Drowning In Bottles
My Story of Addiction and Substance Use Disorder
By: Karen Michelle Kaiser
This book is for mature adults and teenagers. It contains the following content triggers:
Substance use disorder
Other common methods of self-harm and expressions of suicidality
I want to talk about a topic that I haven’t been able to discuss openly for most of my adult life; alcohol addiction and acute substance use disorder. I’m an African American Muslim and I grew up in the Washington, DC area. My experiences are limited to my life and to the people I’ve met. My intention is mainly to discuss my alcoholism, how it began, why I felt so secretive and how I pulled myself out of it. I want this to be a source of strength and support for others like me who may feel hopeless or helpless in the face of such a situation. May Allah bless my efforts, and reward my teachers and mentors for their guidance. And may He continue to reward my family for their support. Ameen.
The first time I took a drink of alcohol, I was 16 years old. I was at a summer party with some friends. That’s the first time it happened publicly. But before then, I remember taking sips of my parents’ wine from their glasses at holiday parties and such. And feeling like I was doing something wrong, but exciting at the same time. I loved holding my father’s mugs and thinking I was as adult as he was.
He kept his liquor in a cabinet on our entertainment center, right above his records. The cabinet made a creaking sound when you opened it. He never offered me anything to drink, but the pull of alcohol was still really strong. I liked how it made me feel and how it numbed my emotions. I felt ashamed that I was taking something that didn’t belong to me; something I didn’t have permission to consume. But regardless, it became a routine.
Immediately after that first taste, I was hooked. I was addicted to alcohol. It wasn’t because I liked drinking, it’s because being drunk made me forget the things that made me sad and anxious. I will admit though, I liked the feeling of weightlessness that comes with it. It’s fun also. Right before you lose your balance and your inhibitions, being intoxicated is like being at a carnival. I always liked being less me; or more me. When I’m drinking, my tongue is looser and I’m funnier. My jokes are better. I’m the life of the party. I love that. I suck up the oxygen in the room until there isn’t anymore. And then I keep going. It’s as though my stomach is bottomless. I drink until a trapdoor opens and all the contents of my stomach drop out onto the floor; along with the bile and my guts. It’s a painful experience. But then, so is alcoholism.
Beginning in 9th grade, I often slept through my classes, because of poor mental health and exhaustion. Even as an athlete, I felt rundown on a constant basis. I later found out I have excessive daytime sleepiness and narcolepsy. It took years of tests to receive a proper diagnosis. But by then, my life had been so disrupted by sleeping that I’d become severely overwhelmed. This caused me to feel worse about myself and lazy overall. Though I didn’t realize it, I drank as a result of how I perceived my health status. Drinking was my escape.
I was in 10th grade when I met the first guy who talked to me about alcohol. He went to another church and neighboring high school. He was one year older and really cute. He asked me one night if I’d ever been drunk. He told me what it was like. He told me not to believe people who said you don’t know what you’re doing when you’re drunk. And he said you’re just more ‘you’ when you drink. To me, that sounded like he was setting me up for a compromising situation. I was leery of him, as he kept trying to get me to go to parties where there’d be alcohol and older students. So we never met in person. I had many experiences like this as I got older. It scarred my psyche. I never told my parents about why we never dated but I was embarrassed and ashamed of our phone conversations.
In college, my narcolepsy got much more debilitating. It was exacerbated by bipolar depression, anxiety and my response to trauma. I was bullied so much throughout childhood that my self-esteem suffered. No one knew how much I hated myself. And they didn’t know I had been molested and sexually assaulted at least three times in my life. My mom suspected something, but wasn’t sure who the culprit was. This left many questions for me. And I couldn’t talk to my father or other family members because I was too shy and introverted; though my father was always supportive. So I drank to hide my pain.
I was 21 years old when I converted to Islam. I felt as though I didn’t have anyone to turn to, in order to share my past difficulties. And I was scared people would find out how chaotic my life had been, so I didn’t tell them anything. That left me feeling like I couldn’t trust anyone in my Muslim circles early on. When I converted, people told me to forget my old life. They said it wasn’t necessary to think about what had happened. And that Allah had forgiven my past mistakes. But nobody asked me if I knew about trauma, had negative experiences, addictions, mental health issues and so on. I think this was irresponsible, even if unintentional. I think I should have been counseled by a licensed therapist and Imam, screened for mental health concerns and substance use disorders, and formally welcomed to a community. And furthermore, I should have been guided in what to do if I developed any of these issues subsequently. That would have been ideal anyway.
Since none of that happened, I ended up trying to quit alcohol cold turkey, several times. Trying to manage my addictions and substance use issues without professional help. Trying to hide my trauma and anxiety and not being forthcoming with clinicians when I did finally find them. This was dangerous and proved almost deadly to me on multiple occasions.
When I met my future husband, I’d pushed all this down and forgotten it happened. I’d repressed memories of the abuse, my visits to the psychiatrist, my sexual assaults, the alcoholism, and so on. Anything I did remember, I kept to myself out of fear of judgment and shame. We didn’t have marital counseling; in fact, it wasn’t even recommended to us. At that time, there was no counseling center at the masjid, and of course, no place to discuss addictions or alcoholism. My marriage was set up to fail, in a way.
I remember my first Ramadan when I was in college. I stopped drinking so I oould pray and fast. But I didn’t have guidance, so I didn’t know how to taper and pray as a dry alcoholic. I’d go back and forth, wrestling with my alcohol addiction. I’d stopped going to parties, of course, but memories of the alcohol kept attacking my psyche. I still had strong cravings and some withdrawal symptoms. It was so hard to put the bottle down, metaphorically speaking. Sometimes, I’d make a mistake and take a drink.
I heard about 12-Step programs, but I didn’t know anything about them. I didn’t want to quit drinking for the sake of someone else. I wanted to do it for my own benefit. But I’ll admit, I never looked into recovery seriously. I’d only heard of halfway houses and rehab facilities in my area briefly. I thought quitting cold turkey was best for me & my Iman. For some reason, I thought Islam distinguished me from other addicts because I’d only heard of recovery from a Christian perspective. One day, I told my therapist I was quitting therapy & moving on. She was upset, but couldn’t stop me. I stopped seeing my psychiatrist abruptly too. It was the summer of 1996. I was in the throes of a full blown manic episode, only I didn’t know it. In hindsight, I’ve since learned that stopping therapy and meds and not seeking inpatient treatment is not advisable. I’m happy to know better, nowadays.
Going Without Alcohol
The first few Ramadan’s were peaceful for me. I forgot my old life and never told anyone about my addictions. I didn’t seem to need any additional support. I was in a kind of mental health remission. But then I had my son. And it triggered something in me. The stress exacerbated my symptoms and my addiction resurfaced. I had kids back to back, every two years. The hormones and stress of being a new mother made my bipolar disorder and anxiety return with a vengeance. I developed poor coping skills as a result. I wanted to drink, but couldn’t. I wished I had told someone that I’d been a heavy drinker in college, so I’d know what to do. When my midwives asked me about alcohol and substance use, I wasn’t honest. I also didn’t remember or realize the importance of the emotional issues I was dealing with.
I found other ways to soothe my pain and anxiety. When my husband wasn’t home, if there were pills in the house, regardless if they were mine or not, I’d take them. I was right back into my addictive behaviors before I knew it. I didn’t know how to reach out for help. I realized later I was substituting one addiction for another. So quitting alcohol cold turkey, without a support system, didn’t do anything positive for me at all. I began to use my husband’s work tools to cut myself, resorting to a teenage coping mechanism I used to employ. Self-harm was something I indulged in when I needed help managing tough situations. I’d cut, scratch my face, wring my hands, wrap things around my neck, injure my limbs (or re-injure them), etc. Anything to feel pain or hurt myself. I still have scars on both arms from where razors dug into my flesh one time when I was with my children. Thankfully I wasn’t seriously injured, nor were they.
Before I stopped drinking, there were a few times where I got blackout drunk. This kind of thing started in my third year of high school. I wanted to numb my feelings and feel happy. But I’d drink too fast and too much. I’d consume alcohol until I got physically ill. Drinking like that is extremely dangerous. And if you’re around water or near a pool, you can get hurt. I realize now that I was passively suicidal, and severely depressed. I was also dealing with many impulsive behaviors and had no safety net.
During beach week I drank until I passed out. But before I blacked out, I went canoeing at midnight. I could have fallen overboard. I want this to be a lesson for my kids and other youth. When I woke up, there was so much vomit on my shirt and on my face. I was crying. My friends said they couldn’t stop me from getting sick and they didn’t know what to do. They tried turning me over during the night, but I still woke up on my back. It took me two days to fully recover and sober up. My parents didn’t know where I was or who I was with. I’ve never felt that awful before. Unfortunately, even after that, I still drank. Because this is how substance use disorder and addiction work. And it’s deadly. I went through this painful ordeal many more times in college and even afterwards, subhanAllah. I overdosed with substances too. It got to a point where I’d take extra vitamins and try to drink water, electrolyte solutions or juice with my alcohol and pills, just so I wouldn’t get as sick. It was exhausting.
I always found a liquor store or a beer & wine place wherever I lived. I knew exactly where to go & what time they closed depending on what part of the area I was in. This is problematic for me now that I’m sober. I don’t want to live like that. You become a slave to your addiction. People think you’re a low life or you’re just a bad person if you drink. They think you have poor character and that your parents raised you wrong. I hate that mentality. I’m tempted to negate this and remind people that I was raised in the church, like I’ve done in the past. But addiction doesn’t discriminate. It isn’t a character issue at all. It’s about trauma and about a lack of proper coping skills. It’s about connection. It’s also about impulsivity for some of us and self-will. And an underlying mental illness makes things more complicated.
This morning, I opened my nightstand drawers. They were a mess. I had pill bottles everywhere and drugstore receipts. I found a few loose trileptal pills (for mood regulation) too. Tops to empty bottles. Nail clippers. Trash galore. This is also a part of my addiction. It’s called hoarding & ocd. It’s a part of my adhd and anxiety disorder as well. It’s representative of my hectic life. So I bought a lockbox, a pill minder, and pill pouches to organize things and it helped. I still have a long way to go though.
I don’t drink anymore, but I’m so disorganized. I don’t know how to take my meds properly, therefore my behavior still mimics addiction. I have the lockbox, but I don’t yet use it properly. I can’t figure out how to tell my doctors I need help with this entire process. I want to make a difference for others. And I wish I’d met someone like me along the way. I wish I’d been to a place like the women’s shelter I was at in Texas much sooner. What I miss about that area is someone coming to my room and asking me to go to a meeting. It was such a nice feeling. Funny enough, when I was in Senegal, it felt much the same way. My family members would come to my door to give me attaya (Senegalese tea) or something. It’s about camaraderie, plain and simple.
At my mom’s house I used to collect bottles of beer in large plastic trash bags in my room. I was ashamed for anyone to discover I was drinking, so I hid it. I’d finish a six-pack and shove the empty bottles into the bag hoping that somehow hid my ‘crime’. Eventually when the bag got too full, I’d sneak outside when no one was looking and stash it in the trash can. I got tired of that routine and I got tired of thinking people would find out. Sometimes I’d keep the bags in my room. But then I’d hoard 3 and 4 bags of bottles at a time. I was drowning in my alcohol addiction. I couldn’t see my way out.
Lack of Connection
They say addiction stems from a lack of connections. I’m noticing throughout this narrative that what I’m often missing is a connection to family and friends. And a lack of a genuine connection with myself and to Allah. When my Iman is higher, I don’t want to drink or give in to my addictions. My impulse control issues, even if they do come up, are easier to manage, and I’m less apt to reject help than when my Iman is lower. When I’m away from my deen, though, this isn’t the case. Part of my problem is my social anxiety. I drank to calm my nerves in social situations or because I didn’t know how to say ‘no’. Or maybe because I felt I couldn’t. Additionally, if I became embarrassed in public or anything, drinking was my way out.
It’s summertime as I’m writing this and getting pretty hot. I live close to two alcohol establishments. I don’t feel compelled to buy anything at the moment. But in the past I would have. I would have been so tempted to go grab an alcoholic beverage. I wouldn’t have been able to control my cravings. At times like this, it feels like my veins are reaching for the haram, day and night. I can feel it like I feel my heartbeat. It calls to me.
It’s hard to admit that tawbah is part of addiction. But I still need to learn the true meaning of repentance. I don’t understand this but I wouldnt have wanted people to see me walk into a liquor store as a Muslim and as a hijabi. So I would have altered my appearance. I’m sure people think that means I unequivocally know right from wrong, I sometimes do. But what they’re missing is the impulsivity. And the compulsive disorder. That’s the part I can’t control. And mania and psychosis both significantly alter your perception and your judgment. You cannot consent to anything in those kinds of conditions. However, where tawbah comes in for me is talking about the haram unnecessarily in public rather than studying about my illness with a qualified therapist or teacher, remaining quiet about doubtful issues instead of speaking out of turn and sharing things that I didn’t have permission to.
With alcohol, I’ve experienced acute intoxication, extreme drunkenness and poisoning. Many times at parties, I used to mix alcohol and beer together, meaning I’d drink one right after the other. Done correctly, you don’t get sick and you can continue drinking. But when mixed improperly, you will vomit after a while and have a bad hangover. The same is true with substances. I don’t like to think about how many times had alcohol poisoning. Because my behavior was so self-sabotaging back then. Hopefully now I’m taking much better care of myself. And I don’t have the need to tempt fate or see how much punishment my body can handle before I give and and take care of it. Overdosing hurts. And I’m never sure if the last time will be my “last time”. I don’t want to keep thumbing my nose at Allah’s mercy without realizing how many times I’ve been saved before.
I notice a common refrain is to tell someone like me to reach out for help when we’re struggling with mental ill health or having an addiction problem. Often hotline numbers are passed around as well. This is helpful, but only to a point, The person who is in need isn’t always ready or able to ask for help when the need it the most. And the people who need to help don’t always know instinctively to reach out to their loved ones and check on them without prompting. This causes a disconnect. Maybe instead of all of us simply saying “reach out” to one another and “take care of your mental health” we can direct these phrases and make them more meaningful, we can explain how we want people to connect with one another. That way we’re working on community building skills and creating better experiences.
The first thing I do when I notice a craving is think back to the mindfulness steps I learned in therapy. Though a trigger can produce powerful results, I’m often able to get control quickly. Depending on where I am, I’ll sit down and meditate for a few minutes and notice my breathing and my body. I’ll sometimes close my eyes and just try to focus my attention on what may have happened to bring about the feeling of anxiety in that moment. By then, the craving has usually passed and I feel better. If not, I take steps to alleviate it. Thankfully I have a good community with whom I feel safe and comfortable and I can communicate when my needs properly. And I have a mentor who always reminds me about my prayer. This helps tremendously.
The first khutbah I ever heard was about depression and anxiety disorder. The Imam said if you need to take medication to stabilize your brain, you should feel free to do so. I enjoyed that lesson. But I didn’t think much about it at the time. I moved on with my life as a Muslim and forgot his words of wisdom. Years later, I remembered that sermon and regretted I hadn’t taken heed much sooner. Remembering that khutbah might have saved me from heartache and turmoil. But I know that saying ‘if’ is something undesired in Islam.
I don’t think about drinking alcohol much anymore. By this, I mean I don’t fantasize about drinking when I’m alone. But sometimes when I’m out, I do get tempted. I don’t know what to do in those moments and sometimes I get nervous. Usually I don’t give stores a second glance. The idea of getting drunk makes my stomach turn in knots. But when I pass a liquor store, I do check to see if it’s open. If I see the window sign flashing, my heart pounds. I actually feel butterflies in my stomach. I wonder if I’ll get the urge to go inside. But then the clash of colors from the different advertisements triggers my vertigo, and I walk away, anxious, but sober. This is a good thing.
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention www.afsp.org
Muslim Youth Hotline
What they don’t tell you about an alcohol overdose is that it hurts. By that I mean it’s physically painful. It’s as if you can feel your cells shrinking, trying to get away from the poison of the alcohol. I’ve felt this too many times to count. When you OD or have alcohol poisoning you first feel really bad, like something is going to happen. It’s an aura, of sorts.
You know you went too far with the drinking, and you wish you could take it back. But it’s too late at that point. You feel queasy and you start sweating. You feel hot and dizzy. Your skin gets clammy too; first your hands, your upper lip, and then the rest of your skin. You start to experience a cold sweat even if you’re hot. Then your stomach starts to hurt. Like all the way at the bottom. You realize the vomiting is inevitable.
Karen Michelle Kaiser is a native of Washington, DC. She grew up in Silver Spring, MD, where she attended elementary through high school. After college, she became a mother to three children, a blogger, and a mental health advocate.