The Real Life Spouse Stories Series is part of our Wellness Unfiltered™ program. It’s a platform for military spouses to share their struggles with tougher wellness topics in a Facebook Live series. They’re sharing these stories to help with their healing, open up conversations so other military spouses know that they aren’t alone, provide resources to people struggling with something similar, and to help the community know how to better help others who are going through difficult wellness issues. Below is an excerpt of Justine’s feature.
Justine Evirs is a social entrepreneur and visionary who is focused on creating change in a digital world for underrepresented populations. As a Navy veteran, Navy spouse, and first generation college graduate, she is proud of the work she has accomplished in an eight-year higher education career. During that time she was well known for her ability to build innovative programs and her unique servant leadership style.
What is your intention behind sharing your struggle with alcoholism?
My intention for this four-part series that will cover the four stages of alcoholism is to share my story, some things that I have learned along the way. There are a lot of things that I have learned through the recovery process that I wish I would have known before. There were a lot of red flags that I wasn’t aware of and a lot of facts that I thought were just myths or stereotypical alcoholic problems. Maybe people will see themselves or someone that they love in my story and we can begin to uncover some of these taboo topics. If you look at the facts, millions of people in our country are struggling with drinking, but we’re all cheersing and looking the other way. If I can help one person, sharing my story will be worth it.
Alcohol abuse is happening a lot in our military spouse communities, so I would really love to share resources with people who are struggling and create vocabulary around the issue so that if you know somebody who is struggling, you know what to say or do.
I’ll start with Stage I, or the pre-alcoholic stage.
How did your story begin?
I started drinking when I was thirteen, so I pretty much have been drinking for my entire life. I grew up in, I’ll just be honest, Section 8 housing in rough neighborhoods and drinking is what we did. It’s not a secret that alcohol and drugs are rampant in lower class neighborhoods and that’s how people deal with their problems. Back then, I didn’t know why I was drinking. I now know that I had some traumatic events happen to me at a young age that correlate with the start of my drinking. During my first year of recovery, a lot of terrible memories came back and I struggled with mild depression and severe anxiety as a result. Thanks to therapy and a 12-step program I have been able to find the tools I need to cope with those memories.
At 20, I had a huge life change. I transitioned out of the Navy, became a Navy spouse, went straight into college using my GI Bill, and drinking three or four nights a week was socially acceptable. I got my bachelor’s degree. I was the first one in my family to graduate with a college degree. I just thought, “I’m it,” “I’m makin’ it,” “Everything’s going great,” “Watch out now, I just got my master’s degree, so I’m good.” No one could tell me anything. I had a career and was taking care of two babies. Something was nagging at the back of my head, but I didn’t recognize myself as an alcoholic.
My thinking of alcoholism didn’t include young, successful business owner/social impact leader women like me. When I thought of alcoholics, I thought of divorced, unemployed, homeless, drunk all day, dressed in raggedy clothes men—the kind you see in the movies. That’s a very biased and very naive stereotype and that’s why I had a hard time accepting that I was an alcoholic. I was very high-functioning. I hadn’t lost my job. My marriage wasn’t great, but I wasn’t divorced. My kids liked me, but they have learned to like me a lot more because I’m much more present. I definitely didn’t check the boxes of a DUI or arrest. There were a lot of “not yets,” so when you haven’t checked those boxes, it’s really easy to be in denial and think everything is fine. It’s really easy to compare and think, “That’s not me.”
What I didn’t know is that there are five subtypes of alcoholics and I checked four of the five boxes, including functional alcoholic. Only the fifth type, which is astonishingly only nine percent of alcoholics in the United States, met my stereotypical idea of an alcoholic.
I hate the term alcoholic because I still have my own stigma against it. It humbles me every day to call myself an alcoholic. It keeps me in check. It keeps me grounded with reality and what my life could look like if I do drink again. I’m very aware that I never got to the Chronic Severe alcoholic subtype, but if I were to start drinking, I have zero doubt that I would start drinking at Stage III and make my way into Stage IV. Once you cross that bridge, it’s very easy to pick up and reach that stage.
What happens in Stage I?
I didn’t even know there was a Stage I, which is the pre-alcoholic stage. Characteristics of this stage include consuming manageable amounts, drinking to deal with stress or forget bad memories, building up a tolerance, and maybe even drinking to reduce pain. These characteristics are very normalized in our country today. It pains me to think that there may be people out there who don’t have this information or have the vocabulary to really have a discussion with themselves, a family member, or a friend and ask, “Am I drinking responsibly?” When I see the blurb on the bottom of every alcohol commercial I think, “Don’t drink and drive, don’t get a DUI, don’t do anything stupid.” I never really thought about being responsible. I never stopped to ask myself, “Am I drinking to relieve stress, because I’m upset, because I’m happy, or because I’m in a social situation?”
These are really appropriate questions to ask because they could indicate red flags that you’re progressing out of Stage I. Drinking is so socially acceptable that getting into the habit of pouring a drink every night isn’t seen as a problem. Sometimes you don’t even realize you’re pouring a drink—you’re just doing it. Being intentional about asking yourself questions about why you’re drinking could raise Stage I red flags. Every night I had one to two glasses of wine while doing homework. I had a good time and wanted everyone to have a good time. Many live their lives in the pre-alcoholic stage. They are establishing unhealthy habits. Be mindful, aware of your genes, your healthy habits, and your why.
What I’ve learned is that the only people who care that I don’t drink today are people who need help or will need help. I just didn’t know any other way. I never was exposed to a sober crowd. I didn’t have sober friends. My life didn’t revolve around sobriety. I never knew life without alcohol. I didn’t trust people who weren’t drinking. I was insecure around being judged. I really wanted to be around people who drank like me because people who drank like me wouldn’t judge me. I would say that even in Stage I, I knew that I didn’t drink like other people. I really, really, really loved alcohol. I loved the way it made me feel. I loved the way I was in those early days. What I’ve learned is that I’m actually not as outgoing as I come off. I need a lot of down time, recharge time. In those early days, I didn’t need any down time. I just needed another bottle of wine and party on.
I really never knew how to deal with stress because I started drinking at such a young age. I never really knew how to deal with a stressful situation sober. If somebody had asked me when I was in my early 20s, “Have you ever handled a stressful situation without alcohol?” I would not have been able to answer yes. I think that would have been a huge red flag.
When did you become sober?
February 1, 2020 marks two years of sobriety for me. It is a huge milestone!
What has recovery been like for you?
For the first ninety days, I told everyone I was doing a ninety-day cleanse for health, but behind closed doors, I was struggling big time with panic attacks, emotional roller coasters, and a lot of long nights of rewiring new habits. I was very silent about it for the first year. As I approached the one-year mark, I really felt like sharing and that was very healing for me. Through therapy, a lot of memories came back that first year. I hit another rock bottom emotionally and needed to really embrace my truth. There was a lot of acceptance in that first year. I had a hard time accepting the facts. I was in denial. The first twelve months were really me settling into the facts and realizing that I’m powerless over alcohol.
Does your family have a history of alcoholism?
Yes. If you have a genetic connection, you are more prone to alcoholism. I don’t know if everyone would agree, but I have found that it is a disease because if I were to start drinking again, I would pick up right where I left off. I had a family member who had been sober for many years, had one drink, and immediately down-spiraled to where she left off and then died four years later. I have had experience watching people drink themselves to death and in the recovery process have seen people relapse. Relapse is a part of my story. It is something that I have struggled with, have tried to control it, will-power my way through it, and act like I can do this on my own, and I found I was unsuccessful. It wasn’t until I really asked for help and really got serious about my recovery that things really changed for me. The hardest part is acceptance.
How did being a military spouse affect this journey for you?
Unfortunately, it affected it a lot. At twenty years old, I transitioned out of the military, moved to Rhode Island, and was married. I spent my twenty-first birthday as a military spouse and six months later moved to Chicago, Illinois where I started college. In hindsight, I think about how lonely I was and how lonely we find ourselves in new cities. We create these communities of military spouses that will have your back, but I feel that they won’t really have your back for the tough stuff. That’s why I think it’s really great that we’re covering a lot of these taboo topics because I felt that no one ever talked about anxiety, depression, alcoholism, or rocky marriages. I think in general we do a phenomenal job, especially during deployment and during those early days of birth and surgeries. We help through spouse clubs during those times, but sometimes it’s very surface level. I think there’s a lot of judgment because of the historic expectation we’ve had as military spouses to put on brave faces and skillfully manage things at home. There hasn’t been a lot of acceptance of people’s more difficult personal chapters. We tend to think that because someone struggled with something before, he or she will continue to struggle with it. We forget that people evolve and that it could be just a chapter in their lives. I wish that I would have been a little more open to receiving more support from other women. Unfortunately, for a lot of addicts and alcoholics, the first thing they do is isolate themselves. They are the people that you might think have it all together. I think we could do a better job of allowing people to not be okay.
How can military spouses open up more to cope with stress in healthier ways and support each other better?
I think opening up to people is so important, but it’s such a slippery slope because not everyone is ready to receive your authenticity. My anxiety and depression were at the worst in my second year of recovery because I became so isolated working from home. I have really struggled with that and I think that we’re losing that human connection. We’re focused on getting to the next duty station, supporting our spouses, getting kids in school if you have them, then everybody goes off and you’re at home. You’re thinking a job will fix everything and you’ll be happy again. Or you decide you don’t need a job but you will volunteer and that will make everything better. Or, you decide you’re not going to do any of that and you will just stay home land clean house all day. Whatever it is, we’re not dealing with that “thing.” We’re just sort of pushing it off. For me, it was alcoholism. For you it might be something else.
When you strip away that human connection and that sense of belonging, it’s a recipe for disaster. You do need to put yourself out there and make new connections and not just Facebook friends. I am such a proponent for technology and using technology to further your career and your network, but you cannot lose that human connection. Even if it means meeting someone for coffee once a month, your soul will feel full if you do. It could be that that is the person that you open up to. Let’s get together more often so we can build communities that will cope with stress in healthier ways so that we feel more comfortable opening up for help when we need to.
How did being a mom affect your journey with alcoholism?
In Stage I, our house was the party house. People came over to play cards. Alcohol was always around, very normal. But wine does disrupt your sleep. With two babies in diapers, I was exhausted and I would pour the wine. That’s the number one thing you shouldn’t be doing. It’s a vicious cycle called addiction.
What would you recommend for moms or dads in the exhausted stage of parenting?
I would challenge them to see what sleep is like without alcohol. Try it for thirty days. Compare and contrast your sleep patterns. You’ll sleep better without that glass of wine. The first few nights may not be very pleasant and I think that’s what drums up the vicious cycle. If you’re used to having one or two glasses of wine per night and then you stop, your body is used to that, so it will do a mini-detox and your sleep patterns will be off. Go longer. Replace with water or tea. Just test it and make the decision for yourself.
What can we do if we think someone we care about has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol?
I think it’s really hard to be in that situation, so I’ll answer that question as an alcoholic. I will be very honest with you. If someone would have said something to me, I would have been very defensive and very emotional and would have turned it back on you and made it not about me. That’s my truth. I can only speak for my experiences. What would have been helpful for me though is role-modeling sobriety because internally the person will have a barometer going off. If you’re on your first drink and they’re on their third drink, they’re aware of that and you don’t have to say anything.
What I would challenge you to do is to send them this blog post or my Facebook Live because I think what’s said will resonate with someone who has that red flag and gut intuition going. At certain stages, people just aren’t ready to receive. I would encourage those on the other side to not pass judgment.
One thing I learned in my recovery is to give myself grace. This was the largest struggle—to show myself some serious compassion.
In addition to this blog post, the Facebook Live, and the linked resources, what could somebody do who’s reading this and recognizing that they need some help?
I am also a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous. It is extremely helpful. It’s confidential and free. If you go to a meeting and the people don’t seem to be like you, go find another meeting.
Find those who are living a sober life.
Take an online assessment test.
Justine Evirs is a Social Entrepreneur and Visionary who is focused on creating change in a digital world for underrepresented populations. She is currently serving as the President and Founder of The Paradigm Switch (TPS), which is a digital nonprofit that teaches military spouses how to work anywhere in the world. TPS’s Digital Career Bootcamp offers four high-impact, low cost programs that serve as a catalyst for digital transformations of individuals and corporations across the globe. As a Navy veteran, Navy spouse, and a first generation college graduate, Justine is proud of the work she has accomplished in an eight-year higher education career. During that time she was well known for her ability to build innovative programs and her unique servant leadership style. In 2017, she set out to make a larger difference in the world, which led to her to find her new found love for innovation & entrepreneurship.