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Recovering alcoholic shares cautionary tale as drinking surges during pandemic

There are many "rock bottoms" and no one "wake-up call," she says.
Erica Barnett is a recovering alcoholic and author of the new book "Quitter."
Erica Barnett is a recovering alcoholic and author of the new book "Quitter."Courtesy Alex Garland Photography
/ Source: TODAY

Erica Barnett calls herself an “ugly drunk” — not the kind of alcoholic who would get friendlier and cheerier with each sip.

“I would fall down the stairs and pass out in people’s houses. I’d fall asleep on the bus and have to be woken up at the end of the line and get in verbal fights with people. I was just very unpleasant,” Barnett, 42, told TODAY.

“Most of the narratives you read about women and drinking don’t really emphasize stuff like the passing out, the throwing up and just the sickness of it. But it’s very real — that happens to women.”

The Seattle journalist said she missed almost a decade of life when her problem with alcohol grew out of control in 2007. At the height of her addiction, Barnett drank more than two bottles of wine or a bottle of vodka a day.

She was fired from a job, lost a relationship, lost friends and had a hard time supporting herself because she was spending so much money on alcohol, she writes in her new book, “Quitter: A Memoir of Drinking, Relapse, and Recovery.”

Now Barnett, who has been sober for five-and-a-half years, is watching with concern as many people turn to alcohol as a way to cope with the stress and anxiety of life during the pandemic.

Alcohol sales spiked this spring during the national lockdown. In one survey, 1 in 3 Americans said they were more likely to drink alcohol during working hours while stuck at home. People joked about relying on “quarantinis” to get through the day.

“I hate the joke-y marketing, the ‘Everything is great, it’s 4 o’clock somewhere.’ It drives me crazy," Barnett said.

"With people drinking so much right now, you're going to see more people seeking treatment and more people falling into addiction."

She shared what it was like to try to end her dependency and what it took to finally recover:

You don’t just hit a rock bottom and ‘get it’

Barnett: People tend to believe that when somebody is addicted, it gets worse, they hit rock bottom and then realize they need to get better. Then they do whatever it takes and they are better forever.

In reality, at least for me, you hit something that looks like a rock bottom. You maybe quit for a while, maybe you don’t, and then you hit another thing that looks like a rock bottom.

When I lost my job, I definitely should have quit then because that was probably the worst thing that ever happened to me at that point. But I didn’t and things got worse, and they got a little better and got a little worse.

There will be relapses

Barnett: Relapse isn’t failure. Alcoholism is a disease of which relapse is a symptom.

I went to cognitive behavioral therapy and an outpatient treatment program. I went to detox about five times, which is when they give you medication to get you through withdrawal and they let you go. I went to traditional 28-day rehab twice.

When I went into treatment for the first time, I relapsed within about three months. My parents were really disappointed and I was disappointed in myself, too, because I thought treatment was supposed to fix me — and it didn’t. This narrative that it’s a one-and-done kind of thing keeps people in shame and keeps them from trying again.

You can try again right away. People need to know that.

There’s no such thing as a wake-up call

Barnett: Most people who have really bad addiction like I had are well aware that they should quit. You don’t need to tell them.

When I finally did quit, it had nothing to do with anything that happened. It was just literally that I woke up one day and I was done.

I hear this from so many other alcoholics and addicts — they were living their life and going along feeling miserable and then one day, they just got that internal motivation to change. I don’t know where it comes from, but eventually if you’re lucky it comes.

AA isn’t for everyone

Barnett: AA was definitely a big part of my sobriety and my recovery, and still is. The thing with Alcoholics Anonymous is it’s important to take what works and leave the rest.

In AA, you count your days from day one of sobriety and I think that can be really problematic. You can really feel like a failure if you go to zero every single time you relapse. That can be a toxic idea because when you have any amount of sobriety, whether it’s one day or three months or six years, you are building tools and you’re learning from that experience. You don’t lose that knowledge when you relapse.

Advice for people who want to drink less

Barnett: When you’re about to turn to drinking as a coping mechanism, it’s important to pause and say, “What am I feeling right now, what is causing that feeling and what is another way I can deal with that feeling?”

There are tons of people who drink non-problematically and just want to drink less. If you think you might have a problem — this is a different category of people — it’s a good idea to say, “I’m not going to drink at all for this week or this month” and if you can’t do that — can’t even fathom it — then it’s probably a good idea to talk to somebody in a professional capacity to see if you need help.

Life on the other side

Barnett: My life sober is so much better and I’m just so much healthier than when I was drinking. Even people who don’t have a problem with drinking should experience a little bit of that and get to know themselves without alcohol in the picture.

My brain took a long time to come back, but my health physically came back really quickly. I feel like myself again.