Finding My Space: How One Spaceflight Writer Sobered Up
At the beginning of 2020, I was riding high on a wave of success in my field: spaceflight advocacy. My Facebook group had thousands of members, my space blog was one of the most read in the industry, and I’d even forged friendships with some of NASA’s most legendary astronauts. As part of my work, I participate in a lot of public events and do a lot of speaking, so my calendar was already booked by late January. I was looking forward to a never-ending time of sipping wine with friends and colleagues, talking space. However, by March of that year it was all too apparent that no one, in fact, would be sipping wine alongside friends and colleagues.
So I decided, however unconsciously, to do all of the sipping by myself.
I had a previous history with alcoholism. I’d been a huge partier since my teen years, and by the time I was 23, I’d already been through outpatient treatment during my time in the U.S. Navy for alcohol abuse. I’d had short periods of sobriety, but I didn’t take it seriously; I often would “treat myself” mixed drinks, or wine. Fast forward nearly 20 years later, and I’d resumed drinking with gusto. I believed I was not an alcoholic, and that I just “socially” enjoyed drinking, even though several less-than-flattering images of me existed at events where I’d imbibed way too much. I’d been though some traumatic events in previous years, the worst being a couple of incidences of sexual assault from someone in the spaceflight community who I believed was a friend. But I believed there was no connection between that trauma and the drinking I often did at night, when my husband, Steve, was usually at work. I now realize the trauma from those assaults was the catalyst in causing me to resume drinking.
By March 2020 my world — scratch that, everyone’s world — collapsed as the seriousness of the pandemic took hold. By mid-month, my phone was inundated with piercing emergency alerts to “shelter in place” and quarantine. All events in the space community were (very understandably) canceled. My worst nightmares of an apocalyptic, dystopian future seemed to become reality overnight as friends started to fall ill, some seriously, with COVID-19 and other illnesses. On March 18, my world further collapsed when a close friend died after a short illness. I began to wonder if I’d be the next one to become seriously ill, or even die. Anxiety started to weigh on my chest, as heavy as a small elephant, whenever I tried to lie down at night. I didn’t sleep. I decided all these awful events were a great excuse to drink. A lot.
The summer was a blur, and I remember often showing up to my day job hungover, or still drunk from the night before, valiantly trying to cover it up with perfume and breath mints. You read that right — I had driven a car to my job (my then job did not allow work from home) in that condition multiple times. By the time I’d get home, I’d “decontaminate” myself by showering and changing clothes. Most nights, I’d also “decontaminate” my insides by downing a bottle of cheap wine I’d bought at a nearby Target. Despite the pandemic, I lived such a large part of my life at that point in a drunken bubble that I wasn’t unhappy. I was numb enough to believe I was doing perfectly fine despite, well, everything.
The fall brought no improvements. Another close friend died, this time very suddenly; grief became the rule, and not the exception. The political situation in the United States was also a constant stressor. Whenever I opened any form of social media on my phone, I couldn’t escape fiery arguments between friends. Professionally though, things weren’t bad. I’d started work on a new spaceflight podcast, and our show was garnering great reviews and feedback. But I would still lie down with that elephant sitting on my chest every night. By mid-November, the other shoe dropped when my husband was laid off from his radio job, another statistic of the COVID-19 economy.
I am embarrassed to admit this now, because this really had little to do with me at all, but the loss of his job made me go into full breakdown mode. I was terrified we wouldn’t be able to keep up with our bills, and of course, I was devastated for him. So that night, I got fall-down drunk. And I did the next night, too. In fact, I don’t even remember the next night, because I went into a blackout. The day was November 20, 2020.
I do have one hazy memory from that particular bender before I passed out. My husband confronted me over my drinking: “You are an alcoholic, Emily. You can’t have one drink. You have to have ten drinks.” The next morning, I awakened with a nasty headache, and immediately was flooded with that now-familiar sense of shame I felt “the morning after.” Steve was still asleep. I looked at him, and my mind replayed his words from the night before, slightly gauzy due to my drunken state, but unmistakable. I decided then and there that enough was enough. I didn’t drink that night. Or the night after. Or the night after. I’ve been sober ever since.
While I don’t claim that confrontation or an intervention is necessarily the best way to get someone to sober up, it worked on me — the thought of losing my long, generally happy marriage to an addiction was unbearable. The first few months weren’t easy and there were temptations everywhere, from the wine glasses that passed by me on trays at Italian restaurants to the headlines on the news. I would see glasses of wine and immediately have a fear response, and my heart would start racing: oh my God, the glasses are just within reach of me. I’m only a five ounce gulp away from relapsing. I really wanted to drink on January 6th, for example, when the Capitol building was breached. You’re always aware that your sobriety might not stick, and you might have to start over from square one, ashamed, embarrassed, broke, and alone. But I am very lucky to have a wide network of supportive family and friends, who I’ve made aware of my newfound sobriety, and my constant vigilance.
Another amazing thing that has happened since I sobered up is how I’ve developed as a person. I feel my brain has changed into something very different from what it was eleven months ago. I used to be enormously angry and petty, and constantly was thinking of ways I’d been slighted at work, in the space community, etc. — just ridiculous stuff. Within a month of sobering up, those thoughts all but vanished, and I began to truly understand how alcohol had me in its grip. It was enlightening and terrifying, all at the same time.
Now I’m enjoying the most success I’ve ever had in my writing and speaking career. While life isn’t perfect (alas, no one’s life is ever perfect), the changes and happiness I’ve experienced within the last year — and the validation — has confirmed that my sobriety is something I’ll fight for each day. Some of the astronauts I’ve interviewed during my career have admitted to their fears. Some admitted they approached their launch vehicles with some trepidation, well aware their rocket rides to space could end in disaster. In my case, I’ll always approach the holiday party season with a similar trepidation. But to quote the late, great astronaut Bruce McCandless II: Onward.
Thanks to Rebecca Siegel and Steven Carney for their help with this piece.