Katherine Chu

“Perfectionism’s a liar — You are enough”
By: Jennifer Jordan

I didn’t drink in high school. My first experience with underage drinking was the summer of 2003 – vodka and orange juice downed amidst the thrill of high school behind us, college ahead.

I was a perfectionist growing up. I wanted all As, and I worked very hard to make sure I got them. Blocks of time in my day were carefully allocated to each assignment, extracurricular, and social event in my day planner.  I was also a little…inflexible. Being impulsive or easygoing just didn’t come naturally to me. I favored the familiar over freedom, accolades over acting out. I placed enough pressure on myself that my mother regularly reminded me that it was okay to simply be a teenager.

But alcohol? Well, this was something new. This vodka and oj concoction threw me head first into a space where I didn’t think so much about what was next and how to do it well. I felt carefree. I felt fun. And I wanted more of it.

Then I got to college. Harvard. Within a year or two, it became pretty clear to me that my drinking patterns might be outside the lines of healthy behavior. 

It wasn’t that I drank every day. It was that I couldn’t stop drinking once I started. I was always a binge drinker: days, or weeks without alcohol— but when I did partake, controlling the consumption was always out of reach. The drinks themselves weren’t as important to me as the feeling of invincibility that strengthened with each sip. I felt relaxed in a way I never had in my 19 years.

I started trying to moderate the amount I drank. Just two drinks tonight, I’d promise myself, which I would quickly amend to three or four. No hard alcohol, just wine; promises I would just forget altogether once the drinks started flowing. (Hint: making rules about drinking, and then breaking said rules every time, is a pretty huge red flag.)

It was like a quiet, but insistent, low-grade alarm going off in the back of my brain during my early-to-mid-twenties. I knew something wasn’t entirely right. I knew alcohol wasn’t good for me. But I ignored the internal alarm, because changing and addressing what was actually going on felt like way more work than willful ignorance. Way more work than I thought I could handle.

Drinking became a temporary escape from whatever was bothering me at the time — a buzzy, bright pause button found at the bottom of my wine glass. The truth, however, was that my uncontrolled alcohol consumption only resulted in heightened anxiety and jangled nerves the morning after. I was broken about it, I was ashamed, and I was scared. I sought alcohol to ease the pressure I placed on myself to succeed, and to simply live in the moment. Never before had I found a way to so quickly get lost in the present, and I chased that feeling again and again. The truth is, it was a coping mechanism for the very thing that helped me succeed in the first place: perfectionism.

And dealing with those Very Difficult Feelings in the fast-moving context of Harvard was a lot for me to deal with.

I think back on my drinking as a merry go round I wanted to get off, but wasn’t quite sure how. And so around, and around, and around I went.

This continued after I graduated from college. I would go long periods of time without a sip, but when I did drink, I would regret it. And so, I’d refrain for a while, and then jump back on the merry go round.

Only now, there was an added complication that really scared me. I was no longer on a walkable college campus anymore. Drinking often meant going out, in a car. And I still couldn’t control the amount that I drank, once the drinks started flowing. It was the thought of injuring or killing someone else — a passenger in my car? a pedestrian? another motorist?  — that finally gave me the courage to stand up, and look at myself, and say — I can’t do this anymore. I’ve tried moderation. But I need permanent change. 

And so I decided to quit. Full stop. At age 28.

My husband, and our hopes of starting a family, were two other strong motivators. We had only been married 2 months. Yet I could already see the cracks in our relationship that drinking-fueled arguments – and my fear of making the change that deep down I knew I had to make — had left behind.  I could see the writing on the wall if I became a mother and kept drinking. I knew how deeply it cuts when those you trust and love struggle with addiction. And the thought of ever making my child feel that? I couldn’t bear it.

I didn’t attend AA meetings, but I did seek support and a community of other people who understood what I was going through and could offer advice. I began by exploring sober blogs, reading the stories of other women who shared similar experiences. I cultivated several sober friendships through these blogs, emailing for accountability and to anonymously share how the first days and weeks and months were going. We offered each other honest, vulnerable encouragement, and unfiltered glimpses into the challenges of quitting (allowing myself to feel okay with the fact that I just can’t drink was a big hurdle). We never learned each other’s real names, but I owe a great deal of gratitude to these women I met in the comments sections of blogs like tired of thinking about drinking and unpickled.

Each week felt a little easier, and, as time went on, it became my normal way of being. Little changes made adapting to a sober life more enjoyable: I’d stop at a cafe before heading into situations with alcohol, so that I could clutch my beloved iced coffee while others enjoyed drinks. I’d reward myself with a cupcake on the way home from an event held at a bar. I drank more diet cokes in those first few months than I really care to recall! (I now avoid being around people who are drinking heavily, not because I’m tempted but because drunk people tend to be louder and more invasive than I like.)

I haven’t had a single drop of alcohol since November 2013.

If you’re a young woman struggling with addiction issues…

First thing I’d want to you to know that you are so worthy, and so beautiful. We all have struggles, and this one is tough, but it won’t define you forever if you don’t let it. You are more resilient than you realize, and there is a lot of help available, if you are willing to reach out for it.

Be brave and make the change that your heart is encouraging you to make. That tiny voice that is asking if things aren’t right? Listen to it. I am so glad I did at a relatively young age, but I can’t help but reflect on the cost of the years I spent drinking and what could have happened if I didn’t stop.

Also – having fun after quitting is entirely possible. I promise. And it’s far less exhausting to simply do life without the specter of Questions Healthy Drinkers Never Actually Ask (“when will I have a drink again? Is it bad if I drink on a Tuesday? Don’t people in Europe drink every day, anyway? Did I drink too much last time? How many is too much? Wine can’t be that bad for me, can it? etc”) on repeat in the background. 

Also, can I tell you how much more free my mind feels now? I don’t have that junk taking up space in my heart or on my mind, and my judgment isn’t clouded. And we all know the benefits on paper of sobriety: better for your productivity, your mental health, your wallet, your waistline, your health, your sleep, your skin, your relationships.  

Struggling with alcohol issues is far more common for young women than you may think. We live in a culture that normalizes alcohol consumption and often glorifies it. Try to notice how many times alcohol is around next time you watch TV, or a movie —it’s unbelievably pervasive.  I’ve also noticed, funnily enough, that the only people who are really, morbidly curious about my sobriety are those who probably have some soul searching to do about their own habits. 

There is so much reward in being honest about your struggles. Vulnerability doesn’t fit into carefully curated images we often see, but that’s all smoke and mirrors anyway. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve connected with as a result of my willingness to be open about sobriety. We all have corners of our lives that don’t measure up to what WE think they’re supposed to be. But that’s the whole trick of it all. We all have these spaces and places. 

The very thing that scares you most may be the very thing you must do – and that could help another. Until you face it and let it go, you won’t know how resilient you are and how your own bravery and voice can inspire. Embracing my imperfections has been the most enriching, and humbling, experience.

And if my openness about my struggle with alcohol helps even one young woman make a change she needs to make? It’s all worth it.