By Elise Olmstead

Today marks 4 weeks that I have been sober from alcohol. 

It doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment considering my recent battle with breast cancer, but I am discovering that one of the hardest battles a person can fight is not always a disease like cancer but the battle we fight every day for our mental health.  While being in the midst of both, I can tell you that battling addiction might be the hardest.  

This past year has been one of the most difficult years of my life, having been diagnosed with breast cancer October 2018 and only recently completing all of my treatments as of August 12.  I never expected to have to go through something like that, and never expected the aftermath to be just as hard as the fight itself.

Through the chemotherapy I genuinely felt terrible and just poured all of my energy into working hard to get better. All of the support from my husband, friends and family as well as the RSO I was taking kept me as comfortable as possible.  I felt my anxiety about everyday life lessen for a little while, since all of the petty little worries didn’t seem to matter anymore as I fought for my life. As I continued to work, though, the pressure of continuing my usual pace and the persistent brain fog made everything more difficult.  I would have days that facing my to-do list would send me into a temper-tantrum like rage, where my husband would have to hold me and say “it’s just a bad day today,” to reassure me and probably reassure himself as well. I knew it was going to be hard but pressed on believing that everything would be okay and this would all make me stronger in the end. 

But I didn’t feel stronger.

Getting an infusion during my chemotherapy.

When people tell me I’m strong, I thank them, but say that you would do the same in this situation. There is no other choice than to get through it the best that you can. The chemo treatments were knocked down one by one and visits from friends as well as amazing benefit shows and fundraisers kept me going and hopeful. I expected this battle with cancer to fill me with a renewed zest for life, an incredible gratitude, and a braver mentality.  The brain fog frustrated me, but I thought that maybe as it cleared and my synapses started firing again that the spark would come back, but something was different, dulled. Soon chemo was over and I counted the days until surgery, waiting until this could all be over. The brain fog was very slow to clear, and there was still no sign of a spark.

As soon as the surgery was over and I had a good prognosis, I felt life starting to resume as normal. A schedule of 34 radiation treatments every day was started, but did not affect how I felt physically much to even notice.  It was surreal how quickly I returned to the normal routine and normal schedule of traveling (as much as radiation would allow). I did not feel normal, however. The person I was before the cancer seemed like a far away person that isn’t me anymore. Life resumed its normal routine, but life was not the same because I am not the same.  In fact I feel drastically different and completely unsure of who I am. I did not feel more brave, but instead full of dread every day. Dread that I was not living my destiny or succeeding or being where I’m supposed to be at 32 years old or even dread that I could still die at any moment and maybe I was supposed to die, because I felt like a shell of my former self. There was now a fear deep inside of me that shook me to my core, and the anxiety that I have dealt with my whole life was bigger and uglier than ever.  I have never been good at coping with generalized anxiety–that feeling of butterflies in your stomach and creepy-crawlies all over your body for no reason at all. Now with the combined dread and depression I would get angry at myself for not being able to just grow up and deal. I had so much self-hatred for what I thought were these terribly ungrateful feelings. After getting a new chance at life, shouldn’t I feel elated and free?

My first drink after chemo.

I didn’t drink throughout my chemo treatments, of course, but after they were completed I started having a couple of drinks here and there, like a glass of wine with friends to celebrate or a cocktail at dinner.  At some point we bought a handle of vodka to make cocktails and my love affair with Tito’s was renewed. Vodka has always been my favorite liquor and having it in the house was a dangerous game. We don’t give enough credence to how addictive alcohol is.  Instead of dealing with that deep-seeded dread and anxiety, that insecurity with my new appearance, my dulled sense of focus and intelligence, I masked it with alcohol. Being intoxicated took me back to that “normal” feeling of carefree and happy that I couldn’t seem to find on my own again. It gave me a sense of “spark” but it was all fake.  I should have never started drinking again after the chemo, because before I knew it was I drinking every day.

After downing probably a gallon of vodka at Werk Out and being filled with regrets that Sunday about missing sets and multiple opportunities, I knew that I needed to quit drinking.  It was the right thing to do for my physical and mental health. August 5th was my “day one,” and since then I have been to the beach and Renaissance Fair (two huge drinking occasions) and not drank a sip of alcohol.  I am started to feel my focus come back and am getting more emotionally stable. I still struggle with anxiety, which will probably be a lifelong battle, but I am facing the problem head-on now instead of running away.You might not know this about me, but I naturally an introvert, and actually deal with a lot of social anxiety that can make my job difficult.  I always eased this feeling with the good ol’ social lubricant of alcohol, but what I thought made me more sociable just dulled my spark and made me a worse listener. One of the things I want most out of life is to elevate those around me and make them feel good, which is harder to do when I am intoxicated. The more I practice doing things sober, the easier it gets, and I’m proud to say that there is a bottle of Tito’s in my cabinet right now that I have not been tempted to drink even once.

Sober and happy at the beach

Now I know that chemo and cancer was the biggest battle I’ve ever faced but the fight is not nearly over.  I’m going to have to face my demons and be the capable person I know I am, that I used to be so sure of. So many of us battle with addictions and issues of mental health which do not have targeted treatments and infusions that will simply blast it out of us.  We have to work on it every day. There is not a quick fix or a switch inside that we can turn on for a spark and enthusiasm for life, it is something we have to find within us. It’s a good thing that life is so amazingly beautiful and there is abundance all around to remind us all the time.

I am feeling really good about my commitment to not drinking and hope everyone holds me accountable.  Recovery for me is going to be much more than recovering from the cancer and the subsequent treatments, I’m going to be focusing on my recovery from an addiction to alcohol as well.  Finding my footing especially as this fragile new self has been hard, but I can’t wait to have my own 100 days, then 365 days under my belt. I have been given a new chance at life and I don’t plan on wasting it.  I owe so much to this community and look forward to finding myself again with the help of my friends and my ever supportive husband Taco Olmstead. Thanks for always believing in me. If you don’t drink alcohol either, I would love to get together with you at a show or festival so we can support each other.  I’m so excited to be able to offer support in return for all that was shown to me.

Love sincerely,