[Originally published 24th December 2017]
I’ll put my hands up and admit that if you say the word ‘addict’ to me, I can’t help thinking of hollow-eyed, emaciated criminals diving into toilets after suppositories, zombie babies on ceilings and people sleeping on mattresses on a dirty floor. Say the word ‘alcoholic’ to me, and I think of overweight men in their 50s sat in pubs in the morning, liver transplants and yellowing skin. Say ‘recovering alcoholic’, and I think of the same late-middle-aged men, but this time in church basements (but only church basements in America).
The fictional recovering alcoholics that reside in my brain are really fucking miserable. If they work really hard, they may live out a few sober years desperately missing booze, then eventually relapse, losing any remaining loved ones, and then die a lonely alcohol-related death.
Bloody hell. Who would want to be a recovering alcoholic?
Did I mention, I am a recovering alcoholic?
This is the point where I try and slightly fail to fight the powerful urge to quantify the above statement with information like, “but I was on the lower end of the addiction spectrum, I didn’t drink in the morning (unless it was Christmas or a wedding or we arrived for lunch early), I never drove drunk, I didn’t find it hard to abstain during pregnancy, I know lots of other people who drank WAY more than I did” and a million other totally irrelevant and boring facts about my past drinking habits.
The only important information here is I could not control how much I drank. And ultimately it began to make me very unhappy and dissatisfied with my life.
I was aware for some years that I drank more than I should. But wasn’t too sure that I minded. I enjoyed it. And my entire adult life I saw evidence everywhere that many people were doing the same.
University in the UK is practically a training ground for high-functioning alcoholics. I have memories of most Freshers’ Week parties involving huge plastic storage boxes full of disgusting concoctions of spirits that I rolled my eyes at and refused to drink. I was much more at home in the pub sipping wine with my fellow choral singers, nurturing a much classier brand of drinking problem. Because vomiting red wine into someone’s flowerbed is a cut above nasty cocktails.
So I was saying, I enjoyed drinking. But then I gradually began to suspect that it was affecting my mental health.
Then I became convinced beyond doubt that it was destroying my mental health.
The one or two drinks that used to feel like a beautiful hug releasing me from daily anxiety (“how can something that feels so good be bad for me?!“) began to trigger suicidal thoughts and impulses to self harm.
Realising this is happening and still not being able to stop drinking is a terrifying place to find yourself. What I didn’t know then was the fact that the organ of the body most quickly attacked and damaged by alcohol is not the liver. It is the brain. And for the record, your GP telling you that it’s fine to drink alcohol whilst taking antidepressants does not necessarily mean that it is fine for YOU. My experience of doing so invites a comparison with using eye drops for an eye infection whilst poking oneself in the eye with a sharp stick every hour or two.
I find it hard to draw myself back into the memory of my old reality, not just because it is unpleasant, but because already, at 8 months sober, the idea of drinking alcohol feels ludicrous to me. I almost forget how unbelievably hard I had to work to make the change – just this one little change to my life! – to stop ingesting ethanol each day. I mean, all I had to do was not go into the shop for the wine each day, not open any bottles of wine, not pour any wine into any wine glasses, not raise any glasses containing wine to my lips, not swallow any fucking wine.
How can it be all that hard to just not do any of those things?
Anyone who has had or has addictions, be it nicotine, sugar bingeing, or even just the seemingly innocuous habit of constantly scrolling on their phone, will understand that the above question is rhetorical. And the answer is BECAUSE OF ADDICTION. The answer is also because alcohol is everywhere, and because through constant exposure to it in advertising and media since the day we were born, we all believe on a deep subconscious level that booze is a normal part of every important occasion or intense emotion in life. Celebration. Grief. Boredom. Socialising with new people. Relaxation. Loneliness. A little treat, because – God knows – you deserve it. And so on. Therein lies a smorgasbord of ways for addicted brains to normalise and justify drinking every day.
I thought I understood how addiction worked, but I did not. In April I signed up to an online 8 week ‘Sobriety School’. Developing a toolkit of coping mechanisms, making friends who were also recovering from addiction (and, I might add, not a toilet-diving junkie or basement-lurking old man in sight), and learning the true complex nature of addiction are amongst the priceless gifts I received. Early sobriety is fragile, like a young tree in the wind. Building an intelligent, compassionate support network and educating myself extensively about addiction were the cage that allowed my tree to grow strong enough to not bend in what felt like a very real storm.
Someone somewhere once wrote that if you put Shame in a petri dish and add Silence, it grows and grows. And so it is with addiction. I am a recovering addict, and proud to announce that I am not in fact an old man in a basement (respect and love to those guys though), but more importantly I want to tell you that I am not miserable about sobriety. Above all, I feel relief. Relief that I never have to experience a hangover again, or feel embarrassed for perhaps having acted like a bit of a dick but not really remembering. Relief that my waking thoughts each day are not of self-loathing or regret, but of love and gratitude for my family and the good coffee I’m about to make. Relief that I am not going to waste my life. Relief that I am starting to like myself. I want to say that you don’t need to be a ‘total alcoholic’ (the thing I used to claim NOT to be) to decide to give up alcohol forever, or to take a 6 month break, or to just not drink one evening if you don’t fancy a hangover. Contrary to popular belief, not drinking alcohol at a party makes you the opposite of boring. I want to tell you that I find life really hard, but I find joy in simple things now. Life is short. Time with those we love is short. And I don’t want to anaesthetise these moments any more.
I finally broke free from my toxic relationship with my handsome, charming, controlling, abusive ex-partner on 26th April 2017. His name was Vin Rouge. I don’t even feel jealous when I see him kissing other girls.
Happy Christmas everyone. Here’s to 2018. Let’s make it an awesome one.