Helping other women get sober, has taught me a lot about the particular insanity that surrounds problem drinking. It is a kind of madness I lived with for years, but I was barely aware of it, at the time.
That’s because it is a specific insanity that involves forgetting.
This insanity is particularly painful to witness in the context of a sober support meeting. Usually, the drinking bout is close enough that the person still looks a little haunted. They sit stiffly, wide-eyed, and if you talk to them about their drinking they usually defend it.
“I’m not sure I’m an alcoholic,” they say, and my heart sinks.
It always reminds me of somebody defending their abusive boyfriend’s bad behavior. “He didn’t mean to hurt me.”
But I understand too. Because it’s a big word to get your head around. And that’s frustrating to watch. Because the medical profession no longer use it. And so many people who would benefit from quitting drinking are unable to do so because they cannot identify with that word.
“It means a different thing in here than it does out there,” I have said, to young women battling with the semantics. “The only requirement is a desire to stop drinking.”
Sometimes their eyes glaze over at that. Because how many problem drinkers truly want to stop drinking when they are feeling raw and vulnerable?
I know what it takes to end up in a sober support meeting. It certainly isn’t the first port of call. It isn’t the first night of suffering as a result of drinking too much. These young women will have already been through a lot.
Looking at them, with their limitless potential, defending their drinking — “It isn’t that bad!” — I feel sad that they have the belief that it needs to get worse before they can stop.
And now I am so far from my own drink habit, it really seems strange to hear them fight to keep this thing that is causing them so much trouble.
In the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is an analogy about a jaywalker who keeps getting hit by cars. Everybody warns him to be more careful, but he cheerfully continues to jaywalk. He breaks more and more bones but refuses to stop.
This is how addiction works. It makes you take the same the action again and again, and it convinces you that this time it will be different.
Our culture normalizes binge drinking so much that you can get away with it for a long time. Whole decades of your life lost while you secretly pay the price with mornings spent with your head in the toilet, trips to the chemist for the morning after pill and so many unrealized dreams that you begin to lose hope.
The real costs of my problematic drinking were invisible. A loss of self-respect and dignity. A world view so nihilistic that it made me dream of suicide. A deep-seated belief that I was incapable of making good decisions. Over the years, my word had become meaningless and I couldn’t trust myself.
It was a scary place to be. And meanwhile, alcohol made me feel good. So of course I kept reaching for it.
Sometimes I get to work closely with these young women, and it is enlightening and frustrating and fulfilling. In almost every instance, their experience up until this point has been more traumatic than I would ever guess. Women who drink too much get into different kinds of trouble to men.
It is the most wonderful thing to witness somebody get sober. A sense of wonder arrives as they begin to learn new coping mechanisms for life. Their changed approach brings different results and their life begins to change. They develop better relationships with themselves and their family and community.
Some of them drift away and return to drinking or try another path to sobriety. Many disappear and you never know where they end up. But a few stick around, and keep in touch, and you can watch them become the person they were supposed to be.
There is a well-trodden path to fulfillment after a heavy drinking life. You become interested in health and wellbeing, begin to pay off your debts. You find a new job or take a course. As you commit to doing the next right thing your self-esteem improves.
People begin to notice a change in you and opportunities arise. You take on more responsibility. Gradually, you realize you are quite comfortable being yourself.
If you are still drinking, but you don’t think you’re ‘bad enough’ to identify as an alcoholic then I get it. I felt that way for years. Alcoholic is an outdated word, and its connotations are unhelpful. You picture a falling down man with vodka in a paper bag.
But it isn’t a competition to be the biggest drunk. Sure, some people in sober support groups have been to prison and lost their children, but many were bing drinkers, too. And why do you insist on a consequence as devastating as that before you will quit? (Cough. Because you are addicted?)
The sad truth is that most people aren’t willing to quit when it is easy. And when they are finally willing, they find that it has become incredibly hard. Alcohol withdrawals can be deadly.
Recovery programs like AA and Smart work on every kind of drinker. But as you would expect, it is much easier to quit when you aren’t yet physically addicted.
So if you find yourself with an opportunity to quit, take it. Seize it with both hands. Recognize the insanity of waiting for a worse rock bottom.
You don’t need to lose anything more than your dignity in order to quit.
If you need help to stop drinking, you’re not alone.
And there’s no shame in getting addicted to something deeply addictive. The fact is, it’s not going to get any easier to stop than it is this very moment.
If you’re ready to try something different, try my alcohol experiment. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas. Read beautiful hangover. Listen to Recovery Elevator and SHAIR podcasts. Read This Naked Mind. Try Moderation Management.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
Sign up for more from me at beautifulhangover <3
*I write as a person now sober, who used to drink too much. Please seek medical advice before you quit, especially if you are a daily drinker.