To others, Chenoa W.'s life looked like something out of a fairy tale — she had a loving, handsome husband, two adorable children and the luxury of being a stay-at-home mom on a small farm in Oregon — but behind closed doors, her storybook life was crumbling beneath a weighty secret: Chenoa is an alcoholic.
It started shortly after the couple's second child was born in 2008. "I found myself with a newborn baby boy, a 2-year-old girl, and I was still grieving the loss of my mom, who died when I was pregnant with my daughter," Chenoa says. "I was feeling overwhelmed at times and there was this emptiness inside of me."
At the end of particularly challenging days, she started to drink a glass of wine "just to take the edge off." Over time, she was sipping a glass of wine every night — then two glasses, then three. In the beginning, Chenoa would wait until 5 p.m. to pop the cork "because that was the acceptable hour." But as months passed, she'd break out the wine in the early afternoon.
"It became a huge issue in my marriage," she admits. "My husband, Tyler, didn't know if he was going to walk in and have a sober wife or a wife who's already had three glasses of wine."
But the fairy-tale façade remained. No one outside of their house knew about Chenoa's ever-worsening condition. "I was able to portray a very normal lifestyle," Chenoa says. "I still managed to get dinner on the table, my kids went to private school, I went to the gym, I always looked good. And yet I was passing out almost every night from drinking after the kids went to bed."
Drinking to Rock Bottom
As her addiction intensified, Chenoa would attempt to go without wine even for just one day. "I remember this so vividly — I would wake up in the morning and I'd promise myself, 'I'm not going to drink today,'" she says. "But by 4 p.m., I would find myself with a glass of wine in my hand."
She showed other telltale signs of alcoholism, too: "I wouldn't eat a lot because I wanted to get a faster buzz, and I began buying the boxes of wine instead of the bottles so my husband didn't know how much I drank."
Eventually, alcohol was taking over her life in scary, dangerous ways. While she wants to keep some of her actions private out of respect for her family, Chenoa confesses to have driven drunk with her kids in the car.
In February 2012, her husband hit his breaking point.
"He sat down on the couch across from me and said, 'Are you finally ready to stop drinking?'" Chenoa remembers. "You would think that would be a really easy decision for somebody to make, especially when they saw their life completely unraveling in front of them. For an alcoholic, it's not easy to say, 'I'm ready to quit.' It scared me to death to think about what my life would be like without alcohol."
Chenoa made that life-changing decision in the middle of a friend's Superbowl party. As the wine, beer and cocktails were flowing around the room, she walked out and headed to her first (AA) meeting. "I knew I had no other choice — I had to save my marriage and my family."
The Sobering Truth
Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, according to the . In fact, 17.6 million people — that's one in every 12 adults — suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence, along with several million more who engage in risky binge-drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems.
"There are many different definitions of alcoholism, of problem drinking, and it depends really on which definition you use," says Antonio De Filippo, MD, psychiatrist, addiction treatment specialist, and medical director at in South Florida. "One is, when people lose control over their drinking and it causes problems in their overall environment — home life, work life and inter-psychic life (one's own mind and soul). As for what it means to 'lose control,' [it means] drinking more than you plan to and not being able to stop for longer periods than you had planned."
A variety of factors can lead to alcohol abuse, including:
- Genetics: More than half of all adults have a family history of alcoholism or problem drinking, according to the NCADD (true in Chenoa's case).
- Cultural issues: "In the United States, we live in a culture of drinking high amounts and frequently," Dr. De Filippo says.
- Comorbidity (where two diseases exist simultaneously): "Whether it's depression, grief, anxiety, sleep issues or a combination thereof, this a big part of substance abuse," De Filippo explains. "For example, people with social anxiety have a heck of a lot higher alcohol use and abuse because they're trying to calm themselves down in order to go out."
- Chemical makeup: Alcoholism has been categorized as a medical illness through the disease model. "There are different models of this, as well, and we think that the reward center in the brain works a little bit differently in people who overuse substances," De Filippo says.
It's believed that some people with substance abuse disorders may not be receiving all the messages from the brain. "When I talk to my patients, I refer to it as revving up your engine," De Filippo adds. "Certain people run at a certain RPM. And when you get a reward — you receive a compliment, a gift — you get revved up the 'normal' amount, and these neurotransmitters [such as dopamine, a feel-good chemical] get released. One of the thoughts with people with substance use disorders is that they don't get revved up quite as much. So when they're exposed to a substance, they feel like they get revved up."
And what's perhaps the most vital fact about alcoholism: understanding that recovery is an ongoing process. "There are many different statistics, but the bottom line is it's extremely common to need multiple quit attempts in order to quit, and also different modalities," De Filippo says. "Some people do well with meetings, some people do well with individual therapy, others do well with rehab, but it's normal for it to take more than one try. It's like anything else — you can't become good at something by just doing it once. It's something you have to keep working on."
Living Happily — and Soberly — Ever After
On top of attending AA meetings each day for the first 30 days of her sobriety, Chenoa also met with an individual counselor, as well as a marriage counselor with Tyler. She went through a couple of relapses during the first six months, but says it was her faith that brought her back to a sober path.
"I had believed in God, but I didn't have a relationship with God," she explains. "It was a big step for me to just to give over that control — to know that no matter what, I have a God who will bring me through it."
Chenoa was forced to confront some of her fears, namely that others would find out she has a problem. "There is such a stigma out there, especially for women like myself," she says. "I was afraid that people would think I'm weak."
She was also dealing with the fear of losing her friends and the fear of no longer having fun. "Our whole culture celebrates drinking," Chenoa says. "I didn't think anyone would want to hang out with me anymore because drinking had become such a part of my social circle. But the reality is, there was a beautiful life out there waiting for me."
Being sober gave Chenoa the opportunity to get reacquainted with her true self. She rediscovered her love of gardening, cooking, reading and writing. (Her blog, , chronicles her journey). "I didn't really know what I liked to do because my hobby was drinking," she says. "When you get into those throes of alcoholism, all of the things you're passionate about fall by the wayside."
Today, Chenoa is proud to say she has been sober for three-and-a-half years and continues to work on her sobriety each day. "I have the life I always wanted, but would have never had if I kept drinking," she says. "I have a wonderful husband, a strong marriage — stronger than it ever was — two beautiful, healthy children, and I am able to be present in every moment of my life and in theirs."
She encourages others living with alcoholism to seek help. "It's a deadly disease and the longer you wait to get help, the worse it will get," she says. "It takes a lot to admit that you have a problem — it's just a matter of taking that first step. I think it is the greatest gift for anyone to give to their family."