The Tender Edges: Alcohol & Coping
Content Warning: Mentions of alcohol abuse
Hi guys. I’ve been sober for eight months. I’m not an alcoholic, but I have a feeling I came close.
I’m not writing this to advocate sobriety as a lifestyle. No judgement here. Get lit all you want. Drink around me – that’s fine as well. Drunk people are hilarious, and I am a messy bitch who likes drama so feel free to down half a bottle of vodka and tell me your feelings about your co-workers.
I’m writing this because I no longer drink, and I wanted to talk about why – because, perhaps, there are some people out there who are in the same boat as me. Because I’m surrounded by twenty-somethings who say stuff like ‘oh I drink as a coping mechanism’ and laugh like it’s just another nihilistic meme but no, that shit isn’t healthy. So, let’s talk about me, and then if you want to talk about you, you can.
“Anxiety makes you tender and frightened. Emotions are huge and glaring, seizing your whole body. I was frightened of them. I was frightened of the world. I was frightened of myself.”
I am twenty-five years old. I had my first drink at seventeen. Late bloomer, I know. It was at university that alcohol and I became best gal-pals. Like most ill-advised friendships, we started on Freshers’ Week. Drinking transported me to a magical land where everything seemed fuzzy and friendly, and I didn’t care about little things like crippling social anxiety or the sheer terror of being away from home. When I was sober, I was aware that a lot of the things I was doing while drunk were – at best – deeply annoying and, at worst, incredibly off-putting. I was blatantly needy. I talked about myself, loudly and endlessly. I clung. I snogged anyone who looked at me for too long.
Alcohol let me lie to myself. This is who you are, this is fine, it said. So, what if people don’t like you that’s fine have a drink.
University makes it somewhat socially acceptable to get that drunk that often. I’m viewing my exploits with the lens of experience and shame. Perhaps I wasn’t that bad. Perhaps I was. The point was that at university I discovered that alcohol enabled me to think I was becoming the person I wished I was – outgoing, bubbly – only the alcohol was lying, and I wasn’t becoming that person at all. I was becoming a parody of that person, a parody of myself; too scared of being the shy girl I catapulted the other way, hands shaking and smile trembling and lying through clenched teeth. I am okay. I am.
I wasn’t, of course.
Without going into endless detail, I graduated. I entered the workforce. I kept drinking. It was normal. Getting drunk on dates was normal. I met my boyfriend the traditional British way: drunk in a pub. I told myself another lie: you have your diagnoses. You have anxiety and depression – because mental illness comes in pairs – and you are in control. You know who you are.
There’s a brilliant book – Black Out: Drinking to Forget the Nights I Can’t Remember, by Sarah Hepola, which I read a few years ago and tried to ignore the similarities to my own life – and in it she says, “Much of my life has been this way. A complete inability to tolerate the moment.” At university, I couldn’t bear confronting the reality of my malfunctioning brain; I slip-slid further into anxiety and clung to the desperate, ridiculous hope that I was fine. In my early twenties, I drank more. My anxiety turned my skin soft and tender, and alcohol was a way to shield it from the sharp edges of the world.
Bad date? Fine. Have a glass of wine, chat about it with colleagues. Laugh it off.
Not sure where your career is going? Fine. Drink some wine. Everyone does it. Everyone.
That’s another lie, by the way.
I moved to Oxford. Here I must stress: alcohol wasn’t always a toxic friend. We had some grand old times, she and I. Rosé in the fields behind my first house in Sutton Courtenay (shared with a terrifying landlady I avoided at all costs); the sun honey-gold and gorgeous, the sky a high and blameless blue. With new friends at the pub, talking about feminism and books and travel, setting the world to rights. When Theresa May’s election went wrong, the bartender gave me a free double G&T because I called Mrs May a very rude word.
But it was a shadow, growing deeper, settling over me. It was never hi guys let’s go out it was always hi guys let’s go and get drunk. My hobby was wine, gin, or both. I was hungover every Sunday. Again. Nothing wrong with that. But when things at my job started getting tough, I drank wine every night. It quieted the yammering, anxious voice in my head – the one that endlessly said, you’re not good enough. The awful thing was that I knew precisely what I was doing to myself. I wasn’t seventeen – a child pretending desperately to be something she wasn’t – anymore; I was a woman who knew that drinking wine to cool that hot, shaky anxious feeling in her stomach was bad; but a woman who didn’t stop.
Some people hit rock bottom. I was lucky. I got thrown out of Oxford’s one gay club, stopped from seeing my favourite drag queen. I went home. I woke up so hungover I wanted to crawl into a pit and die.
And I stopped lying to myself. I wrote it down. I wrote: you are drinking to avoid anxiety, you are drinking to self-medicate, you will hurt yourself and the people you love, you were lucky now but you won’t always be. You have a life you love, a boyfriend you adore, and you will ruin it all.
Anxiety makes you tender and frightened. Emotions are huge and glaring, seizing your whole body. I was frightened of them. I was frightened of the world. I was frightened of myself. Because if I took the alcohol away, and that artificial confidence it inspired, what was left?
Me. Just me.
I work harder now. I have to. I co-run a book club. The monthly drinks can be awkward: all those new people. Trying to start a conversation, trying not to ramble, while also feeling incredibly responsible for the success of the event. My stomach tangles into a knot, and though I know that a glass of wine would unwind it slightly I also know that it is never just one glass of wine, and it isn’t because I want a glass of wine, it’s because I need one. And that’s the problem.
So, I make myself talk. When I have an attack of anxiety, when that voice says you are not good enough, I engage with it. I actually use that CBT shit I’ve been reading about. I don’t run from it. I can’t. Anxiety is a yapping dog at your heels. It never leaves you, but you learn to manage. And alcohol had stopped me engaging with who I am. It stopped me tackling my actual problems; instead it created a whole new slew of issues (mainly related to dumb shit done while drunk.)
Here’s the thing I really want you to take away from this – along with well, now I know more about you than I ever wanted to. One day, you might be thinking oh God I really need a glass of wine. When it moves from want to need, you might want to think that through.
I’ve stopped lying to myself. The truth is hard and sharp and brutal. But it’s worth it. My God, is it worth it.