Far happier in recovery than I ever was drunk and stoned!
I certainly used to be. But I wouldn’t admit it then.
Some will tell me, insist even, that I am still, and will always be an alcoholic. That I have a disease that can never be cured. That I am one decision away from a return to my addiction.
I disagree. A lot.
You see, I don’t believe that my addiction was born out of disease.
My addiction was born to help me survive.
It was a coping strategy that allowed me to do things I couldn’t otherwise do…
It gave me the veneer of sociability, confidence and belonging. A facade to justify my impulsive, self-destructive, dopamine-seeking tendencies.
It offered the pretence of stress reduction and relaxation. It drowned out the screams of self loathing and rage that was the secret soundtrack to my life..
And it convinced me it was the only thing that kept me standing through raging storms that besieged my life.
Alcohol was the painkiller that soothed the agony of undiagnosed ADHD, non-existent self-esteem and heartbreak after heartbreak.
I started drinking like any normal teenager, to have fun with my friends, to fit in, and to rebel against the parents.
In a new group of friends, the first people to see and accept me as I was, I discovered that more drinking plus drugs plus crazy friends equals fun…
…and then my life imploded.
50 year old me looks back and sees the terrible mental health catastrophe that was unfolding. 19 year old Esther just thought that she was the worst of all humans.
She felt hated by those who had always loved her. And she hated herself more than any of them possibly could have.
Suddenly, the drinking took on a new purpose. I discovered that if I drank enough, the screaming in my head would stop for a while.
I could at least pretend to be happy.
Act as if I was ok.
Shrug away the pain and the self loathing, and be the good time party girl.
But the pain and self loathing never went away. It would return late in the night, when my drunk brain couldn’t make sense of it.
Or in the morning, when my hangover would collide with the added self loathing my drunken behaviour would cause.
The screaming would get louder.
The need for oblivion ever more desperate.
For twenty years, minus a couple of years for pregnancy and breastfeeding, this was how I dealt with life.
Celebrating? Go get drunk!
Making a new friend? Can you get drunk with them? Stoned? Great, they can stay!
Had a bad day in work? Get drunk, you’ve earned it?
Stressed about tomorrow? Have a drink, it will relax you…
Can’t sleep? Better have a drink, that will help…
Heart break? Have a drink
My brother has died? Oh hell, you really need a drink!
Hanging out with friends? Is that even possible without a drink?
You know your friends are drinking and you’re not with them…. It’s ok to drink… got to be with them in spirit, after all!
Going to see a band you love? Got to get hammered first!
You get the picture. There wasn’t much in my life that I didn’t see as an excuse to get drunk.
And ‘a drink’ was never just one…
If I went to the pub for lunch with colleagues, I’d have to have a soft drink because I knew I’d want to drink more…
I’d sulk if there wasn’t ‘enough’ booze, and no way to get more…
I still remember the very first time I bought a bottle of wine to drink on my own to replace the friends I used to drink with. I had moved away to go to university. As a single mother, it was hard for me to make friends outside of class mates, and I was lonely.
One evening, I went to the local shop and returned with wine. I was going to pretend I was with my friends.
Drinking alone had always seemed like ‘what alcoholics do’. Of course, I was able to justify it to myself… I wasn’t drinking alone. I was drinking with my friends. They just weren’t there!
That was about 23 years ago, and I still remember it clearly. I knew even then that I was on a slippery slope. I’d been on it for a few years by that point… deep in drinking and drug use as a way to manage my emotions. But that decision to start drinking alone was to set the course of my life for the next 15 years.
So it’s not like I didn’t know what was happening. I knew for a long time that I had problems…when you can’t spend time with your friends unless you’re all drinking. When your entire life is constructed around drinking, you know you have problems. I would look to the ones in my gang who drank more than me, and use them as my reasons to justify my own drinking. ‘I’m not as bad as xxxx’….
Or arguing with a friend about which one of us is an alcoholic, as if there can only be one!
When my brother died, I made the conscious decision that I must not start drinking in the day. I knew I wouldn’t come back from that. I’d always assumed I’d be the first of us to die. My mother didn’t need the added grief of seeing me become the second.
So the awareness was there…. I just got very good at denial. Don’t we all? The addiction has to hide itself. So it gives us justification and gaslights us into believing it is giving us what we need…
How could I possibly live without booze? What would happen to my friendships? How would I have fun if I had to stay sober?
It turns out, I can have a lot of fun sober!
Well…. If you need booze to have fun…if your friendships depend on the fake connection created by booze, and if you line every experience you have with wine and cider, then there’s not much room left for much that is real in life.
You hide from all that is real below the fog of drunkenness. How do you know what fun really is if it doesn’t start till you’re on your 3rd pint? How can you tell if you really like a person if you only really talk to them when you’re both getting drunk?
Standing in front of life as it really is, facing the highs and lows and all in between without sinking into the mist first takes strength. It takes work. It requires that you look deep into yourself and learn who you really are. It demands that you new ways to cope with the emotions you will feel. And insists you find new ways to support yourself when life tries to knock you over.
It isn’t easy. FAR from it.
Almost 9 years into my sobriety, it sometimes feels easy. I can easily be around others when they are drinking, even holding their drink if they need to go to the loo!
I don’t have to battle with a demon in my head telling me that *this* problem merits a drink. I evicted that demon a long time ago.
I know without a doubt that there isn’t a single problem life will throw at me (and there have been a LOT of those) that will be made one speck better by me drinking. I know without a shred of doubt that the only way drinking will impact my problems is to make them worse.
So I don’t need to choose to stay sober anymore, any more than I have to choose to breathe.
But does that make it easy?
No. But whose life is 100% easy?
There have been times I have wished for the oblivion of drunkenness, even for a moment…
But my future self always stops me. I picture her the next morning. She’s lying in bed, feeling like shit and hating herself with every fibre of her being. Covered in shame as she tries to piece together what she did, and wondering why the fuck she did that to herself. She keeps me sober. I never want to be her again.
And I find another way to manage.
That’s not to say I always manage my emotions well. Sometimes I fall apart. Sometimes I do nothing but scroll through social media, or binge on Schitts Creek again!
But I do it sober.
Because sober is what I do.
Sober is how I get through life now.
Sober is who I am.
My name is Esther Nagle. And I am not an alcoholic.