I knew I wasn’t in control of my drinking from the very start, when I was 14. After 18, when getting hammered at university was de rigueur, I just let go. I was incredibly unhappy and ended up on antidepressants at age 24. I am an introvert with social anxiety, not at all equipped for the society we live in that rewards extroverts. Alcohol helped me hide my personality and my fears. 24 years old was the beginning of my 12 year struggle to stop drinking.
From this point onwards, I ‘controlled’ my alcohol intake to a maximum of 1 bottle of wine or 4 cans of beer most days – unless it was a social or celebratory occasion, in which case, anything goes! But I was never in control. Alcohol completely controlled me. But because I seemingly had a grip on the situation – there was no rock bottom, no loss of job, I could juggle children, work and life without drinking in the mornings – I was dismissed time and time again as not having a problem.
I can look back now, at 15 months sober, in horrified fascination at how long it took me to stop. I think it is likely that I didn’t actually want to stop drinking, I just wanted to stop wanting to drink. But I finally quit drinking forever on 29th April 2018. I am around people who drink, I am around alcohol, I go to pubs, bars and restaurants and I am totally fine!
“We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?”
So why did it take so long?
I never opened up to anyone other than close family and my doctor, all of whom didn’t think that there was a problem. I considered AA, but I didn’t access the support of the huge sober community because I didn’t want to be labelled ‘an alcoholic’. The negative connotations attached to that word makes it so hard for people to ask for help. We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?
So what changed?
I decided, after an unnecessarily heavy Christmas which left me feeling dreadful, to try Dry January. I was happy to announce this intention to the world as it was a challenge, not a problem. There’s no stigma attached to a challenge! This was my first taste of support. Everyone around me and on social media was generally very encouraging. I lasted 40 long, craving-filled days and needless to say, I started drinking again very soon into February. But it had changed something in me.
I had never gone so long without alcohol, other than in pregnancy. I started to do yoga and exercise. I had done that before but always in an ‘all or nothing’ kind of way. If I didn’t do it daily or didn’t lose weight quickly enough I’d give up, feeling like a failure. This time was different, I realised that if I didn’t exercise one day it didn’t matter, as long as I did it again another day and didn’t just stop. Yoga and exercise made me feel amazing and I believe this was the start of forming new and healthier habits.
“…when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going.”
For me, alcohol was a habit – a means to a very quick reward: relief from stress and anxiety, escapism – whatever the ‘reward’ or reason seemed to be. It was a well-trodden path that my brain was familiar and comfortable with. When I stopped drinking, my brain craved that quick reward. But brains can be trained to follow new pathways, to new rewards. For me, those new rewards were exercise – same happy hormones, but those good feelings lasted for so much longer than that first glass of wine! And like my exercise, when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going. This attitude is how I got to my current, craving-free life!
One final note on accepting yourself that is crucial to living your happy alcohol-free life: I have always had feelings of low self-worth and anxiety. I thought that alcohol helped this. In reality it fuelled these feelings every day. I rarely have anxious feelings these days, unless there is a genuine reason! My sense of self-worth is increasing daily; otherwise I could never have opened up to others with my blog. I sometimes wonder, if I had stopped drinking sooner, where I would now be at 37 years old.
But I don’t worry for too long because if I had done anything differently, I wouldn’t have the life I have, and I am so grateful for every tiny part of it.