Up until four years ago, Celeste Chong could not imagine life without alcohol.
Her formula for life then was simple: “All I knew was drinking and getting s**t done.”
An avid clubber since she was 19, Celeste co-founded the iconic club Butter Factory at age 26, along with three other friends. The party venue located at One Fullerton shuttered in 2015 after nearly a decade.
The go-getter then went on to join global beauty company L’Oreal before heading up the marketing department for co-working space The Great Room. At the same time, she started a theatre and events company, Bite Me Productions.
But through all her achievements, the one constant was her battle with alcohol addiction and anxiety, which her work and lifestyle helped to hide.
From ‘Kraken’ to Zen
It’s hard to believe the youthful-looking 41-year-old used to be called “The Kraken” by her friends.
The jarring nickname was coined for the hardcore partygoer-turned-entrepreneur due to her signature joyous cackle.
“I’ve always been that loud and obnoxious person, that’s how I probably was to others,” shared Celeste. She offered an apology to friends and strangers she had “terrorised” all those years ago.
But little did people know that her party girl persona only served as a cover for her deep feelings of social awkwardness and discomfort. She turned to alcohol to numb her anxiety, but it gradually began to consume her.
“I found it very hard to interact with people without alcohol, because I was never comfortable in my own skin.
“I never understood why my friends, girls especially at the time, would sit around and talk about their feelings. I just thought, ‘Why can’t you just suck it up and get on with it’.
“I was someone who full-on bought into this hustle culture and wore it as a badge of honour,” she added.
Making a living out of her partying lifestyle also meant that in her world, it was easier to mask her problems with alcohol.
She disclosed: “Close friends could definitely tell my drinking was not normal, I was perpetually drunk.”
But as she was a “high-functioning alcoholic” who still managed to get things done, her condition flew under the radar.
“It was very easy for me to hide all this because I was in a club, and that was my work scene.”
Describing herself as a “blackout drunk”, there were countless days when Celeste woke up at home and could not recall how she got there or what had happened the night before.
However, she considers herself blessed that nothing untoward had ever happened to her during those times. “I mean, I’m surprised I’m still alive,” she replied with a hint of incredulity.
“I think the universe has always put people in my life who were looking out for me, let’s just put it this way.”
But according to Celeste, each drunken episode would trigger “a cycle of shame, guilt and self-hatred” the next morning.
“‘What is wrong with me, why can’t I be normal?’, that was always the kind of self-talk that I had in my head,” she shared.
Her solution, however, was to wash those negative feelings away with yet another round of drinks.
Addiction to distraction
In hindsight, Celeste recognised that her alcohol dependency was, at its core, an “addiction to distraction”.
It may come in the form of drugs, food, or even sex for others, but for Celeste, “mine just so happened to be alcohol”.
She also found herself lacking a toolkit for dealing with life.
“Alcohol was my crutch for everything. I didn’t know how to ‘adult’ and how to live my life without drinking.”
Her near-20-year addiction came to an abrupt halt one day, when even the thought of drinking wasn’t enough to alleviate her anxiety. That was when Celeste knew she needed help.
Celeste distinctly remembers her last drink to be on Jan 19, 2017, as she began her journey to sobriety and enrolled herself in a recovery programme.
However, her inner turmoil only deepened further.
“At 37, my life as I knew it was suddenly ripped apart.
“I was extremely uncomfortable and I had nothing to take the edge off. There was always the temptation to pick up a drink but by that point, even the thought of it was not giving me any relief.
“For once, I could not fix the situation, and I’m a fixer by nature.”
Wracked with pain and desperation one morning, Celeste literally fell on her knees in tears, begging for help.
Despite not being a religious person, she pleaded for someone or something to “help me, because I really cannot”.
That “first moment of surrender” was the turning point in her journey to recovery as she felt “the voices and constant obsession” disappear.
It was a breakup from a boyfriend she experienced in 2018, however, which Celeste believes truly “shook things up” from within.
With her senses awakened and no tools to blunt her pain, her anxiety bubbled over.
She began obsessing over her health and any physical symptom she experienced would “spiral into this irrational fear” that could last for weeks or months.
The search for a cure for her anxiety eventually led her on an inward journey of self discovery and holistic wellness.
Celeste became trained in the BodyTalk System, an alternative form of therapy, and in the process, stumbled upon sound healing. She also worked with a coach on dealing with her emotions.
“A lot goes into maintaining my sanity and serenity,” joked Celeste with a laugh.
But a big part of her healing involved making peace with her dad.
“With my father, I always carried my own expectations of him. So I was very resentful for certain things that I felt he could have done better,” said Celeste.
She asked him out for a little tete-a-tete, where she handed to him a notebook expressing her feelings.
“It wasn’t about blaming him or anything. I think it was purely about acknowledging how I probably made him feel and saying sorry for making him worry.
“I must have said ‘I love you’ also lah,” added Celeste, despite the awkwardness due to the non-expressive relationship she has with her parents.
As they walked back together to the MRT station, another breakthrough was when her father placed his arm around her shoulders and told her how she made him “very happy” that day.
Celeste ended up bawling her eyes out after she got home.
“For the first time, I cried so much in my life like I never cried before, like it all came gushing out.”
Living life for the first time
As Celeste progressed on her intensive inward journey and “coming home to self”, she felt her life shifting and expanding.
“For 20 years, my world was very small. Literally all I did was drink and work.
“I would say that for the first time, I was living. I finally found a zest for life, or like a curiosity,” said Celeste, who learnt how to cycle just three years ago.
“I did a lot of things for the first time, like running my first 10km and boxing, when I was never into sports. I tried surfing and even ziplining when I have a fear of heights.”
Her current mindset of living life with courage stems from a belief that “there’s really no growth without discomfort”.
“It’s so funny, because I always thought once I stopped drinking, like, that’s it. I didn’t know what would happen to my life, because I did everything with my drink.
“And today, honestly, I do everything but drink.”
Trading hip hop beats for gongs and singing bowls
Another irony? For someone who’s always been self-conscious of her voice, she now uses it to soothe and calm others.
“I have close friends that tell me they find it very weird to hear my guided meditations, because the voice doesn’t match their memory of me,” she laughed.
She conducts meditative sound baths as part of The Inside Job, a holistic wellness company she founded in 2020.
“I was somebody that was scared of public speaking and I couldn’t use my voice. Now I’m facilitating workshops. It’s something I couldn’t imagine was possible just four years ago,” said Celeste.
It hit her recently how she’s come full circle in her life’s journey and found purpose in music — this time in a very different way.
“With Butter Factory, it was about creating this world where you escape to disconnect from the stressors of life.
“But today, I can use sound and music, minus the alcohol, to help people connect back to themselves.”
This article was first published in AsiaOne.