I Became an Empty Nest Alcoholic My Journey Through Recovery

Empty nest syndrome may not be a clinical diagnosis, but it is a real situation that many parents with grown children experience. You may feel lost, empty, and depressed when your children leave home, and it’s normal to struggle with the transition. But if the feelings persist and you try to manage them with alcohol, it can lead to a serious drinking problem. Reach out for help and professional treatment if your sadness is overwhelming and you can’t stop drinking.

My story of developing an alcohol use disorder is all too common. Many parents struggle when their kids leave home, but some of us fare worse and turn to unhealthy coping strategies. Mine was alcohol, and while I am not alone in this, too few people get the help they need for recovery.

I’m lucky to have supportive friends and understanding adult children who helped me in rehab and have stuck by me now that I am firmly in recovery.

Empty Nest Syndrome Is Real

As a divorced mother with growing children, I did worry about what life would be like when they left for college and then had their own homes. My life had been largely for my kids. I did have other things, like my job, friends and a running group, but nothing compared to having my kids around me.

When my youngest left, the house just felt quiet. I felt empty and lost. I thought I did everything right to cope with this transition: spent time with friends, kept exercising regularly, and even signed up for more races to do with running buddies. I got involved with some extra projects at work to take up more of my time, too.

But I still couldn’t shake the feeling of loss. I was used to noise and activity in the house. I almost felt like I was grieving; it felt a little bit like when I went through my divorce. I faced the loss of something that, although necessary, was painful.=

I now know, thanks to treatment and therapy, that empty nest syndrome is a real phenomenon. It’s not a clinical diagnosis, but some parents feel much worse than others and cope poorly when the children leave the home. Had I known about this at the time, I might have reached out for help through therapy sessions or counseling, but instead I comforted myself with a glass or two of wine every night.

A Glass of Wine Turned Into a Bottle – I Became an Empty Nest Alcoholic

At first, drinking just seemed like an innocent way to unwind after work. It was a way to unwind and a reward for a job well done raising my kids and seeing them all into college. I reasoned that now that this big responsibility was done, I could enjoy a nightly glass of wine. The problem was that my real motivation was to numb the pain I felt at facing an empty nest.

There are many signs of having developed an alcohol use disorder: being unable to control drinking, trying to drink less but failing, craving alcohol, drinking in unsafe situations, developing a tolerance, and more. But one of the first things I realized that constituted a problem was my secret drinking.

My daughter came home one weekend to spend Saturday with me, and before she got there I hid my empty wine bottles under boxes in the recycling bin. Another week, I went out with friends for dinner. I had just one glass of wine with them, but when I got home I zoned out in front of the TV with a whole bottle. To other people it seemed like nothing had changed, but I drank a lot in secret.

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Why I Got Help and Sought Residential Treatment for Alcoholism

A couple of things then happened to push me to seek help and realize I was an empty nest alcoholic. One week, I spent every morning at work trying to get things done with a hangover. That Friday night, I started drinking myself to sleep when a friend stopped by for a surprise visit. Being drunk but thinking I could hide it, I answered the door.

I’m thankful every day that it wasn’t one of my kids who saw me that way. My friend knew right away that something wasn’t right. She admitted she had seen some signs at work that troubled her and decided to come over and check on me. Seeing my empty wine and vodka bottles and my drunken state on a Friday night, alone at home, through her eyes was powerful. I knew I needed help.

The hardest part was telling my kids, but they love me and supported my decision to go to rehab. My friend helped me find a great facility to go to for at least a month, with the option to extend if necessary, and I got a health leave from work.

Residential Care Led to a Surprising Diagnosis

In retrospect, I am not surprised at all. My intake team in rehab did a thorough mental health evaluation, which at first I thought was unnecessary. I knew I had a drinking problem and was willing to get help, but I wasn’t crazy. Turns out I had depression too.

Now I know how closely related depression is to substance use. With a depression diagnosis, so many of my poor choices make more sense. Thinking back on it now, I realize that I have always had some issues with depression, but never enough to stop me from functioning normally. But when my kids left home, it triggered the most severe episode I had ever had.

My treatment plan in rehab included therapy and medical care for depression as well as for substance use disorder. My therapist helped me realize how closely intertwined the drinking and depression were. Without getting this diagnosis, I would probably still be struggling and likely would have gone back to drinking as a way to cope. Addressing both issues in rehab was so important to my recovery.

Treatment Led Me to Recovery

Accepting that I needed treatment was the most important thing I could have done. For a while I believed recovery was possible alone. I thought I could stop drinking without any help, but that failed time after time. Detoxing was really tough, but once that ended I worked with the team at rehab to create my own, individualized treatment plan.

Therapy was the real turning point. My therapist worked with me to help me admit why I drank. She taught me new, healthier ways to cope with the sadness I felt at being an empty nester as well as my depression episodes. Group meetings with other people struggling with drinking allowed me to share my experiences and tell my story. Because I have always been athletic and active, I also got to learn how to exercise with a focus on using it to cope with negative feelings.

Another thing that really helped me in treatment was that the plan included involving my children. We did some family therapy sessions, and while at first I was concerned about burdening my kids with this problem, it helped me realize that it was our problem, as a family. And they were so open to supporting me, it made all the difference.

Now that I’m back home and an empty nester again, I feel much safer and happier. I feel strong in my recovery, but I also know there could be a slip. I keep up with therapy for depression, and when I need support or to talk, I turn to friends and sometimes my children. We are all stronger as a family now, and best of all I feel like I set good example for my kids.

Alta Mira offers comprehensive treatment for people struggling with drug and alcohol addiction as well as co-occurring mental health disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned Bay Area programs and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward lasting recovery.