*This story was originally published on Medium. To read it there, head here*
I don’t have a glowing history with alcohol but at the same time, it’s not a stand-out, rock-bottom type of history either. In fact, it’s pretty normal.
I drank at parties in school and I drank my way through my degree. It was normal, everyone I knew was heavily inebriated at least several times a week at university.
But while some of my friends could be singing 90s hits at 3am and still present a reasonably studious face at a 9am lecture – I would be hiding under the duvet, wishing I was someone else.
I wasn’t a good drunk. It didn’t matter whether it had been an uneventful evening at a bar or a total blackout night, the next day I would be filled with immense anxiety, regret and shame. Alcohol was not my friend. It was more like a punishment that I wilfully embarked upon for some excruciatingly masochistic purpose.
The thing was, if I started drinking, I didn’t stop. Even when I could consciously think, ‘enough’, I would still say yes to the next cocktail, the next beer, the next day of mortification.
I drank through the next decade. Not at the same frequency of obliteration, but certainly at a fairly continual rate. Those nightly glasses of wine that were guaranteed to lead to that seductive state of numbness. The numbness that promised everything would be fine, everything could be dealt with tomorrow.
Then, at Christmas last year, I stopped.
My then-boyfriend had left the country for what would turn into five months, I was grieving the death of a family member and I was painfully lonely. After a few festive nights of dim recollection, I woke up one morning and just knew that this was not the way forward. Alcohol would not help me here.
Dry January gave me a public excuse for sobriety. When I was met with surprise and questions about going sober, it seemed that people were reassured by my response of, ‘I’m trying Dry January.’ But I wasn’t trying it, I knew I didn’t want to start drinking again.
As the year plodded on into February, the questions were more pointed.
‘When are you going to start drinking again?’
‘Are you going to be boring forever now?’
I placated the questioners by saying that I had given up ‘just for now’. But what I found strange was that none of the questions were really about me. They were all about those who asked. No one, it seemed, wanted me to give up drinking.
And I did drink. Three more times. The first time was the day I got my book deal. It was a momentous day at the end of February and my housemate and I cracked open a bottle of champagne. But the bottle became empty and we didn’t stop there.
I woke up the next day and realised I’d done it again. I’d celebrated the greatest achievement of my life…with a punishment. The next two times consisted only of one beer each and from the first sip I felt nothing but regret. I neither wanted, nor needed the booze. Each time I’d felt the pressure of others but it was always my choice to accept.
Somewhere around early summer the temptation simply died away. Each trip to a pub or a bar or a birthday was not met with the old struggle in my head. To drink or not to drink. Instead, I would order non-alcoholic beer at the bar or bring it to parties.
I had thought that going out would be dull without drinking. But I was still laughing with my friends until late at the pub. Only now I got the joke. Now I wasn’t tripping over chairs and forgetting where I put my wallet.
And the more I did this, the more I realised that there were other people who weren’t drinking. Whether it was because they were driving or pregnant or just weren’t feeling it. When I’d been a drinker, I’d barely acknowledged that some people stayed sober. But now I was offering my alcohol-free beer to those driven to water by car keys.
The most marked shift was not in the nights out though, it was in the clarity. I’ve always dealt with stress the same way — drinking. For me, drinking was like discovering a small fire and, instead of calmly pouring water on it, I was locking myself in a room and hoping it would put itself out.
But without the alcohol, instead of succumbing to the anxieties, stresses and misery of various events, I found them considerably easier to deal with.
Because suddenly I was dealing with them. I wasn’t numbing them, oppressing them or drowning them. You can’t drown problems. You can only temporarily ignore them.
Whilst before I had been adding drunken shame to existing issues, now I was looking at problems square in the face and allowing myself to feel the discomfort and fear.
I started embracing the things I couldn’t control. The heartbreak, the grief, the confusion — all of it. They were all waves that I could allow to hit me without panic, knowing that they would eventually wash over me.
Nothing is as frightening as it was when I was drinking. There are no mornings when I wake up and feel like my head will explode. There is no hiding under the duvet hoping that today would be over. There are no more episodes when a problem has been amplified so much by alcohol that it feels like the world might end.
I always had one foot off the rails. But it turns out that life is a whole lot easier when you have an even footing.