THE BONUSES OF SO­BRI­ETY

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Reallives -

ev­ery­one ex­pe­ri­enced lost hours from nights out. I thought ev­ery­one felt jan­gly nerved un­til they had a drink. It turns out they don’t.

The par­ty­ing took its phys­i­cal toll. Calling in sick to work be­came a reg­u­lar oc­cur­rence. I told my­self that be­cause I was hardly ever ill I de­served a few hang­over sick­ies – for the paralysing ones. The times when I lit­er­ally could not move from my bed for the en­tire day. Or when I woke up wear­ing last night’s clothes on the other side of Lon­don from my flat, at 10am (which was of­ten).

Al­co­hol un­locked my true self, I thought. I was will­ing to pay for that lux­ury. Sober, I just felt wrong. What I didn’t know was how ter­ri­bly high the price was go­ing to be. It was go­ing to cost me friends, fa­mil­ial love, many boyfriends, the re­spect of my col­leagues and all of my self- es­teem. It was go­ing to place me in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions – sce­nar­ios in which it was amaz­ing I wasn’t killed.

The pace was gla­cial over the next 21 years. When I first started drink­ing the scary times were one in 100. Then they were one in ten. Then ev­ery other time. Then ev­ery time. But I’d long for­got­ten there was an al­ter­na­tive. For me, ad­dic­tion man­i­fested it­self in the break­ing of hun­dreds of tiny rules. The rules of nor­mal drink­ing. I never thought I’d use my last gro­cery money to buy wine – un­til I did. I never thought I’d drink in the morn­ing – un­til I did. And once you’ve bro­ken a rule once, it be­comes very easy to break it again and again.

I was only per­haps a six on the ad­dic­tion spec­trum when I first tried to mod­er­ate my al­co­hol in­take and failed. I would find suc­cess in the short term and then my binges would slalom out of con­trol. In June 2010, a cou­ple of months af­ter my 30th birth­day, I was dumped by my beloved boyfriend of three years. ‘We’ll get mar­ried if we stay to­gether, be­cause I do love you, but I don’t think we’ll be happy,’ he said. I didn’t know it at the time but he was ab­so­lutely right. ‘It’s like you look for things to be un­happy about,’ he would say. And I did – be­cause they were great ex­cuses to drink.

I was ut­terly heart­bro­ken. In the wake of the break-up I started host­ing my own pity par­ties. On the guest list: me and al­co­hol. I iso­lated my­self and stayed at home. Go­ing out had lost its al­lure. I told my­self I was too tired. But the re­al­ity was I didn’t want to so­cialise; to drink with other peo­ple. I be­gan hid­ing bot­tles in the bath­room. Tuck­ing beer behind the cis­tern. Or vodka behind the claw-foot bath. It made more sense keep­ing the bot­tles in there as that was where I did most of my drink­ing.

When my par­ents re­alised what was hap­pen­ing and locked away the booze, I drank pep­per­mint tea topped up with [a high al­co­hol] mouth­wash. Clever, eh? I thought my pep­per­minty breath would put them off the scent. When my stom­ach twisted painfully, I googled ‘is mouth­wash dan­ger­ous to drink?’ Ar­ti­cle af­ter ar­ti­cle said not only was mouth­wash toxic, but it could kill you if you con­sumed enough of it. How much had I drunk? I re­alised that if I con­tin­ued, I would die pre­ma­turely. And I didn’t want to die. I wanted to live.

***** When I first tried to be sober, my brain felt like a foe. I didn’t want to drink and yet my brain kept sug­gest­ing I reach for al­co­hol. It was ut­terly con­found­ing. I didn’t un­der­stand why my brain and my in­ten­tions were at odds. But like so many as­pects of so­bri­ety, once you whip back the cur­tain and see the wiz­ard, what was once myth­i­cal, all pow­er­ful and in­tim­i­dat­ing shrinks to be­come a lit­tle old man in a waist­coat.

‘Al­co­hol is ex­tremely ad­dic­tive pri­mar­ily be­cause of the way it af­fects the brain,’ says Dr Ju­lia Lewis, a psy­chi­a­trist who has worked in ad­dic­tion for 12 years. ‘Al­co­hol re­sets the brain, hi­jack­ing its ba­sic cir­cuitry so that it be­comes al­co­hol’s big­gest fan.’ Dr Alex Korb, a neu­ro­sci­en­tist, agrees. ‘The more you drink to soothe anx­i­ety, the more “drink­ing as the so­lu­tion” be­comes en­coded in the habit cen­tre of the brain.’

Way back in my first sober month I read an aca­demic pa­per that said neu­ral path­ways in the

I SMELL NICE – and not like a bar­maid’s apron.

I GET LET­TERS OF­FER­ING ME CREDIT CARDS in­stead of court or­der threats.

I CHECK OUT OF HO­TELS EARLY rather than be­ing ousted by the cleaner.

BIRTH­DAY CARDS AREN’T AL­WAYS AL­CO­HOL RE­LATED.

NO MORE LOST COATS, BAGS, PHONES, BANK CARDS and re­turn­ing to the scene of booz­ing with my tail be­tween my legs.

MY HAND­WRIT­ING IS LEGIBLE.

I OR­DER MILK­SHAKES IN BOU­TIQUE CINE­MAS – and en­joy the film.

NO MORE UN­EX­PLAINED BRUISES.

FOOD TASTES BET­TER (my taste buds are sharper).

I MEET FRIENDS WITH­OUT FEEL­ING PARA­NOID about my past be­hav­iour.

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