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Mind

Beating the bottle: My party girl life was killing me

At the height of her alcoholism, Elaine Atkinson, 55 had regular blackouts and was hospitalised for injuries caused by excessive drinking.

By Karyn Henger
"I had my first drink when I was 14 – an orange-vodka screwdriver which I drank with my best friend. I ended up completely unwell, blacking out and having the worst hangover afterwards.
But it didn't put me off drinking. In fact, I went on to become quite the party girl.
When I started working in sales and marketing, which is known for its social drinking culture, knowing how to have a good time was almost part of the job and it was very much entrenched in my lifestyle.
After a few years, I started suffering from blackouts more frequently. I also began getting heartburn and the most terrible pain in my oesophagus. But I never thought I had a drinking problem because I only drank socially. I didn't understand alcoholism then.
When I turned 40, I threw a big party and thought it was a great party, but it was actually really chaotic. Two days later, I found myself in hospital with a damaged oesophagus, caused by all of my vomiting after drinking sessions over the years.
But even after I was discharged, I still carried on drinking. And alarmingly, my habits got worse. Knowing I needed to stop seemed to make me just want alcohol more. I started waking up on Saturday mornings and pouring myself a rum and coke, then drinking all day.
Six months after being hospitalised, I walked into work one morning and thought, 'I just can't do this any more.'
It was no great epiphany – just walking into work feeling lethargic and hungover as usual. But in that moment, I realised the drinking was taking me out. It was wrecking my home life, I wasn't present for my two sons and I didn't even know how I was still doing my job.
That day, I googled where to get help, and that Friday night, instead of going to the pub, I went to my first support group meeting for alcoholics.
To my surprise I found there were lots of lovely women, all beautifully dressed and so kind.
Many of them were my age, because women who've been party girls without causing too much carnage suddenly get to their late 30s or early 40s and know that they're getting too old to be doing this, but they've become dependent on alcohol.
Going sober was incredibly difficult and I couldn't have done it without the support of these women.
In that first year, I felt very vulnerable and fragile. When alcoholics finally ask for help, they're often exhausted from keeping up the façade. Many have been high-functioning and, in my case, I was very skinny from drinking too much, not eating enough and living off anxiety.
Someone suggested I go to rehab, but it would have meant taking at least a month's leave and I didn't want my employers to find out. In hindsight, it was exactly what I needed because I would have been able to rest and create some space between me and alcohol.
Instead, I reset my life. I avoided parties, Friday night drinks, any event that might tempt me to drink. There were so many changes I had to make and I had to develop strategies to stay on track. A recovering alcoholic has to choose not to drink every day, but the good news is that choices get easier to make with each passing day.
I've now been sober 14 years and I'm so far from my last drink I couldn't even imagine having one now.
There have been so many benefits. My skin looks better, I'm a healthier weight and I can get up each day and brush my teeth without dry retching.
I've got my weekends back and I can plan beautiful days. I get to participate in my own life again.
I had started supporting others in the group to get sober and found that I loved it. It felt like a calling. So in 2019 I put together a business plan, then took the biggest leap of faith I've ever made. I quit my job, moved from my Auckland home to Hawke's Bay, and opened my own rehab centre for drug and alcohol addiction, Ocean Hills Detox and Rehabilitation.
We're a small boutique facility, we only take up to four people at a time. So far, we've helped 40 people and to see how well they are now just makes my heart sing.
What sets us apart from many is that we offer a two-week recovery programme, which is great for mums who don't want to be away from their kids for too long or people with work commitments. It takes much longer than two weeks to recover and heal from addiction, of course, and we follow up with regular phone calls from our therapists and weekly online support meetings that you can attend as long as you need.
Our team is made up of a registered nurse, occupational therapist, facilitator, art, yoga and equine therapists and peer support workers. As our reputation has grown, we've started receiving referrals from psychologists and DHBs.
It's incredibly hard work, but I'm loving every minute and feel like I'm living my dream. That's what I want to share with people – that you can get sober and
live your best life. There will be some bumps in the road, but don't pick up the drink and you'll be fine."

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