How my cat helped me kick my alcohol addiction

After she was raped, Lucia Obsorne-Crowley turned to alcohol to numb all the feelings that bubbled to the surface. She also found solace in the words of other women as she plucked books at random from her shelves. Until a kitten came into her life – and, so it turned out, saved it too.

Almost every day since I had disclosed my rape, I had spent the evenings drinking until I passed out. I used to drink until I didn’t know where I was, or who I was, or what had happened to me. I would wake up bleary-eyed and sick and shaking but at least I would have forgotten what it feels like to have someone wrench themselves inside you with a blade to your throat. I had a drawer full of OxyContin from my years worth of surgeries and hospital stays, so I started taking them when I felt so sad that I couldn’t breathe. I took more and more and more of them as the days went on and the process of healing didn’t get any easier.
“I ALMOST KILLED MYSELF THAT NIGHT. NOT INTENTIONALLY, NOT REALLY. BUT THIS IS THE THING I’VE LEARNED ABOUT SUICIDE. IT’S NOT ALWAYS DRAMATIC OR EVEN INTENTIONAL.”

There was a night when I drank two bottles of red wine and took four Ambien and woke up fourteen hours later covered in vomit. I had thrown up all over myself and I hadn’t woken up while it was happening. I almost killed myself that night. Not intentionally, not really. But this is the thing I’ve learned about suicide. It’s not always dramatic or even intentional. Sometimes it’s a slow, stumbling thing. Sometimes it’s just the clumsy build-up of habits you learned from months and months of desperately not wanting to live. Sometimes it just comes from wanting to die for so long that one night you just forget to save yourself.

All these months of self-medicating were driven by the belief that if I just waited for more time to pass, if I just got myself to the next day, to the next appointment, eventually it would get better.

It didn’t. Time does not heal all wounds. There are some things you cannot just live through. You have to feel them. Really, really feel them. Feel them until the feelings run out. As my best friend says: the only way out is through.

The only way out, I discovered, is in.

It was a bright Sydney winter’s day when I realised this. The sun was coming up over my apartment. I had been awake all night even though I’d taken sleeping pills. I was wondering why I hadn’t been able to fix myself yet.

And then I found a passage from Cheryl Strayed’s article, ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’: ‘Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you fight really hard and you lose. Sometimes you hold on and realise there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.’

I don’t know why, but something shifted inside me when I read those words.

Something stilled. Something breathed in and out and in again. I had never felt more connected to another human being than I did in that moment. Cheryl understood something about me that I had been trying desperately to run from: I couldn’t undo what had been done to me. I could try to live with it, but I couldn’t erase it. No amount of alcohol or drugs or dates or parties could do that. I would have to rebuild myself around it. Most things would be okay eventually, but not everything would be.

“I COULD TRY TO LIVE WITH IT, BUT I COULDN’T ERASE IT. NO AMOUNT OF ALCOHOL OR DRUGS OR DATES OR PARTIES COULD DO THAT. I WOULD HAVE TO REBUILD MYSELF AROUND IT. MOST THINGS WOULD BE OKAY EVENTUALLY, BUT NOT EVERYTHING WOULD BE.”

After that day I started doing this as a ritual: picking up a book when I felt desperate, just in case this same magic happened again. And it did.

I have had a copy of Leslie Jamison’s first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, in my bedside drawer since I first read it in 2015. It’s thumbed and marked up and dirty and it makes me feel good just to hold it. One day when I was thinking about hurting myself, I pulled it out and started reading from the last essay in the book, called ‘The Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain’, at page 204: ‘The pain is what you make of it. You have to find something in it that yields. I understood my guiding imperative as: keep bleeding, but find some love in the blood.’

I had that feeling again, like something had stopped spinning inside me. Like something desperate had suddenly let go. It was only for a moment, but it was enough. The destructive impulse in me had passed. Not because anything about my life had changed, but because Leslie was bearing witness to it. Because she could see me, and I her, and I understood in this moment that she had been where I was, and that she had held on. She had found something that yielded, and she had made something of it. And the thing she had made was in my hands, had been in my top drawer since I was twenty-two, and that was pure magic, and it was something worth staying alive for.

I picked up a book that had been recommended to me by a dear friend. Traumata, by Meera Atkinson, about sexual abuse and its aftermath. I found in her words at page 60 the precise thing I had not been able to put into my own: ‘I want to speak for those who grew up with family violence or dysfunction and don’t find a way out of the maze of substance addiction, those who are diminished and die in trauma’s long shadow, those who never find the words.’

And I knew, then, something I couldn’t have known without Meera, and Leslie, and Cheryl: that I might not be diminished and die in trauma’s long shadow. That I might find the words, just like they had.

“IN 2019, I GOT A KITTEN. I KNEW THAT I NEEDED SOMETHING OTHER THAN MYSELF TO STAY ALIVE FOR. DOESN’T THAT SOUND SELFISH? IT’S HARD TO ADMIT IT. BUT IT WORKED.”

In 2019, I got a kitten. I knew that I needed something other than myself to stay alive for. Doesn’t that sound selfish? It’s hard to admit it. But it worked.

At the time, I was reading the novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. In it, the protagonist adopts a cat immediately after her most serious suicide attempt. To honour all the destructive habits she is trying to beat, she calls the cat Glen, after the brand of vodka she drinks to excess every time she wants to die. The protagonist writes at page 337: ‘Sometimes, after counselling sessions, I desperately wanted to buy vodka, lots of it, take it home and drink it down, but in the end I never did. I couldn’t, for lots of reasons, one of which was that if I wasn’t fit to, then who would feed Glen? She isn’t able to take care of herself. She needs me. It isn’t annoying, her need – it isn’t a burden. It’s a privilege. I’m responsible. I chose to put myself in a situation where I’m responsible.’

“DURING LOCKDOWN, I STOPPED DRINKING ALTOGETHER. IT ONLY LASTED TWO MONTHS, BUT IT’S SOMETHING. IT’S A START. I LEARNED THAT I REALLY AM STRONG ENOUGH TO WITHSTAND MY WORST FEELINGS WITHOUT NEEDING TO NUMB THEM.”

I named my cat Glen, too, after Eleanor’s. I no longer spend so much of my time actively thinking about suicide. During lockdown, I stopped drinking altogether. It only lasted two months, but it’s something. It’s a start. I learned that I really am strong enough to withstand my worst feelings without needing to numb them. Just like Dale, sobriety got me out of the boring prison my repetitive escapist behaviours had become.

I think fighting shame requires excruciating presence. That’s not to say that sobriety is always the answer, or is right for everyone. But I do think there’s a reason so many of us are drawn to it.

The false self, Dr Joseph Burgo tells us in his book Shame, is about escape. When shame is transmitted to us, we become convinced that our authentic self is somehow not good enough, somehow worthy of whatever shameless act we endured. So then our instinct is to escape that self. To hide from ourselves, to lie to ourselves, to erase the person we were when the first bad thing happened.

For some of us, that means becoming addicted to perfectionism. Becoming so busy and distracted we feel like we can outrun ourselves. Constantly seeking external markers of success to rewrite who we are.

But for some, that same impulse, the need to hide, gets expressed through drugs or alcohol or sex or eating or dieting or any other habit that gives us a way out. I think so many of the people in this book have used those addictions to quell shame. I certainly have.

I think understanding shame helps us understand the need to come back into ourselves and be present, either through sobriety or writing or just paying attention. I think that’s a big part of getting better.

This is an edited extract from My Body Keeps Your Secrets Dispatches on Shame and Reclamation Lucia Osborne-Crowley. Out in paperback on 2 September 2021