A Year of Healing Without Alcohol
From corporate leader to burned out neurodivergent and how booze blurred the lines
One year ago today I was so mentally and emotionally burned out it made me sick. I’d been running on fumes for so long as a single mom in a pandemic — and for years before that — my essential systems were starting to fail. When my kids were with their dad over the holidays, I was forced to rest, and (like I’d feared for a long time would happen) I didn’t have enough juice to get back up again. I wasn’t burning out anymore, I was shutting down.
It felt like the most extreme version of what I’d always thought before were bouts of depression. In the past, after I realized what was happening and took better care of myself, it would simply fade away. Circumstances had changed, however, and I literally could not afford to do what worked in the past — slow down, take time, reset with big healthy changes. I also understood I had no choice. I stopped aggressively building my new business, and maintained a small group of clients. I stopped working and socializing nights and childless weekends, and started going to bed right after the kids. My physical illness was manifesting as an endless wave of UTI-like symptoms, so I hydrated like a fish and stopped consuming caffeine, chocolate, bubbly water, and acidic things. And, I quit drinking.
I was planning on stopping drinking like I was planning for everything else — nothing dramatic, just make some changes and see what works. Then I read Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker and was sold on never drinking again. In fact, I don’t really have any advice past this one book recommendation that honestly made me so grossed out by alcohol I can’t imagine choosing it on purpose anymore. Meanwhile, lockdown reminded me of my innate hermit ways, and it was easy to quickly realize that alcohol was one hundred percent a social lubricant for me. I decided to be done for good and that felt right.
Drinking during quarantine had become a way to pass the time, to fill the hours with an occasionally different state of mind. Quitting left my brain with time on its hands. I was working extremely hard at resting, so instead of puttering or thinking up new things to do, I used a lot of that spare time to meditate. I was meditating twice, sometimes three times a day. I ate healthy foods and drank a ton of water. I avoided stressful people and things. I journaled. Day in and day out for months, I slowly got up and took on more but always with extreme caution. I never wanted to be as sick as I was at the start of the year again, when getting out of bed hurt everywhere. Drinking didn’t cross my mind.
By May, I was really starting to feel better. That’s also when I learned about autistic burnout. And, in what felt like an instant, I finally understood I was autistic at 43 years old. All those hard times that I assumed were depressive episodes were really cycles of burnout. All those irritating things I hated were related to sensory issues. All the relationship flameouts were rooted in neurotype miscommunication. And that need to drink to make it through the party, and the work function, and especially the networking, was masking, the ultimate camouflage for the socially awkward. And the socially awkward includes me.
After understanding how much I used drinking to help me socialize, realizing that drinking was masking my autism, not just from my peers but from myself, made sense. More and more pieces fell together. It wasn’t just something I used in my reckless youth, it was part of every phase of my life. Learning how to be a fun party girl, gathering skills in banter as a bartender, being able to hang at the big corporate after hours event, going on drinking vacations — who I became through those things helped me rise in my corporate career at least as much as my skills in marketing communications. From my business voice to my bourbon, it was all me pretending to be someone else, someone, it seemed to me at the time, who was normal.
Visualize the rest of 2021 as a montage of self-discovery. The revelations came with the kind of certainty that feels like being physically struck. They hit me while I was meditating, and doing dishes, and driving, and in the shower so often I sometimes laughed out loud at their relentlessness. Sometimes I sat on the shower floor and sobbed my eyes out. I still never thought about drinking, I also didn’t think about how not drinking was finally giving me the chance to get through all of this shit. I was simply in it. One thing was quickly clear, whatever I thought normal was, it wasn’t good for me.
It’s hard to imagine ever being able to see a return to corporate life as a healthy choice knowing how often and thoroughly it contributed to my cycles of burning out. It was another kind of poison and another kind of mask. I don’t think I could have healed in that environment any better than if I were still drinking. Now, I’m often called to heal broken spirits caused by corporate trauma, and I teach emotional intelligence to break through the cognitive dissonance that keeps corporate culture alive. Not drinking helps me see with clarity how bad that environment is, the same way drinking made it easier to stay in it and climb.
I never really cared about marking calendar time before — the new year, my birthday, anniversaries. Now that this anniversary is here, even as I’m writing, I’m realizing the end of drinking isn’t the milestone. That part was easy for me, I didn’t put in enough effort to deserve a prize. But, this day a year ago is also the day I stopped pretending to be someone I wasn’t and started learning to love who I am, beginning with taking care of myself at all costs. It’s the day I started healing. The day I became the mom I was meant to be. It’s the day I started to become more me. I didn’t improve. I didn’t acquire anything new. In fact, I let go and let go and let go. The first thing I let go of was the idea that poisoning myself with ethanol was cool. That was the shift, meeting myself as a result is the cause for celebration.
Quitting drinking led me to the roots of my illness and the start of healing on every level, so in many ways this is my New Year and my birthday rolled into one. And yes, there will be cake.