Alcoholic Girl on the Rocks

Laura Axelrod (Photo courtesy of the author)
Belinda Carlisle on "The Tonight Show" from August 1986.
Belinda Carlisle on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, from August 1986.

In August 1986 I sat on my bed and watched The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Singer Belinda Carlisle was on that night, and she caught my attention.

Clearly she had a fantastic makeover, coupled with weight loss. But there was something about her. She seemed comfortable within herself. Carson delicately brought up her drinking and drug use.

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“You also publicly stated at the time that you were a spoiled rock star, right? And had a problem with the drug scene and a little bit of alcohol,” he said.

“Well, it’s real easy for anybody to fall into anything like that.,” she replied. “You can never say never. I experienced… I won experience from that. And it’s nice to be healthy.”

I wanted what she had, but it was out of reach. I was drunk that night, as I had been many other nights. I was not famous. And I was 15 years old.

Something had long been wrong with my life, but it would require more drinking before things could change. But that night in August was the first time I had a sense that things could be different.

If you asked me back then, I’d say I was only drinking two glasses of wine, but they were 16-ounce glasses filled up to the top. And I was only drinking twice a week, but actually it was a whole lot more. And after I drank I’d fall asleep, which is actually called passing out.

Life was a kaleidoscope of drinking, eating disorders and suicide. It involved a violent temper and breaking furniture. It also included knives. I liked making small slash marks on my fingers when I wasn’t drunk.

I had become someone I didn’t like, and not many people liked me. I didn’t get along with anyone, and my sarcasm was scathing. Starting at about 10 years old, I had a haunting sensation I would not live to see 18. I could never shake that feeling.

Red wine, white wine, wine coolers, Kahlua, Sake, cough medicine laced with alcohol – I drank them all. If I had my choice of booze, I’d pick the one that looked pretty. Sometimes I had no idea what I drank. Maybe it was rum; maybe it was scotch. Who knew? When it came to drinking games, I didn’t wait for my turn. I couldn’t.

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This went on for years. If you are addicted to something, truly addicted, the craving will drive you to find what you need. Truthfully, I didn’t have to go far. It required very little effort.

Laura Axelrod (Photo courtesy of the author)
Laura Axelrod (Photo courtesy of the author)

By the summer of 1986, my tolerance increased. One month after watching Carson, I was drinking. Again. But I couldn’t get drunk. I told a person sitting near me if something didn’t change, I’d be dead. Soon.

Days later, a social worker showed up at my house to talk about how I was being bullied at school. As soon as I was alone with her, it felt as if another part of me took over. The words fell out my mouth. I told her about how I thought I might have a problem with drinking. She asked a few questions. How much did I drink? How often? Did I ever drink alone? What happened when I didn’t drink? I answered them as honestly as I could. She was the one who first told me I might be an alcoholic. As I repeated the words back to her, it felt absolutely right.

I quit drinking a week before my 16th birthday. My age didn’t matter. I drank like a 40-year-old and suffered withdrawals in a similar fashion. I hallucinated, had the chills, anxiety, couldn’t think or read very well.

Someone recommended a treatment center in New England. It had a 53-day adolescent program. People thought it was important for me to be around other teenagers who had the same problem. There were support groups, lectures and even a tutorial program so I could continue my schoolwork. Counselors taught us how to stay sober and how to deal with being a young person in recovery.

One of the biggest problems teenage alcoholics face is judgment from other people. They hear things such as: You’re too young to be an alcoholic. Are you sure it isn’t just a phase? How do you know for sure? Maybe after a while you can drink again. You can’t drink, but you can smoke pot, shoot up, take a hit, do a line, right? We prepped ourselves for being tempted, ostracized, scapegoated and even bullied.

We were also encouraged to think about our future. I wanted to be a writer, but my alcoholism interfered. All my stories featured alcohol, with prominent characters drinking heavily. Years later, someone would tell me that writers write the stories they need to tell themselves. Once I quit drinking, my writing changed. It grew more introspective. Sometimes I wrote about the violence I wanted to do to myself. Other times, I wrote about wanting to find peace.

My counselor was the first person who convinced me I could be a writer. She told me I could do or be anything I wanted. No one ever told me that before. I always felt so invisible.

Coming back from treatment, I was a very different person. All the colors seemed brighter. I touched all the furniture in our house. Everything seemed different. I felt something I never felt before. Joy. I wasn’t dying anymore, and I was so grateful.

When I went back to school, someone told me everyone heard I went to treatment, and everyone thought I was a slut. Which confused me because I was virgin. But even in my newly sober state, I understood alcoholic girls are stigmatized – even into recovery. It was funny how the gossip didn’t start until after I sobered up.

I couldn’t let it bother me too much because I had to concentrate on my sobriety. The intense craving for alcohol went on for over a year. It was frightening. I had nightmares about drinking again. I kept imagining I smelled alcohol. But I also found a recovery program that worked for me. I developed friendships with people who experienced the same things I did. They understood, and they taught me much about life. All the things I missed out on because I had been drunk during my childhood.

My grades didn’t get me into college, my writing did. I drank half of my high school education away. My SAT scores were horribly low. The writing portfolio I submitted included many poems I wrote during treatment.

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For the first 10 years of my sobriety, I was fairly open about my experiences. However, I learned the behavior of non-alcoholics was sometimes problematic, even when they had the best intentions. There was the college roommate who made it her personal mission to try and get me to drink again. My other roommates told me she talked about my recovery more than I did. She did all sorts of tricks to harass me about drinking. One morning, she left a full glass of wine in front of my coffeemaker. I simply slid the glass to the left and made my cup of coffee. I moved out shortly afterward.

Then there were the people who wanted to save me because they couldn’t save their alcoholic parents. Except I was already sober, so that put us both in awkward positions. There were partners who wanted to manage my recovery for me, and potential partners who found my recovery embarrassing to them. And there were people who hated me, except they didn’t hate me at all. They hated alcoholism.

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Over the past week, I’ve seen arguments across social networks about alcoholism and addiction. I’ve heard people debate whether alcoholism is a disease, if AA or other recovery programs are cults. I’ve even heard people criticize recovering alcoholics because some of them drink too much coffee.

Your opinions are nice, but they don’t matter. They don’t change my experiences with alcoholism. It doesn’t change what I do in order to stay sober. When I quit drinking, I promised myself I would never tell others not to drink. Some people imbibe heavily; others are alcoholics. Only you know how you feel about that.

I didn’t get sober to win accolades. I sobered up because I wanted desperately to have a garden variety life with all its successes and failures. I don’t want special accommodations. If I’m uncomfortable in a situation, I leave. Taking care of my sobriety is my responsibility.

Philip Seymour Hoffman
Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman died last week from drugs and alcohol, just like River Phoenix, Chris Farley, Cory Monteith, Lenny Bruce, Jim Morrison, Judy Garland, Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. Each time I think about an addict or alcoholic dying, I’m left wondering why. Why did it happen to them and not me?

There are a lot of men, women, and teenagers who die every day from alcoholism and addiction. I knew a man once who was only famous to his family. He brought a bottle of booze and a knife to a secluded area, got drunk and stabbed himself to death.

He, too, was sober, and then he wasn’t. I was a 15-year-old alcoholic who never had a legal drink. I never thought I’d stay sober for 27 years. I have no guarantees for the future, but neither do you. You could get into a fatal car wreck or have a massive heart attack. Whatever happens tomorrow doesn’t change the good you’ve done today.

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I’m no guru. I don’t have opinions about whether drugs should be legalized. I don’t give consumer reviews for recovery programs. I have a perspective, but so does everyone else.

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A long time ago, a pop singer on a talk show helped me start looking for a different way of living. She didn’t even mention the word alcoholism or recovery. Whether or not she was sober or stayed sober didn’t matter. Because of what I saw in her, something changed inside me.

If you think you have a problem with alcohol or addiction, here are some resources (in alphabetical order).

Alcoholics Anonymous
LifeRing Secular Recovery
Narcotics Anonymous
SMART Recovery
Secular Organizations for Sobriety
Women for Sobriety