It was World Mental Health Day not so long ago, and though I’m (very) late to the party, I’ve decided to finally craft a post I’ve been putting off for a very long time. I’ve procrastinated because, as with all subjects which are difficult to open up about, it has a huge stigma attached. But I like to think what I have to say could perhaps help others. And with the Christmas season approaching, if ever I’m going to do it, this is the time. So, deep breath as I examine the question ‘am I an alcoholic?’
I want to talk about how I used to drink far too much, to the detriment of almost everything in my life. But I don’t want to have to say the words ‘I’m an alcoholic’, because they’re humiliating and awful.
Am I though?
Certainly not today. Today I rarely drink alcohol at all, and neither do I have a problem controlling how much I consume when I do drink. These days I know my limits, and if I’ve had enough I’ll gladly decant half a glass back into the bottle, or even throw it away. These are not the actions of an alcoholic.
Was I though, before?
Am I an Alcoholic?
For those who have to ask themselves this question, these are some of the most surreal and devastating words you’ll ever have to face. If I force myself to be brutally honest, I must confess that at one – okay two – miserable times of my life, I have been unhealthily reliant – if not ‘dependent’ – on alcohol. I could peddle excuses such as ‘I was young’; or ‘I was going through a difficult time’; however that’s all these are: excuses.
The truth is that even as a young adult, I knew I was behaving irresponsibly. But it’s an addiction – it’s compulsive and it’s very difficult to break the cycle.
Excuses aside, I can identify the reasons behind my drinking: I was deeply unhappy, and I have an addictive personality. But it’s also far more complex that that.
I’d grown up feeling very hemmed in with little freedom; I was estranged from my father at that time, which I found very distressing; I was recently single and then quickly manipulated by a man fourteen years my senior. I was left heartbroken and vulnerable. I was working in an incredibly high-pressured environment, where the responsibility both thrilled and drained me. Suddenly finding myself living in London with a reasonable disposable income, working in a building which boasted a bar in the basement – it was all too easy to turn to an innocuous glass of wine to unwind at the end of a long and stressful day.
And of course, in that particular environment, networking was as essential as any office project – there was even a monthly function held during which the company paid for all drinks. It was a slippery slope, which myself and my allies took full advantage of. Eventually these events were cancelled; I was partly to blame. But even so, am I an alcoholic? Because I undeniably had a problem at that time.
A great irony to the tale is that even then, I was held up as a hero – my penchant for and tolerance of alcohol earned me many claps on the back. I’m not certain at which point it stopped being funny and was frowned upon instead. (I do clearly recall the weeks during which I turned my life around, and the way my drinking buddies called me boring and were merciless in their determination to get me drinking again.)
Sadly, my state of mind on each occasion that I abused alcohol (I can admit to that much at least), unquestionably contributed to my lack of control. Because bound up with the illness is a lack of self-esteem, and it’s a vicious cycle: being disgustingly drunk inevitably leads to humiliation and low self-esteem, which lead to a craving for more alcohol…
I became consumed by my desire to drink every evening; I allowed it to become a daily habit which over time negatively affected almost every aspect of my life. It had a detrimental effect on my finances; my mental and physical health; my job; my relationships.
It didn’t help that I was also living alone and suffering from horrendous nightmares. I appreciate that for anybody who has never experienced the trauma of being awoken by the sound of themselves wailing that may seem trivial – but believe me, nightmares of the intensity I was afflicted with leave you slick with sweat, heart racing, and utterly petrified. I began to self-medicate with alcohol, in the hope that a blackout would prevent my nighttime terrors.
I found myself almost continuously agitated – there was nowhere I could relax and nowhere I wanted to be. When I was at work, I couldn’t wait to leave; when it was the weekend, I didn’t know what to do with myself and so invariably took myself to the office to catch up on the work I was allowing to suffer. I regularly visited my childhood home, but no sooner had I arrived than I was desperate to leave and return to London. It was relentless and exhausting.
It seems clear to me now that I was running from myself.
Of course, inebriation lowers inhibitions, and thus my healthy diet and any exercise went out of the window with my dignity and self-esteem. I became overweight, my pallor grey, my skin bad. With hindsight I can vouch for the fact that alcohol is a depressant, not only during the time it’s coursing through your veins, but during the following days and weeks too. And thus continues the devastating cycle.
When I arrived in London I was a young woman full of promise; by the time I left, I was wretched.
What Is An Alcoholic?
So was I an alcoholic at that time, in my early twenties? Here’s the definition from Medical News Today:
Alcoholics are obsessed with alcohol and cannot control how much they consume, even if it is causing serious problems at home, work, and financially.
My husband would say not, that I’m overanalysing it. But though I appreciate that’s his way of protecting me from a harsh and unpleasant acknowledgement, it also takes away my right to be proud of where I am today.
I absolutely believe that bad influences enabled me to take the route I did, and that had I been among people who wanted and encouraged better for me, it may never have happened. But that’s life, and I was an adult and I made my choices. I am responsible.
When I first penned this piece, I wrote here that I couldn’t bring myself to list out all the many ways in which I’d neglected and humiliated myself during those dark times. But then a good friend inspired me with a brave post of her own to feel my shame and share in spite of it. I hope it will better explain my sorry state of mind during that awful period, and perhaps allow me to stop beating myself up about things I did a life time ago.
Even more so, I hope that if you’re reading this and you can relate, that you’ll recognise yourself and seek help.
So here are my confessions…
On one occasion I’d been drinking with work buddies in the pub next to the building we worked in. We stayed there quite late, and as usual I was one of the last to leave. My friend Danny (a lovely guy who cared for me like a big brother) was getting ready to leave with some friends to catch the train home for a big night out. I was desperate to tag along and asked him, but – unsurprisingly – he declined. So I begged.
He tried to put me in a cab. He must have spent twenty minutes trying to convince me to go home. I was so frustrated that he wouldn’t let me stay with them that to spite him I refused to leave the pub. I made him walk away and leave a drunk and vulnerable woman drinking alone in the middle of London – because I was at least going to finish my drink. I was selfish and behaved like a spoilt brat. I fancied myself in love, I think. But the truth is he was just a very decent guy, and I was a very unhappy girl. He always looked after me – as best as I would allow. And he never took advantage. I’m still sorry for being such a burden.
Arguably worse, was another night out, another despicable mess. This time I humiliated myself in front of complete strangers.
I’d been with a friend, and for some reason she was leaving. I forget now whether it was because she was tired or drunk or unwell – all I know is that it was getting late and I was ready to party. I was relieved she was going so I could have some fun. Shameful.
I approached the last remaining table of people in the bar and made a pathetic attempt to get them to come into town with me. But here’s the truly mortifying part: I told them I was going to entrust them with my coat while I put my friend in a cab, so that they wouldn’t leave without me. They must have been bemused and a little bit appalled. They must have pitied me.
They were still there when I returned, but in the end we went our separate ways.
The very worst admission which strips me of any last shred of remaining dignity is in confessing why. Why was I so determined to always be out partying, with whomever was available, irrespective of my financial situation or whether I had to work the following day?
I was on a desperate quest to find my knight in shining armour, someone to rescue me from my sad little life. How appealing…
Naturally, in addition to my personal shame, there was also a knock-on effect to those around me who I let down in various ways – suffice to say I am mortified by the behaviour I remember and horrified at how close I came to serious harm. But I also harbour great sorrow for the girl I was, to have felt such helplessness and despair that I turned to alcohol as my source of comfort; how truly, shockingly tragic.
Above all, I am proud and exhilarated to have fought my way to the other side and beaten my demons, for the most part.
Destigmatising and Overcoming Mental Health Issues
So here’s the reason I’m writing about this now: it’s recently been World Mental Health day. I hold my hands up to the fact that I have in the past suffered from depression and various addictions – some far worse than others. Today I still battle with my anxiety, though I mostly keep it in check.
I want to do my bit to help destigmatise mental health issues. I’m coming clean in order to open up the conversation and hopefully encourage others to do the same.
Because often, addiction is a symptom.
I can’t condone the dreadful conduct of alcoholics, because irrespective of what lays behind them, their actions have no place in a civilised society. But I absolutely sympathise with those masking a mental health issue behind unacceptable behaviour – I’ve been there. I’m lucky to have met my husband at a time when I need rescuing. Not everybody is so fortunate.
I’m proof that alcohol can become a problem for anyone, given the right (or wrong) circumstances. I’m also proof that it can be beaten with hard work and determination. If you or someone you care about is ready to ask ‘am I an alcoholic?’ you can access further information at Alcoholics Anonymous. They provide support and guidance from others who understand the realities of alcoholism.