HUDSON, Wis. - For Angie Payden, recovery is like a game of Jenga, strengthened by individual pieces such as Alcoholics Anonymous, religion, family, friends and more. If she loses one piece, the whole structure could come crashing down.
The fragility of sobriety is something Payden knows well. She went through recovery several times after struggling with alcohol abuse for years. In August, she'll be four years sober.
"This is my last recovery," she said.
A dormant disease
Payden's problems with alcohol didn't start with the first sip, like many of the stories go. She made it through her teenage and young adult years without issues. It wasn't until she was 38 that her drinking got out of control. A mother of teenagers and a business owner, Payden started feeling stressed.
"I wasn't happy with my life in general," she said."'Nothing brought me pleasure."
As the stress worsened, Payden started to drink more and more on the weekends or while out with friends.
"I felt a lot better," she said.
She soon realized she could feel better all the time, not just on weekends. So she started drinking on Thursdays, and then Mondays, and on and on.
"It wasn't long before I was drinking every day," she said.
At first, the drinking wasn't impairing her life. But soon she began to experience the consequences.
Over the next several years, Payden went to the hospital for alcohol poisoning 20 times, spent nights in jail, closed her business and became alienated from her family.
During this time, Payden would have periods of sobriety. She followed a cycle of drinking too much, going to recovery or jail, sobering up and then drinking again.
"I could never reprogram my brain," Payden said.
The recoveries never hit home for her. The programs simply told her that she had to stop drinking, but didn't tell her how to cope in place of it.
"All that told me was I was a bad person," she said.
In 2011, while out of recovery again, Payden was arrested for driving under the influence with her child in the car. After this offense, she spent a month in inpatient care before spending an additional three months in a sober house.
A year-and-a-half after the arrest, she seemed to be doing better. She was sober, she had a good job at Wells Fargo and her family was letting her back into their lives.
"The problem was I still wasn't happy," she said. "I was just going through the motions."
But the job proved to be a new source of stress. She began having panic attacks. During one of these attacks, she looked down at a bottle of hand sanitizer and realized it had alcohol in it.
"I took that bottle and I pumped it into the back of my throat," she said.
Her panic attack stopped immediately. Soon she was abusing again, drinking a bottle of hand sanitizer a day and even clipping her fingertips to soak them in it. She lost her job and her family again.
In 2013, she drank a bottle of rubbing alcohol with Xanax in an attempt to kill herself. After the attempt she was checked into the Mayo Clinic inpatient program for recovery. Though it was the sixth center visit for Payden, this time was different.
Her last recovery
Mayo Clinic focused on her mental illness, the cause of the problem first, and her addiction second. They gave her education on her addiction, helping her to understand it was not a choice but a disease, one that is incurable, but manageable.
"I finally got it," Payden said. "I had so much hope. And I am still full of so much hope."
She finally found what worked for her. Now, Payden's life focuses on using her experiences to give hope to those who are still struggling. She volunteers in several community programs, including Healthier Together, Alcoholics Anonymous, Allina Health Systems, National Alliance on Mental Illness, the St. Croix County Jail and Hudson Hospital Programs for Change. She is also working to get her teaching certification in mindful based stress reduction.
"Wherever I can I'm trying to get out there and help as many people as I can," she said.
Alcoholism affects everyone in the community, Payden said, from the addict to those around them.
Communities need to start treating alcoholism and mental illness seriously, Payden said. "We need as a community to come together and rally," she said, "and make sure that people who are suffering get the help that they need."