If you need help to stop the pain, you’re not alone.
I drank because being alive is painful. Because alcohol was pushed on me. Because beer tastes good. Because adverts led me to believe the wine was synonymous with contentment. Because I come from a long line of alcoholics. Because I was bored. Because I was exhausted. Because I was overwhelmed. Because my boyfriend was an asshole. Because I felt ugly. Because I was getting old. Because I wanted to dance. Because I was afraid of death.
I drank for so many different reasons, and they all made perfect sense.
So why did I get sober? And why did I start writing to encourage other people to do the same? I got sober because I realised that drinking was not solving any of my problems. That it was making many of them worse. Staying up all night drinking made me more exhausted. Acting like a jerk made me hate myself harder. Heavy drinking brings death even closer.
You may have the desire to be sober before you understand why you drink. That's what it was like for me.
Staying sober, day after day, while cohabiting with a heavy drinker, took an incredible amount of courage and self-belief. Much more than I knew I had.
In the first days of my sobriety, I was surrounded by people who normalized binge drinking, and so I felt faulty for not wanting to do it anymore. For seeing it as wasteful and dysfunctional. I had to join a support group to support me while I developed sanity around alcohol use because there was none in my immediate vicinity.
But I knew that life wasn’t supposed to be this full of melodrama. I knew that there was more to this world than smoking in beer gardens. And eventually, the relaxation and comfort promised by drinking were outweighed by the pain that it brought.
When drinking for pleasure becomes drinking to soothe your pain.
Drinking was fun. It nulled the anxiety I felt being around people. It gave me peace from the knowledge that one day I and everyone I loved would die. It erased the ways in which I was disappointed. It made me feel pretty and hilarious and confident and enough.
And it led to nasty arguments with my boyfriend. It turned me into a bolshy, untrustworthy, cold version of myself. It made my mental health issues grow starker. It made me more depressed. More anxious. More isolated. More out of control.
And so I dreamed of being sober. I read books about it. Joined an online sober community. Listened to recovery podcasts. Finally, I went to AA.
But I had to fight to stay. Because AA was created in 1936 before we had a scientific understanding of addiction. And it stumbled on some excellent concepts, including some of the tools central to positive psychology, which changed my life. But it places alcohol as a great equalizer that doesn’t care about gender, race, disability, sexuality or class.
AA refuses to talk about the fact that alcoholism passes down through families. Not always, but often. I learned to drink from my mum and dad (mainly my dad). They learned to drink from their mums and dads (mainly their dads).
Growing up where I did, I got the impression that everyone drank the way we did. But well-informed people working in alcohol services like Will Haydock helped me understand that this simply isn’t true. When I staggered home as a teenager or got wasted on a family holiday, my parents laughed it off. I saw them both do the same. Getting hammered to the point of being unable to find our apartment was just a funny story in our family. Meanwhile, my more middle-class friends, with educated parents, have never seen their parents so drunk they were unable to walk.
Addiction does discriminate.
“While anyone can theoretically become an addict, it is more likely the fate of some, among them women sexually abused as children; truant and aggressive young men; children of addicts; people with diagnosed depression and bipolar illness; and groups including American Indians and poor people.” — The New York Times
Sobriety is a chance to remake your life to actually suit you.
I went to AA and identified as an alcoholic because that was the only way I could get sober at the time. My world so normalized and celebrated heavy drinking that I felt embarrassed about wanting to quit. And the world outside of AA so stigmatises alcohol addiction that I felt ashamed of needing help to quit.
AA allowed me to get sober, which enabled me to deal with the rest of my issues. AA introduced me to spirituality and invited me to have a new start in life since the one I had been born into wasn’t working. I started to learn who I really was and what I actually liked, and people cheered me on for simple achievements in weekly meetings. AA loved me while I learned how to love myself. And it was a beautiful thing.
But AA wasn’t enough to heal me completely. And so I went to the doctor. Again. Therapy again. I started taking anti-depressants (again) and made exercise and eating well more of a priority. I revisited some of the core beliefs that were making me feel like life was meaningless.
I discovered that I drank the way I did because I’d had untreated depression and anxiety for decades. Because I was autistic without knowing. Because nobody had ever validated my emotions or taught me how to deal with the difficult parts of life.
Alcoholism can be life-saving.
One of my favorite writers on Medium, Nicole M. Luongo challenged me about the way I write about drinking, pointing out that alcoholism saves lives, as well as destroying them. She left me this comment, and it really made me think.
“The most salient issue (of many) with the “high bottom drunk” archetype is the assumption that we all start at the same floor. Substance abuse is directly correlated with poverty, racism, and exclusion. Many whose high intensity use coincided with homelessness and such didn’t have illustrious careers or prestigious degrees to lose because positions of power were inaccessible to begin with. This is yet another way that AA totally decontextualizes and de-politicizes addiction. I can assure you, for those of us whose lives have been horrific, alcoholism is life saving. It’s suicide prevention, and it will be until people who have influence opt to stop blaming us for our (very rational) coping strategies.” — Nicole M. Luongo
I had been so dazzled by what was on offer at AA that I hadn’t noticed the ways in which it was harmful.
Timothy Harrington offered more constructive criticism in the way that I write about addiction and alcohol use disorder.
“Instead of saying, “If you need help to stop drinking, you’re not alone”, say If you need help to stop the pain, you’re not alone.” — Timothy Harrington
I’ve decided to take him up on this.
So how can you deal with your pain without drinking?
Getting sober is just the start. AA can help you achieve this. But drinking less is a step in the right direction too. I no longer want to play into the idea of binary thinking around drinking. The crucial thing is to deal with your pain, and then eventually drinking will lose its power over you. You will find yourself with more options.
The real question is how can you deal with your pain without drinking? And there isn’t an easy answer. I haven’t found any fix that is half as quick. Getting sober led me to realising I was in an unhealthy relationship and developing the strength to leave.
It allowed me to nurture hobbies and interests, and learn about healthy love. I practiced being a better friend. I learned how to listen better. How to have boundaries. I started taking medication. I sought a diagnosis for what turned out to be autism.
There were many steps along the way to it feeling okay not to drink. And I was privileged to have a family who could lend me money if I needed it. To come from a family who loved me. To be able-bodied. White. Educated. To be neurotypical-passing. To have excellent language skills. To be able to pass as middle class(ish).
If it was this hard for me with all my privilege, how hard is it for people with much less?
Drinking is a sane response to living in a world that doesn’t value you.
Recently, I wrote something about If you are trying Dry January you probably have a drinking problem. I regret this, because Dry January is a positive step in the direction of better health. It is something to be proud of, if you can manage it. If my article sounds shaming, it’s because I want to push people to drink less.
Because although drinking too much is a logical response to living through the time we are and it feels like it serves you, it really doesn’t. There is no shame in drinking too much. And I’m not judging you. But I still want you to quit.
Because drinking numbs the pain that would lead you to seek more meaningful pursuits and more manageable work. That would push you to go to the doctor. Nudge you to cut ties with people that hurt you.
Capitalism wants you to drink because it helps you to become a doing robot. Beer is the fuel that makes it possible to live in a way that doesn’t suit you.
Drinking is a sane response to being alive in a world that doesn’t value you for who you are or for your contribution that cannot be monetised. Drinking helps us to cope with this superficial time in which we are valued according to how hard we are willing to work. To how much stress we are able to tolerate.
We are judged endlessly. On how much money and privilege we inherit. For the color and shade and smoothness of our skin. For the size and sophistication of our vocabularies. The timbre of our voices. The way we enunciate. For how fine our pores are. The symmetry of our faces (and genitals). Our body mass index. Muscle tone. Wardrobe variation.
For how much pain and discomfort and uncertainty we can withstand while still seeming like a functional person. And we don’t all get assigned the same amount, by the way.
The pandemic has shown the disparities between the rich and the poor, the privileged and the rejected. Access to healthcare, education and technology is so far from equal as to be dystopian.
Drinking is a sane response to being alive in a world that doesn’t value you for who you are or for your contribution that cannot be monetised. But it keeps you stuck too. And I believe that there is support for you to transition into something better.
Beautiful Hangover was created to help inspire and facilitate that transition, but I have a lot to learn, still. And I thank all of my readers who have read, applauded, supported and challenged me.
If you need help to stop the pain, you’re not alone.
If you’re ready to try something different, read beautiful hangover and discover what I did to get freedom from alcohol. Do whatever it takes to stay sober for 30 days: go to your doctor, try Smart or AA or Hip Sobriety or Soberistas.
There is a whole community of people waiting to help you. Reach out. Something better is waiting. Sign up for more from me at beautifulhangover <3
Chelsey Flood is the author of Infinite Sky and Nightwanderers, and a lecturer in creative writing. She writes about freedom, addiction, nature and love, and is working on a non-fiction book about getting sober.