In November 2013 I had my last drink. It wasn’t the messiest night I’d ever had, the consequences weren’t the worst, and I woke up in my own flat, in my own bed. But something else had happened. Something inside me had broken. I had hit my rock bottom. I was, as they say in recovery, “sick and tired of being sick and tired”.
I’m not actually sure when I had my first drink. I do remember, though, what I perceived alcohol to be all about. When we would have big family get-togethers and the wine would flow, there was a tangible sense of inclusion and togetherness that I longed for deeply.
Alcohol seemed to me to represent freedom – a feeling of ease and comfort and being connected to other people. And that, in the beginning, was exactly what alcohol did for me too. I loved it. Suddenly my head was quieter. I felt like I was truly connected, not only to myself, but to everyone else around me. I had ease, was full of confidence and I was free at last to be 'me'.
My parents did the best they could to introduce alcohol in a healthy way. At 15 I was allowed to go to the local pub with friends on the condition that I didn’t drink. So I didn’t. After a while, I was allowed one drink. Then I was allowed two. And this is about the time when I parted ways with my parents’ conditions. What I didn’t realise then is that once I put alcohol in my system, it started a craving, for more.
My drinking started to have consequences. I was always the one who got most drunk and fell over. But that’s what happens: teenagers get drunk. But it was always me. And even though I was sure I wouldn’t do it again, I always did. It seemed impossible to control, but I was sure I would grow out of it eventually.
Also, I often drank to blackout. At some point in the night my memory checked out, and I would wake up the next day and not remember anything after a certain point. I read an article once in which a woman said of her drinking, “My evenings came with trapdoors.” Without warning, in the blink of an eye, I too, would fall through.
I moved to London when I was 18. Suddenly the stakes were a lot higher. There was no small-town safety net of close friends and lifts home. Over the years I found myself vulnerable and in dangerous situations. Falling asleep in the back of illegal cabs, waking up in beds that I didn’t know or waking up in my own bed but with no recollection of how I got there. No explanation for the bruises that would often cover my body. Looking back, I see that I was always in this push-pull relationship with alcohol. I was desperately trying to make it work for me: trying to control it, trying to reap the “benefits” without the consequences. I was determined to get the hang of it like everyone else. I constantly took time off drinking, thinking it would help once I started again. I wanted to learn how to manage it and was baffled as to why I couldn’t.
When I heard the phrase “the obsession of alcohol”, I didn’t think it applied to me. I thought it referred to people who needed a drink from the moment they woke up. It was brought to my attention that the following thinking could definitely be defined as obsessive:
If I don’t drink today, I can drink tomorrow. I’ll only drink at weekends. I’ll not drink at the dinner, but I can drink after. I won’t drink spirits. I’ll only drink spritzers. Don’t mix your drinks. Never drink at home. Only drink at home. Only drink with certain people. Ask other people not to let you have any more, even if you demand it ...
And that was my head. Exhausting.
I wasn’t aware that alcoholism is progressive – no matter what you do or don’t do. So, for the next 12 years it progressed. At some point it no longer gave me that elusive relief I had once felt, no matter how many drinks I consumed. I drank to get relief from my overthinking head but I then behaved in ways that resulted in shame, compounding the discomfort I already felt and increasing the need for relief. I was on a hamster wheel. Around and around.
In the three months preceding my last drink, my relationship broke up as a direct result of me not being prepared to stop drinking, and I had a drunken accident while on holiday with friends. I fell and smashed my face on concrete and, as I sat there with blood dripping down my cheek, I was asking for a White Russian. The next day I was in hell. I had a black eye, I was sweating, shaking and feeling such deep shame and disappointment in myself. I knew this had to stop somehow but despite promising myself I would only drink water and get an early night, by 4pm I had decided that one beer would actually help me – settle my soaring anxiety and quieten the shame. It did, a little. And I stepped back on to the hamster wheel. By 10pm I was doing shots and later had to be helped back to the hotel.
As I sat on the flight home shaking and sweating, I felt so broken, so lost. I was ashamed and confused. Unsurprisingly, there were to be a few more situations like this before I asked for help. But I did ask. I emailed someone I had met very briefly once who I knew was in recovery. I expected it to be a dramatic conversation where she would attempt to rescue me from my plight, but instead she simply explained how recovery had helped her, and if and when I was interested, I could go to a 12-step meeting with her.
Something I have learned about being in recovery is that it’s up to me. It’s my responsibility to ask for help, to do the work, to make the changes, to get well. There will be people who are on the same journey and who can guide and support me, but ultimately no one is making me do it – I have made this choice for myself. I am learning how to take responsibility for my own happiness.
Another vital thing I have learned over the past four and a half years is that I had made alcohol the “solution” to my problems. So, if I take away that “solution”, I need to replace it with something else. I had no problem giving up alcohol, my issue was staying stopped. Recovery has given me the tools to work through that. By learning about myself and really understanding my thinking, I now have choices. The process has become about so much more than just stopping drinking – more than I could ever have imagined.
I am now part of a group of people who understand exactly how my head works and that has been life changing. Our lives may look very different, but our thinking is almost identical. For the first time I have felt truly seen and perhaps that is because I am starting to really see myself. Alcoholism is not choosy: you can have no money or lots, you can have had the worst childhood or a great one – alcoholism really doesn’t care. Crucially I am no longer on this journey alone, and I no longer have to rely on my own strength. There have, of course, been very difficult periods, but I have new ways of handling these storms and, through the support of recovery, I never have to pick up a drink again – one day at a time.
Lisa is the creator of @CourageousNavigation on Instagram. An account for those who are facing life's challenges courageously.