The Human Factor

My sister, the addict – and her recovery

Editor’s Note: Ashley Corum is a cross-platform producer for CNN.

Story highlights

Ashley Corum's sister, Rachel, started drinking in eighth grade

Almost losing a friendship helped Rachel get her priorities in line

The group aspect of AA has helped Rachel stay sober

CNN  — 

“You have to hit rock bottom before you can recover.” As an addict, my sister heard this countless times. But what is rock bottom?

Is it sitting in jail after your third DUI? Slashing your wrists on the bathroom floor? Selling your body for a hit of cocaine?

For my sister, it was something much simpler. I recently spoke with my sister, who’s now 30, about her addiction, her rock bottom, her recovery and the ongoing struggle with alcoholism.

From the time Rachel took her first drink in eighth grade, she knew alcohol was her answer, her way of coping. “I was in love with alcohol,” she said. “Alcohol helped me deal with my anxiety, it helped me let go and not care what people thought. It was fun.”

She would take several whiskey shots behind our house before walking to high school in the mornings. She attended classes drunk and high. She stumbled across the stage for graduation, barely aware of where she was.

At the time, my mom and I didn’t quite know the extent of it, but we knew she had a problem. My mom threatened that she wouldn’t be able to go to college if she didn’t attend an outpatient program for addiction, so Rachel went to a couple sessions and was first introduced to Alcoholics Anonymous. She says she realized at that point that she probably had a problem, too. For her friends, drinking was just entertainment, but to Rachel, it was something she truly needed.

But she was also just about to start college. College presented a binge-drinking mecca, so she went through the motions to put our family at ease – and then got to college and put it out of her mind.

‘My whole life was chaos’

Four years later, Rachel managed to graduate and was well into a life of nonstop drinking. She moved out West and got involved with a guy who was also heavily into drugs and alcohol, and had other health problems. He would have seizures on the train and not come home. He also had multiple warrants out for his arrest. In addition to drinking because she liked it, Rachel would drink to stop worrying about him.

The next several years were a blur of DUIs, suicide attempts, waking up in different beds having no idea how she got there or who they belonged to and waking up with injuries she had no memory of.

“I would drink shot after shot until I started to feel it,” Rachel said. “The fun lasted for an hour. Then total chaos. My whole life was chaos. Things that are not normal become normal.”

This seemingly endless cycle continued until one Saturday in summer of 2013 when she missed her best friend’s baby shower. Sarah was her only friend who wasn’t into drugs or alcohol and frequently took care of her like family when her real family was thousands of miles away. Sarah showed up at her door to find her throwing up bile and barely coherent. She was so livid and fed up she threatened to end their friendship. For whatever reason, this ultimatum hit home with Rachel. Alcohol had caused her to miss other events, lose jobs, disappoint other friends and family, but for whatever reason, this was unacceptable to her.

“There wasn’t one big moment for me. Hurting myself never seemed so bad, but when it finally hit me that I was hurting my friends and family I knew it was time,” she said.

She remembered hearing a speaker from AA back in the high school outpatient program. She found a meeting and went.

‘Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m an alcoholic’

Rachel says her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was like the first day of school – ironically, a situation where the temptation to drink to cope with anxiety would be at its peak.

She was skeptical about AA at first and didn’t really think it would work for her. Fortunately, at her first meeting, she met a younger member she could relate to, or she might not have gone back.

Rachel’s friends are her everything. She knew she needed to get sober, but knew she couldn’t do it alone. One of the underlying principles of AA is identifying there is a greater power over your drinking – many equate this with religion, but for Rachel, that greater power is the group. You rely on what they call “fellowship” for support and you become accountable to them.

Another core concept of AA and any substance abuse program is to “change your people, places and things.” She finally broke up with her boyfriend and slowly distanced herself from her old friends. And she did have setbacks. She would get through a couple weeks and then have a drink – or 20. It took months before she got her first month of sobriety, but she kept going back to meetings.

I often wonder what the meetings actually do for her. Once you change your lifestyle and your friendships, once you get through the 12 Steps, what’s the benefit of going to meetings?

“Meetings are a reminder of how bad it can get,” she said. “If I don’t hear other people’s stories, I’ll forget mine.”

Even when she’s hanging out with people who are sober, meetings make her feel better. “There’s something about being in a room full of people who have been through the same things,” she said.

Does AA work for everyone?

Two others in my family have struggled with alcoholism over the years and have conflicting views of AA: One was a big proponent and the other does not believe in it at all.

As for Rachel, she doesn’t think AA is perfect, but tells me there’s a saying in meetings: “Take what you want and leave the rest.”

In other words: If there are people you don’t relate to or parts of the program you don’t agree with, ignore them. If you’re not religious, you don’t have to buy into what some see as religious overtones. If you don’t agree with the Big Book, you don’t have to read it. Don’t try to understand it or overanalyze the 12 Steps. Don’t try to search for faults or logic gaps. If AA helps you stay sober, that’s the ONLY thing that matters.

Two years sober

So maybe you don’t have to have hit “rock bottom” to recover. Or maybe there are a series of “rock bottoms” that you live with for years. Whatever the case, Rachel says to get sober, the only thing you need is a true desire to change. She believes AA has inspired her beyond just staying sober – that it has changed her as a person. She says the program has taught her to be open and honest, to sympathize with people and to look at things differently. It has changed her whole life.

It almost seems insulting to say every day is a struggle, a cliché to say she still thinks about alcohol all the time. Rachel goes to meetings a few times a week and they help her cope with the anxiety and stress that alcohol used to mask.

My sister has now been sober for two years and is living with a man she met in AA. I met this man and most of her new friends for the first time a few months ago. They are all amazing, unique and fun people. She’s changed so much in the past two years it’s almost unbelievable that this is the same sister who would call me in the middle of the night, so drunk and high she could hardly form words. She’s mature and self aware, strong and responsible. I’m so proud of her.