Voices of Recovery: Nicole Jackson

Times graphic designer/farm hand, gave up drinking.

Nicole Jackson says the routine of working with horses helped in her recovery. — Courtesy Nicole Jackson

I used to come here during the summer for family vacations, and then in college I decided I didn’t want to go home and live with my parents. On summer breaks, I came here with my friends, and continued to finish school in Boston. Then I moved here full-time after I finished college [in 2009]. It’s just one of those things where I summered here and never left — like a lot of people.

I didn’t start drinking until I was 21, pretty much didn’t stop. I drank just about every day until I got sober [on July 6, 2018]. A lot of people start drinking earlier. I can’t say I never had a sip of alcohol until I was 21. I wasn’t much of a drinker. I was wrapped up in sports in high school, and then in college being in art school.

I moved here year-round and drank what I thought was a normal amount, because I didn’t know any different. I was almost naive about that fact until I would go off-Island to visit family and friends at home, and I was really surprised they didn’t drink a bottle of wine every night. It was weird to me that they didn’t drink every day.

My patterns did shift slowly, and there were times I definitely would drink more — as anyone would when things are hard, or you’re trying to cope with something. I had my father pass away. He committed suicide. I drank a lot. That’s what I did to survive — that was my coping skill. I was thankful to have alcohol.

There was a time when I was taken aside at 7 in the morning, and the person said, ‘You smell like booze,’ and I thought, If I can’t stop drinking in the morning, ruh-roh. I can’t stop drinking altogether, but I can stop drinking before work. These were little shifts I made to better myself.

I’m very fortunate that I didn’t hurt anyone around me too badly; nothing really bad came from it. There were periods where I drank a lot for three years, and then I slowed down a bit. Things come up in life that you’re more engaged in. I was drinking less, but still every day. So the things I would drink kind of shifted. I went through a huge wine phase, and then did liquor for a while. I didn’t like liquor very much.

Over time I started drinking less and less, which is odd because usually you have a timeline with people who drink alcohol that up until they [get sober], they drink a lot, and then say, ‘Oh God, I’m done with this.’ I had a therapist I was seeing, and I still see her now. She taught me harm reduction rather than absolutes. I latched onto that idea. I said, ‘Oh, my therapist is telling me I can still drink?’ OK! I like this. I would try to drink less. There were days I would get … hammered, and I would say, Don’t drive. If you’re going to do this, don’t choose things that are going to hurt yourself or the people around you.

Slowly, my drinking started to minimize. I didn’t drink much before I finally quit, but I had been drinking so long I always had alcohol in my system. I just got drunk really quick. There was always that baseline of having alcohol in my blood.

It’s all fun when you’re partying at Sharky’s in the summer, but then one day you look up and you realize it’s February and I’m alone, but you’re still sitting on that same barstool, in the same bar. You’re thinking, Where did all my friends go? You become accustomed to the fun and the culture around it in the summertime.

I didn’t really like drinking once I stopped. I’m a bit of a control freak and a perfectionist, so it’s wonderful that I already know what’s going on. I really like being present and knowing what’s going on. I like being able to assess any situation. That’s my anxiety. I’m a very anxious person. That’s not necessarily a good thing. That’s what I like about being sober. I like being present.

I don’t really like going out, which is something I discovered. I don’t like being social at all. So I would kind of go out because I liked to drink. That was fun. I can, and I do it. But I don’t enjoy it. I feel thankful that I don’t feel triggered when other people are drinking or talking about alcohol. There are times when people offer me a drink, and I feel proud and confident to say, ‘No thank you.’ That feels good. It really does.

I went to a lot of AA meetings when I first got sober, mostly because I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was free, and it was something to do. I had not developed any hobbies. My hobby was drinking. So this gigantic part of my life is missing — what do I do with myself? I would be home, pacing and driving around a lot. So I went to AA. But I didn’t respond too well to anything in particular there, so eventually I stopped going. As many people who drink and overdo it — there’s a drinking community here, but there are just as many people who are sober. So I never feel alone.

Working at the horse farm really changed my life. I got sober shortly after that. I tried having both. I had no experience with horses. I was working every day at 7 am. I made it work, but it was really hard. Having that structure and routine and accountability every morning at a job you don’t know how to do was really hard. That film, “On Island,” for some reason it sparked my interest — the guys climbing the trees. You have to pay attention because you’re going to get hurt. So to do something really challenging that scared me … Try handling a 1,000-pound horse when you’re hung over, you’ll get hurt if you’re not careful. I fell in love with working at the farm. The routine of it. This very simple lifestyle.

Be gentle with yourself. It’s not black and white. Just be aware of the fact that you’re drinking too much, and tuck that in the back of your head. Stew on it. What can I do? What can I do today? Today I’m not going to drink liquor … Maybe you feel better in the morning. Maybe you stop drinking, and then start again. Be OK with the fact that you’re going to mess up. Be kind to yourself. Honestly, I could go home and drink tonight. It’s not the end of the world. Some people treat sobriety like it’s this prized possession, and I can understand why that’s a huge motivator, but for me it’s not as important. I like my sobriety, and it feels cool to be sober that long, but it’s not the end of the world.

Also, be safe. I feel thankful that I never hurt anyone. I had a lot of close calls. I don’t talk about all the bad things that happened. I do look back and think about some of the fun things I did. I have some pretty funny stories. I don’t want to tell these awful stories, I want to tell stories about the time I fell asleep in my party dress after the Taste of the Vineyard on the toilet at the Rare Duck.

There are definitely things I’m embarrassed about. Don’t we all. I kind of knew it wouldn’t always last forever. I never tried to stop before. I would cut back on things because of how they would make me feel or how fast I got drunk. I would say, ‘I don’t want to get drunk this fast any more.’

I have mentally replaced alcohol with ice cream. This is something special for me at the end of the day. Doesn’t matter what it is. Just a reward at the end of the day. Alcohol was that reward for so long … ice cream milkshakes are something to look forward to at the end of the day.

Interview by George Brennan.