Written by Ali Soto
Photos by William Camargo
“That’s the one.” When I was just 5 years old, my father foretold my future. He was referring to addiction,and the stockpile of hidden candy found in my bedroom was the ominous clue.
A recovering alcoholic with more than 19 years of sobriety, my father discerned early from my demeanor and mannerisms that I would stumble down the same hellish road of addiction. He labored tirelessly to explain to my brother, Kenny and I the importance of abstaining from alcohol and drugs. However, he knew Kenny would not have to struggle; he knew it would be his little girl, and he knew no matter how much he preached, it would not deter the course on which my life would soon head.
I just saw something I really did not want to see ...
On a balmy June evening in 2003, at 13 years old, I succumbed to the pressures my father so adamantly had warned me about. Until this point I embodied a mini Nancy Reagan with my “Just say ‘No’”shtick. This night, however, something changed. I was hanging out with the people my father had warned me about, and their wild, careless behavior was tantalizingly desirable. They passed me the small emerald-green pipe, and I took a hard, deep drag until I coughed, forcing the vaporized marijuana from my virgin lungs.
I laughed, and I did not stop. My head felt weightless, disconnected from my body. In this floating head, I unlocked riddles of the universe to which the solutions quickly consigned to oblivion the moment I attempted to articulate them. I felt independent, a particular sense of freedom for the first time in my life.
I began smoking weed regularly, and later that summer, I discovered alcohol. I was staying the night at a friend’s house, planning to have a typical teenybopper night spent gossiping and talking to boys on the phone. When my friend pulled the bottle of golden tequila from the depths of her closet, my stomach instantaneously lurched into a frenzied performance. If smoking weed ceased to be the life-derailing act my father had spoken of, then why would alcohol be any different?
I brought the bottle to my lips and chugged.
The warm, bitter liquid trailed down my tongue to my throat and stomach. I almost immediately felt the same warmth throughout my body. My limbs tingled, and my head felt fuzzy. I guzzled another swig. And another. I felt absolutely incredible. I experienced the most intense euphoria in my brief 13-year existence. I was complete. I was funny and smart, powerful and bold, and I was beautiful. I was exactly the person I always wanted to be. Who was I without alcohol and drugs?
Then everything faded to dark as I slid into the first of countless blackouts.
After my pioneering experience with drugs and alcohol in the summer of 2003, my high school career was engulfed with their relentless abuse and the heartbreak, humiliation and the pain encompassing such territory.
In 2005, the last month of my freshman year, I was arrested for public intoxication. I left school during lunch and drank an entire sports bottle filled with straight gin. I returned to school utterly belligerent, and campus security stopped me as I stumbled to my last class. Humiliated and scared, I was marched off campus in hand cuffs after a Breathalyzer revealed an outrageous blood alcohol content level in my body.
Needless to say, my parents were furious. I was grounded for the entire summer. Throughout this teenage torment I felt truly apologetic for nothing more than getting caught. The moment my parents awarded me my freedom, I returned to my lifestyle prior to the restriction.
At home it was considered quite a feat to survive a weekend without waging war. Lies and deceit, drunken or sober, structured every word I spoke to my parents. I couldn’t understand why my drinking should concern anyone else, it was just a fun release, and I was making it home safely every night. Then, a few weeks into my junior year in 2006, my reasons for drinking took a drastic turn.
I went to a neighbor’s birthday party and drank myself into a blackout. I awoke the next morning to find myself still in the house where the party was held. Immediately upon my waking I felt the throbbing, unfathomable pain between my thighs. I couldn’t remember what happened, but panic and terror fused within me, pulsating violently through the deepest reaches of my bloated belly. I managed to gather my belongings and stagger the one block home.
I called my boyfriend of the time, who had also been at the party the night before. He told me that I was missing from the party for a while so he and his friends had gone looking for me. They had found me unconscious and without pants in the back of an SUV. I was mortified. I hung up the phone and stared blankly at my reflection in the mirror adjacent to my bed.
The pulsation in my stomach grew stronger, and minutes later I received a phone call from one of my best friends. I could hear the grief in his voice.
“I just saw something I really did not want to see,” he said.
“What is it?” I asked impatiently.
“There is a video of you getting gang-raped being sent to people’s phones.”
I dropped my phone.
At that moment my heart must have broken in two; I could feel one half lodge in my throat and the other join the writhing cluster of panic in my stomach. As my body went into shock, the tears streamed down my face in silence. The world didn’t seem real. After what seemed hours, I heard a muffled, high-pitch sound, and within seconds reality bludgeoned me as it crashed into place. Vomit rose, and I spent the rest of the day curled up and comatose on the bathroom floor and in bed.
The misery intensified; I reasoned it was best to lie in bed and drink myself into a stupor. For the first time, I drank to numb my pain.
Following this experience, I no longer drank out of desire but out of necessity. I was just as belligerent as before, but now I was angry. I was involved in countless fights; I beat others up, and I was beaten up as well. My rage and on-edge disposition made living at home unbearable for everyone. I was the root of an ongoing discussion of divorce between my parents.
My life proved chaotic,and I was merely a liability to my family and the unfortunate souls who agreed to accompany me on my drunken escapades. Not a single person trusted me, except for my mother, because her love was so great that it blinded her from the reality of the person I had become. I grappled desperately to drink like other people. In vain, I chased the scarce nights I did not blackout or hurt someone.
Despite struggling with my alcoholism, I maintained decent grades in high school, and in December of my senior year I received an early acceptance to Cal State Fullerton’s music program as a vocalist. Soon after, in January, I found the second half of my vice: crystal methamphetamine.
Shortly after my 18th birthday,I decided I wanted to lose weight before prom. This wasn’t too unusual becauseI had been struggling with bulimia since I was 12. This time, however, I schemed to employ more help in my weight loss than just will power. I had used meth various times throughout high school. Since I never made it a habit, I thought it would be impossible to become addicted if I snorted enough to simply curb my appetite.
Never in my life had I been so wrong.
Never in my life have I been so wrong.
Meth sucked me in with the viciousness of a tornado. It consumed my life; the handling of it, the uncontrollable yearning for it, the ability to function it granted me, the physical throbbing pain and deliriousness I endured upon deprivation from it, all kept me clenched within its fatal grasp.
The parts of my life unaccommodating to my addiction I relegated to banishment. I expelled the people, places and things failing to agree with and complement my lifestyle. I quit singing and dancing competitively -things I had done my entire life. Allin the name of my addiction.
Not fond of the inability to sleep when tweaking (using meth), I tweaked all day and drank with a vengeance every night in order to blackout and fall asleep.
I was frighteningly empty. I was cold and callous, erratic and volatile, and ultimately insufferable to be near. The few friends that stuck around were caught in their own addictions as well. I was physically deteriorating; my 5-foot-9-inch body weighed a mere 107 pounds. My father was fed up and disgusted with me, my brother was genuinely terrified of me, my mother was living with a broken heart and everyone else thought I had lost my mind.
The threat of rehab or homelessness was a lingering reality, but I couldn’t go to rehab. Who was I without alcohol and drugs? Without them I would never be funny or laugh again;I would never be brave again or beautiful; worst of all, I would live in inexorable pain and never again experience comfort in my own skin.
Somehow, I managed to finish my senior year and barely pass my classes in order to keep my acceptance to Cal State Fullerton. When I arrived on campus in the fall of 2008, college was a massive shock, to say the least. I actually had to apply myself; I could no longer slide by as I did in high school by showing up occasionally and receiving credit for work solely based on its completion. I realized I needed to make a change in my life, but what should it entail?
I elected to join a sorority.
During sorority recruitment, I decided to detox myself off of meth. I went to a friend’s house to await the onset of my detoxification so that my parents would not know. I endured the most physically excruciating and mentally draining experience of my life.
My head and heart pounded so fiercely I thought they would implode. I felt the powerful pulsation in my teeth and underneath my fingernails. Piercingly sharp pains engulfed the entirety of my body causing me to shake so violently my vision became hazy and distorted. I vomited at least four times. Sweat dripped from every pore, and my face and body grew so oppressively hot they felt sweltering to the touch. The pain and throbbing grew so brutally intense that I sincerely believed I was going to die.
I guzzled vodka throughout the torment, but it was of no help. For the first time in my life I felt absolute helplessness under the influence of alcohol.
After my weekend detox I returned to everyday life a bit woozy but as if nothing had happened. I immediately made friends with women in my sorority and loved the sorority perk of directing members to a party each night. For the first week I managed to abstain from tweaking; I strictly drank during the day, and when night fell I propelled myself into a drunken oblivion.
But soon, after an argument with my father, I found myself at my dealer’s house. Each time my emotions grew too intense to cope with, I found myself on his doorstep. This arrangement worked for nearly a month.
One night my sorority was to attend an event hosted by a fraternity at our school. Because the event was on campus we were told explicitly not to drink. Of course, being the rebellious alcoholic I was, I met with a few of the other girls and began drinking before the event. I was given odd looks and an awkward caveat as I poured my vodka into a water bottle upon our departure for school. Although completely trashed, I continued to drink after we arrived. The world quickly faded to black, and I remember nothing more.
I give up... send me to rehab.
I woke up the next morning being repeatedly shook by an unfamiliar man.
“Are you okay? I thought you were dead,” he said to me in a slightly worried tone.
“I’m fine. I need togo. I need my purse,” I awkwardly retorted.
I hastily searched the equally unfamiliar house and found nothing, so I exited with only the clothes I wore the night prior. I had no cell phone, no wallet, no keys and no idea whereI was. I wandered for nearly an hour and finally found my school and a friend to take me home. Upon arrival, my parents sensed something was gravely amiss. I threw my aching body on the couch and managed to voice through my sobs, “I give up ... send me to rehab.”
At 18 years old, I made the decision to brand myself an alcoholic/addict and to fight my chemical dependency.
On Nov. 8, 2008, I checked into rehab in Long Beach, Calif. Terrified and feeling exposed, I kissed my parents goodbye, and a counselor showed me to my room. The other residents were away at an off-site meeting, so I took solace in my opportunity to explore my new home without stares and whispers.
I tiptoed around the house, afraid to touch anything. The old, Spanish-style home was picturesque - not a pillow out of place, not a dish in the sink, not a crumb on the floor. I walked into the small courtyard, the crisp autumn air stinging my exposed arms and face. Flowers of every color adorned the courtyard’s periphery, and the sun’s emanation danced on the water running from a striking fountain that marked the heart of the courtyard.
I sat in a patio chair and lit a cigarette. Suddenly, an unfamiliar feeling surged through my body. No words can convey the incredible, overwhelming experience of knowing I was doing something right for the first time in my life. I was exactly where I needed to be.
Seconds later, the other residents burst through the French doors leading to my perennial sanctuary. They hugged me and introduced themselves,and we exchanged our stories for hours. The women were young and old, and from all over the country; some were heroin addicts, some were meth addicts, some were alcoholics and some used hallucinogens. I loved hearing their stories, and I loved the cathartic experience of finally sharing mine with others who indubitably understood me.
Lying on my bed that first night and reminiscing about the stories I collected that day, another foreign feeling hit me: I was not alone.I found strength in the companionship of other women who had in some way felt, seen and experienced nearly all that I had. What a revelation: I am not alone.
I never experienced such innate exuberance as I did in rehab.I was given structure and held accountable for my actions. Even in this, I found exhilaration. Waking up at 7 a.m. every morning and making the bed, doing chores, cooking meals, and attending all three to five daily in-house and off-site meetings, was expected of everyone, and I fully complied. My formula for living hadn’t worked, so I surrendered to the decree of those who possessed what I desired: sobriety.
I was introduced to various 12-step programs, which at last awakened my realization that I did not need to live my life as a slave to my addiction. I had been so afraid before to admit my problem and seek help, knowing it meant practicing total sobriety. Who was I without alcohol and drugs?
Finally, the answer: Me.
My concept of “me” was a delusion, a sickly, vapid apparitional version of who I really am. My new eyes were opened to the world of options and my ability to make the best choices for my own well-being. The future that lay ahead was not promised to be easy, but it was promised to be rewarding.
After two months in rehab, I re-entered the “real world” on my 19th birthday. The pink cloud of initial sobriety gradually drifted from beneath my feet and into the abyss. Life as a sober 19-year-old was not an easy existence; menacing temptation was everywhere. I had to drop essentially every person, place and thing I had once known, with the exception of my family and home.
The first year was arduous, and shortly after reaching my one-year sobriety birthday, I succumbed to addiction once more. White-knuckling my last few months of sobriety instilled in me doubt about the extent of my disease; I felt if I could just stay away from drugs, I could drink without going overboard - because of all the knowledge I had gained.
On Jan. 24, 2010, just over two months after my departure from a life of sobriety, I drank and tweaked in such abundance that after repeatedly vomiting, I stopped breathing on my friend’s bathroom floor. My friends slapped me and poured water on me, and just as they were calling 911, I began to breathe.
Jan. 25, 2010. This is the date of my sobriety, which I still hold today, and with the grace of a higher power, will hold for the remainder of my being. In these years of continuous sobriety I have grown more emotionally, mentally and spiritually than I ever imagined possible. I can at last be trusted and depended on, and I wake up every morning with the concrete understanding that I control my life, not a synthetic substance.
I channel my unhealthy compulsions into positive outlets. Going on to graduate school motivates me to maintain sobriety. Baseball has become my pastime; it aids me through countless night time crusades to combat the lethal mixture of boredom and temptation. But my family is the underlying force behind my effort to remain sober. I have learned truly and deeply how to love and be loved, and my parents are the paradigm of the unconditional love I am now able to give and receive.
On bad days, one or all of these keep me on my sober path.
I may be “the one” to have met a perilous fate, as my father prophesized, but in confronting and triumphing over my misfortune, I have been blessed with uncanny vision -a vision that bears no witness to limits placed on aspiration and the grandeur and capabilities of the sober mind.