How do you know whether you love alcohol or have become dependent?
It seems strange to me now, given the grief it caused me, how much I loved alcohol. Long after we split up, I was convinced the separation was temporary, that a proper break would change things between us. That we’d be able to make it work.
But if a dynamic is toxic, it takes more than time to fix it. It requires the concerted efforts of two, each committed to doing the hard work to better themselves. Honestly, alcohol was never prepared to do that.
Alcohol never did anything. That’s what made it so irresistible. Sheer effortlessness. Who could resist? Up it rocked, in unwashed jeans, oozing lazy charisma, and off I would ride — one more time! — into the sunset, until some bump in the road sent me reeling again.
Some people stay stuck in that cycle forever, dusting themselves off, then rallying, only to get back on that sexy booze horse. Maybe the negative consequences aren’t so bad or they have a high tolerance for pain or they simply lost the ability to choose.
I can see how it happens. A few weeks off beer and I no longer remembered the broken dreams and public humiliations. I just remembered that looseness, the way the wind lifted my hair, how free I felt the moment before I fell. Never mind that drinking, by the end, most often meant sitting in front of a laptop binge-watching The L Word.
I bargained with the alcohol gods.
I’ll quit the binge drinking, just please let me keep the drinking home alone!
But drinking was a package deal. I couldn’t extricate the at-home moderating-ish from the anything-goes wild cards.
After failing to do so enough times that I felt desperate I texted the sober woman who I’d heard give talk in the past about her inability to moderate. I was hungover and demoralised, and she had seemed a beacon of poise and vulnerability: a proper adult woman. Harry.
I asked if we could meet, then missed her call back because I was drinking.
It really is impossible to avoid in my current life situation, I thought.
I suppose that’s why they use the word, intervention.
After wasting yet another weekend drinking when I didn’t want to, I called and asked her to help. It was beginning to strike me that if someone didn’t work hard to interrupt this habit soon, it could sabotage my whole life.
You don’t have a problem though, a little voice inside said, after a few sober days, when my hangover had faded and life seemed hopeful again. You just love to drink. You’re a drinker!
I called Harry to tell her that I’d had a big think about it, and I didn’t reckon I was alcoholic.
“I just really, really love drinking,” I concluded.
“Me too!” she said.
We laughed together for a minute. Then there was a long pause.
“So what are you calling me for?” Harry asked. I could hear the smile in her voice.
It was an interesting moment. If I was so sure I didn’t have a drink problem, then why did I keep calling Harry instead of buying wine? Alternatively, why didn’t I just stop calling Harry and not buy wine?
“My alcoholism talks to me in my own voice,” Harry said, serious and kind again. “I call it my alcoholism because it’s obsessed with getting me to drink alcohol. Maybe it’s the same for you… Pay attention, learn to recognise it. Remember there are different types of ‘alcoholic’. Play the tape through. Remember why you want to stop.”
She supported me to make a list of all the worst times in my relationship with booze, and listened to the ones I felt comfortable sharing. She told me, going forward, to read the list whenever I was convinced that I just really, really loved drinking.
1. New Zealand house party
2. Lost in Florence
3. The funeral
4. Karaoke night
5. New Year’s Eve in Falmouth
6. New Year’s Eve in Norwich
7. New Year’s Eve in Berlin
8. New Year’s Eve in Bristol
10. All the other times
The first eighteen months was intense. Not only didn’t I have my beloved to soothe and distract me, but I was confronting things I had long ago swept under the carpet. Maybe there are better ways to get sober — I think Hip Sobriety offers something different — but for me, it was important and empowering to acknowledge and reflect on the truth of my ‘love’ for alcohol, and where it had taken me over the years.
For decades I’d kept my secrets to myself, locked them in the I-Was-Drunk-Don’t-Blame-Me-Chamber (do you know it?), and this had prevented me from learning from my biggest mistakes. The regret and shame after drunken bad behaviour had existed to communicate with me, but I’d blamed alcohol instead of absorbing the lesson. This had stunted my emotional growth.
Without Harry, I’m confident I would have bought wine that evening. It was simply what I did.
Which is why I kept calling Harry. She listened to my worries, and shared her experience, and encouraged me to find new coping strategies for boredom and emotional pain and being alive.
She pushed me to find new things I loved besides booze. I discovered baking, volunteering, Druidry, horticulture, yoga and meditation. Most importantly, I learned how to connect with people without a drink.
So how do you know whether you love alcohol or have become dependent?
If you want to know why you do something, try not doing it. Can you manage a month without booze? How does your life change, if so? If the change is hugely positive, that means something. Why not push the experiment and try a year?
And for the love of trees and clouds and all that is holy, get support while you fool around with living sober. Quitting by yourself, while everyone around you keeps drinking, feels like the saddest deprivation. There are so many wise, kind, compassionate people who can help you in your quest for a different life. The beauty is that you can help them too.
And if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like or need people, then I’m talking to you, in particular.