Updated: Feb 16, 2019
The Deliberation Years were a long and important stage at the end of my drinking career. A period when I had a clear case for sobriety — two fortnights of sober days in which productivity, reliability and participation went through the roof — and a clear case against drinking — hundreds of ugly evenings, increasing alarm at blank spots where nights should have been, psychologically intolerable hangovers — and yet I was completely unable to stick to my decision, and transition into the clean living I craved. The pull of alcohol, and what it could do for me, was too powerful.
Alcohol made me feel sociable and funny and daring, and if not quite pretty enough, at least it allowed me to forget I had a face. Over the years it freed me from monotony, made social awkwardness tolerable, taught me how to have fun, introduced me to boys, took away my fear of people, and gave me the ability to talk to anyone. When I think of myself at school and at college without alcohol — skittish and frightened, unable to sustain eye contact, scared of brightly lit rooms — I see how deeply I’d already come to rely on booze by my teens.
I’d discovered that a single bottle of lager released my true personality. By the end of the bottle I was confident, relaxed and witty. The problem was that the bottle released my thirst too, and I raced past that perfect equilibrium of self-confidence to someone whose more brazen and obnoxious actions I struggled to assimilate. When, at the end of my second year at university, a doctor offered medication as a solution to my out of control blushing I was shocked and ashamed. Anti-depressants were exotic and mysterious to me then, like hummus or sun dried tomatoes, only less pleasant. I had no knowledge of mental health issues or their prevalence in society. People were either mental or not where I was from.
Oh dear, she forgot to take her medication! Ha! Ha! Ha!
I left the GP surgery empty-handed, and headed to the pub for a dose of the more socially sanctioned medicine: lager. This continued for years, along with my own powerful brand of further anti-blush strategies - namely avoiding the cafeteria, library and supermarket during daylight hours, and remaining constantly vigilant for the people I was most desperate to connect with so I could be sure to escape before they tried to talk to me. In the day I ducked behind lockers and into toilets to avoid seeing the people I liked, at night, I searched for them, eager to show off the real me. Alcohol helped me release my personality.
Drinking was like the future, something inevitable and intangible I didn’t think about. When my lovely, wholesome new uni friends suggested I changed for the worse when I drank, I blamed it on wife-beater (Stella) and promised not to drink it anymore, but actually, I stopped drinking with them. When another friend pointed out that I did a lot of things I regretted when I was drunk I agreed, sadly, that yes I did. But didn’t everyone? He had no idea I didn’t remember a large portion of the evening in question, and I couldn’t tell him because then he would know. For me, drinking was always a matter of abandoning myself. It wasn’t until recently that I realised how much that was the point.
Alcohol was so essential I didn’t notice it. And if bad times occurred occasionally, so what? It was worth it. Besides, it was my fault, because I mixed my drinks or drank brown spirits or drank shots or started too early or drank too fast or started too late and had to ‘catch up’ or forgot to eat first or drank with the booze fiends or drank with people who couldn’t drink whose lightweightery made my drunkenness conspicuous. When all else failed, I was spiked.
I have been spiked a lot.
By my mid-twenties I hated alcohol almost as much as I loved it. Hangovers, humiliations and the inability of drunk-me to choose wisely and keep us safe had dented the sweet sanctity of the initial romance. I was a slow learner, but I refused to give up on the lesson. The alcohol-loving part of me shifted the bad booze memories to the back, pushed the good memories to the front. The relief of a cold pint in a sunny beer garden hung right at the top of my consciousness, like a pair of dice around the rearview mirror of my mind; the misery of being told snippets from a blackout while paranoid and hungover slotted itself into the dark space in the boot where the spare wheel was kept.
It was exactly like staying with an abusive boyfriend. Getting dressed up, dreaming of romance, then crying yourself to sleep because he was so cruel. Swearing not to see him again until the next time you bumped into him, and he looked so pretty you forgot the pain or told yourself it wasn’t so bad, that you probably deserved it, because you just wanted to be near him again. You loved him so much! And he didn’t mean to hurt you! If you just tried harder, one more time, you’d handle it better, you’d do everything right, and it would be perfect again, like it was at the start! This time would be different. You watch!
This love/hate relationship with alcohol continued for over a decade before I arrived at the deliberation years. My list of drinking dos and don’ts grew, became more pronounced as did the pain of breaking them. A few pints, then home; no more drinks after midnight; no wine with dinner; no drinking before seven pm; one drinking night at the weekend, but then only ‘a few’, and (rule disregarded since 2001) ABSOLUTELY NO SHOTS. I continued to make and break more booze-related deals than the international sales reps for Budweiser. Only now I actually cared.
The problem was that I couldn’t get sober-me and drunk-me to sit down and agree what constituted ‘a few’ drinks. Sober-me thought two or three, tops, whereas drunk-me suffered a little-known condition called bar-stool paralysis. It struck after the first sip and rendered the sufferer unable to leave the pub before it stopped serving.
The moment where these two ‘me’s converged provided a window of opportunity to get an agreement drawn up, but it was like the police versus the drug dealers in The Wire — the competition wasn’t fair, the stakes weren’t the same: drunk me would do anything for a drink, she’s fighting for survival; sober me is passionate about not-drinking, but she’s tired too, and more than anything, she just wants to relax; particularly, she needs to relax her nerves before this important life-changing deal she’s about to broker, and she knows better than anything that one drink will take the edge off, but with ‘the edge’ goes her sense of urgency, and she temporarily forgets that she’s the one who brought the contract, who’s supposed to get the signature. This lapse is all drunk-me needs. The end of the night and she’s dancing, yet again, under contract confetti.
The last few years of drinking were comparatively joyless as I saw my habit for what it was. Perhaps I began to fear alcohol more than I needed it. For whatever reason, it became clear to me that the relationship was toxic; the bad times, finally, undeniably, outweighed the good and I gave up trying to drink like a gentleman.
Promises didn’t work. The Best Intentions in the World didn’t work. Dry January didn’t work. Not drinking brown liquor/JD/vodka/on an empty stomach/shots/beer/halves didn’t work. Writing NO ALCOHOL in capitals at the top of notebooks didn’t work. Pacts with drinking friends didn’t work.
After a mildly drunken, moderately ugly evening I finally realised I couldn’t learn this lesson by myself.
If you want things to change, you have to do something different; in that sweet moment of opportunity, I reached out and asked for help.
It turns out that there are so many tools and support networks when you are ready to get sober: AA, Smart Recovery, Soberistas, Hip Sobriety, This Naked Mind, Recovery Elevator being just a few I’ve used along the way.
It took a long time, but the resolution came when sober-me realised that drunk-me was never going to sign off on the deal that would annihilate her. I would have to stop negotiating with a maniac, and rip the contract up myself.