As a child, I did not experience acceptance at home. My dad was a practicing alcoholic; my mom was in “survival mode” most of the time. With five children under the age of seven, our home was o en chaotic and unpredictable. My introduction to swimming and a feeling of acceptance came through the YMCA’s Learn to Swim program. By the time I was four years old, I knew I was happier in the water than anywhere else.
I dove in to my swimming classes, eager for acceptance and approval from my instructors. My speed and technique improved quickly. It wasn’t long before I was asked to join the swim team and began to win races.
I loved being in the water and I loved to swim, but soon realized that I loved to win even more. Winning had a miraculous way of making many of life’s problems – like the embarrassment of a drunken father – melt away. However, once the medium of water was removed, I still felt inferior.
By the time I was 15 years old, I had earned first place at the National Junior Olympics in the challenging 400-yard medley. I remember standing atop the podium thinking that maybe, just maybe, I could one day make it to the Olympics.
That very same year, I had my first alcoholic buzz at a New Year’s Eve party. When the adults weren’t looking, I stole two bottles of beer, my dad’s preferred drink. Alone, I guzzled one bottle right a er the other, gagging the whole time. All of a sudden, a warm, fuzzy feeling came over me, and all my brokenness seemed to dissolve. is was the feeling I had been seeking all my life. Who cared if it came in a bottle?
Alcohol was a game changer. If alcohol could make me feel that good, why should I work so hard at swimming? I went from being an elite Junior National champion with Olympic aspirations to wanting nothing at all to do with the sport. It was as though I had slipped a switch. One day I was all in, and the next day I was all out.
New Love in My life
I had a new love in my life, and took every opportunity to get to know it. I knew the path I was choosing was destructive; but even at a young age, was powerless to stop it. I was also powerless to quiet the voices in my head that reminded me of the talent, potential and opportunities I was throwing away. “You’re not good enough, Karlyn,” they said. “You don’t deserve the talent you were given. You’re a fraud.” To prove it, I would find another opportunity to drink. Nearly every decision I made revolved around getting drunk.
At age 18, I was offered 15 full-athletic scholarships. I chose a university based on cute boys and great parties, and lasted three semesters before unking out. In my early 20s, I chose jobs like beach lifeguarding, bartending and waitressing, and hung around other people who liked to party.
At 25, I resurfaced in swimming and even broke a Masters World record. I couldn’t handle success, so I drank even more. By the time I was 30, there wasn’t much “party” left . If I didn’t drink, I’d get the shakes. When I did drink, I threw up. there was no high, no buzz, but I no longer had a choice. I had to drink.
By age 31, I had become a world-record setting lifeguard who was drowning. I consumed a liter of vodka a day. I stopped hoping for a better life because it wasn’t worth the effort. I wasn’t worth the effort.
I think I’m An Alcoholic
One day, the phone rang. It was my Mom with a lifeline, but would I accept it? Would I have the courage to change? Would I have the courage to tell her what I had become?
“Mom, I think I’m an alcoholic.” there, I said it. For the first time, ever.
I expected drama. I expected anger. I also expected a bolt of lightning to fry me on the spot for so badly messing up my life. Instead, all she said was “Let’s get you some help.” The next thing I knew, I was in a ten-day rehab.
Detox and AA meetings
Detox was a nightmare; but after three days, I turned a corner. I was so grateful to be alive. There I attended the first of many AA meetings, and those meetings saved my life. I was blown away by the support and unconditional love I received.
The experience, strength and hope of the people who shared inspired me. And the laughter was a revelation – who would have thought that a room full of ex-drunks would have anything to laugh about?
Leaving rehab, I had one goal: staying sober. I realized that I had been given the gift of life and the opportunity for a do-over. I also knew I needed to ask some hard questions: Why did I drink? Why had I let my life become such a mess to the point of almost dying? Who was I without alcohol?
In those early days, I found that daily exercise was extremely helpful. I had hours in my day to kill, and swimming took up time. The exercise helped cleanse my body. thankfully, the water accepted me back, no questions asked. Because of the acceptance from the water and my new AA fellowship, I began to heal emotionally, too.
Over the next few years, I continued attending meetings, swimming, building a new life, making the most of this do-over and staying sober. As the years went by, I attended fewer meetings and lost connection with my sponsor. thankfully, I didn’t drink.
I was working hard in the pool, breaking records right and left , but I was taking the easy way out when it came to working the Twelve Steps. As a matter of fact, I had been stuck on Step Three for 19 years! It became painfully clear that I was back to doing it my way, not God’s way.
Pain is a great motivator. I would love to take credit for the self-awareness that I was stuck and needed to work the Steps. However, it was a broken heart and a broken wrist that brought me back to the program. I was in so much pain that I was willing to do anything to make it stop. First, I needed to believe I was worthy of God’s love. Once I was able to receive His gift , I found the courage to change and to finish what I had started so long ago.
It took me 20 years and 10 months to finish the Twelve Steps. I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I had I finished them sooner, but that’s the beauty of a do-over. ere is no right or wrong way, and we can have as many do- overs as we like. Do them the same way each time or have the courage do them differently; the choice is yours.