How alcohol isolated me but sobriety liberated me
Visions Journal, 2019, 14 (3), pp. 24-26
Ever since I was a young child, I have been comfortable with solitude, being free to read quietly or listen to records, or even choreograph my own dance routines to Carole King. Socially, I didn’t have a lot of friends, but the few I had I felt a comfortable connection to. Although I always tried to fit in with bigger groups, I felt socially awkward and was always more comfortable alone. I did not know the feeling of loneliness until later in life.
Spending time alone and writing have been forms of self-exploration and therapy for me since I was young. Exploring my creativity through writing is a passion that enables me to confront my inner conflicts and to better understand the human condition. Even now, at 50 years old, I use writing as a map to trace how I got to where I am today, and to explore the places I’ve been along the way.
This kind of self-exploration is not easy. Human beings can go through complex and challenging life-altering experiences before we find a safe landing, a safe harbour to start our self-exploration, to begin the process of self-acceptance and healing, and—hopefully—to begin the process of accepting and better understanding others.
Early life and substance use
My understanding of loneliness and writing as a tool for self-reflection has evolved over the course of my life. I have experienced a lot of loss, which has shaped who I am today, and how I think of loneliness and solitude.
My early childhood was happy. I was raised by a single, healthy mother and my two loving older sisters. I was close to all of my grandparents, with the exception of my absent father, who, in addition to his substance use disorder, lived with other complex mental health issues, which I did not understand at the time.
In hindsight, I know that my father's challenges with loneliness and addiction can be understood through the blurry lens of his own childhood. Abandoned by both of his alcoholic parents as a young child, he was raised among distant family in a series of hotels in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. Eventually, his grandmother took him and his sister to live with her in a very small, tar-paper-covered shack in the Fraser Valley.
But despite these stacked odds, he did well, meeting my mother and beginning a family. He was charismatic, polite and hard-working. It wasn't until his third child was born—me—that he experimented with drugs at a party one night. He was never the same again. He continued using drugs and eventually my mother had to leave him.
My father's infrequent visits in my otherwise peaceful life were often volatile and frightening. He was no longer the same wonderful man my mother had fallen in love with and married. Over time, his substance use and his violent moods and actions had made him a broken and disruptive man, one whom my mother feared and tried to protect her family from. My father lost everything because of his addictions.
High school and early adulthood
By the time I reached Grade 8, drinking and recreational drug use seemed to be a normal part of social connection among my peers. The social anxiety of trying to fit in became a lot easier when I learned to smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. Eventually, my friends and I tried mushrooms and cocaine and hard liquor. When regular substance use becomes such a natural part of your life, it's hard to recognize when the partying is actually excessive.
But eventually I grew up and matured enough to get a steady job and pay my own rent, despite my substance use.
By this time, it had become normal for my peers to experiment with more dangerous substances, including heroin. Some acquaintances got sick, and others died. I began to be more selective about who I hung around with. And then I became a mother in my early twenties and my priorities changed. My two children are my world. But my first real wake-up call would come a bit later.
When my eldest child was three, my dad died of a heroin overdose. I left my son with his father and went on a road trip with a friend to California. On that trip, I drank for seven days straight. It didn't occur to me that I was being unhealthy until I got the shakes. I was so alarmed that I stopped drinking for the rest of the trip.
When I got back home, I stopped heavy drinking altogether. Although I would go out once in a while, I never overdid it, and I stopped hanging out with people who did recreational drugs. That was challenging; in my community, drug use was everywhere. It seemed to be socially acceptable.
Then, a few years after my father died, my best friend also died of a heroin overdose and I went into an emotional tailspin. Losing someone to overdose brings with it an extra layer of pain, as the death is completely preventable. My grief haunted me. I turned to alcohol again, and spent nights drinking at home while my kids were away at their grandparents' house for the weekend.
Solitude was no longer something that was healing. I had become overwhelmingly lonely, drowning in my grief over the loss of my father and my friend. I literally drank more on those nights than I ever thought I could. At times I felt abandoned and ripped off. I was heartbroken. Loneliness engulfed me.
But deep down, I knew I didn't want to become what had hurt me. I could not do that to my children.
I did not want to use alcohol to numb myself anymore. I quit drinking completely. But now I felt even more alone because I stopped associating with most of the people I knew. But I was determined to get back in touch with that part of me that liked her own company—that stranger who was me.
Writing a new story—or an old one
I let myself be okay with crying in the dark, with feeling pain and loss and loneliness. Instead of drinking, I would pick up a pen and write. I would write through the loneliness. I got to know myself again through writing. Even today, the more I write, the more I discover about myself.
Through my writing, I have also learned to accept my past. My past is part of me. My father's past is part of me. Those roots—the strong, deep ones as well as my father's broken ones—are all part of my story, and there is no shame in any of them. Every single one of us has roots and a story, and every single root, every single line, matters.
I don't resent my father anymore, or the fact that his life story did not have a happy ending. Nor do I resent my friend or blame myself. I could not have stopped her from experimenting with heroin.
Every single one of us deals with loneliness in our own way and chooses our own path. And at times we have all been in a lonely place but not known how to help ourselves. I am one of the lucky ones. Through my own healing and my personal customized wellness plan, I not only live free from alcohol, recreational drugs and even cigarettes but I also live free and liberated to be a friend to me. In many ways, I have rediscovered the strong, free-spirited girl I was at the beginning of my story.
About the author
Tabitha is dedicated to ending the stigma of substance use. Her study of introversion has deepened her appreciation for writing and solitude as healing therapies. A Vancouver resident and former board member of From Grief to Action, Tabitha has organized International Overdose Awareness Day events and helped coordinate Vancouver Public Library's participation in National Addiction Awareness 2017