Addiction therapist says fear is defining trait of alcoholics
CHAMPAIGN — For Veronica Valli, life was once a round of binge drinking, drugs and denial.
It wasn't until after she sobered up at age 27 that she learned why she drank — and what she has come to believe is the defining characteristic of being an alcoholic — fear.
Fear of people, fear of what people think, fear of loneliness, fear of not reaching her potential, fear of pain, fear of making the right decision, fear, according to Valli, of everything, anything and nothing.
"I had a default setting of fear and anxiety and not feeling good enough," she recalls.
A 41-year-old Champaign mother, author and addictions therapist, Valli hails from the U.K. and came to the United States four years ago. She wrote about her personal struggles with alcoholism and how alcoholics think, feel and behave in a book titled "Why You Drink and How to Stop: Journey to Freedom."
Valli describes herself during her binge-drinking years as one of the many alcoholics who didn't fit the stereotype. She held the basics of life together on the outside, she said, but was falling apart on the inside.
Her drinking started when she was 14, Valli said, and she discovered alcohol made her feel fun and normal.
"It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin," she says.
Valli also became a user of street drugs, but quit them when a doctor prescribed Valium for her, and that became her new addiction, she said.
During her 20s, she recalls using some kind of substance every day and binge-drinking four days a week, Thursday through Sunday. She would spend the early part of the week following each binge feeling terrible, then come Thursday, she would start drinking all over again.
Still, she got through college with a degree in women's studies and held jobs during those years, she says.
When she was 27, an inner, falling apart, suicidal Veronica caught up with her, and she couldn't do it any more, Valli says. She met a woman doing volunteer work who referred her to a self-help group for substance abusers.
"I quit the drink, and I quit the prescription drugs after," she said.
Valli remembers she didn't identify with other alcoholics at first, since she had escaped physical addiction and some other bad things that happened to fellow abusers. But when she heard someone speak about drinking and fear, she came to a new understanding.
Alcohol and drugs had been her solution to the fear she had felt all her life, she said.
She got some therapy, and later went back to school to become an addiction therapist in her late 20s.
Progress in sobriety is lifelong, Valli says, but even after the first year of being sober, she felt "so much better."
"Alcohol didn't seem attractive to me anymore," she said.
She looked back and realized she didn't really have fun when she drank, that she had friends she didn't like because she was more concerned about them liking her, and that she used to say yes sometimes when she really wanted to say no.
Now 14 years sober, she has learned alcoholism isn't really regarded as the disease that it is, and she urges society to reconsider.
"We treat it as a moral failing, a character defeat," she said.
That attitude fosters an attitude of shame and keeping an alcohol problem hidden rather than encouraging people to seek help, she says.
Valli has also come to believe children need to be taught "the language of emotion" and how to deal with their feelings appropriately if they're going to have the best chance of avoiding abusive coping behaviors such as drinking, drugs, overeating, even shopping too much.
"So many of us walk around with a feeling of emptiness, a feeling of being lost," she said.
Valli says she paid a high price for her self-knowledge, but it wound up being her pathway to freedom. And it's led her to a life beyond her dreams.
Valli came to the Champaign after she met her future husband, San Francisco native Robert Valli, on Match.com, and he later got a teaching job at the University of Illinois. They now have a 2-year-old son.
As part of her advocacy work, Valli hosted the film "The Anonymous People," a documentary about Americans living in long-term recovery from alcohol and other drugs, at the Art Theater in Champaign earlier this week.
Seats were sold out, she said, but she hopes to bring the film back again in the fall so more people will have an opportunity to see it.
What Veronica Valli learned on her journey to recovery:
Thinking you might have a substance abuse problem means you probably do. People who don't have a problem just don't think about it.
If you think you need help for a substance abuse problem, tell someone you trust. "Silence equals death."
When we're not true to ourselves, we suffer pain and inner death. Drinking is an expression of what's going on inside us.
Recovery begins the minute you put down your last drink.