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The first time I got drunk — really drunk — I was 14. It was summer, and I was on my own; my mother was a nurse and worked 16-hour days, leaving me in the house with nothing much to do. I suppose another teenager would have reveled in this accidental freedom. They would have invited friends over, sloppily kissed boys, caused trouble. I, basically friendless, did not get into trouble — or at least not the kind of trouble that was immediately obvious at the time.
My routine was simple. I would get up at 9 a.m. and switch on the computer, remaining inside the dark and dingy study, talking to strangers until it was time to go to bed. One day, I decided to drink.
I have no idea what drove me to open my parents’ alcohol cupboard. What I do know is that it felt like a compulsion; I didn’t enjoy it, and it felt more like an obligation or a strange commitment. I didn’t sip the drink and giddily enjoy it, nor did it give me the illicit thrill of a broken rule. I glugged it as slowly and joylessly as a chore, until I woke up a few hours later, my mother insistently banging on the glass of the living room window. I’d passed out; she’d forgotten her keys. She put me to bed, and we didn’t speak of it again.
I’m still so jealous of friends who tell me they first got drunk at parties, that they stole bottles of peach schnapps or cheap corner-shop wine from older siblings and passed out, dazed, on a dewy lawn; so jealous of people who made themselves sick because they were having so much fun. There was no fun for me — no joy, no pleasure at all. What I didn’t recognize then — both in my desire to drink and the way I went about it — was the ceaseless search for oblivion that has dominated so much of my life and that characterizes so much about addiction.
It’s the fastest way for me to get nowhere at all.
Because I didn’t really want to have fun, didn’t want to feel anything at all. What I wanted was to be absolutely stripped of everything I was: to be demolished and rebuilt, demolished and rebuilt again. I wanted to be reduced to the bare bones of my personhood, become an utter blank. I wanted to separate somehow from my body, ideally to forget I existed at all.
I got there through pain, too, through cutting strips from my skin with a scalpel I stole from a box of medical supplies; later I got there though drugs and sex, and through starving myself. But drinking was quicker — and still, today, it’s the fastest way for me to get nowhere at all.
I buy a mouse mat because, absurdly, it reminds me so much of alcohol. It’s a Louis Wain print — five cats stand around a table, preparing to drink from little bowls. Some of the cats are merely cute, with kitschy grins affixed to their faces. But two of them are maniacal, completely losing it at the sight of the milk.
If this is starting to sound romantic, that’s because it can feel that way — a true obsessive heat. When I started drinking again after seven months sober, it felt like falling in love. I went for dinner with a friend and decided to have a glass of red wine — just a single glass. We bought a bottle, and I’d soon downed my share, guzzled it like a child drinking pop. I was giddy, felt truly high — like I was on a first date. I finished my drink. When we left the restaurant, I hung back and took the dregs of his glass, too. It was disgusting. It was erotic. It made more sense than anything I had ever done in my life.
Part of the thrill is the risk, of course, not caring about what happens to you — getting sick, getting hurt, even dying. Months before my break in sobriety, eating steak tartare with a man unconvinced of its culinary merits, I realized that the pleasure for me came not only in the primal enjoyment of the thing but also in its risks. How much did I like the taste of raw meat in my mouth, raw egg? How delicious was that to me, truly? And how much of it was the idea that it could make me sick — uncomplicatedly, unglamorously sick? Maybe I just liked the idea that I was the sort of person to take that kind of risk at all.
And it’s fun! I often want oblivion, yes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t joy sometimes, too: I never feel better than two or three drinks in, walking down the street on my way to a party or a date or the pub, my night full of hope and opportunity and, crucially, more alcohol. When the alchemy is just right — you still feel in control, you know more drinks are coming, you know that nothing and nobody can stop you — it is truly magical. Drinking puts you right in the wild heart of life: You feel decadent and sensual and free, every nerve buzzing with uncontained, feral energy.
It’s a desperate, uneasy kind of thrill, though, like being at a party and remembering you have work in the morning, sex in a hotel room you know you have to vacate in half an hour, like sitting in the full heat of summer with no sunscreen, knowing you’re going to get burned but wanting to preserve the moment anyway, enjoying the warmth on your skin. It’s a grasping pressure to squeeze all you possibly can from something — the tangible, rising mania of it creeping across your skin.
Because you’re drinking and you feel the buzz and the heat and the thrill, that familiar glow that starts in your throat and slowly, warmly spreads throughout your body. Your face is flushed; your thighs are radiating heat; the golden hairs on your arm are glistening in the sun. You know the moment can’t last forever — you can’t remain drunk forever, can’t live your life like this forever — but you also can’t stop, can’t loosen your grip. You cling to it like a blanket, like the leg of a lover who’s trying to leave you, walk away.
What does alcohol actually do to you, exactly? It makes you bloated and spotty, makes your skin dry and red and blotchy. It makes your organs hurt, suddenly and randomly, stabs of pain with no reason or notice. You never sleep, at least not properly. It makes every morning impossible, so constantly hung over that you no longer really even get hung over at all, you just acclimatize to waking up and feeling as if you’ve been hit by several cars. You’re too sick to eat in the mornings, so you binge ridiculously in the evening.
Alcohol also strains your friendships, makes people sick of you. It helps you make bad decisions and forget them afterward when you should not forget about them. It ruins sex: makes you sloppy and unappealing or, more simply, just makes you pass out. You don’t take medication you’re supposed to take. You forget to reply to texts, or, worse, send messages that are full of spite or too much sincerity or misplaced and unreturned passion that you’re not sure, sober, you even really meant. You snap at supermarket staff who won’t serve you without ID, scream at people you love on the street and then wake up with no memory of what you were angry about or why. You get anxious when a friend says they want to go home, want an early night, or don’t want to drink. If you run out of booze and have no way of getting more, you panic, a real existential fear wrapping itself around your throat. It puts you in danger and makes you too cruel, too candid to be easy to care for.
What I don’t know yet is whether drinking will kill me.
And it changes you on a more fundamental level, too. Some studies suggest that alcoholism, just like trauma, changes your neural pathways altogether: It totally rewires your brain, locking your neurons into a pattern that compels and compels you to keep on drinking.
Addiction starts, for many of us, with the desire to transform ourselves: to mold ourselves into something or someone new, to reject those parts of ourselves we hoped were not inevitable after all. And it does do that: It changes your bones, your blood, your skin, your brain. It wasn’t the transformation you hoped for, but it happens anyway.
I’m lucky. I’m 26, so I’m young. I work hard, I function well. I’ve never missed work because of drinking, and I’ve never been drunk on the job. Never missed a deadline, even at my very lowest moments. When an ultrasound revealed that my liver was damaged, I was told it wasn’t too late, that I could reverse it if I wanted to. I also, crucially, have the ability to get help: I understand what recovery means and what I would have to do to get there. I’ve done it before and I’m doing it right now.
What I don’t know yet is whether drinking will kill me. That’s the tantalizing thing: Recovery is both so easy and impossible. After all, what could be easier than not drinking? Than not stopping to buy two bottles of wine on your way home? To drink at the same pace as your friends, to not take a flask to drink on the bus when you’re going four stops, to not fill your glass to the very rim when you go to the fridge to get wine?
Drinking can make you selfish and loveless and unkind, shift your priorities in a way that makes you unrecognizable, make you mean and callous and cruel and thoughtless and hard. And often it does feel like a choice: It feels like you make the choice to be those things, to do those things, to say the things you really shouldn’t say.
Yet you don’t stop. You don’t walk past the aisle full of wine with your basket empty. You don’t leave the flask at home. You don’t say, “No, thank you,” when someone asks if you want a double, not a single. You have the shot at the bar while your friend’s in the toilet. You glug from the bottle when you’re cooking together and their back is turned. You take the detour to go to the shop to buy the gum to hide your sour, boozy breath. Addiction can feel passive sometimes, like something that’s happening to you: a force you’re not in control of and never could be. But sometimes it feels active. Sometimes you’re the perpetrator and not the victim. Sometimes you’re the one causing the harm.
And the terrible thing is that you know it’s just in your reach; you know recovery is possible. You’ve seen it! You’ve touched it! You’ve had it yourself! You go to your meetings and you see your doctor and you tell your therapist how you feel. You watch your lovers stay sober and move on; you watch your friends get better, step by painful step. Maybe you get better, too: for a week, for a few months, for a year. Maybe the gap that it left in your life slowly started to fill with other things, better things. Maybe you can’t even say why you want so much to start drinking again, can’t understand how you’re still so far away from yourself.
You can try to work it out, and you wouldn’t be the first: The question of whether addicts are made or born has been much debated, both by addicts themselves and by the people who study them and the people who love them. Some studies suggest that alcoholism is linked to specific genes, and we know that having a parent or sibling who abuses alcohol increases your likelihood of doing the same. Trauma — rape, violence, child abuse — can also impact your likelihood of experiencing substance abuse of some kind. It’s likely that a heady mix of biology, society, and psychology all contribute to alcoholism.
How to unpack this? How to work out which moments meant something and which didn’t, the sliding doors of my ongoing sanity? I know I’ve experienced trauma; I know that addiction runs in my family; I know that my grandmother, my father’s mother, was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Once, coming home with a group of friends, my father found her passed out in the hallway. He stopped inviting people over after that, not knowing whether she’d be drunk or sober.
I’m supposed to call his sister, my aunt, to talk about this, to help me write a story that has something to it, and that goes some way to explain why I am the way that I am. It’s meant to flesh it all out, this narrative I carry around with me, the story I tell myself and everybody else. It’s supposed to help things make sense.
But I can’t bring myself to do it. To do so would be to introduce a sense of inevitability, and to feel as if this was inevitable would be to give myself to it entirely, would be a form of death. It would be an attempt to impose order on something inherently chaotic. It would be a flattening, a way of making a life into a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, a narrative arc. Act one: setup. Act two: confrontation. Act three: resolution. To make neat something messy is an appealing prospect, but resolution rarely works the way in life as it does in film.
I also realize there’s no real point in me trying to answer the question of why I drink. You may as well ask yourself why you’re funny, why you’re kind, why you’re good at math. Who knows why you’re funny, and, more to the point who cares? You just are. I’m funny; I’m kind; I’m clever. I’m also, for whatever reason, an alcoholic.