By: Ben Appel

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I began abusing alcohol when I was barely a teenager. I didn’t drink because I wanted to be cool, or because I liked the taste of the decades-old brandy I stole from the dusty corner of my parents’ liquor cabinet. I drank to dull the fear: the fear of failure, of the bullies at school, of my sexual identity, and of God’s retribution. I didn’t have an alcohol problem; I thought, alcohol was my solution.

Like allergy medicine becomes ineffective after years of use, in my late teens alcohol stopped working the way it used to. No matter how much I drank, the fear would find a way to break through. It began to permeate every facet of my life, every waking moment until finally it broke me and I required hospitalization. Without alcohol for the first time since puberty, the demons of my past — the traumas and the failures and the unrelenting shame — descended upon me like a band of flying monkeys. I had a choice: I could either surrender to them once and for all or fight back against the fear.

To this day, I’m not sure where the inner resolve came from — from what hidden cavity of my heart I managed to extract the willingness to seek healing and recovery. Now sober for over fourteen years, with the help of peer support and consistent mental healthcare, I can recognize the courage it took to put down the drink. I honor the brave, tortured soul I used to be, and by doing so I honor the person I am today, one whose heart, a day at a time, remains willing to do the work.

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The fear still visits me today. It can suck me up suddenly into a cyclone of irrationality, hopelessness, and shame. But I have the spiritual and mental tools to weather the storm. This might sound odd, but often I can find peace by mentally wandering down the trail into my past, stopping periodically to crouch down and examine the shattered fragments of past fears, the ones I was so sure at the time would destroy me, but in the end were merely phantoms. One now-shattered fear may have arisen as recently as last week, like the morning I spent ruminating over what I feared was an unsolvable problem in my marriage, one I felt certain would result in abandonment. But after a heart-to-heart with my husband, instead of an acrimonious divorce came a deeper intimacy than either of us had thought was possible. Or it could have been a fear that visited me last year, on the afternoon I traveled to Virginia to visit my dying father, afraid I would fail to properly be there for the man from whom I had been for years mostly estranged. I soon found I was able to console him during his darkest hour and make his last conscious day a happy one.

I wander this trail of shattered fears to remind myself of one very important truth: everything passes. Whether it’s fear, loneliness, grief, shame, or a desire to pick up a drink — it always, always passes. When I take the time to reflect on the big, bad fears that failed to cut short my journey on this long and winding path of recovery, I remind myself that I’ve made it through 100% of my bad days, and will continue to do so.

I can handle what the future holds.

And so can you.

Ben Appel is a nonfiction writing MFA student at Washington University in St. Louis. Read his work at benappelwrites.com and follow him on Medium @benappel.