Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Drinking cured my social anxiety short-term, but made it worse long-term. After finally quitting I found a more constructive source of strength to rely on.
Alcohol’s first gift to me was power.
It showed me another way of being, how to step into the centre of my own life, and be rebellious and daring. I developed a more gregarious, boisterous persona which seemed more welcome, made me feel less frightened.
I began to throw my shoulders back when I walked, bringing bluster from weekend antics to school on Monday. But under new swagger was a creeping fear. Finding myself alone at school I would dodge into toilets rather than risk having to speak to people. I hid at the centre of groups, beside more confident friends, ridiculed the oddballs to deflect from my own profound weirdness. More than anything I wanted to be normal.
Puberty was unsettling enough that I needed binge drinking to get some proper respite. I wasn’t alone. Blackouts were de rigeur at Allestree Rec.
Around Year 8 I began to blush pathologically. Anything could trigger the rouge; an acquaintance saying hello, a friend calling me from across the classroom; the thought of an acquaintance saying hello or friend calling me from across the classroom.
A hot flash would spread from spine to cheeks and I’d drop my head low, beg the universe not to notice.
“Uh-oh, Chel’s blushing!”
Fear of blushing grew so outsized that I began to miss school. French most of all since I sat opposite a boy I had a crush on, and knew my face would explode if called upon to Franglais in his presence.
There was something seriously wrong with me, and I couldn’t tell anyone because then they’d know.
Drinking cures social anxiety!
My drunkenness grew in tandem with my social anxiety and I missed more and more school, climbing out the window and running home to watch Neighbours and eat Pot Noodle any chance I could. By Year 9 I was so frightened of speaking French in front of my brusque teacher that I drank a Super Tenants before the mock oral exam.
“I didn’t expect you to be so nervous!” Mme Dodd said after I sped without breathing through a presentation about the best clubs and discotheques in Derby. Alcohol was effective: I got a B. The connection was made in my subconscious: alcohol enabled me to fulfil my potential.
A few years later I got my teenage dream job, pouring pints in the pub I’d been marauding in for years. My troubles disappeared as I transformed full-time into my fun and lairy drinking persona. Booze became so omnipresent that I forgot about my social disability.
At university it reasserted itself. Working in a night club I could be the real me, but daytime was a problem. There was so much of it.
Seminars were like French but with higher stakes - blushing for no reason in front of these confident, well-spoken super-humans was far more humiliating - and I walked around in a state of hyper vigilance, avoiding the cafeteria and library and supermarket, ready to hide at a moment’s notice.
My adrenalin raced constantly and I was filled with a deep sadness about my inability to connect. I watched my lovely, healthy, fascinating peers laugh and eat together at long tables, while I dodged in and out, eternally in a rush to some fictional destination, avoiding eye contact, in case anyone tried to make friends.
I so wanted to be friends.
Hiding in the library or computer room, dirty hair falling like a curtain over my face to discourage visitors, agonised by and trying to ignore that there was something seriously wrong with me, I searched for an explanation. Was it because I was from a different class? Because I wasn’t a Southerner? Would I feel this way forever?
I internet diagnosed myself with social phobia and dreamed of having an operation to make the blushing go away. But how would I ever afford it? I could barely afford to put petrol in my car. Still I didn’t talk to anyone. What would it achieve?
In spite of my secret insanity, student life was nourishing and beautiful: surfing and barbecues and guitar-circles and fires. Beer shifted from being the primary focus of events to an aside. I got better at managing my drinking, only blacking out on the more nerve-wracking social occasions. Themed fancy dress parties, that student staple, guaranteed a blackout, whereas housemate Tuesdays playing pool I could just have a few pints.
Graduation drew closer and friends discussed their life plans, and I began to panic. Would I have to work in pubs and nightclubs forever? How could I build a proper career if I couldn’t talk to strangers without blushing? And how would I find love if I couldn’t hold eye contact without drinking first? These insecurities were intolerable. And they disappeared when I drank.
The problem was solved when I fell madly in love. On hearing my worst fears my new beau told me not to worry.
“It’s all in your head!” he said. “And dinner parties are bourgeois!”
He felt like an alien too, and had no interest in being conventional. As friends left for London or gap years travelling, I took more hours at my casual restaurant job. There was no holiday or sick pay or hope of progression since I was terrible at (and mostly hated) it, but I needed money.
I found other shunners of the capitalist dream, and together we shirked responsibility and scoffed at marriage and mortgages, while cynically serving cocktails and burgers to new undergraduates and my old tutors. Over gigantic gin and tonics we commiserated about our bad luck to graduate in a recession, to be borne of the greedy baby boomers, just as the world was about to end.
Inspired by isolation and autonomy I committed to becoming a writer. What else could I do?
Drinking exacerbates social anxiety!
We drank after work and during work and when we weren’t working. Booze took centre stage again, though there was walking and swimming and culture too. I missed my wholesome uni friends intensely, and felt left behind in this seaside town that we had once joyfully colonised. Without them life felt drab, like I’d retired too early, given up before I got started, and yet I couldn’t find the motivation to leave. To go where? This was the first place I'd ever truly felt at home and I didn't want to lose that.
Slowly, I made progress with writing. Editors began to accept my melancholy stories about Quiet-Desperation-On-Sea and I was invited to literary events where I would drink before arriving to manage my nerves.
“Slippery slope,” a mentor warned me, years later, when I joked that I needed more alcohol in order to read. “Your tolerance will go up and up.”
I was confused. She wanted me to read sober? Impossible. She obviously didn't understand that a couple of drinks was being sober. I promised to stick to one, though I was already on my fourth or fifth and made a mental note to be more discrete about booze at these middle class literary soirées.
Typical, judgy, over-serious non-drinkers! I thought.
Many years later I grasped what she was trying to tell me: that each time I relied on alcohol for courage I missed the chance to develop my own; that real courage required an investment of energy that created a return.
By the time I understood this wisdom, drinking and its consequences had drained much of my power. Unable to quit in spite of a deep desire to live the sort of life I’d glimpsed at university I began to recognise the hold that alcohol wielded over me. How had I ever missed it? Worse still, how could I manage without?
“If your Nerve deny you–
Go above your Nerve–” wrote Emily Dickinson in a poem which was probably not about alcohol.
But how did a nervy-by-nature little chaplet go above her nerve without booze?
Finding a new source of courage
The benefit of defeat, if you are very lucky, is that you become open-minded or at least willing to consider becoming open-minded. After yet another very boring, very ‘accidental’ drunk — “Definitely not drinking; Okay, one; Wow, I’m wasted!” — I admitted to myself that for some inexplicable reason I might not have total control over my drinking.
“You need to find a new source of power,” a new sober friend told me in one of many lengthy discussions about how I could sort my life out and stop hating everything (especially myself) so much. “Something you can call on when you need help.”
It sounded so stupid and so beautiful at the same time, but without any better ideas I promised to try.
Another new sober friend talked of an infinite resource that existed throughout the universe, that could be felt in nature and kindness and love, that was my birth right as a creature of planet earth. She told me to seek this power for myself.
“It might be inside you, it might be outside,” she added, mysteriously.
These women sounded whacky, but they had their lives together too. Most inexplicably of all, they seemed content to live without alcohol after years of being unable to imagine life sober. Compelling evidence of something, it couldn’t be overlooked. Though I didn’t understand what they were talking about, the descriptions of quests for sobriety and integrity sounded empowering and positive, and I was more than ready for some of that.
I began lighting a candle every morning and staring into the flame, hoping for a thunderbolt spirituality to arrive inside me and change everything.
Nothing happened. But I stayed sober.
Looking into the flame, desperately seeking something, I felt a flicker of peace or hope.
My new sober women friends encouraged me to build on that good feeling, to commune with it, and rely on it the same way I had relied on alcohol, for power and strength, to help me through happy, hard or boring times.
It was a ridiculous idea, but then depending on a liquid was fairly daft, and I’d done that ‘successfully’ for years. At least communing with The Invisible was free and wouldn’t make me sleep with people I didn’t care for or make me sick. (Fingers crossed.)
Embarrassed, though I was alone (or was I?) I got on my knees in the shower and clasped my hands together, praying to be a different sort of person.
Still, nothing happened. Except I didn’t drink.
I grew frustrated because I didn’t have any faith at all, really, and the peace I’d felt was just wishful thinking. Because I wanted so much to believe that life had meaning, that there was a point to this pain and misery. I wanted so desperately to believe in something, I always had. But there were only ever the formidable maws of The Void.
"Your power can come from anything," my new, mad friends insisted. “A coat hanger or your cat, whatever. So long as it isn’t alcohol you’re good to go.”
I turned my attention outdoors, to nature — I felt wonder and awe every time I looked up, didn’t I? — blue/grey/pinkish/navy/black sky (I love you), London Plane trees, sunshine... Was the world not chock full of the miraculous?
My first power source was a dogbane beetle. At the time I was joking, mocking my own phoney-feeling spiritual quest, but looking back I see that I had struck on something crucial. Staring at the iridescent green beauty of this perfect insect my thoughts simply stopped. For a moment I was without regret or desire or pain or fear. I was present, full of reverence, dumbstruck.
The next time I needed courage I 'prayed' to that jewelled insect, and I survived whatever life event was afoot, without drinking. The cliches turned out to contain great wisdom, and I wished I’d listened sooner. Feel the fear and do it anyway? Okay, thanks, LITERALLY EVERYONE.
I prayed and meditated and nothing at all happened except I didn’t drink and I didn’t blush (or only occasionally, but I let it go), and I got through, a day at a time, and my life started improving really quickly.
I began to take care of myself like something rare and precious - just like every other human, like that dogbane beetle - though I didn’t really believe it yet, and after a while, I realised I was OK.
Which was all I’d wanted in the first place.