The pandemic forced this mom to face her alcohol abuse. Here’s how she got sober

This story discusses substance abuse and dependency. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or substance abuse, please call SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357), text TALK to 741741, or visit Smart Recovery for additional tools and support.

Cate, a Massachusetts mom of two, can still recall one of the many mornings when she would wake up painfully hungover, too nauseous to move, let alone parent.

She says she would throw $100 at her mom and beg her to "keep the kids away from me."

"I was just so sick all the time," Cate, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family's privacy, tells TODAY.com. "Thank God for my mom, because I was just too hungover to deal."

Working in the restaurant and service industry, Cate, 31, says she has always been a heavy social drinker. It wasn't uncommon for her to fight through another "morning after" as she made breakfast, took her children to school or shuttled them to yet another weekend activity.

"I would be sick and hungover and dying on a bench, not truly present with my children," she says. "I was physically with my children, but I wasn't mentally, emotionally or spiritually present as a mother."

After the COVID-19 pandemic cost Cate her restaurant job and pushed her into lockdown with her mom and two kids, her drinking increased.

"I felt overwhelmed. We were all home together and we were all struggling," she says. "I couldn't handle it, so I just drank ... there were no rules."

"Everybody was drinking"

As the months went by, Cate started drinking more frequently and earlier in the day, sometimes pouring herself a cocktail at 10:00 in the morning.

“Everybody was drinking,” Cate says. “Every mom I talked to — everybody around me was doing the same thing.”

Studies show alcohol consumption increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among women like Cate.

From 2019 to 2020, alcohol-related deaths among women ages 35 to 44 increased by 42%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Jillian Murano, a licensed clinical alcohol and drug counselor, says that after the pandemic destroyed people’s normal “structure and routine” their “mental health was impacted,” causing an increase in alcohol use.

“It happened so quickly and unexpectedly, and there were so many unknowns that we couldn’t plan or predict that caused a lot of anxiety,” Murano tells TODAY.com.

“So people started self-medicating, and unfortunately if people did reach out for help there wasn’t enough resources.”

'I just drank about it'

Cate says she "always used alcohol" as a way to cope with the difficulties of life.

"I got married very young and had my first son when I was 21," Cate says. "I was a stay-at-home mom, relying on my ex-husband's income and pregnant with my second when he went away for three weeks, met a girl and never came home. I was seven months pregnant.

"Instead of dealing with the emotional pain, I dove into the bottom of a bottle," she adds. "I didn't have any resources. I didn't go to therapy. I just drank about it."

While there are multiple factors that can increase the risk of substance abuse — including genetic and environmental factors —studies also show that trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues can also increase the risk of alcohol and drug abuse and dependency.

"When you have traumatic experiences, like abuse or neglect, where you don't feel like you can connect with people in a safe way, what's your alternative?" Deena Patel, a licensed clinical social worker specializing in trauma and addiction, tells TODAY.com.

"One is the substance. About 90% people I work with who have a substance use disorder or process addiction have trauma."

Always able to hold down a job and parent her two children, Cate didn't consider her drinking to be a problem despite how often she was imbibing or hungover.

"Alcohol was just 'normal.' It was part of everything," she says. "I always blamed everything else but alcohol for my problems."

Patel says one of the common misunderstandings about substance abuse and dependency is that "people are at rock bottom or not functioning."

"Most people are highly functional," Patel tells TODAY.com. "There's this idea of someone's life in disarray, when actually people sometimes are so good at masking it. They appear 'perfect,' but behind closed doors is when they're using or drinking too much."

'If you don't get help, you're going to die'

Cate says there was no stereotypical "rock bottom" moment she experienced that pushed her to ask for help and get sober. Instead, she experienced what she refers to as the "voice of a higher power."

"I heard this voice in my head go: 'You have to stop drinking,'" she says.

Without the aid of an addiction specialist, mental health expert or support group Cate says she went one month without drinking.

Then she relapsed.

"Something happened that I didn't know how to handle emotionally, so I turned to alcohol again," Cate says. "I took a drink in the middle of the day, then said to myself: 'That's OK, you don't have to do it again. You don't have to tell anybody about it.'

"Then I turned around and put down another shot," she adds. "I said: 'OK, that's it.' Then a guy called me and I was in an Irish bar with a scotch in my hand."

On March 28, 2021, Cate woke up and stared at the ceiling. She was supposed to go to a spin class, she says, but was too hungover to attend.

"Again, I heard this voice in my head that said: 'If you don't get help, you're going to die," Cate says. "I immediately looked up a 12-step recovery program in my area."

Studies show that the majority of people in substance abuse recovery will relapse at least once, if not multiple times over.

"Addiction is everywhere"

The stigma and societal shame of substance abuse and dependency, Murano says, can often add to a person's risk of relapse.

"People don't tell their families and they don't tell their friends because of the judgment connected to it," Murano says. "We need to continue to normalize that. People do have issues when it comes to substances, and that's OK. Now, let's get some help.

"There's this misconception that people can just stop," she adds. "Or that if they cared about their loved ones they'd stop. But it's a disease and addiction is everywhere, regardless of ethnicity, religion or socioeconomic status."

Cate says ending the stigma of substance abuse and dependency is why she wanted to share her story, especially because moms often don't feel like they can ask for help.

"We need people," she says. "When you find something in common with someone and you share a bond, you realize you're not alone."

Cate continues to attend substance abuse support meetings, and recently celebrated two years of sobriety. She says her relationship with her two children has improved, and that she has worked hard to "surround herself with mostly sober women."

She's still processing the shame of her addiction, adding that her "biggest shame surrounding this disease is the way it impacted my family and my children."

She also says she will always have to work to maintain a sober life.

"I got my one-year sobriety medallion and my mom said: 'OK, great, so you're done now, right? You're cured?'" Cate says.

"I said: 'No, as long as there is breath in my body I will need help."

This article was originally published on TODAY.com