“This is good stuff,” said Robin, a rehab counsellor, twisting off the cap of my Moroccanoil curl cream. She was removing the contents of my suitcase one piece at a time, checking each for hidden drugs and alcohol, as I sat awkwardly on what would be my bed for the next 28 days. I smiled and nodded shyly. I was embarrassed to have packed a pricey salon product for government-funded rehab, especially given the way I currently looked: exhausted and oily-skinned after a week of sweating out years of abuse in a detox ward.
My mom had forced me to take it though, telling me I’d want to look nice again, eventually. I was by no means a supermodel, but the traits that made me feel invisible while I was growing up—my skinny limbs, big hair and sharp facial features—made me stand out in adulthood. I developed a love for the makeup counter’s lotions and potions, and soon spun it into a job. As the one-time resident beauty writer at Strut and enRoute magazines, I used to spend hours sifting through products, organizing them by colour and theme on the floor as I planned my stories. I also squirrelled away a lot of freebies. My home beauty closet was legendary, overflowing with Chanel and Dior nail polishes, false eyelashes and high-end moisturizers.
Going to fancy press events was another major perk of the job. It was normal to have champagne at an 11 a.m. fragrance launch and toast a new anti-aging cream at lunch. I rarely drank in high school or university, but now I was boozing almost every day, usually in the name of beauty.
My sudden interest in alcohol was a surprise to my family. My parents had been moderate drinkers my whole life, but given that my mother’s side of the family had experienced alcoholism, they always liked that I largely abstained in the name of getting good grades. As an editor, though, I could justify drinking. In fact, my willingness to imbibe seemed like an asset. Just six months into my career, my boss took a more senior editor off an interview with famed party girl Bijou Phillips and sent me instead. “She’ll like you better,” she insisted. “Just try to party with her.” For the next five years, that could have been my mantra. I relished telling my coworkers a juicy story about sneaking off with a big star to his hotel room after an interview. But I kept quiet about the odd time I took things too far, like when I blacked out at a private event with Justin Timberlake at the Chateau Marmont and had no recollection of what happened when I came to in a Los Angeles jail. (I was able to cry my way out of trouble.) For the most part, it had all been fun…excessive, but fun.
When Strut closed I was devastated, but only when I took on an eight-month editing contract at enRoute did it hit me that the party-girl image I had cultivated wasn’t just an act. When I left work in the evenings, I always stopped at the liquor store. My boyfriend soon expressed concern that I was finishing off a bottle of wine on my own every day. I claimed it was my after-work thing, the way he smoked pot, but I knew I was now drinking to distract myself from feeling unfulfilled. I started hiding bottles of vodka in my beauty closet, so I could get an even greater buzz going before he came home. A few months before my 30th birthday, he asked me to move out, calling me an alcoholic.
Depressed and heartbroken, I found a new apartment and—since my enRoute contract had ended—started freelancing, half-heartedly, with a four-litre box of red wine by my side that I replaced every two days. “You just seemed so down all the time,” said a mutual friend who stopped in to see me. “He was worried about your health, but you wouldn’t slow down. He just didn’t want to watch you destroy yourself anymore.” It hurt to hear, but only further increased my desire to escape. I promised myself I’d cut back on booze once the misery wore off. In the meantime, I was having trouble sleeping through the night, so I went to my psychiatrist and left with a prescription for Ativan.
Within weeks, I landed a new editing job; within months, a new boyfriend. I may have come home on lunch breaks to drink, and always had at least a half-litre of wine before dinner, but I only had to be secretive because my habit seemed extreme, not because it was getting in the way of work or relationships. Sure, I sometimes took my Ativan in the morning when my hands shook too much to apply mascara, but I chalked that up to it being harder to recover from a night of partying now that I was 30. I soon went back to my psychiatrist and asked her to double my dose so I could take it morning and night.
Always being high was blissful, but my looks told a different story. I now had to smear Chanel foundation on my face every morning, since it was the only one strong enough to mask my skin tone, which had veered from an even, creamy pale to cooked-lobster red. The puffed-up skin under my eyes looked like the heel of an orthopedic insole, no matter how much under-eye cream I used. I poured half a bottle of Visine into my bloodshot eyes on most days and used liberal amounts of Kérastase Nutritive Crème Oléo-Curl to get the best ringlets I could, since flanking my swollen red cheeks with big hair helped hide my bloated face.
With enough makeup on, I was still pretty, but underneath it my looks were deteriorating. I wondered what it would take for me to slow down. Broken blood vessels? Liver failure? The pills became less effective, and I had to carry a vodka-spiked bottle of Gatorade in my bag to keep the shakes at bay.
Then my new boyfriend broke things off with me, referring to my purse as “a giant baby rattle of pills.” Around the same time I received a formal warning at work for something dumb I had done—but I knew my substance abuse, which was evident in my appearance and sometimes slurry speech, was the real issue. I decided, as a starting point, to give up Ativan over the Christmas break. After 24 hours without a pill, I could barely get out of bed. I drank heavily to slow down my racing heart, but it only got worse. After five days or so, I called my parents in a panic. When they arrived at my door, my hair was matted to my head and my face was covered in a thick layer of oil. Terrified, they took me home and refused to let me drink anything alcoholic. I hadn’t bathed in days, fearing I’d collapse in the shower, so I asked my mom to wash my hair. While she was rinsing out the shampoo under the bathtub tap, my body started convulsing like a freshly lit firecracker. She wrapped her arms around me to stop my wet head from hitting the floor.
I spent a week in the hospital, where doctors put me back on as much Ativan as I’d been taking before, while I recovered from the withdrawal-induced seizure. Although a nurse helped me get on a list for government-funded rehab, the wait was up to six months long. Those willing and able to spend around $15,000 could go to a private facility much sooner, but everyone else was at the mercy of the system.
As I sat around my parents’ house in sweats, on medical leave from work, it felt like I was waiting for a prison sentence. I decided it was only fair that I could drink until I had access to professional help. My dad was baffled and dismayed, having never seen a family member struggle with alcohol and remembering a time when I didn’t drink at all. My mom tried to convince me to stay sober, but I insisted this was my final farewell to booze.
I don’t remember the night I overdosed. I’m not sure if I was trying to kill myself or if I was just drunk and took too many pills. My mom called 911 after she noticed most of my Ativan was gone and my breathing was shallow. I woke up in an emergency room to a psychiatrist making me an offer: Go to detox and get fast-tracked to rehab, or go home. I chose the former, knowing I’d self-destruct on my own.
Detox was the pre-party I never imagined attending. A heroin addict hobbled around on what was left of an amputated foot. Nurses took a prostitute to a private shower to be deloused. When I went to the bathroom, I saw myself sober for the first time in a long while. The whites of my eyes were dull and veiny, and my face was swollen all over. No one would wonder why I was in there—I looked like I belonged.
I was roaming the hallway when a nurse found me and said something had arrived from home. I couldn’t see anyone until after detox, so my mom had dropped off clothes. Inside the bag, she’d nested her floral makeup case. I unzipped it and found her Clarins face wash, Kiehl’s moisturizer and Lancôme mascara. I broke down in sobs. After all I put her through, she still believed that I could patch myself back together.
As nurses regularly administered my Valium—used in decreasing doses to help alcoholics come down safely by mitigating seizures, shakes and hallucinations—sweat streamed out of my pores. Alcohol leaves the system within 24 hours regardless of the length or amount of abuse, but the sweats last for days as toxins get purged and the body adjusts to the shock of abstinence. However, my trip to detox had more to do with the pills—Ativan was actually harder to come off than the daily bottle of wine I had been drinking at my parents’ house.
The week drew to a close, and I got the green light to leave detox for a final pre-rehab weekend at home. I put the mascara on before my parents picked me up. I wanted my mom to see that her faith in me wasn’t wasted.
At the rather grim rehab facility—a converted convent where I’d live for the next four weeks—I avoided mirrors because it was too heartbreaking to take a sober look at my rock-bottom self (even with makeup). My forehead was still constantly greasy, and I wasn’t sure if the red in my skin tone was a permanent parting gift.
One morning at the start of the second week, as I was applying my foundation, I realized it wasn’t that far off from my old skin colour. The bags under my eyes had deflated, their whites seemed almost neon, and my cheek-bones were emerging from the puffiness. I was hoping for an aha moment in rehab, a sudden flash in which I’d finally “get” sobriety. But while I appreciated my steadier mood, I wasn’t sure if the dullness of sober life was actually a better option than the emotional highs (and lows) of drinking. The thought of sitting alone in my little apartment with nothing to do terrified me. Though my mind was in turmoil, my face clearly chose sobriety—I could see it in the mirror.
When I got out of rehab, I was 10 pounds lighter, despite eating more than I had in years. When an old friend was shocked by my appearance, it was the first time I felt good about myself sober. “What have you been doing?!” he exclaimed when we met for dinner. “You seem to have de-aged.” It made it easier to explain why I’d be having Diet Coke with my meal.
I still thought about drinking every day. To avoid temptation, I went to the gym regularly. My appearance gave me something to take pride in, and working at it helped me stay on track. Instead of buying booze, I splurged on some of my favourite beauty products: Lush’s Mask of Magnaminty, Kiehl’s Olive Fruit Oil Deeply Repairative Hair Pak, and Chanel Le Vernis in Rouge Noir. I liked having beauty rituals in the evening, since most of my friends were hard drinkers and I was rarely invited out anymore.
I also started reading recovery memoirs—Augusten Burroughs’ Dry and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story—trying to glean insight from people who’d also suffered the throes of addiction and eventually conquered it. I wanted more than anything to understand how. Then I came across Cat Marnell on xoJane. Even though she was an active drug user and I was in recovery, I related to how her product obsessions carried her through drug binges and breakdowns. One such article began with the following: “So. A year ago I had a nervous breakdown and spent two weeks in the psych ward of a nice Manhattan hospital. Don’t worry! It happens all the time in publishing…” I laughed for the first time in ages, out loud, all by myself. I knew critics would slam her for mocking the seriousness of addiction by using it as a context for beauty reviews, but I was also aware that focusing on my looks was keeping me from hitting the bottle. That’s why I never expected to relapse the way I did.
Seven months into my recovery, I was in the gym change room getting ready for work. Gurgling Listerine, I started stressing about a co-worker who was making me anxious. Instead of spitting the mouthwash out, I swallowed it. It burned on the way down, but in a few minutes, the rawness of sobriety was replaced by a familiar sense of numb. Soon, I was filling a kombucha bottle with yellow Listerine that I’d sip throughout the day. It tasted awful, but I refused to switch to booze because that would mean I’d failed. I had no idea the mouthwash was full of other toxic ingredients, which made my liver throb and my brain pound. In days, my skin turned brick red from the collarbones up. When my heart started to race like it had before my seizure, I quit my job over email and beelined to my former psychiatrist at the detox ward.
I was able to stop guzzling mouthwash relatively easily, but 50 days after my last swig, I had some wine on a date—just to see if it was as good as I remembered. It wasn’t. Even the finest red might as well have been mouthwash for my addictive mind; I craved that feeling of detachment more than its tannins or taste. This kicked off a week-long solo binge. I had told everyone about my first relapse and even written about it on xoJane, believing it had been my last dance with booze. Now, I was ashamed to have messed up again. Nobody knew I had slipped, and I could keep it that way if I just stopped, so I did. My last drink was an Alexander Keith’s just before noon on February 9, 2012. I made myself stare at my reflection while I downed it. The whites of my eyes were dull but not full-blown bloodshot. The skin on my face was pink but not fiery red. I had half-moons under my eyes. My cheekbones, still visible, reminded me of how much recovery had already changed me physically, even if I still felt mentally overwhelmed. I finally accepted that I had a choice between being a recovering alcoholic and being an active one. I might be lonely either way, but at least sober I’d be better looking.
I never did have an epiphany. Instead, my looks were the one thing that convinced me to give sobriety a chance. I’ve since found more and more reasons to stay sober, including a new job, which involves product reviews. Sometimes I sit in front of my budding beauty closest and think of all the rebuilding I’ve done. My life is still a work in progress, but every morning the girl staring back at me from the mirror looks a little different, a little prettier than the day before. When I see myself in photos now, it’s not just my cheekbones that stand out; it’s the expression on my face. It’s a happy one.