by Patricia Burns
I have been going to Progoff Intensive Journal® Workshops since 1997. At my first workshop, I realized and admitted to myself my addiction to alcohol. The Intensive Journal program, which helped me recognize my alcoholism, is a tool I continue to use in working through the steps of my Alcoholics Anonymous ("AA") program.
I started drinking as a teenager, and although I had problems from the beginning--I drank more than my friends, I drank until I passed out, or got sick--I considered my drinking within the norm of teenage behavior. I loved the initial feeling alcohol gave me because it helped me relax and feel comfortable with other people. Usually quiet and shy, I became talkative and fearless after just a few drinks. People were amazed at the transformation; I was the life of the party.
My father was an alcoholic, and I equated alcoholism to drinking everyday like he did. My drinking was normal; I was just having fun with my friends. Sometimes while drunk I would be argumentative and do and say things that I regretted the next day. However, because I could stop for long periods of time, I rationalized that I couldn't possibly be an alcoholic. From the time I was sixteen years old until I got married at twenty-seven, I had periodic bouts of heavy drinking followed by strict abstinence. Besides, I had plenty of reasons to drink and always blamed my circumstances for my drinking because during that time period both my parents died. I was twenty-one when my mother died within a year of finding out she had uterine cancer. Three years later, my father died of a heart attack after being ill from a series of strokes, which left him paralyzed on one side.
My problems with drinking continued after I got married. After once again getting drunk at a function my husband was catering and starting a fight with him in front of two hundred people, I stopped drinking. Soon after quitting, I became pregnant, and I was able to stay sober for almost five years primarily because of my baby daughter.
When my daughter went to school and I went back to work, I decided that I could now be a social drinker. I wanted to be able to have cocktails after work and wine with dinner like everyone else. I had successfully separated myself from my former life. I lived in a different city away from home and the people with whom I grew up. I had no family members living nearby, so I became a part of my husband's family who knew nothing about my drinking. I shut out all memories of my teenage years and young adulthood; it had been an extremely difficult time, and I did not want to relive it.
I had been abstinent for five years, but within a few months of beginning to drink again, I had a blackout. I then realized that nothing had changed in my drinking behavior, and I experienced the same problems of being unable to stop once I had the first drink. I went through a period of trying to control it: only drinking wine, only drinking on weekends, or sipping on a glass of water to slow down my drinking.
My drinking progressed over the next seven years until eventually I was drinking almost everyday. I did not go out drinking at bars; instead, I was quietly getting drunk at home. My husband worked nights and my daughter was in bed by 9:00 pm, so I spent my evenings alone numbing myself with the alcohol. It calmed my anxiety and mellowed me so I did not have to think or feel. Even though I was unhappy, I did not see that alcohol was the problem. I considered alcohol one of my only comforts.
I was always searching for something to help me with my feelings of emptiness, unworthiness, and depression. I went to a couple of different therapists without much success. I became a collector of self-help books. I realized I needed to cut down on my drinking, but I was not acknowledging that I was an alcoholic. I then came across the book At a Journal Workshop by Ira Progoff. I was drawn to it because it focused on therapy through writing. I had used journals for years, and I liked the idea of using writing exercises instead of talk therapy. Working with the book on my own was a frustrating experience, so I signed up for an Intensive Journal workshop.
During my first workshop, I acknowledged for the first time that I was an alcoholic. My drinking behavior kept coming up in different parts of the Intensive Journal workbook, and I realized that alcohol had dominated my life, first with my father's alcoholism, and then with my own drinking problem, which I had been struggling to control since I was a teenager. Although at times accessing some of these memories was painful, I felt I had made a breakthrough in my problems. It was a feeling of finally having some insight into myself and behavior instead of just experiencing confusion and depression. I felt like I was finally making progress after years of being unable to move forward in my life. It was a powerful feeling.
I know to nonalcoholics reading this essay about my drinking that it might seem obvious I was alcoholic, and incredible that I could not see it. It is illogical to deny that I had the illness, given all of the problems I had, but I was a functioning alcoholic. I went to work most every day and I never had a car accident or D. U. I. conviction. I should have or could have had some of those things happen to me especially during my early drinking years when I was out drinking at bars. Because I did not suffer from the more devastating consequences of alcoholism, I could have been in denial much longer. I believe the Intensive Journal method helped me to see clearly my destructive pattern of drinking that seems so obvious now.
One of the uses that alcohol provided for me was to shut out the unpleasant memories of the past. I did not want to go back to that time when my parents died and deal with the unfinished business of my relationships with them. Using the Intensive Journal method was nothing like the journal writing I had been doing for years. The structure of the Intensive Journal exercises helped me to go deeper into my life and my history than I was able to do on my own. The writing exercises bring clarity to my life by directing my focus from where I am now to different periods in my past and the circumstances and relationships that were.
"Intensive Journal" is a registered trademark of Jon Progoff and licensed to Dialogue House. © Copyright 2019. Reprinted with permission of the author.