Few television shows have rocked me to my very core like This Is Us. It was time for season 2 to come to a close, because I was well beyond ready for a reprieve from my weekly weeping fits. While I was still drinking 4 litres of wine a day, my what-should-be-passing-tears turned into torrential Niagara Falls-esque sobbing for hours, forgetting entirely that I was even watching a tv show. My drunken tears would start flowing and I’d get washed away with my tsunami-strength sobs each week, ending up beached on a desert island of my deepest regrets every time.

I was a very, very sad drunk.

The storyline of the episode never mattered. There would always be tears. Lots of them.

There should really be a disclaimer at the beginning of that show, like when they say “contains violence, coarse language and adult themes” – a little “don’t ever watch this when you’re drunk unless you want to jump down the rabbit hole of your already unbalanced emotions” could be useful. Not like I would’ve listened. I loved the raw pain of it all.

“This Is Us” is like a gateway drug. It looks like an innocent drama on the surface, but in truth it’s a door to the Narnia of Emotions, a dangerous land where everyone is ugly crying and tissues are required and as abundant as oxygen. It’s bad (good?) enough sober. Watching it drunk, though? That’s like unwrapping the Golden Ticket and getting a private jet to every painful memory you’ve ever hoarded in your boarded up little heart.

The last thing a drunk person needs is more drama, but I chugged this show like cheap wine each week because it allowed me to wallow and feel all the feels.

It gave me permission to be broken and scared and sad and still clinging to once-upon-a-time’s and never-to-be-fulfilled-happily-ever-afters. It gave me the much needed reminder that despite everything that’s left behind, I am still alive and time relentlessly keeps moving on.

This Is Us was never just about the Pearsons. It was always about you and me, too. The cumulative, we-are-all-in-this-together form of “us”. And don’t worry, my blog is not turning into the TV Guide or Entertainment Weekly. All of this is just so I can get to that one scene that heart-wrenchingly kicked me in my core and knocked all the wind out of me once and for all.

I wasn’t prepared for my soul-strings to be pulled so strongly during Kate & Toby’s wedding reception scene. (*Spoiler alert). You know – the one where Kevin calls on his family, after years of holding their breath after Jack’s death, to finally just exhale.

To let it all out.

“If you don’t allow yourself to grieve Dad’s death, it will be like taking a giant breath in and just holding it there for the rest of your life.” He then asks each Pearson to take that deep breath and let go. In a beautiful, quiet sequence, we watch them inhale and exhale, one by one.

(Video should start at around 10:35, at the scene I’m talking about…)

I died. Like, seriously. Dead. Gone. I couldn’t even deal.

Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.
– Jamie Anderson

I’ve talked a lot about how I like to think of this recovery journey as “getting rid of alcohol” instead of “giving it up”. It’s the difference between kicking out an abusive partner, and losing the love of your life in an accident. The first brings freedom, the latter brings loss. Despite what I told myself, I downed my last and final drink ever and held it down beneath the biggest breath I could muster. I said I was getting rid of alcohol, but I wasn’t quite ready to let it all go just yet.

And that was me, the Professional Breath Holder. 

I held my breath when my Dad fell sick. When I quit my well paying job to become a photographer. When I came out of the closet. When my marriage nearly fell apart. When I chose to go to rehab. When I left for rehab. When I relapsed. When I got sick. When friendships dissolved. When half of my family passed away like dominoes. When I had to walk my sister down the aisle on her wedding day because my Dad was rushed to the hospital the evening before. When my Dad died 2 weeks later. When I ceremoniously brought that last glass of wine to my lips.

In, in, in…holding it all in like I could keep it there, safe in my lungs, safe from exhaling and being gone forever. Safe from it all escaping like ten thousand butterflies in a windstorm.

That’s how the first few weeks of being alcohol free felt, as though I was holding my breath and just hoping to get through it. That one day, I’d reach a point where I could finally exhale and say that I’ve made it – but I learned that there is no making it. There’s no destination. It’s about the journey through the highs and lows, the cravings and withdrawal, the struggles and successes. It’s in the overcoming big moments of heartbreak and celebrating tiny times of triumph.

It’s the thousands of little in-and-out breaths that keep you alive, not the terrified and tense deep breath you try and hold in forever.

The longer I continued drinking, the closer to suffocating I became. Wine, somehow, helped me keep all those deep breaths held down. It allowed me to get to a deep-sea-diver-scuba-guru-level of holding my breath for so long I was on the verge of drowning.

And just like diving, it took a long, slow exhale to safely, and finally, rise back to the surface where I could breathe normally again.

I started writing this post at 3am, because my sleep patterns are still as messed up as Lindsay Lohan’s career. At around 5am, an email popped into my inbox announcing James Bay’s new single, “Us”.

It couldn’t be more beautiful or more perfectly timed (I don’t believe in coincidences):

Sometimes I’m beaten
Sometimes I’m broke
‘Cause sometimes this is nothing but smoke
Is there a secret?
Is there a code?
Can we make it better?
‘Cause I’m losing hope

Tell me how to be in this world
Tell me how to breathe in and feel no hurt
Tell me how ’cause I believe in something
I believe in us

– James Bay, “Us”

Tell me how to breathe in and feel no hurt.

Well, James, it hurts the most when the air has nowhere to go. When you’re full. When you’ve been holding it all in for so long you’re now stretched to the gills and ready to burst.

Breathing in finally stops hurting once you’ve made room for fresh air.

Written by SJ VanDee

Recovery Blogger. Sober AF. Photographer. Storyteller. Writer.


  1. OH my… I weep at this program every time. I so enjoy your posts.I agree with Barb Besteni. Everyone of your posts is like listening in the mirror. Much gratitude to U🙏

    Liked by 1 person

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