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Happy Birthday to Me! Wait, Which One?

Posted by on in Alcoholism
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I am honored to be the December Expert particularly because this first day happens to be my birthday. Yet the date does not mark the only time I was shifted from a place of comfort to a visceral shock to the system.

I’ve been given the most precious gift of life three times. I was physically born in December of 1961, almost died in 2001 and then tested fate again in 2008. The 46-year journey was a roller coaster of addiction, emotional chaos and nonstop searching for a way out.

Although I can't remember the first few celebrations of the date I entered this world, all accounts indicated they were joyous, happy and fun. I’ve been told people poured attention on me with beautifully wrapped boxes to open and cards read by others with messages for a future far better than their own.



For the next several years, similar annual celebrations occurred filled with cakes and party favors which most would consider typical for that time in our history.

I remember my Mom sent me to me to school with homemade sweet treats on my special day. We didn't pay attention to gluten-free or peanut issues back then not because parents and school officials didn’t care about those health needs but because they didn’t know they should.

That afternoon several friends would arrive at our front door after they had received a handwritten birthday party invitation from me. We ate homemade sandwiches and cake from my Mom’s oven, played games from imagination rather than the store, and whispered secrets entrusted only between the very best of friends. My parents sat nearby to assure everyone had fun or unwind disruption from overabundance of over-excitement.

My "Sweet 16" birthday was also celebrated at home but elevated from lunch on paper plates to dinner served on china with sterling silver utensils. My parents were sequestered to another floor of the house to shield them from conversations not suitable for their consumption. As soon as the meal was finished and gifts were unwrapped, my girlfriends and I hopped in cars to meet up with boys for beers and cigarettes.

Thus marked the last time alcohol was kept for last. Drinks-a-plenty became the way not a way, to celebrate the anniversary of my physical birth.

The evening of my 21st birthday I walked with friends to the nearest bar. With I.D. in hand I stepped up to the bouncer beaming with pride to present for the first time a drivers license that was legally mine. Once inside I was handed a shot of “151” rum that had been lit on fire which set the tone for what would be a wild night of drinks offered and accepted. Every time I threw my head back and drank those fire-laced shots I inched ever closer to no memory at all. From accounts I desperately tried to collect the next day, I was seemingly happy, joyous and acting rather free. The last part only added to the list of shameful moments collected for years to come of birthday recognition soaked in alcohol.

Each year of hearing my name when the “Happy Birthday” tune was sung, more was captured in pictures than in memory.  I stopped searching for confirmation I was happy, joyous and free because with a constant stream of alcohol I always believed I was.

I awoke on 40th birthday desperately in search of my first drink only months after I had experienced the second of two alcohol withdrawal seizures that year.  Since my husband refused to acknowledge the milestone having long given up hope I’d let go of the wine bottle, my sister hosted a brunch in my honor hoping I'd be somewhat coherent with a celebration held at an earlier time of day.  I wasn't. The day was a disaster.

A few weeks later when my hands shook until I downed that early morning drink and my husband asked I not be there when he got home, on January 4th 2002 I finally asked for the help I needed.  I found the road that led me from never breathing a sober breath to always breathing soberly. To date, I've not found a good enough reason to pick up another drink.

To the many people who selflessly shared stories of their own journey to sobriety, a book containing a set of guidelines explaining how to do the same, a woman who offered me patience and time as I unraveled the past to begin my future, and my unending willingness to do any of this is how I attribute my miraculous transformation.

One day, one moment, one breathe at a time was how I found the solution to overcome my every-second obsession with alcohol.

Yet the most profound gratitude I maintain to this day is for the moment I finally realized that little inner voice inside I tried so hard to drown out was whispering the way out.  I had no idea the answers to most of my problems were readily available if I had only stopped long enough to listen from within. In time I learned what I wanted wasn’t necessarily what I needed or deserved despite a firm belief to the contrary. This extraordinary shift in perspective was important as I had yet to find out the universe had another rebirth in store for me.

On September 19, 2008 at the age of 46, I surrendered once again when I walked through the doors of an eating disorder treatment center after decades of believing self-confidence and worth came from the outside in rather than inside out.  Due to my physical state, a wheelchair was presented as the only way I’d be allowed to move about the facility until my health improved. Although far from feeling joyous, happy and free, I took a deep breath and sat down praying this would be the last battle against the disease of addiction I’d be asked to fight. Three months later I walked out a healthy, balanced woman and to date I have not found a good enough reason to negate my body of proper nutrition.

So here I am, many years later typing this message to you on the day marking the 52nd anniversary of when I opened my eyes to life for the first time. Think I'll go enjoy a delicious piece of cake and a warm cup of coffee with some like-minded friends, ever grateful to now finally feel truly joyous, happy and free.

Alison Smela, is in long-term recovery from alcohol and an eating disorder following a 30-year struggle with both. She’s an active member of a 12-Step Recovery fellowship and serves on the Board of Directors for MentorCONNECT, the first global non-profit online eating disorder mentoring community. Alison is also a writer and author of the forthcoming book, “Slow Down. Breathe. Recover” while she maintains her blog, “Alison’s Insights” focused on the life lessons she’s learned through the course of her recovery process.

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