The interior of the ambulance is bright - too bright - and it hurts my eyes. I desperately want to sleep, but I'm strapped to a stretcher and a paramedic's anxious face hovers above mine.
"Don't sleep, Ellie," he says. "Stay with me now."
I fight to keep my eyes open, but I'm tired. I'm so very tired.
"Do you know where you are?" he asks. I wish he'd leave me alone.
"I'm in an ambulance," I mumble. I can hear the muffled sounds of the siren and see flashing red lights reflecting off the shiny machinery that surrounds me. There is a tube of some sort in my arm, and a beeping device hooked up to my chest.
"Do you know why you're in an ambulance?"
"Yes," I mutter, the past hour and a half coming back to me in a rush.
"You were too sick to stay at the rehab," the paramedic says slowly, like he's talking to a two year old. "Your blood pressure spiked. You were vomiting blood. Do you remember that?"
He's shouting at me; why is he shouting?
I realize I have closed my eyes again; the darkness feels so good.
"ELLIE!" he yells again, and then gives my cheek a little slap. "STAY WITH ME!"
I open my eyes a slit and see his face at the end of a long tunnel. His lips are moving but I can't hear what he is saying. He grabs my shoulders and gives me shake, but my eyes slide shut and I lose myself in the darkness.
I sit up in bed with a start; my heart is pounding and I'm sweating. What a horrible dream, I think.
I take a moment to catch my breath and take in my familiar surroundings. I'm home. I'm safe. My husband is sleeping peacefully next to me. As I pad into the bathroom to splash water on my face, it hits me: that wasn't a dream.
That was a memory.
Shaken, I sit down on the cool tile floor, and I let myself remember.
It all happened so fast; it felt to me like I went from nightly drinking to spiraling into a cycle of addiction almost overnight. In reality, it happened over about a week. It took me one week to cross the invisible line from emotional addiction to alcohol to physical addiction. If I didn't drink I would shake and sweat and be filled with crippling anxiety. The minute I had something to drink, the symptoms stopped. I was trying to control it; just a sip here and there to take the edge off.
Then one afternoon Steve came home for lunch and found me passed out on the couch.
In desperation, he checked me into a local rehab. Nobody understood how sick I really was, how dangerous my withdrawal was going to be, because nobody knew how much I was really drinking. Even I didn't know, so deep was my denial. It only took an hour and a half for the withdrawal symptoms to become perilous, and an ambulance was called to transport me - urgently - to the nearest Emergency Room.
I remember that I wasn't scared at all. What I felt was relief. Maybe I would finally slip away, get out of everyone's way, quietly disappear.
The paramedic's name was Mike, I recall. He fought to keep me conscious all the way to the hospital. He asked me about my children, where I grew up, what my favorite color was. He talked all the way there, struggling to keep me away from the dark.
At the ER they whisked me down a bright hallway, still strapped to the stretcher, and administered some intravenous drug to lower my blood pressure and take the edge off the withdrawal symptoms. Then they slid me into a far corner, yanked the curtain closed in disgust, and left me there. For hours. I remember crying a lot. I remember telling a nurse that if she would just let me drink I would be okay. And then hours of staring at the ceiling tiles, contemplating the mess I was in.
Many hours later, a hand drew the curtain back a crack, and a soft voice said, "Mind if I come in?" Mike stepped up to the side of the gurney and looked at me with kind eyes. "You look better," he said. "You gave me quite a scare."
I was a 37 year old mother of two left forgotten in a dank corner of an emergency room, and the last sympathetic voice left in my life came from a complete stranger. This is where alcohol took me.
"Thank you," I croaked. "For saving me. I think." I gave him a bitter smile.
"Is it worth it?" he asked without anger or disdain.
"Is what worth it?"
"Drinking. Is it worth it?"
I looked at him for a long moment, waiting for defiance, bitterness or rage to come. Instead, I felt something break, something give way deep inside. "No," I said. "No, it's not worth it."
He took my hand, gently, and said, "I see a lot of people die from drinking. And do you know what they all have in common? They don't think they are that bad. None of them think they are that close to death. It's really sad. Please don't be one of those people."
And with that, he left.
I haven't thought about that night in a long, long time. It's one of those too-horrible-to-think-about moments. It feels very far away. So far away that I tell myself that it probably didn't happen that way.
But it did.
And I need to remember. I've been feeling really good lately. Really strong. My kids are thriving, my business is booming and I'm very busy. So busy, in fact, that recovery is taking a back seat to things that feel more important. I haven't been going to many meetings. It always feels like there is a good reason, and besides I'm doing great.
That memory surfaced when it did, swam up from the depths of my subconscious, because I cannot afford to forget. Ever. That desperate, forgotten woman lives in me still. I'm grateful she showed up when she did, because I know that I can feel great all the way to a drink.
It's one of the sneaky ways the disease can get you.
No matter what stage of drinking we're in, how far down the path we have travelled, this is one thing the disease always tells us: you aren't that bad.
In recovery, the tense shifts, but the message is the same: you weren't that bad.
When that voice starts whispering in my ear, I know what I have to do. So I'm doing it. I tell on myself, I ask for help, I reach out to people who understand.
If you're wondering about your own drinking; if you're reading this and thinking that woman in the ambulance could never be you, if you're telling yourself 'I'll never be that bad', consider this a warning.
It happens fast, and more often than not we don't see it coming, because we're too afraid to look.
So please look.