Finding My Way to Freedom from Addiction, Part 1 – By Michelle Dunbar

Some years ago I can remember sitting all alone in my college apartment. Everyone had already gone home for Christmas, but I stayed. My semester had gone seriously awry. I wasn’t sure if I would still be a student when the grades came out, and I was dreading going home to face my family. I was a junior, just three semesters away from completing my B.S. in Psychology, and like many of my psych major peers, I was struggling with my own demons. 

Looking back it’s very clear to me how my life derailed, or rather how I derailed it. It’s interesting how so many people talk about their life as if it’s just happening to them, and they are not actually running the show, and I was no exception. In my early 20’s I felt like a piece of paper someone had thrown out a car window, drifting in the wind. I bounced from one thing to another with no real direction in life. I didn’t have passion for anything other than getting high and drunk; and I reaped the benefits of that singular focus.

People form their beliefs based on the culture and society in which they were raised, and I grew up just as the addiction disease paradigm was taking hold in our society. My father had been a heavy drinker and drug user until I was about 9 years old and then he was forced into AA by the court system in the late 1970s. Based on my observations, there were only two options when it came to drinking; heavy, continuous use, or total fear-based abstinence. 

Within my small world, I learned that drugs and alcohol had, what can only be referred to as, magical powers. They were both a panacea that could provide relief from whatever ails you, and at the same time, they were a destructive force, with powers to enslave you. I had seen this play out over and over again watching my father. He had a love-hate relationship with alcohol. He seemed to need it daily for a number of things. Yet, he consistently drank enough to pay very high costs for it.

Once my father succumbed to the idea that he had to quit and went to AA, he became insufferable! He brought home the book Alcoholics Anonymous, referred to by AA members as, The Big Book, and he demanded that we all read it so we could better understand his “disease” and his struggles. He sat me down and told me how very concerned he was for me, as my personality was so much like his own. He was certain that I had the alcoholic gene, which meant if I ever drank or used drugs of any kind, that I would become instantly hooked on them. He spent the next several years reminding me often of my alcoholic destiny.

In spite of the fear my father tried to instill in me about alcohol and drugs, the allure of the panacea won out, and at 18 years old, after about 6 years of experimenting with alcohol and various drugs, I became a daily drinker and drug user. Some would say, “See, your father was right! You should have listened!” But looking back, it’s clear to me that I took on the identity of an alcoholic long before I started drinking. 

As I fully left home and forged my way into the wild and chaotic world of daily, heavy substance use, I believed my fate was sealed. I knew that I would eventually have to go to AA and quit it all, but I assumed I had about 10-15 years of good times before that would happen. After all, my father hadn’t quit until he was 37 and I was just 18 when my heavy, continuous use began. 

It turns out I was very wrong. My life spiraled out of control in short order. I had, what my father didn’t have, that was someone telling me about the magical powers of alcohol, and my alleged inherent weakness surrounding it. Over the years that followed, there were health problems, problems with the law, domestic violence, problems at school, and work. As the costs for my heavy drinking and drug use escalated, so too did my substance use. I became stuck in a cycle of heavy use, negative consequences, feeling guilt and shame, swearing off substances, being overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, and boredom, then back to the only thing that I thought would give me some relief – heavy use. 

Thus, I found myself sitting in my college apartment alone a week before Christmas, contemplating what I should do next. It turns out I did go home for Christmas, and I was still a student, albeit on academic probation yet again. My suicidal thoughts, feelings of dread, and severe depression should have been a wake-up call that cold winter day, but they weren’t at all. I packed up and headed home and did what I had learned to do so well: painted on a smile, and acted like everything was great.

I lasted just one more semester at school and at the end of my junior year I officially failed out of college. All that time and money wasted. I had all the excuses: my parents bad marriage and subsequent divorce, a sexual assault that happened after being roofied at a club, a bi-polar diagnosis that I never actually believed but certainly used when I found myself in trouble, and then there was my heavy substance use, that felt completely out of my personal control. It seemed most of my friends had left me and I was alone. At that time I had taken on the personal belief that life just happened to me and I had no say in it at all. 

I spent another year and a half simply existing. Going from job to job, taking some classes at a local community college, just to say I was still in school, and drinking and drugging — but now it was no longer a party, it was sustenance for me. I believed I needed to be drunk and high to survive, and I believed myself to be a victim of everyone and everything. I can tell you that’s a dark place to be. 

Then one day in 1990, after a full 6-month alcoholic binge, I stopped. I woke up and decided I didn’t want to drink. I was tired of it, bored with it, and needed a break. I challenged my belief that I needed it. I became curious about what would happen if I just stopped and tried to live without it for a while. I was sure my life couldn’t get any worse. I felt awful for about four days; I was shaking and sweating and so nauseous that I couldn’t eat a thing. I didn’t know at the time that what I was going through was alcohol withdrawal; I just thought I had a stomach bug. When I felt better, I did what I thought I had to do; I went to my first AA meeting as an “alcoholic”.

I’d like to be able to say the rest is history, and it all ended well, but it turns out, that was just the beginning of what would become the most twisted journey of my life. Yes, I had left the seedy world of heavy substance use, but I had entered a world just as seedy as any dive bar or drug house. Only this world didn’t have the benefits of being drunk or high. Nor were most people in the meetings as friendly and happy as I remembered my party friends to be. But that’s a story for Part 2… 

If you would like more information about Michelle’s books, The Freedom Model for Addictions, Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and Freedom Model for the Family, go to If you would like more information about America’s original non-12 step, at-home solution for addiction, The Freedom Model Private Instruction Program, also go to For more information about The St. Jude Retreat, go to or call 888-424-2626

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