We are very grateful to an SCPN member, now an independent researcher, for sharing this very personal but hopeful account of her struggle to overcome her problem drinking.
I am now in control of my drinking. It feels good to say that, yet somewhat uneasy, as it’s never a ‘done deal’. I started drinking at 18, and it has taken me 16 years to get to a place where I can say that without an inkling of guilt, without wincing at the odd indiscretion or blow out.
I started drinking heavily at University. I went to the University of Sussex, near Brighton, which is an amazing place to be a student! There were several on-campus bars, and there was one literally 30 paces from my shared accommodation. It was great to get to know new people, and the cheap snakebites were a great conversation facilitator. It was acceptable to go every evening after dinner; there was no judgement. It helped us bond at a time when that felt so monumentally important for all that lay ahead of us.
I, however, had no recognition of my limit. I would drink until I was pretty much comatose in the pub. I didn’t know when to stop. It began to have the opposite effect on my new friends: rather than bond us, it became more of a deterrent. I was not nice to be around when I was drunk. There was a point in the evening when I’d be a happy, life and soul person, but I’d switch quickly to an unhappy place, and stories would pour out of me that I didn’t really need to share with people at all. On reflection, I wasn’t in a happy place for a number of reasons, but alcohol was the perfect tool to remove me from all that upset me, scared me, angered me, and I used it in abundance on a daily basis.
This pattern went on for a good few years. I moved to different places, but the reasons underlying my motivation to drink trailed behind me. Drinking did me no favours. I gained weight rapidly. I was skint. But I was oblivious. I was on this hedonistic quest, and alcohol was the thing which made me feel good, in fact it was the only thing. I had no vision for the future, no ambition. My confidence was on the floor, non-existent, and I was literally drinking myself into an early grave.
The point at which this changed was when I developed an ulcer in my tongue, which evolved to become cancerous. I had surgery to remove it, needed no further treatment, and recovered and went back to my life, thinking I’d had a narrow escape. The doctors told me there was no chance of the tumour coming back, and I was desperately unlucky to have developed it at all. But all the same, they advised me not to drink alcohol at all. I was horrified! That just wasn’t an option for me! I didn’t listen, although I did change what I drank to include red wine. Because that was healthier, right? That’s how I justified it to myself. So my extensive beer and vodka habit became a bottle of red wine a night habit.
Within a few years, I had begun to drink less during the week: I had a partner, and shared a bottle of wine with him every night instead. My eye was always on the level in the bottle, the amount in the glass – was I going to get my share? Every last drop of it? I didn’t want it to run out and I didn’t want to miss out! My weekend drinking binges were restricted to one night a week, but my behaviour when drunk was still appalling.
The moment things started to change was when I started a new job. For the first time in about 10 years of my adult life, I found myself with a purpose. And doing something I was good at. I began to grow in confidence, and with confidence came self-worth. I started to value myself, and therefore to care for myself. I started becoming aware of the state I was in, physically and mentally. I moved on from the destructive relationship I was in. I joined the gym, and focused on losing weight. Cutting back alcohol was a massive part of this, but I still really struggled with finding my limit when out socially, and would often resort to my drunk, self-loathing, angry and bitter alter ego.
I found an online American group called Moderation Management. This was a huge part of my ability to learn to control my drinking. This was an email group of a lot of people all with their own goals to manage their drinking. Some wanted to make it through the morning without sneaking a beer from the cistern in the toilet. Others wanted to maintain sobriety, having come to realise this was the only solution for them. And some, like me, wanted to learn to moderate.
The reasons this worked were threefold: 1) I was motivated to make a change, 2) there were online tools for tracking the number of drinks you’d had in a week, which was a revelation as to how many drinks were snuck under the radar, and 3) being in a group offered accountability, a place to confess indiscretions to a sympathetic ear, and to discuss underlying triggers for an unexpected binge. Basically, it offered a forum to learn how to drink moderately and to practice amongst like-minded people without judgement.
It worked for me. Over a period of 18 months, I reduced my drinking dramatically but I didn’t miss it. I mean, I did to start with, but that passed quickly. I felt better. I performed better at work and had much better relationships with my friends. I missed alcohol socially the most. I really struggled to find a limit when out in the pub, and to get on top of this, I cut it out completely for a period of time. Surprisingly I found out that actually, I’m quite good fun without alcohol!
I now drink when I feel like it. I feel like it maybe once a week, twice if it’s a tough week. When I do drink, I will have one beer. It’s all I need to relax. I don’t feel the need to go all out anymore and get drunk. Being in the pub remains the one trigger I must always be aware of. The environment is overwhelming for me: the friendliness, the drinks lined up, the snacks, the promise of being in that place where everyone is your friend, the people you know to the total stranger. It’s intoxicating, and even now, 20 years down the line from my first drink, I have to force myself to stop the old though patterns consuming me. But it’s doable.
I haven’t been drunk in years. I have gone from having a long-standing heavy dependency on alcohol – yes, OK, I was an alcoholic, although I’m still uncomfortable with that term, and the connotations that accompany it – to being largely a non-drinker, who enjoys a drink on my own terms. And my life has become so much richer for persevering to get there.