After U.S. Army service, woman faces battle with alcoholism

Military women face risk of adverse mental health effects

By Andrea Torres - Digital Reporter/Producer

More than 1,000 military women have experienced combat-related injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan and a study shows about 40 percent of them will be diagnosed with a mental health condition.

MIAMI - Maria S. shoulders still hurt. Her back was sore. She had spent a week and five days in bed at her apartment in Kendall. There were two empty bottles of vodka on her nightstand. Her garbage can was full of beer bottles. Those were the first ones she drank when the binge drinking started. 

The other bottles were in garbage bags by the door. Suicidal ideations were torturing her when she was awake. When she was sleeping, she said, the nightmares wouldn't leave her. Every now and then, in her dreams, she was able to hear herself screaming in terror, so she was trying not to fall asleep. 

Her brother intervened. She said it had been months since she had returned from Afghanistan. Her body was back, but her mind wasn't. She had suffered from depression before she started serving in the U.S. Army, but it was never this bad. 

"Don't get me wrong, I was no Saint, I partied, but I was healthy. I got depressed after breakups and losing a job, but I was always working out. I did Crossfit. I was fine," she said. "This obsession with drinking started just then. I was afraid of everything. I can see how it escalated."

Maria S. said her brother took her to her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in December 2017. Her brother had been sober for about three years. She stopped drinking within a week and hasn't drank since. She also sees a psychologist and a psychiatrist to deal with depression and anxiety.

According to the National Institute of Health about 88,000 Americans die annually from alcohol-related causes. Military women -- especially those with combat-related injuries -- are at a higher risk of suffering a mental health condition. Some misuse alcohol to cope. 

Maria S. said she wasn't diagnosed with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, but a study of women who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom found 12 percent of female service members suffered with PTSD. 

"I just want others to know that there is help out there. I felt really alone in my apartment. I felt like no one cared and there wasn't a solution for me. Like I was just f--- up and that was that," she said. "I was wrong. Alcoholics Anonymous taught me I was wrong and I needed to just be willing to admit that I was powerless and needed help."

Maria S. said she hated listening to people at AA meetings at first, but she just attended regularly anyway. Eventually, she said, she started to find commonalities with others in the meetings. Some of them were single moms, others were men with criminal records and grandfathers with careers.

"Peer reviewed studies peg the success rate of AA somewhere between five and 10 percent," writes Dr. Lance Dodes, a former professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "About one of every 15 people who enter these programs is able to become and stay sober."

Maria S. said she goes to a meeting every two days and partnered with another group member with more time to guide her through the 12 steps. She said the AA program is working for her. She donates $1 every time she goes to a meeting and also participates in online meetings. 

A report published by Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly in July analyzed a survey on online groups, websites and smartphone applications. About 40 percent of the alcoholics in recovery reported being involved with an online recovery method.The evidence also suggested individuals in early recovery benefit from using them when the risk of returning to substance misuse remains high. 

"In person or online, I realized we were all very different people with very different experiences, but we were all suffering from the same disease of alcoholism. Look, it's a label I am not proud of. No one knows, except for my brother, that I am an alcoholic, but that is not what matters," she said. "What matters is that I no longer feel like killing myself or ... drinking myself to death."

HOW TO GET HELP

The Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans has Women Veterans Program Managers who are ready to help around the country. 

The Miami VA Healthcare System's Women's Health Care Program has Michelle Zielenski at the Bruce W. Carter VA Medical Center. She can be reached at 305-575-7263 or at michelle.zielenski@va.gov.

For more information, call the Department of Veterans Affairs Center for Women Veterans at 202-273-6193. 

For more information about AA women's meetings visit this site, or to find an AA meeting close to you in Miami-Dade visit this site or in Broward visit this site.

MESSAGE FROM FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS

LOCAL 10 NEWS FILE | Former U.S Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs

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