What it Feels Like: Fighting the stigma of alcohol addiction in women

'I wouldn't look at myself in the mirror because that person that I saw was not me.'

Emma Jones 13 minute read May 30, 2022
Carolyn O'Reilly

When Carolyn O'Reilly left a career that she was passionate about after being injured, alcohol began to play an increasing role in her life. GETTY

Content Warning: This story contains violent imagery and contains references to suicide and suicidal ideation. If you are in need of support for yourself, a friend or a family member, the Canadian Suicide Prevention Service helpline offers help and can be reached at 1-833-456-4566 toll free or connect via text at 45645, from 4 p.m. to midnight ET.

After working in banking in Moncton, New Brunswick for more than two decades, Carolyn O’Reilly went back to school to pursue education in human services counselling and set out on a new career dedicated to her passion for helping people.

One day, while at working at a group resident home, O’Reilly was injured in an incident involving one of the residents, resulting in a concussion. A year later, after she had transferred to what she thought would be a safer position, O’Reilly was injured again. This time, she fell and hit her head on a door frame.

After the second incident, O’Reilly says that something in her changed.

“When I went back to work,” she says “every time there was any type of upset with the kids my brain was telling me, run, run, run.”

O’Reilly left her career that she was so passionate about and as she fought to overcome the thoughts that were running through her mind, alcohol began to play an increasing role in her life.

Up to one-third of individuals who have experienced traumatic events report trouble with alcohol use, according to the U.S. National Centre for PTSD. Women who have, or have experienced, post-traumatic stress disorder are 2.5 times more likely to experience alcohol dependence or abuse than woman who do not have a similar diagnosis. Research also indicates that alcohol use and experiences of alcohol use disorder is increasing among women in general.

O’Reilly spoke to Healthing about her experiences with seeking help for alcohol use disorder and what it means to feel like you have been listened to.

This article has been edited for length and clarity.


What led you to get treatment?

Well, I realized I was an alcoholic.

I was living pretty harshly, and that’s how I would describe the journey with alcohol. I was nothing like my former self. I had to wake up in the morning to drink just to steady myself and got very little done in my day. 

I used alcohol as my crutch in the beginning, just to deal with the thoughts that were running through my head and eventually, [I] got to the point where I needed [alcohol] in order to operate, but at the same time absolutely, positively hating myself. It had gotten so bad in terms of hating myself that I wouldn’t look in the mirror because the person that I saw wasn’t me. I was quite ashamed and depressed by who I had become while I drank. 

I had two children and a husband at the time and I was severely letting them down, but it wasn’t by choice. I fill up with tears every time I think of how I let my kids down. I’m working on forgiving myself, but it’s still a work in progress.

Before the accident [at work, when I was hurt by a patient], my house was spotless. My number one job was my children, and they relied on me heavily for everything. But then when I wasn’t well, it was [my husband] manning the ship.

I became quite suicidal. I had two suicide attempts and, I’d say, another four times I called the crisis line because I was having suicidal thoughts. So I was very, very desperate by the time I made it to Oakhill Treatment Centre.

What happened when you tried to seek treatment?

I went back to a psychologist and started some medication that I desperately needed. At one point, I was even working with an occupational therapist who was helping me to set up a schedule — for example, doing dishes. We went back to the basics of taking care of a house.

I was being encouraged to stop drinking, and I couldn’t. I simply could not. I wasn’t well enough. [I was on] medication [but it] wasn’t doing all the work and I couldn’t follow through with what my occupational therapist wanted me to do. Everything just felt like so much pressure. I stopped driving, and besides my appointments, I didn’t leave my home. PTSD had really taken over my brain.

I was five years a drinker [and] over that process my marriage fell apart. The boys stayed with me, initially. I was relying on all of my investments from when I worked at [the bank] to keep the house for the boys. And then, I think it was the first time that I went to the hospital for suicidal ideations, the police came and they woke my kids up at 3 a.m. and called their dad. I went to the hospital and went directly to detox. Both boys went to live with their dad.

I really desperately wanted help and I wanted to stop drinking. So I did initially go to a different rehab place. It was Christian-based and I’m a Christian, so it seemed like an ideal fit, but it wasn’t for me. There were no professionals on staff and fights kept breaking out between the other women. And with my PTSD, it was too much. I couldn’t handle it, so I left after a month.

When I got home, I managed to stay sober for a full year and one son came back to live with me and the other son stayed with his father. That first year — doesn’t feel like recovery feels to me now. I was doing that for other people. I wasn’t doing it for myself, so it didn’t have the staying power that sobriety has now. Eventually, I started drinking again and then ended up suicidal again.

Alcohol abuse and depression problem of female. Woman alcoholism social problem.

Carolyn O’Reilly’s treatment journey started with admitting she was an alcoholic. GETTY

What led to your next attempt at a program?

I actually went back to Newfoundland because I was waiting to get into rehab. My son moved out on his own and I couldn’t afford an apartment because [I was] just using disability, and I’d run through all of my investments. I moved in with my sister, waiting for the call that I was going to get into rehab. Initially, I didn’t drink, but slowly, surely …

One night suicidal ideations got me again and I called the crisis line in Corner Brook. It was such a complete different experience [from the way I was treated at other hospitals]. If I could spread one message in this article besides wanting to help other women, it’s the way I was treated. I saw three different doctors that night. Finally a psychiatrist asked, ‘If I can get you on the psychiatric ward, would you take it?’ And I started to cry. All of [my hospital stays] I’d been begging for help, but I would wake up in the morning and they would see that I wasn’t drunk and send me home. This time, I was hospitalized for eight days.

The whole staff treated me so well. They didn’t treat me like this was my problem or that I had created this mess — nobody was harsh with me. I worked with a social worker to find housing. I was even able to help a young lady that came in probably five days after I did. [The experience] gave me self-worth back by the way they treated me and didn’t treat me like, ‘oh, she’s just a drunken and [lost] cause.’

That’s how I worked up the courage to go to Oakhill. I was sober [through] the eight day stay [in the hospital] and then another week. By that point, I was close to 15 or 16 days sober. And I thought to myself: this is my opportunity. This is professionally-run — they have medical staff and certified counsellors. So Carolyn, you need to go in there and you need to absorb every piece of information that you possibly can to help you on this journey of sobriety.

I was nervous. One of my biggest concerns was that I was older. I would have been 54 at that time and I anticipated there would be a lot of young ladies there, and there was, but there was also someone older than I was. I was also nervous about fitting in, and because of my experience at the other rehab with fights breaking out, I worried if I was going into the same situation. But [I] put all those fears aside and said to myself, ‘Alright, this is another opportunity for you to get it right.’

What was treatment like?

I stayed for 42 days. That’s the minimum amount. I should mention I would never have been able to afford this place if I didn’t have my work insurance. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of good places that are free, and if they are, there is a waiting list a mile long.

Probably because of my age, I didn’t like some of the rules there and someone controlling every moment of my day. For example, I’m a Diet Coke drinker and I wasn’t allowed to have it. I could have one when we went on outings, but I had to finish it before I went back to the house because they had a healthy-living plan. I would think, Oh my God. I’m 54 years old. Who’s telling me I can’t have a Diet Coke? I had a bit of an attitude that way.

Each day, we would have a schedule of meetings from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m. — each hour there would be a different topic about recovery and healing. I took in each and every session. There were always worksheets you could read later or work on later. I still have them and every once in a while, if I’m struggling with something, I’ll find something in there that can help.

One really big thing happened. I think it was necessary for me to start recovery. We were all in a circle — it wasn’t anything that we were learning, it was just the talking. One of the other ladies brought up their past and what their childhood was like and I just started crying. I couldn’t look at anybody and I was really ashamed that I was crying so hard — they tried to talk to me, but I couldn’t tell them what had made me cry.

[It] was about a lot of the pain that I went through as a child. We were very poor at times and my mom had five other children. I had some learning disabilities identified [as an adult], one is a mild non-verbal. And when I did my research, I read that kids with this type of disability see the world in black and white — there are no grey areas. I would be the one to point out when things weren’t fair and that would make my mom lose her temper.

When that circle was over, my counsellor took me into the library and asked why I was crying. I just blurted it all out. That became part of my healing process, I think that is what made the difference in my recovery this time.

Finally I got it. Every time I had counselling before, I would say, Yeah, I had a bad childhood … However, I’ve dealt with all that. I’ve forgiven my parents, and I don’t want to go back and revisit that. But that was at a detriment to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, because I really felt that way. In my early 20s, there was a moment when I realized my parents were people first with their own backgrounds that made them the way they were. My mom was the way she was because of an even more horrific childhood then what I had, and she was doing the best she could. I felt no need to go back, but I had never dealt with it.

Destructive feelings and self-condemnation. The girl who is afraid of guilt and inner criticism

Forgiving her mother and healing from her childhood was a part of Carolyn O’Reilly’s alcoholism treatment journey. GETTY



When that program was finished, how was transitioning back home?

I couldn’t wait to leave because I felt ready. I had worked really, really hard on my recovery plan and I spent two weeks working on a plan.

My youngest was not speaking to me at all at this point. My older son, who lived with his dad, still was. My plan was to go back to Newfoundland where my sister lived. I was going to find mental health housing there. I stayed at my brother’s place in Halifax for about a week and I felt on top of the world — I was definitely on the pink cloud of recovery at that point. And when I came back to Moncton, I was only going to be back for two weeks. But the moment I entered this city, I thought, Oh my God, I so missed this place and my boys are here, I can’t leave.

[My youngest had been talking to my sister about concerns he had] He contacted me right out of the blue, and you can imagine my heart. I was so happy. And since then, our relationship just keeps growing and growing.

What has changed since you were sober?

I also took a 12-step program and I’ve learned a lot. There’s a step where you write all your resentments down — your anger toward other institutions or people. You also take ownership for your part in some of the bad things that’s happened to you.

I knew my marriage wasn’t a good marriage and after doing that step and being brutally honest about it, I learned that I wanted control more than I wanted happiness — I realized I had to start working on that character flaw.

I was 21 months sober yesterday, We’re getting close to two years. I now rely as best I can — I mean I’m human, so I can’t totally give it up, I keep trying to take it back — I rely on my higher power, which is God. I try to turn everything over to him: my angst, my worries, my children. That’s been a huge part of me changing.

Yes, in certain cases I was a victim, there was nothing I could have done about that. But I also saw where control was more important than being honest and even being happy. So with that, that blaring character flaw, I have learned to let go of a lot of the baggage and the control that I feel I need to have around me.

With my sons, I reach out to them, but I can’t control that, and it’s up to [them] to decide when [they] want to [get in touch]. Sometimes I get really sad about it, but then I remind myself, Oh, you’re trying to take this back again.

[Oak] Hill has played such a huge part because I do aftercare with them every Monday evening. Women come and we just talk about what’s going on. We’re constantly talking about how to deal with particular situations in our life, but mine is 150 times better than it was when I was drinking. There’s no comparison.

What are your thoughts when you look back?

There’s still a lot of stigma, or appears to be, attached to women and addiction. I believe part of it is our own stigma, and then the stigma of other people, family members and people that find out [about your addiction].

I read a quote a couple months ago and it’s become kind of part of the message of my journey: “in some ways, suffering ceases to be suffering in the moment it finds a meaning.”

For me, my meaning is I didn’t go through all of that just to come out the other side. I went through all of that so I would have empathy.

If you or someone you care about is struggling with addiction, more education and resources are available at Ledgehill Women’s facility (previously Oakhill) which is part of the Edgewood Health Network the Canadian government website and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health


Emma Jones is a multimedia editor with Healthing. You can reach her at emjones@postmedia.com or on Instagram and Twitter @jonesyjourn.


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