I wonder what Albert would have to say about doing the same thing for almost 15 years?
The Early Days
I started drinking in my early teens which isn’t unusual in Ireland or at least it certainly wasn’t 15-plus years ago. My father, who has now been sober for 27 years, had warned me that I needed to be careful when it came to drink. Alcohol had done a lot of damage to his life before he successfully went into treatment and that wasn’t a secret in our family. In addition to this another family member continued to struggle with their drinking so you’d think that these things would have put me off but instead I couldn’t wait to get started.
Over the last 2 years I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out why I fell head over heels in love with drinking. Outwardly I was a very confident person but I can see now that inside I was a lot less sure of myself than I would ever have admitted or acted. I had a nice childhood and didn’t experience any particular trauma but there were some challenges along the way (things that I may explore in later blog posts) which I believe may have led to me experiencing a low but steady state of anxiety that I didn’t recognise.
So when alcohol came on the scene, a substance that works pretty well at getting rid of feelings of anxiety and self-consciousness, we were a match made in heaven. In the early years as I built up my tolerance, the way I drank didn’t really cause any alarm. I drank like most teenagers did. Sometimes too much, the odd night ending with my head in the loo, but nothing out of the ordinary.
Becoming a Problem
It was in my late teens/early 20’s that my drinking started to become problematic. Finishing school, going to college and living away from my family came at exactly the same time as regular wine drinking became "a thing”. If you’re reading this and you’re younger than me this may seem like a foreign concept to you but believe it or not there was, in fact, a time when we did not finish the majority of our days with wine. When we did not use it as our only form of relaxation. Before this people relaxed with tea, biscuits, maybe a bit of a television binge, you know, the old-fashioned addictions.
I’m almost loath to go into detail about the amount I drank for a couple of reasons. I’m afraid that those who feel that drink is a problem for them might compare the amount that I drank with the amount that they drink and either think one of two things; the first being that they don’t drink nearly as much and hence don’t have a problem. This is probably the more unlikely of the two. The second is that they will read it and think that I didn’t have a problem because of how little I drank and that they can’t relate to me because they drank or continue to drink WAY more. But here are two things that I have learned over the last 2 years;
- It’s a problem when it’s a problem for you even if you are the only one who recognizes that it’s a problem.
- People who experience the problem, regardless of the extent, can generally relate to the feelings of others who experience the problem, regardless of their extent (translated this means that I GET IT. I get the pain that you are in and the pain that continuing to do something that is hurting you causes regardless of how different our stories may be).
How I Drank
So here’s how it looked for me. In my early 20’s, living alone for the first time, I would usually start drinking on Thursday evening. I would drink a bottle of wine while watching the television and doing my tan. If there was another bottle opened from the previous weekend I might have another glass or two but for the most part it was one bottle of wine. On Friday I would feel a little ropey but nothing I couldn’t handle.
Saturday morning was usually a time when I would exercise in some shape or form so the amount that I drank on Friday nights would depend on what I had lined up although typically it would be another bottle of wine (holding back on the last glass if I was going to attempt a long run on Saturday - because I was sensible like that).
Saturday night would have been my night for going out. Going out meant starting with a couple of glasses of wine while getting ready with the girls, copious amounts of vodka and 7up once I was out, maybe a cocktail or two and usually some shots. I was a fairly happy drunk person. Loud, definitely, but not much trouble. For the most part I wasn’t one of those people who got ridiculously emotional when drunk. I never wanted the night to end though and loved going to or throwing an impromptu house party.
I’m sure that my nights out sound pretty harmless to some and they may well have been had it not been for a couple of issues. It wasn’t unusual for me to drink so much that I would blackout for a period of time. Blacking out should not be mistaken with passing out. Blacking out is something different. It’s when, on the outside, you look like you are functioning, like you are you, but inside you are gone. You’re not in your head anymore and the result is that you say and do very stupid things and remember very little the next day. The aftermath would involve a serious case of The Fear. Anyone who has ever drank a bit more than they had intended can identify with The Fear. It happens occasionally to most but when I drank it happened more often than not. The feelings of dread and anxiousness that came with it would take me down so badly and lasted for days. For the next few days I’d swear off drinking but by Wednesday those feelings would wear off and I’d be ready to roll again.
By the time I was 21 I had admitted both to myself and to some of my family members that drinking was affecting my life in a negative way. Looking back, it was like I knew that I should stop but something kept me believing that I would somehow learn how to moderate. I put so much mental energy into doing that over the following years. I would set rules about the days I could and couldn’t drink. I’d stop drinking this and try a lighter version of that. I’d eat first, drink water in between, leave water beside my bed for afterwards (which is, by the way, the most ridiculous thing every because if you’re sober enough to remember the water – or make it home to the water – you most likely don’t need the water all that much), I’d only buy one bottle of wine when doing the weekly shop and on and on the planning and organizing went in search of some way that I could manage to continue to drink and not face facts. Not surprisingly I’d almost always break my rules.
When I look back now it was such a miserable way to live and took up so much of my energy but at the time I really believed that someday I would make it work for me. In all of the other areas of my life things were going great. I had a good job and a side business as a fitness instructor, lots of friends, my own house and a boyfriend. But I used wine to deal with just about every emotion and had no other coping mechanisms. Happy? Wine. Sad? Wine. Stressed? Wine. Chilling out? Wine Wine Wine!! No matter what the emotion it was always dealt with by drinking enough to take the edge off. I’ve always been someone who likes to be on the go a lot and wine helped me to shut down quickly at the end of each day but it came at a cost to my mind and body and that cost started to get too high.
I was 29 years old, 2 years married and the mother of a 9-month old son when I finally surrendered in May of 2015. I’m not sure why it finally clicked for me when I woke up that morning but I’m so glad that it did. I remember feeling like I didn't know how I'd do it or what was to come but I knew that I couldn't continue doing what I was doing. There had been nothing that unusual about the night before, really. I had been out with some friends and had been a little bit more “messy” than usual but I could have just gotten over it like I had done with so many nights before. However, something had changed after having my son. I was now accountable to a child who relied on me to give him a good life and that got inside my head.
I consider myself very lucky that I was able to quit drinking before it started to have a bigger impact on all of our lives. It’s possible that I might have gone on drinking the way I did forever and might never have had any serious repercussions but with hindsight I can see that things were getting worse for me. The issue of whether alcohol dependency is genetic or not is hotly debated and researched but as someone who has seen it play out in my family I have no desire to test the waters.
Life After Drink
In the first few months of sobriety I felt very sorry for myself that I couldn’t drink anymore and it was only around the time of my 1st sober anniversary that I had a major shift in mindset and am now very grateful that I don’t have to drink anymore. That doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing. I now have a second child and life, not to mention motherhood, without the anesthetic of alcohol can be hard sometimes. While being a mother brings me so much happiness I also find it very challenging at times and not having an off-switch in the form of wine at the end of the day means I have to work hard at making sure that I don’t get overwhelmed.
I used to think that people who didn’t drink were boring but since quitting I now have huge respect for them as they live their lives feeling all of the feelings and dealing with everything life throws at them without the crutch that alcohol can be. When you don’t drink you have no quick escape from life, no easy way to dodge hard feelings. But with that comes a life where you are more awake and alive and for me the greatest benefit of sobriety is the trust I have in myself now. I never have to worry that alcohol or the after-affects of a nights drinking are clouding my judgement.
Because alcohol is no longer part of my life I’ve had to learn to live it differently. The way I was living when I was drinking wasn’t sustainable. I was so busy doing life that I never really stopped to consider whether I was enjoying it. When I quit drinking I began to take a proper look at it and I realized that there were lots of things that I wanted and needed to change and I’ve been working hard on those things ever since.
I’ve also done, and continue to do, a lot of other things. I read a lot of blogs and books and I’m a big fan of listening to podcasts too. I’m very lucky to be part of a really supportive online community of people who have also quit or continue to try and quit drinking and improve their lives and was lucky to get the chance to meet some of them at a sobriety conference called She Recovers in New York in May of 2017.
Choose Your Path
I don't feel that the way I was drinking when I quit needs a label other than to say that it was a problem for me. The fear of having to live my life with a label and the stigma that we attach to that label kept me from facing the truth for a long time. Some people need to identify with the label to remain sober and that's totally understandable but I don’t. Many people also refer to life after dependency as being in recovery. I prefer to look at it as rediscovery. Without alcohol numbing the good and bad in my life I am free to rediscover who I am without it and who I want to be.
If drinking is causing a problem for you then it’s a problem. You don’t have to wait until it gets “that bad”. Ireland has come a long way in terms of our attitude to mental health but we still have an awful lot of work to do when it comes to our attitude to alcohol and it’s my hope that through speaking and writing openly and honestly about my experience and by having blogs like this we open up the conversation about what’s really going on. There are many paths to sobriety now and we all have the power to choose our own.