I’m Siân, And I’m An Alcoholic: Reasons Why I Didn’t Get Help For My Alcoholism
TW: Addiction, alcohol, mental health, sexual assault, prescription drugs, self-harm, suicide.
It seems so easy to get help for alcoholism from the outside world — it’s expected that if you know you are ruining both your body and your mind repeatedly with alcohol, eventually you will get to a stage where you decide you’ve had enough, and usually this stage is seen to be brought about by a “rock bottom”. But my experience wasn’t like that, and I’m sure it is the same for many alcoholics the world over. I had my rock bottoms, sure, I had lots of them. Under the influence of alcohol I have woken up with strangers, sometimes whilst involved in monogamous relationships, with no memory of the night before; I have woken up in hospital, several times, trying to patch together the hazy memories of the night before, nursing a hangover whilst lying on paper sheets, noticing bandages wrapped around my left wrist; I have terminated meaningful friendships like it was nothing to me and not only that, I have verbally torn my beloved friends down for all of their perceived flaws, the flaws they told me in confidence, because I was drunk and angry; I have made sincere attempts on my own life; I have been violent. Let me just say this about that: admitting you are an alcoholic does not absolve you of all the terrible things you did whilst drunk. I accept that; of course, all of these things did not happen purely because of alcohol — where violence, suicidality, dishonesty, hospital admissions and dicking my friends over are concerned — those are facets of the chaotic and often nihilistic nature of my personality, along with my bipolar disorder, that are intrinsic to me as a person. I am not unique in this — we are all capable of atrocities and we manage to keep them hidden, they lay dormant and usually only come out when we summon them for good reason. However, for me at least, alcohol would gently tease them out of me, slowly at first, but combined with my entitlement, greed and my unshakeable urge to get as far away from my own mind as possible, more binging and more heavy drinking would eventually send the dark parts of me come howling out of my mouth like a banshee. And it wasn’t pretty. But did I care? Not particularly. I convinced myself that all of my problems were down to my illness, that maybe I was not being medicated properly, the goddamn doctors just weren’t doing their jobs, I couldn’t get therapy, there were no beds on psychiatric wards available when I needed them, I was just so troubled, nobody knew the trouble I’d seen, my partners didn’t love me enough, and it was because I was profoundly unloveable, and nobody wanted to publish my work, because I was profoundly untalented. I know, I know — poor me, poor me, pour me another drink. This cycle of self-loathing and selfishness went on for years, and I only got help because of an intervention. My Uncle, who I have always had such a close and loving relationship with, made a dedicated journey to tell me — carefully and calmly — to my face that my Mum had been calling him in tears, concerned about what on earth I was doing to myself, and witnessing her eldest daughter go down this ultimate path of rapid self-destruction was causing her own mental health to deteriorate. Even then, I thought “sure, I like a drink, but who doesn’t? My problems are not down to alcohol, alcohol is how I cope with my problems! Why can’t you see that?!” but, I went along with it, because why not? Maybe I’d do the grand gesture of giving up and quietly introduce drinking back into my life in a way that would seem that I hadn’t planned, a way that left me seemingly blameless. Largely I knew I didn’t want my family to be hurt by me and the idea that I’d been taking up space in the minds of those closest to me with worry, that unsettled me. Fuck everyone else, but my family mean the world to me. Still, I wasn’t entirely convinced I had that much of a problem. At best, I was a decadent and dissolute creative, at worst, maybe I was alcohol dependent, at a push. So I went along with doctors appointments, I took the thiamine supplements I was prescribed, I tried going to bed and getting up at a reasonable hour, but my heart wasn’t in it. I wanted to be seen to be recovering, but still cling onto my vice secretly. I thought that would work. But after some time and some education, the word “alcoholic” loomed over and insisted upon me, something clicked, and after my first few weeks sober, I found I was newly capable of showering myself. I was wearing nicer clothes. Sometimes I’d throw on a little make up. Maybe take a walk into town, do some shopping. I began losing the weight I had gained over the years through poor diet, excessive alcohol and medication. I found myself teetotal, and not hating it.
That was 8 months ago, which is no time at all, really. I threw myself into regular appointments at the local drugs and alcohol misuse clinic, and — I just stopped. It’s weird. It just ended. And it was hard, and it is still hard, sometimes it’s impossible, and it hurts, and it feels like an injustice at times, but I’ve finally got to a stage where I not only don’t want to drink, but my brain now associates alcohol with terrible experiences and the idea of having just a cheeky beer on a hot day, or a whisky before bed, seems terrifying to me. Even things that are flavoured with alcohol, I can’t consume them. They make me feel sick. Having said that, that’s just how I feel now. Does this mean I’ll never drink again? I have no idea. I miss it, I know that much. I miss it a lot. I don’t know what kind of thought will one day creep in telling me to buy a litre of vodka and neck it (because after all, don’t I deserve it, after ALL I’VE PUT MYSELF THROUGH?!). But I’m convinced that one day it will, and how I’ll deal with it I just don’t know. No recovering addict can ever know for sure that they will not relapse.
So why didn’t I get help sooner? Why, when I was told by the doctor my blood test revealed I had given myself liver damage, did I not think that was a good enough reason? Why, when I flirted with death almost every time I got drunk in my last year of drinking, why did I not believe I might be an alcoholic? It’s easy. Because we’re told lots of things about alcoholics that aren’t necessarily true — the wrinkled and gnarled old man on the park bench wearing dirty clothes and clutching a bottle of whisky with a swig left in close to his heart archetype of alcohol addiction is not true. Here are some examples of why I didn’t think alcohol was a problem in my life.
1. I didn’t drink every day.
This one is possibly the biggest misconception about alcoholism there is. I didn’t drink every day. I drank most days, sure, but not every day. I would find the most tenuous of reasons to drink on days where I would normally stay sober — usually being “I want to get some writing done” and I believed that alcohol made me more creative and it did, but the truth was I’d write maybe two lines of a poem and then get blackout drunk to congratulate myself on my dazzling work. I also didn’t drink if I had a very bad hangover. These were few and far between, I normally combatted hangovers with hair of the dog, successfully, but every so often, I would get a hangover that completely screwed me over. Anxiety, panic, headaches, vomiting, dizziness, ravenous appetite, sweating, crying, dissociation, depression, intrusive thoughts of suicide, worsening of my pre-existing psychosis at the time. I remember once being told by an irresponsible therapist that a good way to deal with hearing voices was to have a few alcoholic drinks. God, I clung onto that advice for dear life. But it didn’t work. It doesn’t work. When I was in this state, I wouldn’t drink. But I’d drink the next day, and I’d drink more than I would normally drink, because I was rewarding myself for my one day of sobriety.
2. I didn’t drink in the daytime.
Okay, so I didn’t *always* drink in the daytime. Maybe once a month, at a push, if we’d gone to the pub on a sunny day, or maybe when my then boyfriend’s mother visited because she drank literally all the time and I felt like I wanted to keep up with her. It was the perfect excuse to get loaded — “your mother’s here, we always drink a lot when she visits”. I found her company to be quite exhausting and unpleasant, but she was a booze-hound, just like me, so I welcomed her infrequent visits. However, whenever I did drink during the day, I would see that daytime drinking as an acceptable catalyst to maintaining a steady level of drinking for the rest of that day and that night, until I passed out. Interestingly, if I was at a pub and I knew I had no opportunity to drink enough to get very drunk, I would pass up on drinking anything at all. It was all or nothing. I didn’t want to start something I couldn’t finish. Soon enough though, there was never a chance I couldn’t finish. I would find the money somewhere, I would cancel the plans I was meant to have. And it was always somebody else’s fault — “Well of course I was going to get drunk today, it’s the fucking boat race / Bastille day / my birthday week / payday / nice outside”. That’s the thing about having an addiction — we will do anything we can to convince those around us that we are not to blame.
3. I didn’t favour cheap alcohol with a high proof. I had discerning taste.
My favourite red wine, providing it is in the cooler months, is an 8-year aged St. Emillion. I also quite enjoy a Montepulciano D’Abruzzo and I get positively giddy when we start reaching Beaujolais season. I started liking good whisky as a protest to boyfriends constantly excluding me from their fraternal little mutterings about long-aged single malt, it being too peaty or not peaty enough. I got into gin because being seen drinking a martini seemed awfully sophisticated. I would only drink that kind of vodka that had those gold flakes in, for the same reasons. When I bought alcohol, I bought good alcohol. Looking back, I spent a fortune, when it would have been much easier to buy a three litre bottle of Frosty Jack’s and have done with it. But I genuinely enjoyed alcohol, though I didn’t love cooking with it. If a recipe called for a splash of Riesling, I’d rather forgo it. That’s booze that could be in my belly, not in this coq au vin. Sometimes I’d skirt this issue by buying my regular ration of two bottles of wine, and buy the cooking wine on top. That way, with this extremely cunning life-hack, I’d get to drink almost three bottles of wine that night. But the point is I was still drinking. I wouldn’t offer my boyfriend any wine, or if he did ask for some, I would convince him to take one of my Valium, that way he’d be feeling pleasantly numb and spaced out, and would have no need for a drink. I have a favourite Champagne, I have a working understanding of most spirits. I would try new things, exotic liqueurs from foreign countries. The one thing I hadn’t grasped, however, was moderation. My god, I would think, I’m so glad it’s Pimm’s season again! I love Pimm’s. I love it so much in fact that I’m going to drink all of it until I’m sick.
4. I didn’t make a habit of drinking alone.
I would only drink alone if I was experiencing high levels of anxiety, normally if I was in the house alone and I had convinced myself a murderer or sexual predator was going to sense I was alone and break in and kill me. Looking back that entirely flies in the face of logic — if I had come to any danger whilst alone and wasted, what good would I have been in protecting myself? Would the police take me seriously? Because that’s happened before now, I have been assaulted and attacked, whilst dangerously drunk. Rather than the police (and even friends) thinking it was vile and disgusting that I had been taken advantage of (to word it nicely) in such a state, it was instead assumed that I should have expected it, if I had insisted on drinking so much. I blamed myself too.
My drinking was social, that’s what I told myself. Near the end of my drinking, I spent wild amounts on money not just on booze for myself, but for other people, so they could drink with me. I would invite friends to see me and spend my week’s benefits on the performative nature of alcoholism — introductory glasses of flimsy, fizzy Cava or even Champagne, dinner at a local restaurant and the wine and cocktails that came with, a few pints down the pub afterwards, maybe some tequila shots just for fun, and then several bottles of wine back home when we’re winding down. They would eventually want to go to bed and sleep, so I had a hidden stash of booze just for me that I’d neck very quickly when I saw they were showing signs of tiredness and exhaustion, so that I could pass out at the same time, rather than sitting up all night alone whilst everyone slept soundly, climbing up the walls and thinking about what good just one final glass of Prosecco would’ve done me. When I drank with other people, it felt less like I was reliant on alcohol, and so I went to great lengths to make sure I was surrounded by people who wouldn’t say no to a free drink. It was desperate. I was desperate.
And finally -
5. Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t work for me.
I do not doubt the amazing work that AA do to help not only to break the vicious cycle of addiction, but to teach us addicts how on earth to conduct a “normal” life outside of the addiction, and that is often the hardest part. I have several friends who have turned their lives around with the constant support of AA, and so I am in no way here to attempt to dissuade anyone to make use of their service, their stellar work.
When I was 19, my then partner floated the idea that I should maybe start going to meetings; he was concerned about my bottle-of-whisky-a-day, gung-ho attitude to life, especially given that at the time I was having my very first mental health crisis. I was using alcohol to self-medicate, and he gently suggested I at least attend one meeting, which was stationed — ironically enough — at the day hospital for mental health I had become so accustomed to, ten minutes walk away from our house. I tied my greasy hair into a half-arsed pony-tail and pulled on a long-since washed pair of jeans and a red top that sometimes rode up to expose the bear-claw stretch-marks I had recently acquired. I felt I was in the room with a lot of people who understood me, who wanted to help me, I felt safe, it all felt important. I was the youngest there by a long chalk. But listening to people talk about their rock-bottoms, their delirium tremens, their cirrhosis of the liver, their jaundice — I could not equate their experiences with mine. I was just a teenager who liked to get on the piss to like, block out memories, man. I was a tortured artist, I was Amy Winehouse, I was Dylan Thomas, I was Billie Holiday. And if I died young? So be it. At least I’d go out with a bang. I wanted that. I welcomed that. I remember asking the group leader, in a rare moment of self-awareness and vulnerability, what I should do if I’m out watching gigs or going to parties with my friends, how would I avoid alcohol if they were all drinking? I was simply told: get new friends. And maybe that transform-your-life approach is necessary for some, but the idea of losing my friends as well as the grieving process I would go through when I quit drinking was all too much to even bear thinking about. Also, I’m an atheist, and perhaps things have changed now, but the prayer at the end involving us all holding hands all seemed a little unnecessary and cult-like for a pretentious little fucker like me, who had been reading Camus and Sartre at the time. So, I walked out, stopping at the local supermarket to buy a litre of cheap whisky, and I went home. That was 8 years ago and hey, maybe I should’ve stuck it out, clearly a big barrier was the fact I was still romanticising my addiction, because I would come to have many more years of hard drinking and blackouts and dangerous decisions to come, but it just didn’t fit with me. I remember feeling hopeless after my first meeting, like it could never work for me, that if I couldn’t even go to AA I may as well just resign myself to the fact I’d be soon found dead, choked on my own vomit.
But that’s not your only option. AA doesn’t work for everyone. What worked for me was my local community drugs and alcohol misuse service, they provided education surrounding alcohol awareness, the impact on your body and mind, the nature of addiction, and help in coming to terms with the terms “alcoholic” and “addict”. I also received a lot of help from my community mental health team, and still rely on — and am grateful for — the ongoing support from my friends and family. If you feel overwhelmed by AA, or that you may not fit in properly, I would suggest at least turning up to some meetings and then making your mind up once you’ve really decided that this is what you want to do. It’s not the only option, and that’s important to know when you are battling deep in the recesses of a shameless, violent, destructive, manipulative and dishonest addiction that in turn makes you shameless, violent, destructive, manipulative and dishonest.
Do I know that my sobriety is here to stay? No, I don’t know that at all. I don’t know that I won’t wake up tomorrow and relapse because I’ve stubbed my toe on the kitchen table, or because I burnt myself getting something out of the oven. I don’t know how a relapse will happen, I don’t know if it will creep in insidiously and begin as a nagging thought telling me to have just the one beer, just the one glass of wine, or if it will come at me with all its might telling me that if I’m going to relapse, I should do it right, and later end up face down on my bed surrounded by empty bottles and cans. I don’t know it will even happen at all. But I am on my guard. And I just need to remember, it is not decadent, it is not elegant, it is not part of being a tortured artist, it is not an occupational hazard. It is an addiction, and it has got me in its clutches, and it will always have me. There will never be a time when I am not an alcoholic, and though the fog of deranged, misanthropic, selfish and lethal addiction has lifted, I have no idea that it won’t one day return. And that’s the hardest part to cope with, but it’s a truth we must accept, if we are to move on.