In a time obsessed with image crafting, public vulnerability feels dangerous and damaging. But, the opposite is true.
Coming into recovery I fell in love with a world where vulnerability, truth and authenticity reigned. In 12 step (and Smart) meetings, people talked about their worst experiences and how they had risen from their ashes to become better, more useful versions of themselves.
It was refreshing to hear this long-kept-secret stuff from strangers. To discover that my greatest shames were uniquely commonplace. Cautiously, I began to join in, to admit how I was really feeling, what my experiences had really felt like.
Based on spiritual principles, the 12 steps tell us we need less material wealth and more spiritual health. Through sharing and service we aim for self-transcendence rather than self-actualisation. Lofty aims, and pretty far from what I was taught at school and at home.
In our greedy, self-obsessed times, it can be difficult to stay on track with even aspiring towards a spiritual life. What’s in it for me? is my default setting. And so the vulnerability of writing about my worst times when everyone else is putting their best foot forward often feels dangerous and damaging.
I began this writing in order to share my story of learning to live without booze, because I had experienced so much change and so many revelations.
Recently, I’ve struggled to maintain it. If the alcohol problem was so firmly in my past, why was I still revealing the dark underbelly of my life? After all, few seemed to have noticed that I had an issue, why not just move on and focus on all the positive ways in which my life is opening out? Write another novel.
Then I got this email, and it reminded me. I post it here anonymised, with permission from the author.
I just spent the past 45 minutes or so binge-reading your articles. The following quote in particular compelled me to reach out to you:
“There is almost no evidence of how my drinking was destructive outside of my own psyche. This is not the same as saying there is no evidence of my drinking problem. I need to stop gaslighting myself.”
I have spent months now fervently reading sobriety blogs, articles, forums, etc. and nothing I’ve found has hit home like this article - and specifically, this quote — did.
I was recently diagnosed with Substance Use Disorder. I went to a psychiatrist to get a second opinion on my mood disorder, and instead she told me, in no uncertain terms, that before I can begin to address my mood disorder, I need to address my proclivity to self-medicate with alcohol and weed.
The thing is, absolutely no one in my life would ever believe that I have a “problem” with alcohol (I rarely smoke anymore, that was more of a problem in college). I don’t regularly blackout, I don’t show up to work intoxicated nor have I received any DUIs or destroyed any of my relationships — all the tell-tale signs of a drinking problem, right? Just like you said in your article, the only evidence of my drinking problem is within my own psyche.
I have tried and failed to quit drinking several times, and honestly the fact that no one around me thinks that I need to quit makes it a million times harder. (The last time I decided to quit my roommate, who loves to drink, with me, literally rolled her eyes and said “Are you doing another one of your ‘no drinking’ things again?” I love her, but… not helpful.)
I told myself this morning I wouldn’t drink again until my friends’ wedding in two weeks, but like a robot on autopilot I picked up a bottle of wine on my way home from work and am maybe a teensy bit drunk right now as I’m writing this. I can feel myself slowly spinning out of control, but no one around me takes me seriously, and I just feel… fucked. Any advice gratefully received.
I started Beautiful Hangover because my drinking was so undramatic.
No one thought I had a problem, except me, deep down (and often in the midst of my worst hangovers.)
"Like a robot on autopilot I picked up a bottle of wine..." Wow. How many times did I do that?
And yet I felt like such an imposter seeking help for my teensy weensy problem that it took me weeks to tell even my boyfriend that I was doing so. It took me nine months to find the courage to tell my dad. It was over eighteen months before I told my brother. I still haven’t told certain drinking friends.
The way my life changed once I removed alcohol gave me all the concrete evidence I need that my drinking was a serious problem. If I hadn’t found the courage to listen to myself and quit, based on the evidence I found in my own psyche, I might never have found that out.
A voice that rose from within knew I could have a different kind of life, something gentler and more authentic, that better suited my sensitive spirit. A life where I didn't have to drink to get 'in the mood' or to be louder or more fun, where I would be accepted as myself. In spite of the relative slightness of my problem, it was incredibly difficult to stop and stay stopped. And it didn't happen straight away.
Here’s my reply, in case you relate to Slowly Spinning’s dilemma, too.
Dear Slowly Spinning,
Thanks for reaching out, and well done, I know how hard it is, and how lonely you feel when you know, deep inside, that you’re broken/breaking and no one around you seems to have a clue.
So please listen to yourself and me when I reiterate what I hear from your email — you are struggling with alcohol and you can’t fix this on your own. Often the people around us when we are drinking are unable to help us with our problem. Some don’t want to hear about it because it ruins their enjoyment of drinking wine with you. Others might find it uncomfortable because it makes them question their own relationship with alcohol.
If the people around us can’t help, we have to seek out people who can. Human beings are stronger together, and we don’t have to do anything alone.
After being in the situation you describe for a while I knew I needed to do something different. Moderating by myself had failed hundreds of times over the years (maybe thousands) and it was accidentally ended up drunk again when I hadn't intended to drink a drop that finally showed me I needed help.
I found a community of sober people and I know I could not have stayed sober without them. Nor would I have wanted to. Not only because there’s a part of me that still longs to get high more than anything else, but because getting sober with other women has been one of the most fun, fascinating, healing and empowering experiences of my life.
It feels quite weird at first because meetings generally take place in unglamorous places, and there are ritualised elements, and certain phrases and actions that get repeated, even occasionally the holding of hands. But if you can get over the weirdness and see that inside the framework it’s just a group of people helping each other learn to live clean and sober in a world that doesn’t encourage it, then it can be a beautiful thing.
Getting sober isn't easy, and it takes a while to feel natural, but it is the most loving, challenging and exhilarating thing I have done for myself. I’ve learnt so much in the process. One of the most important lessons has been how to take my own needs seriously and listen to myself. Quitting drinking was the first example of me doing this.
Community has been a huge part of my recovery, and still is. We have to find people who won't roll their eyes when we tell them we're not drinking. Your people are out there, I promise. They are dreaming of meeting new friends who want to live differently too.
Sending love and gratitude,
Slowly Spinning’s email reminded me that there are lots more drinkers like me out there.
Problem drinkers at risk of never discovering how their lives change without alcohol simply because their drinking isn’t a problem for anyone else.
It was the same urge that started my sobriety, that started this blog. A nagging thought that wouldn't leave me alone, that pushed me to take a risk and step out into the wilderness, in spite of how scary it felt. What is it that this part of me wants? I have no idea, but I'm gaining more trust in it.
We are all in this together. Whatever you are fighting, someone else is battling too. The trick is to find your people, and you can only do that by sharing what is true for you, and by listening to yourself.
Slowly Spinning's email inspired me to reactivate the members only part of the website where you can ask questions or share stories or seek advice. Talk to me (and each other) in there. Or in the comments section. Encouragement lets me know I'm on the right track, and I love to hear from you.
Please share across your networks if you think this will help anyone else. You can find more of my writing over at Medium where I'm a top writer in Psychology, Addiction, Relationships and Love. You can clap fifty times per article. Just saying. <3