Another Kind of War

By Calista Heath-Martinez, U.S. Air Force, Ret.

I received an Article 15 for underage drinking five months after arriving at my first duty station. I was sent to the local VA for outpatient substance abuse treatment, as well as a year in the Air Force Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment (ADAPT) program. I was 19; surely I didn’t have a problem with alcohol!

When I was 14 years old, I started drinking. My first drunk landed me in the hospital in four-point restraints, as well as getting my stomach pumped. I don’t recall much from that night, except that those who I thought were my friends abandoned me when the law became involved.

High school graduation night I had another alcohol-related incident. I was arrested for Minor-in-Consumption while sitting on a curb outside my graduation ceremony. My family was still in the stands, waiting for me to walk with my class.

I enlisted in the service right after high school. I thought the military would shape me up; I would learn to be more disciplined. The thought of wearing my country’s uniform came with great honor. I didn’t realize then that the military had a strong drinking culture; drinking was encouraged and was usually a part of every event.

I went in as a confused teenager looking for a place in this world, a place to fit in, to feel good about myself and the things I had accomplished. I came out quite the opposite.

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You’d think after getting an Article 15 that I would stop drinking, but I didn’t. I had a traumatic experience that flipped my world upside down, and my only comfort was alcohol – Everclear and Twister to be exact. I didn’t want to feel. I didn’t deserve to feel good; I had disappointed everyone.

I pushed away those I loved most. I continued to get into more trouble with alcohol. By then I was in a unit that had a beer vending machine and kegerator. I just received a few slaps on the wrist and was invited once again to drink.

Throughout my ten years in the service, I deployed five times. I found alcohol wherever I went, even though at times drinking wasn’t permitted. I found a way around the three drinks per day limit.

With each drink, my troubles mounted. The person I once was faded into the shadows. I alienated almost everyone. I needed to drink just to talk to others, to be around others or to be with myself.

After my service, I was hired for a civilian job as an office administrator at a local university. What a shock! It was so different from the military. I couldn’t transition into the way they did things or understand why they did them. I hated waking up and having to find something to wear, instead of being able to throw on my uniform and boots. There was nothing I liked about being in the civilian world; I didn’t fit in.

I continued drinking to cope with the changes. It got to a point where seven to eight beers just weren’t enough – I needed more. Seven to eight beers soon became nine, ten, eleven and more beers.

I was no longer out drinking with friends; I was drinking alone at home. It seemed safer there because I didn’t have to drive. My internal war raged on. I couldn’t get a handle on it.

Finally, I reached out to a few coworkers. I told them I thought maybe I had a drinking problem, though I still wasn’t entirely convinced of that. Soon after, I started calling in sick due to hangovers.

My recovery began when Connie, a coworker who knew about the VA, showed up at my house after I had been sent home for ‘looking sick.’ Once home, I continued drinking to take the edge off.

When she arrived, she packed a bag for me and drove me to the VA emergency room. I spent six days in detox, confused and unaware of what happening. Everyone kept telling me it was going to be okay. They said they could help – though I didn’t believe them.

I was young and damaged. No one could help me. I was too far gone.

I spent another two months in a VA contracted halfway house, where I was bussed to and from the VA for group meetings. Although I had been deployed to war zones, this was another kind of war. I relapsed five times during my first year. I was in and out of detox and the psych ward seven times.

I was forced to resign from my administrative position; recovery became my fulltime job. I sold my home and moved back in with my parents. I started making decisions based solely on my recovery.

I found a home group in my community and began attending meetings regularly. Due to my trust issues, I didn’t get a sponsor right away. But when I did, it was someone with many years of sobriety and experience. She was gentle, understanding and nonjudgmental – she had what I wanted.

While just going to 12-step meetings works for some people, I needed outside help. At the VA, I continued to work with a wonderful team of doctors and nurses, as well as a therapist.

This experience created new paths for my life. I found a Higher Power of my understanding. I’ve learned to meditate. The combination of Twelve Step meetings, the VA and mindfulness meditation has contributed immensely to my recovery.

Fourteen years after my first drink, I’m sober. The journey has not been an easy one. I still have strong urges and intrusive thoughts, but I take it one day at a time. I reach out to my Sangha, people in the program and my team at the VA.

Recovery is possible for me. It’s possible for you, too. Today I’m creating a life worth living.

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