Eight years ago, practically to the day, I woke up (or should I say came to) with a killer hangover after the office Christmas party. I had been absolutely wasted, but I guess that’s fairly standard behaviour at Christmas parties. I couldn’t remember much, other than a very drunken conversation I’d had with my boyfriend at the time, and it wasn’t long before those oh so familiar feelings of fear, anxiety and dread crept in. What had I said? Had I humiliated myself?
I picked up my phone, looked at my recent calls, and saw that we’d spoken at 8am. More questions popped up in my head: why was I awake at that time, and what on earth had I been doing between 4am, when the bar closed, and 8am?
The only way to to piece the events of the night together was to return to the bar a few days later. There, I was told that I’d vanished, only to be found by the cleaner the following morning, half-naked and slumped over a table in a room that wasn’t even open that night. Not such standard Christmas party behaviour. I cringed, horrified that I had let myself get in that state yet again, and swore to myself for the umpteenth time that I would "do something" about my drinking.
But just like all the other times I’d made that promise, I failed miserably.
Fast forward a year and I’m living in Argentina with my then boyfriend, Roberto*, having moved in quite quickly after we met. Despite frequently bearing the brunt of my drunken behaviour - I would start needless fights, flirt with his friends, publicly humiliate him and even (on one occasion) push him into the road when drunk - he put up with me. He continued to forgive me, giving me endless second chances, even though I hurt him time and time again with my reckless actions.
Instead of leaving me, Roberto tried to make me see that I did not drink like a normal person - that alcohol did not have the same effect on me that it had on other people. But although he was clearly right, and the evidence was right there in front of me, I simply couldn’t see it for what it was. I guess the power of denial is frighteningly strong.
That’s not to say I didn’t try to reduce my alcohol consumption. I didn’t like the person I became when I was drunk either. In fact, I was afraid of myself. I had no control over what would happen; it was as though I’d become possessed.
In a bid to curb my extreme drinking, I tried creating rules for myself. "I’m only going to drink beer and wine from now on, not spirits", I'd say. Or: "I won’t drink on weekdays". "I won’t mix drink and drugs" was another one. They would occasionally work for a short period of time, but it was never long before I ended up in trouble again.
The final rule I created for myself was: "I’ll only drink in non-party environments". It was spring of 2015, I was back in England and I’d been invited to a friend’s house for a chilled barbecue to celebrate her birthday. In my mind, a "chilled barbecue" most definitely did not constitute a party, so I allowed myself to have a beer. But sure enough, one beer became too much beer, and the familiar downward spiral began to spin out of control.
Roberto, who had still not given up on me, had come to the UK to try to make the relationship work. But that day, he looked at me with disdain as my eyes began to glaze over and my speech became slurred.
"Don’t you think you’ve had enough?" he asked. That question would always enrage me because, of course, drunk me never agreed. I reluctantly switched to soft drinks, but after just two, I decided I had sobered up enough to return to beer.
We had planned to go and see a DJ that night, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to drink then (even I couldn't convince myself that wasn't a 'party environment'). But there was the train ride there, so it made sense to bring a beer for that. It was quite a long journey, so one became two, and then there was the walk from the station to the club, so I told myself I'd take another. But then - what if there was a queue to get into the club? I’d definitely need at least one more. One harmless beer became four, and by the time we finally arrived at the venue, I was hammered.
I made a beeline for the toilets, where I rolled a cigarette with hash - I was going to need something to give me a buzz now that I couldn’t drink, my mind told me. And then it happened. The moment I regard as the 'turning point' for me: I was handed a pint.
An old friend I hadn’t seen in a while had gone off and bought it for me, automatically presuming it would be a welcomed gesture. I couldn’t take my eyes off the drink, and I frantically began searching for reasons not to put it down. Eventually, a little voice inside whispered, 'you didn’t pay for this, did you? In fact you didn’t even ask for it, so technically it doesn’t count'.
With that, I downed the pint in one and immediately, I blacked out.
The following morning, I woke up and instantly knew something terrible had happened. Roberto refused to look at me, let alone talk to me. As usual, I pleaded with him, telling him I was sorry for whatever it was that I’d done, but this time, he didn’t seem prepared to give me another chance. I left him, sobbing, and took the train back home.
When my mum saw me, in the same clothes as the night before, my tights torn and makeup running down my face, she shook her head and said: "Not again." She was often on the receiving end of my tearful outbursts the day after a particularly bad drinking incident, and l could see how much distress it was causing her. Never in my life had I felt so low, so disgusted with myself, as I did that day. I went on to discover that I had begun hitting Roberto in the club when he tried to stop me from drinking, which got us both kicked out, and then I kissed two random men right in front of his face, seemingly out of spite.
Of course, I didn’t want to believe any of it. I would never do those kind of things in my right mind. I wasn’t violent or a cheat. But then again, how many times had I done things in blackout that were totally out of character? It was the realisation I needed that I had no control over my drinking and, with that, I was able to surrender. I vowed to myself, to my mum and to Roberto that I would never touch alcohol again - and up until now, I’ve managed to keep that promise.
I attended my first 12-step meeting for alcoholics several days after that incident. It took me a while to accept that I was an alcoholic, because I certainly didn’t fit the stereotype - I was only 26, had plenty of friends, money and a good job. I didn’t drink every day, and never in the mornings, plus once or twice I’d managed to go several weeks without a drink. With time I discovered that there is a great deal more to alcoholism than this, but sadly the word has such a stigma attached to it that many people who have the same problem wouldn’t think to seek help because they don't fit the stereotype.
Even now, three-and-a-half years later, I make sure I get to two or three meetings a week. I need them in order to keep my thinking in check. Putting down the drink is one thing, but the harder part is slowly learning how to deal with my emotions and my noisy head.
My road of recovery has been a bumpy one and I’ve had to overcome all sorts of challenges, but each one has taught me a valuable lesson. I’ve learned that it’s risky to make major changes in your first year of sobriety; I’ve learned that it’s not ok to carry on smoking weed and doing other drugs simply because "drugs weren’t my problem". Alcoholism and addiction are one and the same. I’ve learned that moving to another country will not solve all my problems and, most importantly, I’ve learned the only person that can keep me sober is myself.
If anyone reading this is worried their life will cease to be fun the moment they put down the drink, rest assured this does not have to be the case. I still travel, I still dance 'til the early hours of the morning, and I have had some truly exciting opportunities present themselves in sobriety. In March, I will begin a new job leading other alcoholics and addicts along the Camino de Santiago in Spain as a form of recovery, which I am absolutely over the moon about.
There really is nothing that could convince me to trade the rewards of a sober life with the buzz I used to get from alcohol.
Advice from the experts
According to Andrew, “A strong indicator that you might have an alcohol problem is if you are using drink as a medicine for difficult feelings and emotions. If you are, it won’t be long before that medicine could become your poison.” He would give anyone who thinks they are becoming reliant on alcohol the following advice: “Take some time away from drinking and see how you get along. If you find it difficult to stop, stay stopped or cut down, this is a strong indicator that you have an alcohol problem.”
Mark comments that women have a lot of shame, which stops them from seeking help. “Addiction is about self-betrayal. The first step is to talk to someone about your alcohol use, admit that there is a problem, and to agree to stop drinking completely. Don't try to deal with this on your own. Talking to a professional will help you work out the best way forward and what the next steps are for you to take. There are also worldwide support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, where you can seek help and support.”
Dr. Robert Lefever
Robert claims there are twelve signs that you might have an alcohol problem, with the most significant being the inability to predict if you can remain abstinent (without climbing the walls in frustration) after picking up that first drink. Others include contentment with drinking on one’s own, continuing despite damage, going looking for alcohol, and needing alcohol in order to function effectively.
You can watch Robert’s TEDx Talk on 'Why some of us are addicts' here.
*Names have been changed.