Living with a drinking problem is like having two personalities. There’s the part of you that is done with booze, and the part of you that cannot imagine living without it. As it begins to dawn on you that alcohol is causing many of your problems, these two parts fight for ascension.
As I struggled to stay sober this only got worse. My personality felt fractured and unstable. My habitual self-destructive tendencies felt natural, while the new sober part of me felt phony.
And since nobody else had told me I had an issue, half the time I felt like I was inventing a new problem for myself. I didn’t honestly identify as an alcoholic, but I kept drinking though I didn’t want to. What was going on?
By talking this headfuckery through with sober women I began to see that my experience was commonplace.
“The more serious you get about quitting, the harder your alcoholism will fight,” they told me.
You don’t have a problem, my inner drinker told me. You’re a nice drunk.
But if I didn’t have a problem, then why the powerful urge to neck pints? And if I did have a problem, then why couldn’t I admit it?
Gradually, the sober part of me grew stronger. Life began to improve and I got more used to not drinking. I had entered a new plane of existence, in which I could easily see the damage caused by my drinking.
The evidence had been visible all along, but for the first time, I recognised it. It felt a bit like waking up. Four and a half years sober, I’m so grateful that I was able to stay sober long enough to allow for this new perspective.
Addiction is an unbelievably tricksy thing to navigate. It talks to you in your own voice, tailoring its arguments to you, taking into consideration everything available (weather, your health, the way that people are reacting to you, today’s newsfeed). Your addiction is as clever as you are, and it wants you to drink.
This is why some people personify their ‘alcoholism’, giving it a name, and learning to recognise its thinking voice resounding in their head. After they choose a name for the booze-loving part of themselves, these sober people create an identity to go along with it.
Their alcoholism manifests all of the parts of them they are ashamed of. It sounded like too neat a trick to newly sober me. Wasn’t that shirking responsibility? I was curious, but not convinced. Could I really just disown all of the worst parts of myself? Did I want to?
I listened to the host of Recovery Elevator describe his addiction and the two conflicting personalities it gave him. Gary was a tequila hound who loved getting wankered, while Paul was an earnest, conscientious guy who wanted to spend his time on earth helping people.
For years Gary was in ascension, necking shots and dancing on tables, while Paul was frustrated and depressed, watching his dreams slip away. Gary didn’t give a shit. He was running a bar in Spain, handing out liquor and drinking all the profits. Meanwhile, Paul, increasingly, wanted to die.
Long before I identified as an alcoholic, I became painfully aware of that part of my psyche constantly chirping for a drink. I thought over the odd, dangerous and shameful things I had done in my life, and how they all happened when I was drinking.
There’s little chance I would have made any of my worst mistakes if I had been sober, I realised. Maybe personifying your so-called alcoholism wasn’t so primitive. Maybe it sounded babyish and reductive because it was essential.
I’ve never personified my addiction, but it helped me to understand and articulate my experience in early sobriety as feeling like having two, extremely distinct, personalities.
I came to believe that if I wanted to have a different sort of life, I had to stop listening to the part of me that was super into drinking and to do everything I could to strengthen the healthy, life-affirming part of me instead.
This is why being engaged with a community of people who understand the headfuckery of addiction can help. As the pub-loving part of you tries desperately to achieve its ultimate aim — drink! — those who are aware of its best tricks can help you not to fall for them. Other sober people can recognize its justifications (“you’ve had a tough day”) and minimisations (“you’re not that bad”) and outright lies (“one won’t hurt”).
Maybe your drinking is sporadical, cyclical. You get healthy, find a new hobby or project, and throw yourself into it, and it goes brilliantly, and you feel amazing, and you deserve a treat, so you have a drink, and then wake up feeling terrible and swear off again for a while. Round and round you go. Sometimes it gets better, sometimes it goes away, and then all of a sudden, there it is again, the bewildered incomprehension that follows an out-of-control drunken night.
Or maybe your drinking is medicational. Small quantities of wine and/or beer every day, livened up by more hearty binges at the weekends.
Or maybe your drinking is private, something between you and the TV. Something that keeps your life smaller than you dreamed of.
I drank in all of those ways and others. In the end, it was simple. I didn’t want to drink or get drunk or face any of alcohol’s consequences anymore. For me, life is better without alcohol.
If you’re struggling to quit drinking, you’re not alone.
There is nothing like not doing the thing you are struggling with to gain insight into why you do it.
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