THE BONUSES OF SOBRIETY
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.