She Struggled With Alcohol Abuse. Now This Sailor Wants to End the Stigma of Seeking Help.

Theresa Carpenter, The War Horse
Theresa Carpenter in her Navy dress white uniform
Theresa Carpenter in her dress whites

When I became an officer, I dreamed of telling the Navy’s story aboard an aircraft carrier. In July 2017, I was at the pinnacle of my public affairs naval career. I was in charge of a media department, working along with 25 sailors aboard an aircraft carrier, one of the Navy’s largest vessels. My unit took part in an international exercise in India, and I planned and executed the communication campaign—the largest event I had managed in a decade.

The exercise had received international press attention, and even the then-president of the United States, Donald Trump, was talking about it. On the evening of the opening day of the exercise, I attended a cocktail reception on an Indian Navy warship along with diplomats from the State Department, commanding officers from all the navies involved, and many other high-ranking military officers.

The evening should have been one of the most memorable and enjoyable evenings of my 25-year military career. Instead, I nearly destroyed it because I couldn’t control my drinking.

My feelings of inadequacy began early in my childhood. I was adopted one month after I was born and grew up in Clintonville, Ohio, in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. My life seemed perfect on the outside, as I enjoyed a comfortable Catholic school upbringing, but at home, I never felt like I belonged.

My brother was four years older, and, to me, he was bulletproof and possessed everything I wanted. He was funny, naturally smart, and always had many friends who hung on his every word. Most importantly, it seemed to me that nobody told him what to do. I wanted to be just like him and to have him accept me. Instead, he teased me mercilessly, and I never felt his love.

Later on, in grade school, some girls picked up on my lack of confidence. They would only be friendly to me in secret. Like animals that prey on the weak, the “popular” girls made my life hell, and I left grade school crying most days. All I wanted was to be accepted, to be liked, and to feel valued. Instead, I felt like I did around my brother and his friends: I was ashamed of myself, and I thought there was something wrong with me.

My parents tried to help build my confidence, but I don’t think they understood how. My mother and I argued constantly because we both have strong personalities. As early as I can remember, I resented authority figures.

My parents also saw that I lacked impulse control and had poor boundaries. They took me to a doctor, who diagnosed me with attention deficit disorder, but the medication they prescribed only numbed my pain, my inner loathing. I continued to feel like I wasn’t smart or beautiful. As a result, when I made a close friend, I would cling to them for validation. I would get jealous and angry if they tried to walk away from the friendship because I had no sense of self within to rest upon.

At age nine, I discovered alcohol. My best friend at the time stole a six-pack of wine coolers from her mom’s basement. That day, sitting in the darkness under the stairs, we drank. The alcohol helped relieve my inner loathing. I inhaled three wine coolers while my friend finished one.

I remember puking in her bathtub. My girlfriend was shocked at my behavior. “I’m worried about your future,” I remember her saying, “about how people will one day take advantage of you when you’re like this.” But I felt amazing as the pain inside went away for a few hours.

I started to associate alcohol with an ability to block out the crippling insecurity that I struggled with every day. My insecurities disappeared when I was drunk. My friends and acquaintances told me I was fun when I drank.

But even as I recognized how good I felt when I drank, it never occurred to me that I used alcohol to escape pain or my self-doubts. I had an entitled attitude and a rebellious streak, and I glamorized partying.

As a little kid, I didn’t have access to alcohol routinely, so I didn’t develop a habit until I was 14—when I started sneaking out at night. I was that kid—the one getting my girlfriends in trouble. But pushing limits gave me a high that I continued to chase into my 20s and even after my divorce in my 30s.

I’m sure “divorce” comes as no surprise. No matter how hard I tried, because I had no boundaries, I could not maintain a healthy intimate relationship. Once again, I thought I could find myself in an outside source: I thought a man would give me the love I so desperately craved. I continued to cling to whichever poor friend would put up with me.

At 19, I joined the Navy as a way to make money and travel. Because I had no impulse control, I had horrible spending habits. I racked up $2,500 in credit card bills and student loans, and I needed to find a way to support myself. Depending on my parents was untenable.

The Navy was a way out of the city, a way to make money, and a way to figure out my life.

Enlisting turned out to be the best decision I made as a young adult. Through the Navy’s training, I met people who had goals, who were kind and emotionally healthy. I wanted what they had, to achieve rank and be successful. I observed that if I worked hard, I could push through my insecurities and learn new skills.

The achievements became like alcohol. When I earned a qualification or advanced to the next military rank, I felt validated, appreciated. The high from each success would temporarily numb the insecurities. Then, I would ease up on the drinking for a period of time, and I would use accomplishments to feel good instead.

While I routinely achieved my goals, however, I still did not understand the complexities of maintaining healthy boundaries with others, nor did success completely curb my attitude toward drinking. With goals, like working toward a master’s degree, I could stop drinking for months, or even years. But it never stopped being an escape, and I always glamorized it. I still glamorized alcohol and the associated partying as being fun and helping me to gain acceptance by others. In groups where I could not at least get a decent buzz going, the dark thoughts from my childhood returned. My insecurities took over: Who would want to date me? I’m not smart. People don’t want to talk to me. This harmful self-talk plagued me in group settings, causing me to drink heavily to block out that negative voice.

In 2014, I was arrested for driving under the influence. It wasn’t enough. Rather than quit drinking, I simply stopped driving when I drank.

Around the time I attended that reception overseas, I had worked enough on myself to start my first healthy relationship. But my deployment to India separated us. That evening, feeling alone on a foreign warship and unaccepted as a sober person, I decided to get drunk. After several drinks, I blacked out.

I woke up hours later in my quarters. I still wore my uniform, and puke ran down my chest. I don’t know what I said or did that night. According to those who were present, I acted fine. I believe (but still don’t know for sure) that a commanding officer from another ship assigned to my unit made sure I returned back to my ship safely.

I already have a DUI on my record, I remember thinking. If this blackout goes out publicly, there will be no second chances. To save my career, I scheduled an appointment with the unit’s drug and alcohol program adviser.

As I talked with the Navy chief who ran the program, I broke down crying. I finally admitted I could not control my drinking. For the first time, I made no excuses. That day, I told my commanding and executive officers everything that led up to me getting drunk. I felt so humiliated and ashamed. But to my surprise, instead of berating me, they offered me support and understanding. We agreed that I would not consume alcohol again on deployment, and when we returned, I would enter an intensive alcohol treatment program offered by the Navy.

That treatment saved my military career and my life. The counselor pointed out my entitlement and my many years of playing a victim, and we examined what blocked me from being my authentic self in group settings. It was then that I realized that everyone feels weird and has insecurities, especially in group settings.

After the treatment, I would never see alcohol the same way again. It’s no longer glamorous or fun.

But I have learned there will be days that I feel inadequate. As long as I recognize it, I know I can cope. I do not need to turn to alcohol, unhealthy relationships, or achievement to relieve those feelings.

Life is not perfect today, and I still have moments of self-doubt. I don’t abstain from alcohol, but because I have learned what caused me to abuse it, it no longer has the allure it once held. Now I can recognize when I do something compulsively by assessing the triggering feeling inside and reflecting, which then leads to wiser outcomes.

In the military, there are resources to help those who are struggling. I hope that I can help lift the stigma on seeking treatment for addiction and help others understand that, no matter what rank one holds, help exists. It could save your life.

It saved mine.

Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.

Theresa Carpenter is an active-duty Navy commander with 25 years of service, including 10 years as an enlisted aviation electrician on the S-3B Viking aircraft. Upon her commissioning in 2006, she became a surface warfare officer and was subsequently accepted into the public affairs community in 2008. She’s deployed three times to combat zones. Her programs across numerous commands have resulted in 18 Navy awards for public affairs excellence. She is a joint qualified officer and holds two master’s degrees, one from San Diego State University in mass communications and media studies, and the other in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College. In her off time, she is a blogger and host of the Stories of Service podcast (SOS), which highlights ordinary people from all walks of life who show up in service to their communities.

Posted on BrainLine February 4, 2022.