For many years I used to drink too much, and I had no idea why. I just love drinking! I used to say to my friends. It was simple. A no brainer. Drinking was the only thing in my life I didn’t worry about.
As I experienced more problems as a result of my drinking I started to think a little harder about why I did it. If hangovers made me want to kill myself, was it really wise to drink this heavily? Why exactly did I love alcohol so much anyway? What was it that it gave me?
As with any habit that accompanies you through life for decades, my reasons for drinking changed.
First, I drank because it was what the grownups did. Later, I drank because it allowed me to talk to boys at parties. By the time I got to university, I drank because it helped me fit in. After graduation, I drank to relax.
It wasn’t until I got to therapy around 30 that I was able to admit the extent to which alcohol had been medicine for me. That I used it to deal with the social anxiety I felt being around people. That it didn’t just allow me to relax, but it helped me to feel normal.
“There might be something around drinking,” I told my therapist after I had spent half an hour trying to describe the pain my brain was causing me. The looping insanity and shifting desires, the obsessional quality of my thoughts.
I used wine to lift my spirits. Because, by the time I made it to therapy, I rarely felt good, happy, or relaxed without alcohol. And I had no real idea why that was. It would be a long journey to gain insight into the question of why I drank the way I did.
I got a glimmer of understanding during my first period of abstinence. Dry January 2015. I’d had a traumatic row with my boyfriend New Year’s Eve and used my deathly first-of-Jan hangover to springboard myself into a sober month.
It was a revelation. I found myself drowning in leisure time. I caught up with friends, learned about Buddhism, saved hundreds of pounds. And I was bored. I noticed that my consciousness was intolerable. That I missed the ups and downs of intoxication. Life felt colorless and ‘samey’. I was uncomfortable being sober, uninterrupted, for weeks at a time. In the middle of the month, I got drunk because I couldn’t bear it. Before the month quite finished, I got drunk again.
I was shocked during this last drunk to discover I didn’t especially enjoy it. I drank pints and smoked and danced, but it didn’t feel as good as I expected. The next morning’s nausea seemed an unreasonable fee. I missed the clear and hopeful feeling I had the previous morning. And yet I couldn’t resist booze once the seal was broken.
After that Dry January, I never managed to string more than a few sober days together again. But something had changed with my drinking because now I desperately wanted to.
After another year of trying to manage my drinking, my mental health had deteriorated significantly. I was still trying to moderate, but it was becoming more of a struggle. More accurately, I had woken up to the fact that I had a problem.
I desperately wanted to quit drinking and I couldn’t.
Eventually, I got sick and tired of being sick and tired, and I took myself to AA.
It was there, at last, that I began to truly understand why it was that I drank. But it wasn’t a simple pithy answer. It was almost as complicated as I was. More is still being revealed.
The reason I write this is because I understand that your reasons for drinking are complex. I understand that you believe it gives you something essential that you cannot live without. I understand because I felt that way too. And I discovered I was wrong.
Alcohol gave me courage and support and validation when I needed it. But it stopped me from developing those things authentically too. When I quit, I was right back at the space of vulnerability and fear I had started from. It felt like being a kid again. At first, I was angry at myself for being so pathetic. For relying on a crutch and wasting the best part of my life. Over the years I’ve learned to have compassion.
For many of us, booze helps us feel safe in a world that is overwhelming. That’s why I wasn’t able to quit drinking until I found a community that could help me. I swapped the security blanky of booze for the cheerleading and camaraderie of AA.
A lot of self-development work was required to enable me to tolerate inhabiting my own body without a substance. But gradually, learning to live alcohol-free changed the quality of my life, health and relationships. Far more than I ever envisioned or even realised was necessary. You don’t know what you don’t know. This is why sobriety has to be experienced. Nobody can explain to you what will be gained. You have to try it for yourself.
And it’s not easy. This is why AA insists alcoholism is a spiritual problem. Because you have to learn to be able to live with yourself. To do that, you must overhaul your life, relationships and personality to arrive at something that drifts along the lines of inner peace.
For some of us, the world is too cruel and we are too sensitive. Alcohol becomes our armor. Four years on, I’m amazed to find myself living, sober, and yet feeling protected. AA taught me how to be vulnerable and strong. I those circles I learned to rely on other people instead of trusting only myself and booze.
I feel incredibly lucky that I managed to quit. It is entirely plausible that I might never have. I’m the first sober person in my family. ‘Loving’ alcohol is in my genes.
But that uninterrupted consciousness I was so afraid of was my self. That intolerable sameiness was my life. And I’m so grateful I don’t have to miss any more of it.
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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