Today, chef, president, and co-owner of The Sexy Chef, Barni Alejandro, is living her best life. In the last four years, she has written two cookbooks, taken up yoga, and even bought her first home with her husband. All of which she accomplished after taking on one of the biggest challenges of her life—quitting alcohol and staying sober after almost 19 years of trials and emotional hardships.
“When I was 18, I fell in love with a “bad boy,” Barni shares with FemaleNetwork.com. “He was heavily into drugs and was in and out of rehab during the seven long years we were together. Why did I stay in such a destructive relationship? I guess it had a lot to do with coming from a broken family and my struggle to find a sense of belonging.”
As a young woman battling her own demons, Barni admits she “allowed” her then-boyfriend to verbally and physically abuse her for many years. “I was too scared to be alone so I stayed with him, hoping that one day he would stop taking drugs. I made it my personal mission to help him get well, which was a big mistake.”
At 25, she finally decided to leave him once and for all. However, once she tried to break it off, things only took a turn for the worse. “He stalked me for a year and even threatened to kill me. He would call my mobile phone continuously and send me death threats. He even abducted me once from a friend’s house and beat me inside his car. On my 26th birthday, he came uninvited and slashed the tires of my car and tried to get into the house. There was also a time when he broke into my home in the middle of the night and strangled me. To make him stop, I had to promise to get back together with him."
Eventually, Barni decided to report him to the police and file charges against him. “The parents of my ex pleaded for me to drop the charges and promised they would send him away to another country.
"I agreed to their terms because I just wanted their son out of my life as soon as possible.”
It’s easy to assume that her problems would have ended then and there, but dealing with trauma can be a long and arduous process, especially for someone who has been a victim of abuse for many years. Unfortunately for Barni, her traumatic experiences pushed her to try and numb herself from all the pain. She found herself turning to alcohol as a way to cope with her thoughts and memories.
“I was in so much pain and feared for my own safety for so long that I started drinking every day to forget about all the abuse. Every day after work, I would drink myself to oblivion… It wasn’t unusual for me to finish an entire lapad of Tanduay with Coke Light in one sitting, or two bottles of wine by myself.
“I got so used to drinking every day that it became a full-blown addiction. I would drink whether I was happy, stressed or sad.”
In a country like the Philippines where it’s common to hear statements like “Bakit hindi mo kasi iniwan?” or “Ginusto mo naman ‘yan,” it can be very problematic for victims of abuse to seek the help and support they need to move on—especially because not everyone knows the extent of the difficulties they still need to face after such an ordeal. According to clinical psychologist and trauma specialist Rosy Benedicto, Ph.D., some people who experience distress related to their history of abuse develop mental health problems. And because of the trauma, “one of the main factors of those problems persisting over time is avoidance,” she says.
“Avoidance comes in many different forms, and one very common form is substance use, including drugs and alcohol.” She added that alcohol tends to be extremely common because of its accessibility—it’s affordable, socially acceptable, and you can find it anywhere. But it’s not just about the substance. People can avoid in lots of different ways. “Often times people try to escape their emotions, known as emotional avoidance, as a way to try and cope with their pain. This includes trying to suppress thoughts and feelings about their trauma or avoiding reminders of the trauma. This could lead to isolating oneself from others, having difficulties experiencing positive feelings or excessive use of drugs, alcohol or even food.”
As your own experience will probably remind you, when you’re in a lot of pain, you’ll do anything to try and get rid of it, which is why alcohol can be very appealing to a troubled mind. “Alcohol is very reinforcing because of its short term effects. In the short term, it fixes the problem—it numbs emotional pain and temporarily distracts you from your problems.”
But when exactly does turning to alcohol for comfort become an addiction?
Simply put, the same way that abusive relationships don’t just develop in an instant, the complications brought about by alcohol consumption build up over time. “One (drink) here and there isn’t a problem, (but) then tolerance builds up, and you start to drink more to have the same effect,” says Dr. Benedicto.“Excessive alcohol use can also worsen mental health problems over time and make it harder to cope with stress and trauma memories.”
True enough, for Barni, her relationship with alcohol led to a cycle of self-inflicted pain, but it also slowly started affecting her relationships and even her work. “Whenever I got drunk, I would turn into a complete monster. My friends and relatives nicknamed my evil alter ego Bernadette, or the 'Kraken.' I became both physically and verbally abusive towards others. I would slap people, curse them, break things, and not remember any of my horrible actions the next day.
“In 2009, my fiancé broke off our engagement just a few months before our wedding because of my uncontrollable anger and destructive behavior."
I also lost a few friends because I would drunk-text and fight them… I would get into car accidents, fall flat on my face on the street, sprain my ankle… and make a complete fool out of myself in public. There was even a time when I woke up with pieces of broken glass stuck in my feet and had no recollection how they got there.
“Every morning after a night of binge drinking, I would wake up with extreme anxiety because I couldn’t remember anything like how I got home or if I had hit or fought anyone. My blackouts became more rampant and this scared the hell out of me. I would curl myself into a ball and cry for an entire day. This meant missing many days of work, which resulted to a huge overall salary deduction. I had to move out of my condo because I couldn’t afford to pay the rent anymore.
“No matter how many times I promised myself and my loved ones that I would stop drinking, I kept failing. I felt like a loser and I was so ashamed. I felt like a complete fraud too, since I co-owned The Sexy Chef, a health food delivery business. Here I was promoting a wholesome lifestyle but the truth was, I was drinking myself to death.
“When I eventually got married, I wanted to get pregnant right away because I knew it was the only thing that would make me stop drinking. Luckily, I was right. For nine whole months, I didn’t drink a single drop of alcohol. But after my daughter was born, it wasn’t long until I started drinking two bottles of wine every night before going to bed again.
“My final wake-up call was when my husband told me that I kept insisting on carrying my then 11-month old daughter while I was completely intoxicated. He had also taken a picture of me passed out while I was bottle-feeding my baby girl on the bed. My daughter could have choked and died while I was unconscious. When he showed me the photo, I broke down and felt so ashamed. That’s when I knew enough was enough. I still cry every time I think about what could have happened if my husband wasn’t there to protect my daughter from me.
“I saw an AA counselor a couple more times, and on December 11, 2013, before my daughter turned a year old, I decided to stop drinking once and for all and it was the best decision I’ve ever made.”
It’s of course important to note that alcohol is a physical addiction, too. Dr. Benedicto warns that if you’re drinking a lot of alcohol, and it’s heavy use, it’s not recommended to just stop drinking on your own.
“It’s different for everyone, but if you’re drinking heavily and frequently for a long period of time, and then you suddenly stop drinking, you could experience life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. It can be very dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms for alcohol can be one of the worst, so you need to detox properly.
“If you do try and cut back on your own and you start noticing some significant withdrawal symptoms, it’s important to seek medical attention right away.”
But Dr. Benedicto notes that if someone is deciding to stop on their own without coming from very heavy use, and they’re able to wean themselves off of it, then what’s important is to start identifying when and where the cravings happen. “The craving to drink in the beginning can be very strong… It’s very situational. You’re going to start to crave things if you’re in the same environment where you usually drink.” This is why committing to a lifestyle change is important, as well as developing a strong sense of self-awareness. According to Dr. Benedicto, “the most important part is identifying and understanding what your triggers are, both external and internal. External triggers include people, places and things that make you crave alcohol, while internal triggers refer to feelings, thoughts or emotions you associated with alcohol use.”
For Barni, the first step was to stop seeing friends who partied and drank to resist temptation. And while some friends supported her decision, she describes how overcoming her addiction was not an easy process. She even shares that in the beginning of her recovery, she felt like a boring person missing out on all the fun. But sticking to her commitment, she decided to go out and try something new.
“I joined the gym and discovered my love for yoga. Exercise is proven to increase endorphins and reduce feelings of depression and anxiety. It also makes me feel strong, sexy and attractive,” she says.
Dr. Benedicto supports that exercise is a good addition to your routine if you’re a recovering alcoholic because it helps to add things to your life that are inconsistent with drinking. These could help alleviate stress and are believed to help reduce cravings.
“When I stopped drinking, I lost five pounds instantly,” shares the sexy chef. “I was very happy about that! Haha! Instead of drinking before bedtime, I would watch my favorite TV series to help me relax and go to sleep.”
She also adds that she couldn’t have done it without her strong support system, and that her family truly motivates her to stay on the right path. "Whenever I feel tempted to give up my sobriety, especially after a bad day at work, I remind myself that I’m only ever one drink away from ruining my marriage, friendships and my entire career. One look at my daughter’s beautiful face and I know in my heart that it’s my duty to be the best mom to her. She is worth every ounce of effort to maintain a clean and sober life."
Today, Barni says that her marriage is in a great place. "[My husband] is now very proud of all my achievements and praises me for being an amazing mom to Arya. It took him a few years to finally trust me and let go of past resentments."
"Trust takes time to build and I understood that."
When asked about what piece of advice she can give those who are currently struggling with their own recovery, Barni stresses the importance of finding new hobbies and participating in fun activities. It may sound simple, but as Dr. Benedicto says, "sometimes it can be very challenging to identify and change behaviors that lead to problematic alcohol use. But there are effective behavioral treatments available that can help you on the road to recovery.”
"For me, recovery is not just about “not drinking” anymore...," says Barni. "Sobriety means being present physically, mentally and emotionally during good times and bad. It’s normal to be sad, scared and stressed every now and then. The worst thing anyone can do is try to escape one’s pain by self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. If you feel depressed, my advice is to seek professional help and talk to your family and friends. Numbing yourself is never the answer. By facing challenges head on, you become a stronger and more resilient person."