I can’t quite believe it’s been 364 days ago that I decided to see if I could give up drinking for 3 months. Maybe, if i could do 3 months, I’d go for another 3. And here we are, 31st December and I haven’t had an alcoholic drink – not even a taste of one – in the entire year.
Some people might say, so what? Lots of people don’t drink. Or, so what? If you want to stop drinking just do it without making a fuss or going on about it. Or, why bother? Just cut down if you’re drinking too much. Or why bother? Life will be devoid of meaning or fun without it. Well, I say people “might” say this. Actually, they did say all these things. In the early days I had people offer to spike my drink so I could get drunk without breaking my resolution. I had people angry with me for even daring to suggest that perhaps my drinking habits weren’t healthy. I had people be personally offended by my decision, as if my choice, and determination, to do this reflected badly on them. I had people nearly shouting at me they were so offended. I was told “don’t be so ridiculous. You can’t not drink. What’s the point?”. I was told my social life was over. I wondered if it was.
364 days later and honestly? With no hyperbole, no exaggeration, my year of sobriety has been one of the best things I have ever done.
I’ve lost weight and feel healthier. I’ve done more with my life – weekends are so long when you don’t waste hours being hungover and while I’ve not saved any money I’ve got loads more cool stuff, taken part in more things, taken evening classes and not had to worry at the end of every month like I always used to. I’ve worked through my issues with self-esteem and discovered how to have fun, be confident and make mistakes while sober.
What I haven’t done, as I look back over my blog documenting my journey, is come fully clean over the extent of my drinking before. And if I am going to move forward in 2015 with a healthier attitude to drinking, I am going to need to address this. And I can’t address it without explaining a little more about my issues with anxiety.
I have always had problems with anxiety and panic attacks, as long as I can remember. The earliest panic attack I can remember that I can clearly identify as a panic attack was when I was around 11 years old. I can’t remember what upset me in the first place – something very minor I am sure, but I remember crying – screaming even – in bed, desperate for comfort and desperate for someone to tell me it would go away and that I wasn’t dying. I remember my Dad and Stepmum at a complete loss as to what to do – perceiving it as a tantrum from a child old enough to know better and chosing to not give me any attention. I understand why they did this, and in their situation I may well have done the same. But I also remember the all-consuming terror and being totally out of control, unable to calm myself down. I think I screamed until I fell asleep of exhaustion.
It wasn’t for many many years – almost 2 decades in fact – that I understood this as a panic attack and began to learn ways of managing them. I now recognise that I manage anxiety in a rather backwards way. I cope with big problems, like being stranded, or a family member going into hospital, really well. I turn into this calm practical person who looks for solutions and just Gets On With Things and Is Supportive To Other People and says things like “well, getting angry isn’t going to help” and “we’re all in this situation together”. But if I have a small problem, like, I can’t find my keys or my Oystercard or my glasses, I go into absolute meltdown. It’s the end of the world. I am become a puddle of tentacle waving rage, accusing inanimate objects of conspiring against me to ruin my life. To try to prevent such meltdowns I have 3 sets of bike keys, 4 spare Oystercards and several pairs of glasses kept in different places around the house, just in case. I still have the occasional panic attack, but now that it’s been diagnosed I have learned to recognise them, learned how to calm myself and have medication for it which helps enormously.
But at one point in my 20s, anxiety nearly destroyed me. I couldn’t leave the house for long periods of time. It affected my job, my relationships, and of course my social life. Most of my social life was conducted online, via LiveJournal, where I struck a balance between honesty about my depression and yet a carefully constructed image of myself as the fun-loving and outgoing person I knew myself to be, were it not for the waves of anxiety that prevented me from being that person all the time. I was a fun person, a party girl. People were often saying “you seem too bouncy to be depressed”. I needed to be that person. I needed people to see that person, and experience that person, so that I could experience her too, even if I didn’t always feel that way. Enter, from left, possibly pursued by bears, Vodka. And Rum. My props on the days when I needed to be fun. When I needed an excuse to be an insane mess, dancing on the dance floor like I didn’t care. Sure, I might end up a sobbing mess later but that’s the ALCOHOL. Not ME.
Although I dealt with the depression, and the agoraphobia, and to some extent the anxiety, the reliance on alcohol to be Fun Party Person (TM) never really went away. It took the best part of this year off alcohol for it to click that I don’t remotely need it. Maybe I did once, but it’s a habit I fell into I didn’t need. And it was a habit that few people knew the true extent of. For every big social occasion, I would need to be drunk before I got there. I would usually polish off the best part of half a bottle of vodka, or an entire bottle of cheap wine (or worse, Lambrini…) while getting ready. I would have empty water or cola bottles in the house so that I could take a drink with me on the way to the event. If I had any left on arrival I’d down it before going in. I told myself I was doing this to save money, so I wouldn’t need to buy drinks out; but once I was there I just wanted to keep being as drunk as possible and by that point you’re also not making wise decisions, so I’d not only keep drinking but buying drinks for other people all over the place. I’m relatively lucky how few times I’ve been at serious risk, but there are enough occasions that I look back on and feel sick at some of the situations I got myself into.
Why was I drinking like this? Was I really trying to cover up anxiety? Was it habit? Or was this just what I thought was normal? Probably a lethal cocktail of the three.
It was certainly this cocktail that led to the incidents of New Year’s Eve 2013. I can’t detail them in their entirety as I don’t remember all of it. The facts I know, either from dim memory or from being informed about them afterwards (occasionally while holding my hands over my ears going please, please don’t tell me)
- I tried to fight someone. I took off my (borrowed) coat, threw it on the ground and said “come down here and say that to my face”. I don’t know why I was so angry with this person.
- I somehow threw my makeup out into the road and ran out in front of a car to get it
- I got a little bit too into character – I was dressed as Cruella De Ville and at some point would not stop being Cruella De Ville. I was being her all night. Apparently this stopped being funny really quite early on to everyone but me.
- I tried to drink some really expensive bottle that didn’t belong to me (it was rescued at the last minute)
- I drank something random offered to me by a stranger in the street
- I was vile to the then Mr RDP, who at one point looked at how long it would take him to walk back to London (at 200 miles, approximately 65 hours).
The thing that saddens me most, more than my awful behaviour, is how little I remember of the good things. I don’t remember the fireworks. I don’t remember my Dad opening his briefcase at midnight to reveal it was full of confetti, which we then all threw over ourselves. I see my family so rarely, and I wasted this wonderful opportunity because of my mission to be as drunk as possible.
My resolution to not drink for 2014 – well, for the first 3 months of it and more if possible – came entirely from this night. Out of a desire to prove how sorry I was to the then Mr RDP and my family for my behaviour, and out of a desire to not ever feel that hungover again. It wasn’t until the year started to tick by that I started to realise my problem with alcohol was bigger than this one night, and how big a change this really could be.
I can’t claim my anxiety is gone as that’s something I have struggled with from long before I discovered alcohol (although in the interests of full disclosure I had already been drunk, and hungover, once, before I was 11 and had that panic attack; I and another small child climbed up to the first aid cabinet and drank all the banana flavoured children’s medicine and then danced naked around the garden singing “we’ve drunk the mesydin we’ve drink they mesydin”. On being told the next day the headache I had was how grown ups feel when they’ve had too much beer and wine I replied that I was “NEVER going to drink beer or wine EVER”) but the aspect of anxiety that prevents me from participating in a social life without a boozy safety bubble? That is a demon which has been well and truly sent packing, with no forwarding address and a permanent restraining order. I won’t ever feel the need to be drunk to enjoy myself, to be drunk to go to a social occasion or to be drunk to be a fun person.
The next stage, is, I guess, to see whether or not I am able to approach alcohol in a moderate manner. As someone who has only ever seen alcohol as a means to a drunken end, am I able to go out and have one drink? It used to be the case that if I wasn’t going to get drunk, I wouldn’t bother drinking at all (and therefore not bother going out.) Have I been able to reset my relationship with alcohol to the extent that I will be able to enjoy one drink for the taste, for the relaxation? Do I want to?
At midday tomorrow I will be standing on the bank of a freezing pond in my swimming costume, cup of mulled wine in hand, contemplating all that has been in 2014, and all that could be in 2015.
With less than 12 hours to go I still don’t know whether I want that to be my first drink, or my last.