Jennifer McKernan (38) from Castleknock, Dublin talks about the road to recovery from an alcohol and drug addiction that lasted 16 years
‘Two-and-a-half years ago, I broke down in my apartment and wanted to take my own life. There was no happiness inside me; I was a shell of a human being and the only thing I ate was grapes in liquid form.
People often have a preconceived idea about the type of person who suffers from alcohol and drug addiction, and someone from a good family, who went to a private school, doesn’t normally fit the bill.
Growing up, my mother constantly warned me that alcoholism ran in the family and this had me wary, for a while at least. I had my first drink when I was 17, but my addictive personality developed when I was much younger.
I was a people pleaser who was obsessed with making others happy. I thought if I could make my parents smile, then they wouldn’t be unhappy in their marriage. I was like a chameleon changing colours to suit everyone.
Sometimes I’d be sitting at a table with a group of people having a conversation in my head about whether they liked me or not. The paranoia was a constant burden. Alcohol suddenly became a crutch to deal with social situations that stressed me out.
When I turned 18 in the year of the millennium, I went to work in a bar in Ayia Napa in Cyprus for four months. That’s when the blackout drinking started.
All those anxieties and the need to please people suddenly melted away and it felt like Jennifer had arrived. I didn’t care what people thought any more, I didn’t even care about myself. On my days off, I would sit at home — alone — with two bottles of wine and wouldn’t remember going to bed.
Working in the bar and restaurant industry added fuel to the already raging fire. The hours were long and a drink at the end of a shift seemed like a just reward for dealing with rude customers all day. But it was never just one and there was always a party to go to.
I mixed with people who enjoyed drinking at the same speed as I did and who used cocaine at the same level I did. That way, there was no judgement, except from me. Anyone who didn’t drink like me was a square and anyone who tried to intervene was off my friends list. That mindset continued for 16 years.
My drinking ruined a lot of relationships and hurt people I care about, like my ex-boyfriend who I was with for six years and engaged to for a year. Looking back, I was very co-dependent. I would wake up and ask him if he loved me because I needed that sort of reassurance in my life every day.
We need tough love in addiction, and if someone keeps forgiving you, you start to make your actions acceptable in your head.
I’ve had 23 stitches in my chin, I’ve split my ear into two pieces. I’ve been in and out of the emergency department, but never once did I turn around and go, do you know what? Maybe it’s the booze.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different reaction. You think, ‘this time is going to be different, this time I’ll drink like a lady’. But it never was different, it only got worse.
When that relationship broke down, I was on my own for a year and burnt my life to the ground. I was always drinking, doing drugs and hungover. I was a functioning alcoholic in that I could go into work. No matter how hungover I was, I would still go to work and have a drink to calm the shakes. I was on a Ferris wheel of destruction.
The turning point came two-and-a-half years ago. I was in my bedroom, on my knees, hysterically crying an hour-and-a-half before I was due to go into work.
I’ll never forget the image of my dog sitting on my bed, staring at me with a concerned face. It was as if he was saying, ‘if you die, who is going to look after me?’ And bizarrely, that was the wake-up call. Not the drunken injuries or ruined relationships, but the fear of what would happen to my dog.
I believe everything happens for a reason and that same day my dad phoned me out of the blue to tell me I needed help.
I blamed everyone for my drinking except myself. My job was crap, my parents’ divorce... but that’s not what it was about. I used all that as an excuse to drink.
You remove the substance abuse and suddenly you’re left with all those raw feelings you spent a lifetime trying to ignore.
I was extremely fortunate that my parents could afford to send me to Smarmore, a private rehab clinic in Co Louth. Not everyone has that luxury. That’s where I celebrated my 36th birthday, and it was the worst birthday ever. There has to be a willingness on your part to change, and I got my act together for the next three weeks, after initially rebelling.
After I left rehab, I signed up to a sponsorship programme for people like me. It was the first place I felt like I belonged. It was really comforting to know there were other people on the planet with these strange, irrational thoughts.
Recovery only comes from looking at your own sh*t. I’ve been seeing a therapist for the last two years, which really helps. It’s like being a bin full of resentment, pain and fear and realising you can’t empty it on your own. You need help to get rid of the load and then it’s about focussing on keeping the bin empty.
Two weeks ago I had a really bad week where I was trying to control everything. That’s what addicts do. You want to control everything from the person driving in front of you to the weather. Now, on the bad days, instead of turning to drink, I get down on my knees and do a five-minute meditation. At night-time, I do an inventory of all the sh*tty things I’ve felt and then start the next day afresh.
Don’t get me wrong, I still wake up with that fear and sense of impending doom. But now I feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. I’m back working in a busy restaurant in Temple Bar and have no problems serving booze or cocktails. Sometimes I think about just having just the one drink, but then I think about where that will lead.
I finish work at 3am some nights, but instead of going to a party, I go home, meditate and chill with my dog. It sounds boring, but it’s much less boring than the monotonous roller-coaster of chaos I was on before.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t get help sooner. I had a lot of people who I had to apologise to, including my old flatmate and ex-boyfriend. I’ve reconnected with cousins and aunts who I avoided after making a show of myself at family events. I’ve never been closer to my grandfather, who is like a rock to me now.
He understands now how alcoholism is a sickness, it’s not about greed or an unwillingness to stop. I’ve been sober two years and six months now and, for the first time, I am comfortable in my own company.”