This feels like one of the most important blogs I have ever written for myself, and it was sparked by a blog on Soberistas this week. The writer mentioned was that her drinking hadn’t really accelerated over the years perhaps for the reason she had been blessed by favourable life circumstances.
This resonated with me so loudly I have not been able to stop thinking about this and how it relates to me. And if this resonates with even one person then I will be glad I put it out there.
So, my drinking history (potted) is as follows. Started as a teen, covered up all the anxiety and social anxiety. Far too good a fit. Uni, was mostly AF, very moderate, early twenties experimented and did a lot of drinking – lager, which then became wine, whilst sticky pub floors turned into cocktail bars. But my outsides were no different to any other successful young journo I knew. We were all on the lash. At twenty-five I went to counselling and told the counsellor I thought I had a drink problem. He asked my how much I drank and I said generally half a bottle of wine, a couple of times a week. He laughed me out of the room.
At twenty-eight after a huge heartbreak I hit the bottle to drown my sorrows and then decided to try AA. This period of my life, aged twenty-eight to thirty, by the way, was the heaviest drinking. My regular, not nightly bottles of wine (but more regular than I wanted) did not fit with the old men I found there. The reasons I was drinking might have though. I was thirteenth-stepped by someone so I didn’t go back anyhow – I stopped drinking for a few weeks and then started again.
Then aged twenty-nine I found myself in a flat in Munich where I was working, drinking wine on my own one night, and thought ‘This can’t be normal’. In my early thirties I told a life coach I drank whatever mood I was in. I was drinking about two and a half bottles of wine a week (half a bottle twice a week and Saturday night was often a binge of a bottle and a half – then smoking, loathing and shame) and binged occasionally big time at parties, but actually I was a lot more moderate than when in my late twenties. My fear I think was based on the faulty off switch…literally sometimes not there. Thirties continued in this pattern.
At thirty-eight after my son was born this pattern continued…I told the doctor that I was concerned about my drinking and that I drank two and a half bottles of wine a week (still) and she told me that was too much and offered alcohol counselling. They asked me questions like did I have DT’s and was I drinking daily, asked if I had a social worker then suggested I moderate. At forty-two I went to Addaction and said I was concerned about my drinking and that I was drinking about two and a half bottles of wine a week (still). They asked me if I had DT’s, asked the units, asked if I had a social worker and suggested I moderate. It wasn’t accelerating, you see. I had hit this plateau, holding pattern.
All this time I knew I had a problem with alcohol. It is only now that I understand it causes me shame, anxiety and exacerbates the underlying anxiety. I now know that the fifteen years I was counting units obsessively is called ‘moderating’ (or attempting to…that bloody prison), the ‘never again’ conversations with myself, the bingeing at the weekends, failing to moderate.
I was in this holding pattern I would say from aged thirty to forty-three. It was affecting my mental health. Not one ‘expert’ asked me about how it felt, what was happening in my head. Why, even though I had been counting my units for a decade, nothing had changed, and why I was so concerned. And I couldn’t articulate it at the time. They didn’t ask why and I couldn’t explain why it had wound itself round situations, moods, feelings, in and out of days, weeks, months, years, like bindweed. Too significant. Too central.
They looked at units, intake and asked questions that just seemed to alienate me further because I wasn’t that bad. It was bad enough for me but I was not bad enough to fit into their box. And maybe I would never be…who knows? One alcohol counsellor said she would find it highly unlikely I would ever become chemically dependent on alcohol! SO???? Because I wasn’t drinking daily, because I was deemed ‘just over’ healthy limits of drinking, it ‘looked’ kind of manageable – I could just tweak it a bit apparently, because I wasn’t backing out, because I wasn’t missing work. Honest to god, it seems you have to set the bar so low before anyone takes you seriously about alcohol. Perhaps this has changed now? Who said, alcohol always gets a free pass?
I have said before, you literally cannot stumble upon sobriety until all the wheels have come off the wagon. But I was trying to give up all the time. My relationship with myself, my self-trust was being battered all the time because I’d fail to stick to the limits I was imposing upon myself, my relationship with alcohol, the long love affair was fucked… it was bad enough.
When I read the other blog this week, a light bulb went on. You see I always KNEW I had a problem with alcohol. Knew it just wasn’t a good fit. That drug didn’t suit me…doesn’t it sound so ridiculous when you say it like that? It was like it was there, waiting in the wings to become a fully blown addiction…but it wasn’t yet…I wasn’t drinking daily, or having blackouts generally…one or two a year perhaps but again it all looked ‘normal’. I lived with that fear for years. I feel that I have gone by the grace of god to be honest, if something awful or tragic had happened, my problem drinking/moderating/binge/moderate cycle could have tipped over into full-on dependency and addiction in the classically understood sense. Again, it might not have…it’s speculation…but all I know is that I have been living with the kernel of something for years.
To be honest if there were no consequences to drinking I’d have liked to be a bit drunk most of the time. It’s just that the circumstances weren’t right, thank god. And that I had high standards around other aspects of health which kept me straight; a good job, great friends, a great man despite the chaotic early twenties. I just think I had enough tent pegs to keep me from flying away. Also I think it could have been anything…I’d have liked to be a bit drunk a lot, because I suffer from anxiety and my nervous system seems to be wired in a particular sensitive way to be literally wired and ‘ON’ all the time. So it could have been Valium or doughnuts perhaps. I just chose a very easy, acceptable, expected, widely available, ‘normal’ drug as my medication.
This is why I am so passionate about talking about a spectrum of dependency, to open this conversation, a wider net to catch those, who like me didn’t fit into any care…not that bad wasn’t denial, it was just not bad enough to qualify for support for anyone given the models that I was aware of, to fit the boxes or the check lists… to actually have a conversation with me about sobriety…whilst I got more and more desperate.
Also, partly, it didn’t occur to me because of this society in which we normalise problem drinking. I even wrote a feature about this for a national newspaper years ago, anonymously questioning alcohol’s place in society. It is such a misconception and the stereotypes are SO unhelpful to many. Outsides and insides etc.
That’s why I hate rock bottom stories in the press, why I love to promote AF living as an amazing life choice because I feel so strongly you should not have to be at rock bottom, by yours or anyone else’s definition, before anyone suggests sobriety to you. You should not have to wait before your ‘life has become unmanageable’ till someone really listens. Thank god for Soberistas – it enabled me to access some support around this and to come to understand it. I could finally have all these conversations and get to grips with this miserable relationship…but I had nowhere to go before that.
I want to challenge alcohol’s central lauded position in society, I want to challenge the stereotypes, the labels – I mean, use them if they help you, that’s fine…but it’s wider than the accepted labels and I think slowly things are catching up – thanks to the anecdotal evidence all over the internet perhaps? I want people to know that alcohol is an addictive drug. I want choice around this, transparency, positive role models so people do not have get into a right state before booting the paint stripper out. For myself, I feel grateful I understand now that life without alcohol is so much better. And I thank Lucy Rocca and the women and men I have met on Soberistas for sharing their journeys from the bottom of my heart.
When I went to the first ever Soberistas meeting in 2013, when I had been AF for six months…it was so, so hard and it was still early days! When we were sharing our stories I spoke about about my units not looking much but it being about my relationship with alcohol being fucked up, and felt a fraud in a way, so strong were the stereotypes and conditioning around what alcohol problems looked like to me still. But people ‘got it’. I was so relieved to meet a group of women with similar stories, some who drank much, much more, and I don’t – not for one minute – want to trivialise how it must be if your drinking has literally taken over – and no judgment – this is a strong, addictive drug. But I firmly believe the problem is the drug, not the person.
Some of these wonderful women I have become such good friends with, they will always be my sisters. And people who have been vital to your sobriety, you have a special bond with right? Like war buddies. I am so relieved to have a tribe. I am so relieved I fit somewhere, that I can speak my truth and not be judged or undermined here. Even if our experiences differ there is space to work it all through. And we get that we are all dealing with alcohol problems and then getting on with the business of joyful, sober living, which is sometimes not joyful, but so much better than living with the lunatic.
If you are reading this and think ‘I’m not that bad,’ ask yourself…Is alcohol costing you more than money? Do you feel ashamed of yourself? Are you sick of hangovers? Do you just suspect somewhere that this is not just about having fun? Is it in any way impacting negatively on your life? Yes? Then you qualify for sobriety!!! It’s a fit! You need it! You do not have to wait till things get awful or worse to choose that path. Don’t wait. Don’t wait for a ‘rock bottom’ to give you the unerring proof – you will find the proof and piece it together on the journey, once you stop drinking. That gives you the clarity and space to understand it all. Read all you can, get to know the subject, debunk the myths, the stereotypes, use the language that works, explore the blogosphere for approaches that serve you. Get to grips with the fact you may have been neglecting your emotional self-care for years. Treat yourself like a child, one step at a time and do it! Please give it a go.
It’s such a relief to make all these connections now, join the dots, understand my shame response, the people pleasing, understand that if I drank again the supposed best case scenario is going back to ‘moderating’, which was exhausting and demoralising and exactly what I was trying to get away from all those times I sought help. But it’s taken three years to even get to this point! (Three great years, I hasten to add…)
And now I understand, that waiting in the wings is a far more sinister player, a response to alcohol that never changes. Is that me or is that alcohol? Who cares? Both? It’s a human response to an addictive drug. Chicken and egg. I’m fine without it, just not with it, so my money’s on the drug. And I might not be so lucky in future. Just because I’ve been able to pick it up and put it down in the past doesn’t mean I will be able to again. And even if I could, I choose not to. Sobriety is the safe path and the good friend. And alcohol is the enemy. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Let’s not forget.