I haven’t drunk alcohol since December 31st 2016. Actually, that’s not entirely truthful – in that time I’ve had a glass of red wine, a pint of lager shandy, and a pint of cider the evening K told me she was taking a year off and we needed to end our work. Still, considering how much I used to drink, this is incredible. Recently I have been questioning whether this is as beneficial for me as it was at the time I stopped. Am I deliberately excluding myself from social interactions and the thing most ‘normal’ people do to unwind, relax and connect with people? Is it limiting my ability to reach out and make new friendships? Am I being too ‘all or nothing’ in my approach? I’m often afraid I’m seen as boring and uptight by the people I work with because I don’t drink, which is ironic given my history with alcohol and drugs and raving and the fact I got off my head at least once a week from the age of 13 until I was 33. Following a couple of conversations with K in our past two sessions about relational triggers which I’m working through (and will blog about during this therapy break), I’ve come to the conclusion that sobriety is the right life for me, definitely for the foreseeable future. It is really important to me that new friendships aren’t built around getting blitzed together, and that they are authentic and not based upon me dissociating my way through any relational discomfort.
Alcohol was a huge part of my life for a really long time. Twenty years really. A huge and problematic part of my life, although the true extent of the issue was hidden by how normalised alcohol is in society. It is hard not to drink in a society where alcohol is the go-to for any celebration or loss, where it is associated with joy and sorrow in equal measure. Being sober is considered boring, repressed, dull. Not drinking makes someone uptight and unable to have fun. We are bombarded with advertising about alcohol and pubs enticing us in and telling us alcohol makes life worthwhile, makes life happen. We are indoctrinated from such a young age into thinking alcohol is normal, necessary, fun, and guaranteed to make us have a good time. Saying “I don’t drink” is so loaded, so difficult – we fear judgment and people do judge us for it. I know, because I used to be one of the judgers. I couldn’t understand how someone would choose not to drink, or choose not to get absolutely off their face at every opportunity – why would anyone go home when there was still drinking to be done?
I was never able to go out for one or two drinks and return home at a reasonable hour. I was always the drunkest, the last one to leave a party, the one who didn’t make it home on a night out and woke up in some random house with a thumping headache and no memory of what had happened to me. I would get blackout drunk on work nights, stumbling in at 2 or 3am, driving to work with my foot shaking over the accelerator six hours later, struggling through the work day and hoping desperately no one would notice what was wrong with me. I thought everyone drank like me. I thought everyone felt jittery on a night out unless they had a drink in their hand. I thought everyone got anxious when last orders were approaching and they weren’t drunk enough. I thought everyone struggled in social situations until they had the warm buzz of alcohol flowing through them. Turns out they don’t. Turns out many people can have far more of a take it or leave it attitude to drinking alcohol than I can.
I was 14 when I first had fears that I had “a problem” with alcohol. I’d been drunk many times before but it was that day I began to be concerned that I was “drinking for the wrong reasons”. It was a Sunday and I had been at a school play rehearsal in the morning. In the afternoon my friend and I went round to the house of a couple of much older guys (one I had recently lost my virginity to and the other I was completely obsessively ‘in love’ with) and I gave them money for wine so I could get drunk at 2pm because I didn’t know what else to do. I found social situations unnerving and wine gave me the ability to pretend I had confidence in myself. So I got wasted and tried to snog the guy I was crazy about even though earlier that day we’d agreed to just being friends, and then I had to go home to my Mum’s to pack my stuff because my Dad was coming to collect me for my week at his house.
Once at my Dad’s I felt so ashamed and humiliated. Yet again I’d behaved in a way I despised. I cried on him that I was getting a problem with alcohol because I just couldn’t be out anywhere without it. I’d already had three months off school the previous year because I was battling anorexia and bulimia, self-harming, and feeling desperate and suicidal. So, to help me not succumb to those old friends again, he let me have the day off school the next day to ‘sort my head out’. We never spoke about me and drinking again though. I know he was sometimes concerned by the amount I drank and how often, right up till I was 30 I know he was worried, but he never sat down and asked me why I needed to get so off my head so regularly. And he frequently turned a blind eye to my drinking and other risky behaviours when I was a teenager – I think a lot of the time because he wanted his own life and couldn’t be bothered with the hassle of policing me. And my mum, well… Sometimes she would yell at me for being drunk, other times laugh, and quite often she would just ignore it and pretend she didn’t know. There were no consistent boundaries around my behaviour as a teenager. I told so many lies and no one really seemed to care what I was doing or what was happening to me.
My problematic relationship with alcohol continued for another 20 years. I was never an alcoholic but I was dependent on alcohol in many different situations – social and whilst in solitude – for most of that time. I didn’t drink in the final year of my undergraduate degree because I was really ill physically and mentally and on lots of different medications, and I didn’t drink when I was pregnant of course, but other than that it has been a huge part of my life. And it was something that really compounded my feelings of shame. I have had so many shameful experiences whilst drunk. Some of the highlights include being wanked over by a guy at some house I’d never been to before whilst semi-conscious and all his mates were in the next room, shagging an older guy in a hotel room he paid for us to be in for just 3 hours, sex in a cupboard at a house party while all my friends were in the hallway, getting wasted with my Mum’s A Level students and throwing up all over the garden and myself, embarrassing myself in front of work colleagues, crying on my fellow PhD students, puking on my friend’s brother’s bedroom floor on the night of my 18th birthday and sneaking out of the house before it was fully light. I would often wake up semi-clothed or fully naked in a room of strangers, wondering where the hell I was and what on earth had happened. Even worse was when I woke up fully clothed in bed with a stranger and realised I had been so completely wasted that I’d just passed out before anything could even happen.
After I had Nina I rarely drank for the first year, but as she turned two I began to go partying again and experienced more black out drunk nights ending with one-night stands. When she was two I met a man, Ben, and we started a relationship. I fell head-over-heels in love with him, although in hindsight I can see he was a self-centred and self-absorbed man who genuinely thought the whole world revolved around him. He was also a weed addict, although I didn’t realise this until it was too late and I was completely in love with him. And we drank a lot together. We drank nearly every night we were together for the whole two years of our relationship. We would have 4 beers and a bottle of wine between us and finish off with a quick pint at the pub before last orders or a few shots of whatever spirit we had in.
I found class A drugs when I was 29. They accompanied my alcohol intake for a few years. I’ve not taken drugs for 4 years now and this is probably a topic for a separate post, but I can imagine a night out on md and coke more easily than I can a night of drinking. Class As, and their near-relatives, are not paired with shame for me. They bring clarity. Obviously it’s still dissociation, but there is something less tangled and confusing for me with them than alcohol. We don’t have such a long and complicated history. I have used alcohol to self-medicate a lot in my life. I would drink cider when Ben and I had argued, to try and settle myself enough to function. When the relationship ended I got blackout drunk with my friend and cried everywhere and yelled at a barman in the pub for playing a song that reminded me of him. I drank a bottle of wine every night for weeks. I got shit-faced and turned up at his house at 4am TWICE in the weeks after we broke up. And when Jess killed herself I drank all day every day for weeks, and then continued drinking every evening for a long time. This was not an effective way to deal with my grief, of course, but it took the edge off and it allowed me to cry. I did some things I am really not proud of in those weeks and months. This time culminated in me getting absolutely wasted with a colleague at a conference and crying in her hotel room till 5am. I then had to get the train home by myself and spent 5 hours wanting to die. This drove me to stop drinking for 3 months, so when I met K in August 2015 I had just come to the end of this.
A week after I met K I went to the wedding of an old friend, having not drunk for 3 months, and got absolutely hammered. I cried about Jess and my childhood at 4am in the kitchen of a friend I had not seen for a decade. Cringe. I can see the humour in this now, but also just how tragic it was. I spent the next day lying in bed desperately suicidal and flooded with a familiar feeling I couldn’t even name back; shame. I continued to drink alone after this time, because I didn’t know any other way to deal with the feelings that were coming up at the start of therapy. A particular low-point was my 33rd birthday where I was horribly triggered after leaving the warmth of therapy and finding flowers in the garden from my Mum when I got home. I text K but her reply was not fast enough or comforting enough so I drank a whole bottle of wine in the bath and cut my legs to shreds. The next day was hell – K and I did a 10 minute phone call to help me get through till the next day when we had a session and I remember screaming and screaming into my pillow after the call ended. The pain was excruciating. Annihilation. Death. This particular incident wasn’t solely because of alcohol, but it certainly wasn’t helping me to regulate my emotions and stay stable. I also discovered even one drink was triggering me into a place of shame and feeling like I didn’t belong anywhere, so drinking a moderate amount wasn’t working either.
So in December 2016 I decided I would give up alcohol for the whole of the following year. I didn’t know if I would give up drinking forever after this, but I wanted some time away from drinking to ‘re-evaluate my relationship with it’. I can’t really say it helped, therapy continued to be excruciatingly painful, but it definitely wasn’t making things worse anymore. I started to see how dependent I had been on it and how I wasn’t really able to drink ‘in moderation’. I used it to cry – because it helped me access the feelings that were dissociated and locked away – and I used it to numb, when feelings were too intense and my distress levels were too high to deal with. And I used it to numb out whilst connecting with other people, to have relationships with a protective barrier all around me. Each year since then I’ve committed to another year of not drinking, rather than making any grand declarations around it, and this feels the right thing to continue with. Year by year.
I prefer being sober, there is no doubt about that, but I do also find it hard not to drink. A lot of this is actually about other people’s perceptions of me, rather than my own experiences and emotions. I am not used to being “the boring one” who doesn’t drink. I’m used to being “the wild one,” the one is always up for a drink, or ten. I am used to being the one who will keep going when everyone else is flaking, dancing till dawn, throwing back shots, always up for ‘one last drink’. And I do miss drinking. I miss that buzz, the warm glow that spreads through your body, like ‘drinking sunshine’ as Catherine Gray puts it. Alcohol calmed my central nervous system when it was over-stimulated, making me feel lazy and calm, and it lit me up and made me brighter and warmer when I was hypoaroused and flat. I miss the sense of freedom that would spread through my body as I drank my first drink of the evening. I miss the whispered confiding over drinks with new people. And I miss feeling carefree with my friends at the start of a night out and laughing with them over our crazy antics the next day.
What I don’t miss is the shame, the anxiety, the despair alcohol could trigger in me. I don’t miss waking up and feeling desperate panic flood through me as I try to piece together what the hell happened last night. I don’t miss feeling shame and terror over ‘what I did’ and what people are thinking about me (a feeling I experienced even if I had drunk alone, such is the powerful shame trigger alcohol is for me). I don’t miss feeling over-exposed and scared I showed too much of myself. I think a lot of this was subjective – my perception that I had over-shared and revealed too much about myself, rather than objective reality, but as I said earlier I think alcohol is automatically paired with shame for me and I imagine a lot of this comes from early experiences with drinking but also having grown up with a narcissistic mother who I had to hide my real self from – alcohol makes us less inhibited, more open, and I often get triggered when I show ‘too much’ of who I am. I don’t miss waking up with strangers or ending up dating people I don’t even like because I snogged them whilst drunk and then felt like a slut if I wasn’t interested in them once I was sober. I don’t miss being blackout drunk, waking up the next day and knowing that for hours the night before I was doing things I had no memory of at all. I learnt recently that a blackout occurs when the brain is temporarily unable to record memories. It can be induced by drinking, because alcohol disrupts the activity of the hippocampus, inhibiting its ability to create long-term memories. This in itself is scary, especially when I already struggle so much with memory difficulties because of dissociation and alters.
So whilst it is hard sometimes, I do feel on balance that I have made the right decision. I don’t think the vision I often have of drinking matches the reality. I also sometimes consider the amount of toxic stress chemicals that regularly pump through my body as a result of complex trauma, and I think it is wise to do all I can to minimise the damage I do to my body. Even having one drink is triggering for me and causes me to experience panic and shame and discomfort, and I feel as though there are more important triggers to turn my attention to working through than this, triggers which stop me doing things that would make my life fuller and more authentic. When people pry or act surprised that I don’t drink I usually respond along the lines of “I spent 20 years drinking way too much so now I’m taking some time away from it”. It usually silences them, and I have some very genuine friendships with people that don’t involve alcohol or Class A drugs now, and I want that to be something that expands in the future. I want my future to be about vulnerability and authenticity and for me alcohol is incongruous with living that kind of life.