New York – I was raised in a culture (and a family) where drinking is normal and encouraged. It is simply what people do and never questioned. Drinking is also viewed as a measure of one’s courage and strength, a sort of drinking machismo. The more alcohol you can ingest and the better you are at “holding your liquor,” the braver you are. I quickly internalized this message and felt proud when, at the age of 19, I could drink more than my father without collapsing or getting ill. I would notice how much my father drank, made a mental note of it, and strive to have one more drink than he did, all while trying my best to ‘act normal.’
I began drinking when I was 16. I drank with my family in social occasions and with my friends when we went out. This was the norm in Mexico, where I grew up. Sixteen-year-olds go out to lounges to drink, dance and talk with their friends. Then they drive home because at that age, many kids have cars already. I didn’t but some of my friends did. There was nothing unusual about this; it was completely acceptable in that society. I graduated with the best GPA of my class and did not drink excessively until later.
By the time I left home, at 18, and was in college, my drinking had increased. It was typical for most college students to drink a lot and I never saw it as problematic. I would visit my parents in Juarez every Sunday and drink with them, then drive across the border back to my apartment in El Paso, Texas. These are adjacent towns that form one continuous big city, merely divided by the international bridge, so driving back and forth between the two countries is simple, the way one would go from Queens to Manhattan, for example.
I remember when I was 19, I showed up at home for my sister’s 15th birthday quite intoxicated, yet continued to drink wine with my parents. When my father noticed the entire bottle was gone, he got upset and told me I would not be drinking any more at the restaurant. Once there though, he was feeling loving and happy, so he hugged me, gave me a kiss and ordered me a Campari.
In college, I drank frequently and greatly enjoyed it. I felt grown up, sophisticated and intellectual, especially when in bars with my professors and graduate student friends, who invariably drank less than I did. I used to drink tequila like it was water and felt proud of this, attributing my ‘ability’ to being Mexican.
I remember my college graduation in this way: Thousands of students in their black caps and gowns smiling, laughing and looking elated to be finally done with school. But I felt sad to leave my university behind because I was so happy there, full of possibilities, freedom and knowledge. And surrounded by amazing professors, mentors and friends. I successfully held back the tears and acted like the others.
At my graduation dinner, the most important guest for me was my psychology professor and advisor, with whom I had worked closely and gotten to know well since my second day in college. I felt honored he had chosen to attend my celebration among all the parties of his others graduating students. His wife was also there as were another professor I highly esteemed and a judge I had interned for in my last year of school. Of course my friends and family were also present.
We were in a beautiful Italian bistro and Zayra, one of my best friends, sat next to me, and she didn’t drink alcohol. I decided this was lucky for me because nobody would notice if I drank for two people. The waiter kept refilling both our glasses and bringing more and more bottles of wine to the table. I drank Zayra’s wine glass and mine each time they were refilled.
I drank bottles of wine that night and didn’t have any food. I was so young then and full of life and was generally known to have an extravagant character, so nobody paid attention to how much I actually drank or found it strange. I was too inebriated to drive and Zayra drove my red Dodge Ram to my apartment, where my parents also went in their own car for an “after party.” We had more drinks. I was conscious and remember the night relatively well and as a happy occasion.
I describe these events to give a glimpse into what drinking was like for me growing up. It wasn’t a forbidden activity I did to be rebellious, or something my parents disapproved of, but the opposite. They viewed it as a pleasurable social activity.
The years passed and I was living in New York as a Columbia law student. Every week there were several events with alcohol at the school. Some of them started at noon. If they were at noon, beer was served. If they were later, wine. If they were fancy, of which there was never a short supply given this is an Ivy League school and one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the country, there were premium liquors and expensive wines. By then, I was in my early twenties and highly addicted to alcohol and the drinking lifestyle.
I drank excessively throughout law school. It is to me a complete miracle that I managed to graduate with good grades, pass the bar exam on the first attempt, and get hired by a top Wall Street firm all while my brain was soaked in alcohol.
I spent many of my law school days sick in bed from too much drink. I was depressed. I was expecting to love law school as I did college, but I did not like it at all. I found the people shallow and materialistic. I spent the majority of my time away from it, reading literature and exploring New York City, the museums, the opera, and of course, the bars and restaurants. I didn’t think much of my drinking because as of then, every person in my life drank and encouraged me to do the same.
Lawyers have the highest rate of alcoholism of any profession and when a new attorney is admitted to the New York State Bar (no pun intended), we are required to sit for a 3 hour lecture at the courthouse to be warned about the perils of alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide. Apparently we are also on top of the list for suicides in the US. At this session, they told us there is a 24-hour hotline for lawyers who feel they want to end their lives or have lost control of their alcohol or drug consumption.
The big New York law firms, which have frequent recruiting events at the top tier schools, supply unlimited alcohol to students, and later, to young associates. I went to so many parties in the best restaurants and bars in Manhattan that were hosted by these firms so we could ‘get to know’ the associates and partners and consider going to work for them. I remember long nights at Flute, drinking champagne with these lawyers, wine parties held at the firms’ offices, and tequila tastings at Centrico, an upscale Mexican restaurant in Tribeca that featured 500-dollar tequila bottles.
I hated all of it: the pretension, the environment, and the law, but loved the alcohol. I remember my two best friends and I, two guys I had also gone to college with in Texas, going straight for the bar in these events and sneaking around the room to avoid having conversations with the lawyers, who all looked pretty miserable to us. If they came our way, we walked in the opposite direction. We drank and laughed and rarely talked to them.
It seemed this was the life we were to aspire to. Once we became associates, absurdly expensive lunches and dinners at Chanterelle and Nobu were the norm and we were paid very well. At 26, I had two secretaries, was making $165,000 plus bonus and had an office overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. This was it. After all the waitressing, telephone operator, tutor, hotel clerk, and room service jobs I’d had in college, I was finally at the ‘ultimate’ job.
I was doing well at my firm and was generally liked and respected. But I felt utterly miserable. I became obsessed with the idea that I was selling my time and intellect, and in general, my life, in exchange for a lot of money earned doing things I believed were wrong. And so, a year and a half after getting this impressive job, I quit. The partner I informed of my resignation was in shock. Nobody does this. He told me to take 3 months off, paid, and think about it. All I wanted was freedom. Three months meant more than 36,000 dollars. Still, I said no. I was sure I wanted out.
I felt happy and free and as if my life force returned when I left. But the drinking habit stayed and became more and more destructive. I worked at many jobs since then, traveled the world, had good and bad relationships, but I could never control my drinking, no matter how hard I tried. I could drink huge amounts. My tolerance was high and many of my nights were spent out drinking. And many of my days wasted feeling sick and exhausted.
The Unbearable Void
I believe I drank because I had no higher purpose and no true belief in God. I felt a huge emptiness that I didn’t know how to fill. The material aspirations of others did not interest me much. I could not relate to them and accomplishing financial and career goals did not seem worthwhile enough to sell my time in exchange. I had relationships, which also failed to fill this void. I was not spiritual then. I believed in being a good person (to others) and in the general existence of a Creator; not much else.
My life outlook was small and quite self-centered. I loved writing and literature but I could not write; my mind and energy were scattered and I didn’t see the point of anything. If the ultimate goal in life was a great job like the one I had gotten and left, I was simply not interested and now, now what?
I had so much energy and didn’t know what to do with it. All my life I have been blessed with large amounts of emotional and physical energy, which, if misdirected or not channeled into creative or artistic outlets can get me into colossal types of troubles.
My drinking was out of control and I felt anxious when I did not drink. I wanted to stop. I did therapy, twelve-step groups, read self-help and spiritual books constantly, but it all remained external to me, beautiful words that elevated me briefly, but did not produce any change. No matter how many I read, I always thought the next book I discovered would be “it,” the one that would cure me of my ailments.
Years went by like this. Trying to quit drinking, but not managing to. I attempted to stop a number of times too large to remember. My mother, by then concerned about it, would warn me I would damage my liver, remind me that I had lost an uncle to cirrhosis –he was a brilliant and wonderful human being–, that my grandfather, another extremely intelligent man, and a writer, was also an alcoholic who died an alcoholic, and that I was ‘on time’ because I was young and still had my health. I wanted to. I really did. And I tried with all my might. But I could not stop.
I didn’t know the reason for this until recently. I could not quit no matter how much I tried because very little is accomplished through will power alone. I vividly remember Dr. Sultan’s voice telling me these words, and I remember the café and the table I was sitting at while talking with him on the phone. We were discussing something else. At this time, the drinking demon had already left me. But I understood how it happened only then.
What Dr. Sultan said exactly (I wrote it down) was this: “Prayer is our conversation with God, what you ask, He will give you. If you want expansion, or want purpose, you should ask God. Very little is accomplished with will power. Prophet Muhammad achieved so much success in his life through prayer.” This was a revelation to me. So this was why fighting with myself and attempting to control my behavior on my own had never worked.
The idea of prayer, God, or anything to do with religion, was something I previously rejected because I viewed it as dogma and a series of man-made rules and restrictions meant to control and oppress people. I still view certain approaches to religion this way. However, the power of true spirituality is so enormous that there is no force like it on the planet. I have experienced this personally and it is not imaginary; it is very real. The divine energy that creates life, what we call God, is the only thing that can truly help us and heal us from any and all diseases. The fact that I am writing this is astonishing even to myself.
Back to how my drinking was cured: It happened in a miraculous way. When I became Muslim, I began to pray, fasted in Ramadan, and all the usual. I felt better when I stopped drinking during Ramadan but then, I would go back to the bars right after Eid, usually with my North African Muslim friends.
The deep and permanent change happened when I began to attend the Quran Discussions that Dr. Sultan leads. When I met him, he gave me the impression of being an authentic teacher who had personally experienced the transformative power of true spirituality and who lived by his teachings, which come from the wisdom in the Quran.
He spoke in a logical way, was down to earth and an incredibly practical person, a scientist. I decided to trust him completely. When I had doubts on any subject about what would be the best thing for me to do, I trusted his judgment because I did not yet trust my own. (His advice and teachings always lead a student to develop self-trust and be able to think and decide for herself, never to obey anybody else, but trusting oneself takes time).
I did every exercise Dr. Sultan recommended. I spent most of my free time reading, taking notes and making my own summaries of these teachings and of the suras of the Quran we were discussing. I surrounded myself with people who are interested in spiritual growth. I attended every single meeting Dr. Sultan had in Manhattan and in Long Island.
I have never missed one in over eight months, thank God. This is not typical of me. I have trouble being consistent and have struggled with discipline all my life. This guidance, magical discipline and healing, are nothing but the Grace and Mercy of God. The Quran says of those who are lost that “when they find guidance they do not hold on to it” (7:146). I found guidance and, thanks to God’s Mercy, I’ve held on to it.
I have met many Muslims who struggle with addiction, and feel so ashamed because drinking is ‘haram’ in Islam, so they do not seek help. I wanted to share this story because of that. Only love and acceptance can help a person heal. Shaming does the opposite. God, through active spiritual work, can heal us of all sorts of things and in the most magical of ways. And God is acceptance and unconditional love.
I believe there is nothing positive, modern or sophisticated about drinking. There is deep wisdom in Islam deeming alcohol to be ‘haram’. But only if you understand why it is haram. It is haram because it is destructive, not because some sheikh demonizes the ‘Western’ way of life, or because the alcohol in and of itself is evil or because of an ‘archaic’ Islamic prohibition.
Anybody who has struggled with addiction would agree that drinking is haram. It is a waste of life. It is a waste of all our precious talents and faculties. This is why it is haram. It is poison that we are ingesting. Some people can drink a glass of wine with dinner, and for them, wine is food; this is different. For others, alcohol is a dark, false solace that drains our life force away. There are endless worthwhile pursuits we can invest our time and energy in instead of this.
As if by magic, I feel no desire to drink. It is not a struggle. I am not controlling myself in any way nor do I feel afraid of alcohol. I simply cannot understand how I lived as I once did. I value my time, my faculties, and my life enormously and it seems repulsive to throw them away in drinking as if they were garbage. Drowning in alcohol appears to me now an insult to myself and to God.
How to explain that after all these years, the demon of alcohol addiction left me suddenly, one day, like magic? I can only explain it as a miracle from God, a strength that is not mine. It had nothing to do with discipline, will power or struggle. I prayed for guidance and healing and God sent them to me. The desire for alcohol simply vanished. Completely. I see this past life as if it belonged to somebody else, because it did and I am infinitely grateful.
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