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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.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by Tod Perry

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