'I Spent Years Binging Alcohol, I Finally Quit and It Was Transformational'

It's extremely difficult for me to describe my worst bout of drinking. I drank alcohol heavily between the ages of 12 and 33 and that led to dozens of trips to hospital and multiple nights in jail.

I grew up in Williamsburg, Virginia. There was hardly any drinking in my immediate family and I was never exposed to alcohol by any of my relatives.

So I don't quite recall my first drink. I know it was in 6th grade. My birthday is at the very end of enrollment age so I began 6th grade at the age of 10 and because I attended a school where the classes went from 6th grade through 12th grade, I was hanging out with much older students.

I was extremely outgoing, academic, and athletic. I was training in running at a competitive level and had writing published. But it wasn't enough for me. In 6th grade, I found something I believed to be better than all that: alcohol.

Drinking alcohol regularly from the age of 12

I began by casually sipping beer at school parties. It wasn't until the age of 12 that I started drinking liquor heavily, and even then, I absolutely did not enjoy the taste. But I didn't care. Cheap vodka was preferable and I resorted to stealing sickly sweet bottles of alcohol from convenience stores, as it was easily hidden under my baggy teenage clothes.

Arlyn Smith Struggled With Alcohol Addiction
Arlyn Smith pictured in 2007 after her cerebellar stroke. In the background is the walker she used in order to walk following rehabilitation. Aryln Smith

The only reason I can think of for drinking alcohol while so young was that it made me feel capable of being social, it made me feel pretty and brave; able to talk to boys or attend school functions. I would say I had many of the same problems faced by others my age; but I also had mental health issues and I believe I attempted to balance this by drinking. Alcohol was the only thing that made me feel like I was good enough for myself and the world around me. Ironically: my family and friends began to notice I was becoming angry, impulsive and irrational.

My eating disorder began around the same time as my drinking. I simply felt uncomfortable with myself; both physically and mentally. Any means of changing who I was fair game, and the only time I looked "skinny" or "sexy" enough to myself was when I was drunk.

I think I always knew I had a serious problem with alcohol. But truthfully I couldn't have cared less. Throughout high school, I doused myself in green tea scented perfume. My friends caught on. "You smell like green tea again" actually meant: "We know you were chugging airplane bottles of vodka in the school bathroom stall again."

Becoming dependent on alcohol

I drank so much as a teenager that by 18, I was an alcoholic. I needed alcohol to function. I had long heard stories about alcohol withdrawal and thought that it only happened to "old people.'' Then, on my 18th birthday, I attended a Halloween party during which I consumed enormous quantities of alcohol; several red cups filled with straight vodka.

I smoked cigarettes at the time and was excited to legally purchase them. But as I handed the money to a store clerk in the early hours of the next morning, my hand trembled so violently that the change flew into the air. The cashier looked horrified. It was 4am. I had a philosophy paper due that afternoon and my brain could only function while intoxicated. So, I drank even more, a half gallon of white wine, and I stopped shaking.

Somehow I was accepted into college and began as a journalism major. I was so enamored with a philosophy of world religion 101 class, that I practically ran across the campus to officially change my major to philosophy. But constant absences, passing out in class—once a professor had to bring me to my bedroom, because I had passed out drunk in class at 8am—and incompletes meant that I only obtained around 40 credits in three years.

In the years that followed, I began unraveling further; driving under the influence and stealing alcohol from my friends or unlocked apartments in the building where I lived. I had been engaged to a man I had met during a college philosophy class and been dating for three years, but that ended after I called from a jail payphone after being arrested for a second DUI. I had promised him that I would stop drinking.

I promptly withdrew from college and entered a rehab facility in New Canaan, Connecticut. Then my father died when I was 21, and overall, between the ages of 21 and 23, I oscillated between passing out every night on couches, in different rehab and hospital beds, at cheap motels, and occasionally on the sidewalk. I had issues with both alcohol and drugs and had been charged with multiple misdemeanors related to both by the age of 23. My family was devastated. I had first been hospitalized for alcohol related issues at 15. It's almost unbearable for me now to imagine how they felt during my years as a teenager and in my early 20s. I imagine it was as though the child, or sister, they loved had left them. They tried to help me many times, but must have feared they would receive a phone call, at any moment, to say that I had died.

Looking back, my continued drinking likely stemmed from the same severe self esteem issues that led me to drink as a teenager; I had a near constant feeling that I would never be good enough. For myself or the world. The only respite I had was gulping cups of vodka chased with tap water to avoid calories.

I remember at 23, a thought struck me: "I want off this ride. I can't do this. I don't want to exist another day in this hell." I had attempted suicide before, but after my 23rd birthday in November 2003, I tried to take my own life again.

Living with the effects of a cerebellar stroke

I was told I came out of my coma on Thanksgiving, 2003. I don't remember the exact moment I woke up: but I remember the aftermath. I had experienced a cerebellar stroke. I was completely immobile and unable to make noise. I was hooked up to an IV drip and had a tube in my neck. I was emaciated from anorexia. Looking back, I must have resembled a combination of Frankenstein and Skeletor.

Arlyn Smith Struggled With Alcohol Addiction
Aryln Smith in 2012, shortly before she quit alcohol completely. Aryln Smith

I was told that I could not recover fully. My cerebellum had shrunk and was damaged, so doctors said I would never walk without assistance again.

I was ashamed of myself. I was now disabled. Broken. I believed I had become a disgusting monster. I cried myself to sleep every night in the hospital and in the rehabilitation facility I stayed in for weeks before I could be medically cleared to move home to my parent's house. I was released to my family on December 24, 2003.

During the next few years, I was virtually unable to move my body so I went through a period of enforced sobriety and it marked the end of my drug use. But by 2006, after extensive physiotherapy, I was able to shuffle around with a walker, so my mother set me up in a condo next to hers.

I began drinking again then because no one was supervising me. And because my disability had left me a seething ball of resentment. I had my groceries delivered and asked the driver to kindly place the boxed wine on the tall counter top. They had no idea it was so I could pour the wine directly into my mouth while clinging to my walker.

By 2012, I was drinking a box of wine a day. Things got bad enough that medical professionals advised me to move to Hampton, Virginia to enroll in a year long, daily 12 step program for individuals with substance and mental health issues. I relapsed and ended up in various medical facilities, until I returned to the 12 step program.

By this point, I wanted to stay sober. And I did until 2013. Once again, I found I was not able to face myself. My thoughts were unbearable. I felt sorry for myself and believed this was enough of an excuse to drink.

Giving up alcohol for good

So, I began drinking again. But this time, I drank once and that was enough. On December 15, 2013 it dawned on me: If I did not get sober immediately: I was going to die. Finally, I didn't want to drink anymore. By this point, I knew how phenomenal life could be in sobriety. And I didn't want to go back to the way I had felt.

The only thing I could imagine worse than physical death was living in that hell. Being unable to mentally or physically function without alcohol in your bloodstream is not a life.

My first step was physically detoxing at the home of my mom and stepfather, who I also call my father, in Virginia. I did a medical detox, which is withdrawal with medication. But I am fairly certain they were concerned that I might pass away on their floor. They gave me the scheduled doses of medication as I twitched and dry heaved my way through withdrawal for several days on an inflatable mattress in their living room. I felt like I was going to implode and explode simultaneously. My brain was foggy, but my mind felt like it was racing. As soon as I could stand upright, I returned to my home in Hampton and resumed my 12 Step program, which I have remained on since.

I felt physically better almost immediately, but I knew that I could not stand being uncomfortable, mentally, nor cope with spending much time alone.

Finding a life-changing passion

So, shortly after I stopped drinking: I joined a local gym. This small move changed my life. Most of the members were older. I saw my image in a mirror on the wall: scrawny and disheveled. Hanging onto my walker for dear life. In the reflection I saw a trainer teaching someone how to lift a dumbbell. I chuckled to myself thinking I could possibly be a trainer myself.

But I kept going. I began by slowly moving my legs on the seated step machine for ten minutes. The cerebellum controls movement, so I was not able to do much at first, but slowly I built up to using machines in the gym and then dumbbells.

Still, I felt beyond sorry for myself and it took many months for my mindset to change.

A year into sobriety and my fitness journey, I remember thinking to myself: What if I told myself I was enough? What if I ignored my worries about what others thought of me and only concerned myself with positivity? Negativity had caused my life to become so unbearable that I was only unable to suppress it with alcohol.

I began my ongoing eating disorder recovery the same day as I became sober and two years later, in 2015, I earned several personal training certifications. While using a walker. One was for senior fitness. One for general training. One for corrective exercise and one for working with people who have Parkinson's disease.

I have experienced further health problems since then, including being diagnosed with Ataxia, a disorder that affects balance, speech and movement. But, I'm about to compete in a USA Powerlifting meet. I'm traveling to Michigan in Spring 2023 to compete as a Master 1 USA Powerlifting weightlifter in deadlift and bench press. I can't begin to describe how incredible it feels to be an example to others of how incredible life can be when you're willing to walk through the emotional pain.

It is upsetting for me to see the sadness in my eyes in younger pictures. If I could tell that girl one thing it would be this: Life gets difficult, just don't give up on it.

Because now, I have incredible friends. I've gotten many back; ones that I drove away during my years of drinking. I have my family and an absolutely amazing fiancé. We met online when he offered his experience on weightlifting with a disability.

Every morning when I wake up, I'm so excited to be alive that I literally smile. Every single morning. And I tell myself that no matter what happens: everything will be alright.

Nothing in my life was wasted. Although it was painful, I truly believe that I would relive every moment in a millisecond for my life today. While my life is far from perfect; I will always have a physical disability and I will always be an alcoholic, I am grateful beyond belief.

If there is one thing my life without alcohol has given me, it's this: hope.

Aryln Smith is a personal trainer and writer living in Virginia. You can follow her on Instagram @alusmith.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

If you have thoughts of suicide, confidential help is available for free at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call 1-800-273-8255. The line is available 24 hours every day.