If you had told me, at any point before I was thirty, that one day I would be a person who didn’t drink alcohol, I would not have believed you. I would not have wanted to believe you.
Being sober was not on my bucket list. It never even occurred to me that it was an option. Be sober? But why?
So far as I thought about it at all, drinking was fun. Relaxing, silly, cheerful fun.
I mean, sure, I wanted to drink less. But not drink at all? Nooo, thank you.
I was so used to drinking, that my tipsy personality felt like the real me. It was the sober, serious, melancholy bit that creeped me out.
One of the main features of my drinking was that it wasn’t conscious. In recovery circles, the stage before a person begins to think about quitting is called pre-contemplation. From the outside, it can seem like a person is sleepwalking through their life.
For most of my drinking career I got drunk a lot, but because I didn’t mean to, I didn’t worry too much about it. My drunkenness was simply an accident. For some reason (cough, addiction) I didn’t notice that this particular kind of accident happened multiple times a week.
If you had asked me why I drank when I was twenty-five, I would have said because I loved it.
If you asked me when I was thirty, I would have said because it made me feel better.
It wasn’t until I was thirty-three that it occurred to me that beer was my medicine.
For most of my life beer wasn’t a problem for me. It was a solution.
Even as I approached getting sober, it wasn’t my booze consumption I was worried about, it was everything else. The general unhappiness and broiling anxiety. The lack of motivation. The blank spot in place of a future. The vague dreams of ending it.
Over the three or four years before I got sober there was a gradual fall into an all-encompassing misery and bleakness that felt normal. That’s how these things happen: incrementally. So slow you don’t notice.
Luckily, I had a dear friend who was paying attention. Kitty. I’m very grateful to her.
It was always worse in winter, I found — being alive — but this particular year my wellbeing had dived so severely that I’d canceled all the readings I had planned, stopped seeing friends, and taken to my bed.
I was so disheartened that I could barely lift my index finger to play another episode of improbably positive New Girl.
That’s how I was when my friend Kitty visited. I’d said she could visit so long as we could stay in bed, but I imagine I perked up at the sight of her. My people-pleasing ran (who’m I kidding: runs) deep.
“Fine by me,” she’d said, about the bed plan. Who doesn’t love a duvet day?
But soon after arriving, she suggested I call the doctor.
“Make sure you tell them about the suicidal thoughts,” she insisted. Those things were quite the attention grabber it turned out.
And so I did.
It was weird to be taken seriously, to be taking myself seriously. Was it bad, then, all this stuff I was obsessively thinking over? It felt very ordinary.
“Anxiety can make your thoughts race,” Kitty told me. “It can make it hard to think straight.”
That sounded about right.
I felt foolish, drawing unnecessary attention to myself, but I listened to the GP surgery’s hold music until a receptionist was finally free, and then, sitting on the edge of the bath, I admitted, very quietly and in a monotone that made even me feel a bit nervous, that I daydreamed about suicide often.
I got an appointment the same afternoon.
It was a weekday, I think, and I was wearing the sort of ‘outfit’ that Jess never wore on New Girl. Day pajamas, I called them. I’d taken to wearing them most of the time, during that period: clothes comfortable enough to sleep in, and yet passable for a short trip to the shops to buy wine and chocolate. Leggings and stretchy tops, mostly. Maybe a checked shirt.
Sitting in the GP’s office, I found myself weeping, unable to finish sentences.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I...”
My voice stuttered and honked, and it felt very undignified. Kitty and me called it the Dog Voice. When you were so inconsolable that you sounded like a mongrel who has developed the ability to speak but hasn’t got the hang of her vocal cords yet. Funnily enough, I was not the one who had made the Dog Voice famous, though probably had coined it.
“I’m not a cryer,” I’d announce casually like deep emotions were elective and I’d opted out.
I prided myself on being the strong, silent type. In my family, we didn’t cry.
Doctor Brown would never have guessed this. She listened and passed me tissues, then wrote out a prescription for Citalopram. I carried the pale green slip out of her office, and through the waiting room, towards the chemist.
My heart was racing; I desperately didn’t want to take the tablets. The truth was that drugs scared me. After years of hedonism in my teens, the idea of swallowing little white pills made my stomach churn.
It wasn’t the first time it had been recommended. It was, I think, the third.
The first time was during university, a doctor had suggested it as a solution to the social anxiety I’d been discussing with him. Back then I’d been shocked and ashamed at the idea. I was from a small town in the midlands, and anti-depressants were sordid and mysterious to me, like hummus or sun-dried tomatoes, but less delicious.
I had no knowledge of mental health issues or their prevalence in society. Where I was from people were either mental or not.
Oh dear, she forgot to take her meds! Ha! Ha! Ha!
I left the GP surgery empty-handed and headed to the pub for a dose of the more socially sanctioned medicine: lager. I used it to manage my social anxiety for the next eight years, and I think we can all guess how that went.
Yep, in case you missed it, alcohol can actually increase anxiety. Not only this, but it is a depressant. I know. It’s a real Debbie Downer.
So perhaps it’s no surprise that I ended up at the doctor’s again. This second time, I was halfway through my Master's Degree (you see a correlation between stress and drinking.) I felt anxious all the time and was drinking way too much, and I was having worse than usual trouble sleeping. Night terrors were ruining my life, sometimes multiple times a night.
This time I was offered Risperidone. As soon I took it I had a panic attack. It was ridiculous, but even taking prescribed drugs was triggering for me. My heart began racing as soon as I placed the tablet on my tongue.
There was nothing else to do. I was fucked. And so I returned yet again to my old faithful: lager. It never occurred to me that this too was a drug.
Alcohol was more like an old friend. Family, even. Part of me, in fact.
After some deliberation and a conversation with Kitty, I decided to take them.
“They wouldn’t recommend them if they didn’t think they might help,” she said.
And so I started taking the prescription. After all, Dr Brown was the expert — wasn’t she?
At Kitty’s insistence, I called the Talking Therapies team too.
I kept taking the medication, and I started CBT, and I began to feel a bit better. These steps in the right direction led me to the next part of my recovery.
My friend encouraged me to go to the doctor. The doctor suggested I talk to a counselor. The counselor suggested I try drinking less. And that’s when I discover that I couldn’t.
It was another two years before I got sober, and things would get worse before they got better, but it was the beginning of my recovery, and I am so grateful to my friend and the NHS.
If you are lucky to have a friend like Kitty who cares enough about you to come and hang out when you are only fit for bed, and who knows enough about mental health to suggest you go to the doctor, you are one of the lucky ones.
Please listen to them.
If you’re struggling to quit drinking, you are not alone.
There is a whole community of people just waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting for you.
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Chelsey Flood is a novelist, lecturer and truth-seeker. She writes stories about freedom, nature and love.