This time three years ago, I woke, dehydrated, with a sickening feeling of doom. It wasn’t the first time, or even the first thousandth time, and I had no inkling that it would be the last.*
What happened? I asked myself, not wanting to open my eyes. And then I remembered.
I sunk under the covers.
The night before had been a Thursday, which meant psychotherapy. It was my third or fourth session and it wasn’t going well. I was desperately seeking solutions for what the hell was wrong with me, but I didn’t know where to start.
“How about we begin with what brought you here?” the therapist would ask, and I’d talk around the easier to articulate neuroses, weirded out by the way my words disappeared into the beige room, how far away her chair was. Was that a therapeutic distance? Did she fear I might attack?
“Am I doing it right?” I would ask occasionally, mid-ramble, and she might smile or nod supportively or remind me that there wasn’t a ‘right way’. She would tell me to keep talking, and then to stop talking because time was up.
“But I didn’t say anything,” I’d think, sadly, afterwards. How could I when she was right there? The whole thing was doomed. This couldn’t possibly help if it had to come from me. I didn’t know what was going on, that was the problem. Wasn’t she listening?
Why couldn’t she just shrink down, crawl into my ear canal, and activate the special helmet that allowed her to hear my thoughts? After a while, she could crawl out and tell me what to do. Would that be so hard?
My ‘symptoms’ had been present long enough to seem like my actual personality, but they were out of balance enough lately that even I was beginning to wonder. Was I mad?
I felt half-mad, at least. Racing thoughts, paranoia, low self-esteem, inability to concentrate, anxiety, depression, obsessive thinking, a terrible tendency to emotionally self-harm, relationship struggles and a total lack of willpower, which manifested in all areas.
Everything I did ended in failure, if not immediately, then ultimately, and if I thought about it, this was a bit of a trend. In fact, if I thought about it, I had lost faith in my ability to build a life fit for a person. Which was alarming, since I was a person. Definitely better not to think about it.
Somehow, I seemed always to be starting again. The last fifteen years, I’d moved house enough times (seventeen, at least) that I no longer saw the point in making myself comfortable. I felt pathologically uprooted, so determined to be free that I hadn’t committed to anything. I had zero responsibilities and belonged nowhere.
I was waiting for my own life to begin. And if decision making was difficult during this period, following through was almost impossible. Looking back I understand this as my pre-contemplation stage. The time before the person with the problematic habit(s) even considers quitting, when they appear to conscious outsiders as though they are sleepwalking through life.
So many conversations I could share to illustrate my somnambulism, but this one especially springs to mind.
I had been to a book signing and was now in the Bell, with two clever and brilliant friends I didn’t see very often. We’d been drinking for a few hours, which meant I had been downgraded from Gossamer Filter to Thinking Out Loud. It was a few months before my first Dry January, a year and a half before my final hangover.
“What’s your Very Worst Trait?” Brilliant Friend A asked.
“Arrogance,” Brilliant Friend B said, firmly.
“Perfectionism,” A said.
I couldn’t think, as usual. Nerves triggered by people, plus booze to numb them made me extra slow.
“Weakness?” I offered, finally, wanting them to stop looking at me.
“That’s not a trait!” A rolled her eyes at me, laughing.
They watched while I racked my brains. I didn’t want to play this game, but it didn’t occur to me to say so. What was the name of that trait? Whatever it was, it was ruining my life. The opposite of autonomy…? Enslavement. That was it. I felt enslaved. By my own habits and appetites.
I couldn’t meet deadlines. I couldn’t get fit. I couldn’t control my boyfriend**. I couldn’t resist alcohol or food or sweets or naps. I couldn’t read novels. My thoughts churned, constantly, analysing the very distant and very recent past and the very far and very near future, completely overwhelmed by the non-stop improv that is the present.
More than anything, I just needed a break.
This inability to name what was going on for me and my desire to please other people made therapy difficult. Rather than looking inside for answers I looked to my therapist (JUST PUT ON THE HELMET !). I was trying to get it right, but therapy doesn’t work like that, and so I was failing. Again.
I felt hopeless.
When I got home, that Thursday after therapy, my boyfriend had set out Scrabble and two wine glasses, although I had, yet again, sworn off drinking. The weekly shop had come, and for some reason (to celebrate cutting down my intake, most likely) I had broken my longstanding rule of not having alcohol in the house. We shared one bottle, quickly, then argued over whether to have the next. I wanted to go back in time and un-drink the first one, while my boyfriend wanted to drink the second. I tried to switch to tea, but it wasn’t possible.
“If you’re drinking more, I’m drinking more,” I said, angrily, blaming him for my decision.
The wine loosened us up, and we put beautiful music on, then started to argue over whose fault Everything was.
At some point, alcohol had changed from being a balm that soothed the lostness and sadness and anger inside me to an accelerant that exploded it.
“You don’t love me,” I kept saying. “You don’t think I’m beautiful.” It was a frequent refrain inside my head, but somehow it had gotten loose.
God knows why I started saying it or what he said in return, but finally, sick of ourselves and each other, we went to bed. For some reason, then, I decided to try and log into his email. Typing out an ancient password as he lay beside me, my adrenalin soared. He was right there, eyes closed. He could catch me, in a second, and then what? My heart pounded.
He opened his eyes at the moment I pressed return. His personal messages laid out before us.
“What the hell do you think you’re you doing?”
It was a good question.
What the hell did I think I was I doing?
What was this destructive urge in me trying to achieve?
In the morning, he wasn’t eager to make up, and I needed forgiveness. Once again, I was under someone’s boot. And this time, without a doubt, I’d put myself there.
The depth of my self-loathing made it difficult to have a body. My psychological state was torturous. If this continued, I would have to kill myself. What other option was there? It was just too painful to live when you were this out of control.
His question picked at me all day. What the hell was I doing? I couldn’t explain my behaviour, except to say that it had felt like being possessed (sleepwalking). The unexpressed and unaddressed — things I’d pushed down over the years — had begun to find their way out. Alcohol unleashed them.
I called a sober woman I’d met the December before, when I’d first shown up hungover at a support group. She sounded unsurprised to hear from me, and we met for coffee that afternoon. I didn’t tell her about ‘Scrabblegate’, I felt too pathetic. But I told her I wanted my life to be different, and she said she could help me if I was willing to take it seriously.
From then on, I walked to her house every Sunday where she would light a candle, and we'd drink herbal tea and read books about living sober. We talked about what we believed in, and what we dreamed of, and what was standing in our way. We laughed about things we’d done, and occasionally I cried, and she said I should call her if I was tempted to drink, and so sometimes, frustrated, I rang just to express how much I wanted to drink white wine or Kirin Ichiban or red wine or Estrella, how it was like an ache in my throat and body, and she told me to play the tape through, or call someone and ask how they are, or find someone I could help.
With her support I made it through my first thirty, then sixty, then ninety days.
“To thine own self be true,” she said, when I talked about the pressure I felt to drink around people, especially my family and friends. “Remember how it really was. Do what works for you.”
I made it to a year, then two years, and now three, and as my life and self-esteem and mental and physical health improved, so did my commitment to not drinking. It became easy. It became preferable.
I wasn’t exactly a high functioning heavy drinker, but nor was I the kind of drinker who was capable of nothing at all. It was the very average, middle-of-the-road, manageable-ish nature of my drinking that stopped me from noticing how it was impacting me for years.
It took the total, undeniable pathetic-ness of that Thursday night in with Scrabble to shake me out of my delusion that I had no part in the alcohol problems I felt surrounded by. My behaviour that night crushed any lingering notions that the way I drank was in any way edgy or fun or cool.
It was one low key ‘bad night’ too many, and for the first time, I knew that I had to change.
Less traumatic than the house party at thirteen or the shopping precinct incident at fifteen, less embarrassing than Porn Night at eighteen, less frightening than Florence at twenty-four, less painful than Berlin at twenty-six, less upsetting than any of the New Year’s Eves. But I’d had enough. I’d experienced my ‘rock bottom’ and I knew I couldn't do this alone. I asked for help.
If my Very Worst Trait was weakness, drinking made me weaker. It gave me permission to do things I would never permit. To place myself under the boot. If I was going to become a person people (predominantly me) could respect, then I was going to have to let go of my beloved alcohol. It was ruining my life.
I never would have guessed it would be such a pleasure.
* fingers crossed
* and sadly didn’t know it wasn’t my responsibility to