehab clinic, The Retreat. Julia* talks to us about her drinking history, the on-again-off-again nature of her addiction and why she thinks everyone could benefit from the emotional work of rehab.
On the morning Julia* speaks to Capsule, she’s reached 34 days as an in-patient at the Auckland-based drug and alcohol rehab clinic The Retreat and she’s very sure that it’s a move that has saved her life. Like so many women who experience addiction, Julia’s drinking hid itself in plain sight with our ‘work hard, play hard’ culture. “I’ve probably struggled with alcoholism for most of my drinking career, but I never knew that. I just thought that I was young and having fun,” she says. “I grew up in a small town and then moved away and experienced the city life; went to uni, did all the drinking and partying and studying.”
There were some signs that her drinking was getting out of control, including a couple of drink-driving convictions, but she was able to normalise that for herself, Julia says. She started a relationship with someone and quickly fell in love. There were some slightly rocky foundations for their relationship but because the good times outweighed the bad, and because his work involved being away a lot, Julia says she was able to convince herself that things were better than they at times were. They had a child and things continued on well enough until a couple of years down the track when it was revealed that Julia’s partner had been in a long-term relationship with someone else – and the other woman was now expecting his child as well.
“During the six months that followed, it was an emotional rollercoaster and I spent a lot of time blocking that out with alcohol.” Just under a year later, Julia and her partner reconciled and she felt like their family were getting back on track. “That was also a trigger for my drinking; when things were going well, I would celebrate and feel like I had everything under control.”
“Being pregnant kept me fairly tame; I wish I could say that I had an alcohol-free pregnancy, but I didn’t.”
They got pregnant with their second child and Julia took time out of her career. “I loved being pregnant and I was reasonably good at being pregnant – I ate well, I stayed fit – but there was this underlying hurt and emotion that I would try to block out with drinking,” Julia says. “Being pregnant kept me fairly tame; I wish I could say that I had an alcohol-free pregnancy, but I didn’t.” After her second child was born, a healthy baby boy, Julia’s drinking increased. In the year since, Julia says she had fallen back into dangerous patterns, including drinking and driving, with a conviction earlier this year.
“My partner would go away and I would look at that as an excuse to have a two or three day bender,” Julia says. “He would leave for work and I would do this big tidy of the house and feel this almost reprieve that he had gone away; I did not have to face the reality of the hurt and anger, nor the shame of my drinking. I could relax. I would get the household all organised and then think, ‘Now I can drink.’”
Julia says she was drinking a couple of bottles of wine a day and had taken to hiding the bottles in the neighbour’s recycling before her partner was due home. Her family staged a few interventions – Julia’s father is a recovering alcoholic, so he and the rest of the family knew the warning signs pretty well – and they suggested rehab several times. “Throughout this year, I’ve gone between really big benders and then ‘I can control this, I’ll stop when I want to stop,’” Julia says. “And then I would get really good at it; I’d stop drinking and be on the sober wagon, really nailing life. But then I’d fall off again.”
“Everyone around me, including myself, realised that I couldn’t do it myself and I was starting to feel, at that point, that I had nothing left.”
Being based in a small town meant that there wasn’t any suitable facilities close by, but Julia did agree to join the local 12-step meetings. She found a daily course that was an hour’s drive away but her counsellor said it probably wasn’t going to be enough to break her drinking. The national lockdown this year was a mostly okay time for Julia, she says, but the final week was when the wheels came off, again when she felt that everything was under control.
“Everyone around me, including myself, realised that I couldn’t do it myself and I was starting to feel, at that point, that I had nothing left.” She had given the rights to their kids to her partner, in terms of decision making; she wasn’t working, both her car and their house were in her partner’s name. “I really just felt like I had no identity, no purpose. If it weren’t for my two boys, even though I put them at risk so many times over the past few years, I don’t know if I would have kept fighting or looked for another option.”
She looked into public rehab options but they didn’t have any spaces available or she wasn’t eligible because she didn’t live in Auckland. She looked into the private rehab options and realised that, financially, they weren’t going to be possible. But there was some kismet timing that lead her to The Retreat – Julia had done an online 12 step women’s meeting and had got chatting to a woman who knew Julia’s hometown and asked if she knew a mutual acquaintance. “When I phoned The Retreat the next day after finding them on Google, she answered the phone,” Julia says. “It was a nice wee coincidence and she sold the place to me.”
But again, the price point was out of reach. “I didn’t have anything of monetary value owing to me, but I said I would discuss it with my partner. I was at rock bottom and I didn’t feel like I had any other options.” However, Julia knew her partner was unlikely to support her financially to attend The Retreat. Luckily, her new friend rung her back and informed her that there were funds available then for their scholarship programme – and Julia fit the requirements.
She got a Covid-19 test in preparation for arrival a few days later, found some money for the flight and rung The Retreat, who met her at the airport. “It was the most nerve-wracking but best decision I’ve made in a long time,” Julia says. “The first few days, I thought, ‘what on earth have I done?’ but as the week progressed, the feeling of belonging was huge. I finally felt like I was surrounded by people who were speaking my language – they were so honest and they understood me. There was no pressure, only support and laughter. I never would have imagined the level of love and laughter I have experienced here.”
“It felt like I was accepted as soon as I walked through the door. I was accepted – and my addiction was accepted.”
She describes the process as overwhelming at first, as she learned to unpack all of the feelings she had blocked out with alcohol for such a long time. “Knowing that I was going to have to sit down and evaluate all the hurt and the anger and the guilt and the shame,” Julia says. “But being able to do that here was a huge relief. It felt like I was accepted as soon as I walked through the door. I was accepted – and my addiction was accepted.”
Being in rehab placed all of her experiences with alcohol and addiction in context, but it also helped her learn about emotions as well. “I have thought, a number of times, that the programme that we do here shouldn’t just be for addicts and alcoholics, it should be for all people living life,” Julia says. “My drinking was the solution to all my problems, which I hadn’t realised at the time, until the solution became the problem.”
For people who are questioning their relationship with alcohol, Julia recommends that you listen to the people around you who are concerned – and act sooner rather than later. “I didn’t do those things, I put rehab off for a very long time – because of my kids, I didn’t want to leave them for a long stretch of time. I’ve been here 34 days – I could have gone home at 30 days, but I’ve decided to stay and invest more time for my future and for my children. This time away from them is the best possible thing that I could have done and I only wish I’d done it sooner.”
Julia says that she’s very grateful to her partner and family for holding down the fort while she’s taken this time and that it signals another crucial lesson: how important it is to ask for help. “Life is really hard and drinking can be really hard. It can all get very difficult and typical Kiwis, we don’t like to ask for help or to be given help. But investing time and care into my future means investing it all into my kids’ future. And that’s all I ever wanted.”
*Names have been changed