image by Ravi Roshan
Before I tell you my story it’s important to note that I don’t have a diagnosis of anything and I used to debate with myself whether or not I actually wanted one. I thought that if I could call it something it means that it’s real, it’s something solid and my pain is validated somehow. Now I am thankful that I don’t have one. I know why I feel and behave the way that I do and to me that’s all that matters. I am an intelligent, hardworking and ambitious person. I hold down a full-time job, pay the bills, I have a roof over my head and friends and family who love me. From the outside I’m just a normal 27 year old, but I guess looks can be deceiving when it comes to psychological distress.
I’ve never had what you would call a 'healthy' relationship with alcohol. When I was 15 I got drunk for the first time and it was in school. I’ve often wondered why I did that and it’s only with hindsight that I can evaluate it. I struggled from anxiety that led to self-harm, triggered by low self-esteem, bullying, family problems and bereavement. I never felt like I fitted in anywhere, I floated from group to group, feeling like an outsider and contently blended into the background. Alcohol gave me the confidence I desired in myself and admired in others. I was able to speak up more, laugh more and not worry about what other people thought of me. I was able to walk around, in an environment that was so distressing for me, without a care in the world. Obviously getting drunk wasn’t the best way of going about it, but at the time it worked for me.
'When I drink I feel like I’m in a bubble and I’m numb, at least for a short time'
After that incident in school I was seen as the ‘one with problems.’ I had already previously taken an overdose and now everyone tip-toed around me not daring to upset the troubled teen who was failing at school and at life. I hated it and I became convinced that people were all talking and laughing about me behind my back. Thankfully, the summer holidays soon came around and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to ‘sort myself out’ and prove everyone wrong. Anorexia soon got a hold of me and provided me with the illusion of ultimate control. Finally I had something that I was good at. Something I was at first, praised for. But that’s another story.
Since I was a child I have always had unhealthy coping mechanisms. When I was growing up I would often lie about having a headache or feeling sick as I knew this would elicit a caring response from my Mum and it worked, she would give me attention or let me sleep in her bed on a night. I guess that’s just what children do. But I never learnt how to identify or communicate my emotions and distress with words. Instead of saying ‘I’m really upset right now about…’ or ‘I’m angry because…’ I would instead use my body through some form of self-harm. I compress my emotions; I don’t like feelings. I don’t know what to do with them or how to process them in a healthy way.
When I drink I feel like I’m in a bubble and I’m numb, at least for a short time. Very much like what the anorexia gave me; the perfect distraction and escapism from what was really going on in my life. Even when I was in the midst of the eating disorder, I still drank a limited amount of alcohol on occasion (I remember once whilst in hospital my Dad sneaking me in a liquor coffee!) It was the only thing I allowed myself to have some days. And throughout uni when I had deemed myself as fully recovered, if I knew I was going out that night drinking I would deliberately eat less to ‘make up for it.’ But it was after I left uni that my alcohol intake really increased. I was now out in the big wide world no longer safe in the comfort of predicable uni life and it terrified me; I had to be an adult in the real world. What did that look like? Who was I? How would I cope?
'I’ve used alcohol to cope with just about everything and anything; from bereavement, assault and relationship problems to even the good things that happen like a new job or a house move. I would find any excuse to drink'
My first proper job out of uni was challenging and intense. It was within a complex care setting where I worked in the patient’s home and the family were heavily involved. It was like being in a fish bowl and when I first started I was very quiet and struggled with my confidence. This was like bait for the family who, on every shift, found a way to belittle me, ridicule me or just ignore me completely. In an already difficult environment due to having to preform life-saving treatment on a weekly basis, I became very depressed and anxious. I began to go to the shop on the way home from work and pick up a bottle of wine. As time went on, and although I eventually moved jobs, the one bottle became two.
Fast forward a couple of years and I’ve used alcohol to cope with just about everything and anything; from bereavement, assault and relationship problems to even the good things that happen like a new job or a house move. I would find any excuse to drink, to quiet my brain or to help me relax. I can go weeks and not drink then something in my brain will tell me to have one drink, just one. And before I know it I’m found collapsed in the street. I now know that I can’t drink, as one is never just one with me. Just like I can’t engage in dieting or calorie counting as I know where that will lead me; down the old familiar dark path of the eating disorder.
I recently heard on the radio someone talk about ‘alcoholism’, the presenter made a reference to ‘alcoholics needing to hit rock bottom’ and from there they can begin to recover. I don’t agree with this (and don’t even get me started on the term ‘alcoholic’), as I have thought I have been at rock bottom far too many times to count. And yes I did wake up the next day and vow to sort myself out and never drink again. Then a few weeks down the line I’m right back there again. I believe, as someone who has used alcohol to cope, we are making a choice. There is going to be no right time, no perfect day and no sign from a higher power that we should now do something about our problem (if you believe in that sort of thing).
'In terms of recovery, it is a choice you have to make'
Last summer I went a 5 day course called Intuitive Recovery, an alternative view of addiction to AA, and it really spoke to the scientist in me. In brief layman’s terms our limbic system is responsible for our reward pathway and behaviours essential for survival; food, water, sex. Our frontal lobe is our control centre responsible for things such as decision making, planning and motor control. The course teaches you that the limbic system craves our drug of choice and tells the frontal lobe that it needs it for survival. It may flood our reward system with dopamine when we have our chosen substance but this part of the brain on its own has no real control over us; it can’t make decisions for us basically. It’s the frontal lobe that controls our actions. So we can choose to not take that substance.
It is difficult, I won’t lie. But each time you choose to say no, the weaker that craving will become (cravings usually last about 6 minutes at a time so my advice is to keep busy, do something to occupy your mind and ride them out!) So in terms of recovery, it is a choice you have to make. To carry on or to stop. If you are struggling then please know there is no waiting for the right time or waiting to reach rock bottom. With the right support, choose now. Alcohol makes things 100x worse. So today is the day I will make positive changes and use my support network. It is very hard some days. When I don’t drink, I suddenly feel again and it’s uncomfortable and scary but I’m learning to sit with those feelings and talk through the emotions, thoughts and memories that brings up; things I’ve been pushing away for so long. I’m learning to challenge those core beliefs about myself that are so destructive. I am very good at helping other people, it’s in my nature and it’s what I do. But I need to learn how to help myself and give myself permission to be happy. There is a reason why people drink and it’s getting to the bottom of that. Throughout my life I have swapped one self-destructive behaviour for another. It’s time to learn how to be kind to myself. I’m done waiting for the ‘right time’ because that time will never come. There is only now.
I’m currently a child and family support worker, supporting young people leaving care. I have a degree in Psychology with an intention of completing my MSc in Investigative Psychology. I use my own experiences to help and support other people, raise awareness and blog about all things mental health. In my spare time I volunteer with the eating disorder charity ‘Beat’ where I raise awareness, promote recovery and train professionals in eating disorders.