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When I was 22, I stopped drinking for good. This is my story.

One man's very personal story of alcoholism, defeat, and triumph.

When I was 22, I stopped drinking for good. This is my story.

When I was 22, I decided to stop drinking.

Considering my history, the decision happened after a rather insignificant night.

It did not happen the morning I woke up in the hospital with hypothermia and alcohol poisoning.


It did not happen when I spent 30 days in rehab after getting into a drunken fight with my parents and chugging a bottle of mouthwash and a handful of prescription pills.

It did not happen after a 50-something bartender told me I needed to kiss him to get my ID back, which somehow led to me bringing him back to my dorm.

It did not happen after I had to run away from a homeless man who led me to a park and exposed himself to me after I asked for directions.

It did not even happen after I almost left a New Delhi Men’s Fashion week party with a man who said he was a model but was actually a pimp and later tried to sell me an hour in a limo with a boy or girl for $400.

All photos provided by the author.

Instead, it happened after I had gone out drinking with my friends, blacked out, and had to be brought home. When I woke up in the morning, I felt like I was reaching the surface just as I was about to use my last breath of oxygen underwater. I had been so consumed by self-created chaos that I had not had clarity of mind for years.

“What if my friends hadn’t been there?” I asked myself. “What if they hadn’t brought me home?”

Of course, I already knew the answer. But for the first time, I allowed myself to let it sink in: If I didn’t stop drinking I was going to wind up killing myself, either intentionally or accidentally. And it was going to happen soon.

I had been drinking regularly since I was 15.

My issue with high school and college drinking was the blurry line between typical — if dangerous — experimentation and blatant drinking problems. It wasn’t bizarre that I hid a bottle of vodka beneath the floorboards in my parent’s attic, but I crossed beyond standard teenage rebellion when I poured vodka into my mug full of Sprite while doing homework.

As a gay teenager in an inner city high school, alcohol took on extra significance for me. Drinking is an equalizer: Anyone can do it. Though I loved my close friends, I always felt different, apart. I used alcohol as a means of bonding with classmates I otherwise had nothing in common with.

In retrospect, the truth was glaring and obvious, even then. By the time I graduated from high school as my class's valedictorian, I had been hospitalized three times for alcohol poisoning, had completed a month-long stint in rehab, and had spent a night in a psychiatric center after a drug-induced breakdown.

I left for college with high hopes, but things only got worse.

I wanted to study international relations and become a human rights lawyer. But without the structure of high school, I quickly fell apart. I drank almost every night.

Where I had been admired for my work ethic in high school, in college, I schemed to do the bare minimum. I ignored the changes happening to me. I no longer took any joy out of learning or any joy out of much of anything at all besides partying.

I hid my past from my friends at Brown too, but as time went on, my troubling relationship with substances came to the surface again and again. By the time I graduated, I had been hospitalized again, I suffered from a Xanax addiction, and I had trouble sleeping at all. I was aggressive and reckless.

After college, I moved to New York without a job.

My lowest point came soon after when I drunkenly broke up with an ex-boyfriend at a party and tried to run into heavy New York traffic while two friends walked me home. They pulled me back. I was in a complete blackout. They told me I sobbed for an hour, then passed out.

That month, I convinced myself — and my therapist — that I would give drinking one last chance. We put rules in place limiting my alcohol consumption to three drinks on weekend nights. But over the next two weeks, I broke all the rules again.

The day I finally broke down was a Sunday, two weeks after the meeting with my therapist. I woke up in tears. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt well, and I was exhausted by the cycle of destruction and damage control I was putting myself through. In that moment, I knew the only way I might ever be happy was if I never drank again.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt well, and I was exhausted by the cycle of destruction and damage control I was putting myself through.

On that New York morning two-and-a-half years ago, I finally allowed myself to be honest.

The thought of living the rest of my life in this state of dull despair finally felt much more impossible than saying goodbye to drinking.

If you’re a heavy drinker, the decision to stop drinking can seem impossible.

I’d always run with a hard-partying crowd. Plus, the thought of losing access to social situations can be terrifying. Whenever I would try to sober up — which happened at least 10 times before it actually worked — a voice inside my head would incessantly shout: “What if I’m less funny when I’m sober? What am I even going to talk to this person about if I’m not drunk? I can’t dance until I’ve taken a few shots! Sleeping with someone without alcohol?!”

Alcohol felt like my lifeline, and it was only on rare occasions — during common morning panic attacks — that I even briefly acknowledged it was actually destroying my life.

I can recognize now that deflection was my weapon of choice as an alcoholic. If I woke up frightened after a night of drinking, I would tell the story for a laugh. Though people would occasionally confront me, most acted as if I was entertaining. Besides, I quickly realized if my “partying” pushed a friend away, there were always five more people who wouldn’t notice, or care, how many drinks I had or how drunk I got, just so long as they didn’t have to physically carry me home.

For me, learning to live a sober life has been like trying to walk when you’re used to crawling.

It's been two-and-a-half years, but I still remember how easy it was to drink, and it’s taken a lot of effort for me to reach an emotional place where I’m strong enough to choose another option.

The hardest part of sobriety has been learning to be comfortable with myself all the time. Every day, it gets a little easier. But I’ve had to teach myself how to communicate thoughtfully without poisoning my speech with the fury of alcohol. I’ve had to learn how to flirt and pursue romance without being a histrionic drunk, lacking both grace and inhibitions.

I understand I have a long way to travel before I achieve self-acceptance or real serenity.

But what I do have, finally, is the peace of mind of knowing that I can wake up every morning remembering what I did the night before — for better or worse — and knowing, in the end, that I will be OK.

Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


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Everyone can all use a little lift at the end of the week, and we've collected some of this week's best stories to provide just such a pick-me-up. Here are 10 things we want to share, just because they made us so darn happy.

1. Introducing Lila, the U.S. Capitol Police's first emotional support dog.

After the traumatic experiences of January 6th, Capitol Police officers could definitely use some extra support. Lila, a two-year-old black lab, will now serve as the department's first full-time emotional support dog. Look at that sweet face!

2. Speaking of the Capitol, take a look at this week's gorgeous solar eclipse behind the dome.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shared the stunning "ring of fire" image on Twitter. Always a treat when nature gives us a great show.


3. Colorado sees its first wild wolf pups in six decades.

In the 1940s, the gray wolf was eradicated in Colorado by trappers and hunters, with the support of the federal government. Whoops. This week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has announced the first evidence of wild wolf breeding in the state, a sign of hope for the endangered species. Read more about the discovery here.

Photo by M L on Unsplash


4. 30-year-old singer with terminal cancer amazed and inspired with her performance on America's Got Talent.

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True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."