This time last year, I was a teacher living in London, in her own place, doing ‘well’ to the outside world, but underneath the carefully constructed facade, I was actually drowning. I had begun what I now affectionately refer to as my ‘final descent to rock bottom’. It was a decline I believe started many years ago and a journey I had to make to start the climb back up.
I had a normal middle class upbringing and I wanted for nothing as a child. Except actually, I wanted for everything. I’ve often heard recovering addicts describe this strange emotion; it’s called feeling ‘less-than’. No matter what I had (which was more than enough), I always wanted more. I felt that if I just had my friend’s teddy or the latest trainers or more CDs, I’d finally be happy. Inevitably when I got those things (by being very spoiled), I found they couldn’t fill the hole inside me.
When I found alcohol (and later other substances), I discovered that something had the capacity to fill the hole. In actuality, all that happened was that drinking made me forget the hole was there for a little while. It always came back and – worse – it grew to gaping.
I’ve never been able to consume alcohol (or any mind altering substance for that matter) with either control or any measure of predictability. Before I even hit the legal drinking age, I had checked off most of the ‘what-not-to-dos’, the classic alcoholic markers. I was arrested for being drunk and disorderly at thirteen, I frequently wet myself and I thought that blacking out was par for the course on a night out. I never knew my limits, always went too far and my behaviour while drunk, was erratic, dangerous and extreme. This went under the radar in my early twenties when I was at university and went on to work in marketing; it was glamourous and everyone was doing it.
Now I realise that not everyone was doing it in the way I was doing it.
For example, when living in a shared house in my second year at university, I would drink alone in my room and go out into Central London alone. You’d think the fact my contemporaries (who were no angels) couldn’t keep up might have been a more obvious sign I was in trouble but for years, any niggling ideas that I might have a problem were swiftly swilled away by more booze.
Over the years, I had periods of stability – usually procured in the pursuit of a new job or partner, but giving up drinking entirely never entered my mind. No matter how successful I became, things routinely ended up – eventually – crashing down around me and my drinking progressed. I had more accidents and I began to obsessively worry about my health, turning up at hospitals and calling ambulances convinced I was dying of a heart attack. What was actually happening was that my body was – as it ought to – responding to my intake. I suffered horrendous gastroenteritis, problems with my vision and at one point a swollen liver. Still, the body (particularly the liver) is a pretty hardy thing, and as soon as I recovered from whatever malady I was suffering at the time, the horror of it receded enough for me to start again.
I am a real victim of euphoric recall, where my mind will replay to me the ‘best bits’ of my drinking, kind of like they do on Big Brother when someone gets evicted. Gone are the memories of hugging the toilet bowl and promising never to do it again. These real terrors are spliced and replaced with rose-tinted fakery of things that might not have ever really happened, since I can’t really remember much when I have a drink.
It was in my late twenties/early thirties that my lifestyle began to really take its toll on my mental health. In my relationships with others I could be abusive, dishonest and manipulative. To myself, I was nothing short of vicious. I frequently self-harmed and over-medicated with drugs both illicit and legal. I sometimes sought help rather half-heartedly and started and stopped prescriptions for SSRIs (a type of anti-depressant) and doctored-ordered CBT (a type of talking therapy). I ignored advice to seek help from drugs and alcohol services and now believe I only went along with suggestions to improve my mental health because I believed that it might make me ‘well enough to drink’.
I just didn’t understand that alcohol was likely exacerbating my depression, if not being the root cause of it.
My life trundled on; a succession of ups and downs, a car crash of broken relationships and promises. Somewhere along the way, I became a teacher and grew to love the career I’d chosen, but it still wasn’t enough to curb my drinking.
I’ve since learned that nothing can curb my drinking, because I’m an alcoholic. I’ve got friends who chose booze over their homes, partners, and even their kids. This is not because they are bad people or don’t love their children – it is because addiction is a complex, powerful disease that tells the sufferer that the poison is the cure.
By the time I was 34, I was almost defeated by the poison. My mum passed away suddenly in 2015 and this was a dam-busting turning point. It is one of my biggest regrets that I used her death as an excuse to get worse, not better. I quite simply lost control and embarked on two very dark years of drinking and taking drugs, nearly always to blackout and nearly always alone. I was signed off work, unable to cope with life anymore and one bleak evening in December last year, I took enough paracetamol and antidepressants to floor a horse. I devastated my family, shocked my friends and almost died. And yet, I still wanted to drink. In fact, the very reason I believe I tried to take my own life was because I could no longer see a future for me without drinking. It was killing me, but I didn’t think I could live without it.
After being resuscitated in a London hospital, I was admitted to a psychiatric inpatient facility for a week. As many of us do, I lied to every professional in there about how much I was drinking and using. Even though I had nearly left this world, I was still desperately hopeful there was something ‘medical’ that would explain my behaviour. Once that was sorted, I could crack on with the boozing.
I was in luck. In my experience, medical doctors seem to know very little about the nature of addiction, how it corrupts integrity and decimates honesty, so I was given a diagnosis of Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder (a disturbingly common label often incorrectly given to addicts). I grabbed onto this diagnosis like it was a Christmas present. Such is the insanity of addiction; I was more amenable to the idea of having a serious psychiatric disorder than I was to addressing my drinking.
This is where I think the borderlines between addiction and mental health are blurred. I still don’t fully understand where one ends and the other begins. Does one cause the other, are they symptomatically the same? Opinion varies. What I do know is that the solution to ending my misery was very simple – I had to admit that alcohol was no longer (nor had it ever been) the friend I thought it was.
After a last ditch attempt at “controlled drinking” just before Christmas, which ended with me coming round in a hotel room having ‘lost’ days rather than hours to a blackout, I rocked up – shaking – to a twelve step meeting. Shortly after that, I discovered there was a thriving online recovery community and these two things became the bedrock of my recovery. I am now ten months clean and sober.
Since choosing sobriety, my life has changed in almost every imaginable way. It’s incredibly challenging at times; we live in a society saturated with the message that alcohol is fun and sober is boring. Mums are sold wine as a payoff, gin comes branded by unicorns and prosecco is just bloody everywhere! Learning to rewire your coping mechanisms is no picnic and having to explain to people why you CHOOSE not to ingest a poisonous toxin can be exhausting. But it’s worth it. Because along with these challenges come countless rewards, the most significant being a new way of life that is no longer mired in chaos.
In recovery, I have learned that discomfort is a normal part of life, as are sadness, angst and anxiety. These feelings are okay and it’s okay to sit with them instead of drown them in Sauvignon Blanc. I am tapering off anti-depressants and learning to meditate and through the help of friends, fellowship and online sisterhood I finally find that I like myself. I’m not sure when that happened, but I’m glad it did!
I have had mixed responses to my choice to come clean (pun intended) about my journey through addiction, but I believe telling our stories is important for so many reasons.
I do this because I need to not keep this gift to myself. I do it because had I known about the amount of support and love that was out there, I might not have been so frightened in my rock bottom.
I do this because speaking up about recovering from addiction should be as revered as surviving any life-threatening illness.
I do it because I want people to see my sobriety as a strength and not a weakness or an inability to “cope” with alcohol.
I do this because I was pretty much the last to know I was an addict and there are a lot of people out there, who are dear to me, who have been patiently waiting for me to get well. None of these people have failed to show up for me these past ten months and I’ve been blown away by people’s kindness and support.
If you are struggling with addiction or think you may have a problem, please know: you are not alone and there is always a way out of the chaos. You can climb out of your rock bottom, as I have mine.