Eight months ago, at the age of 24, I quit all alcohol and drug use after years of struggling with both substances. I write the following for two reasons. Firstly, to make coherent - for myself - what has been a very messy and confusing road up to this point. I also write this in the hope that it may help someone who is in the tormenting limbo that I spent years in - that place of suspecting that you have a problem but you’re unsure or too scared to do something about it.
From the beginning of my teenage years onwards, I felt a near enough constant sense of anxiety and dread. I discovered alcohol at around the age of 15/16 and after a few drinks all that tension, insecurity and discomfort I felt within myself was swept away. Alcohol, I discovered, was a surefire way to get out of my head and to disappear from the world for a while. Not only this, it gave me energy, it was a great social lubricant and it was really, really fun.
I found drugs at the back end of my teenage years and I fell in love with these too. They allowed me to access a range of experiences I could not have fathomed before and I was eager to try any and all of them. This was done in the pursuit of enjoyment, but I was also seeking new and different ways to get out of myself and come into contact with something that was far removed from being me. A nice added bonus too – I soon discovered – was that the drugs allowed me to drink in larger quantities and for longer.
Alongside this alcohol and drug experimentation I was also trying other stuff to improve my mental health: things like self-help books, CBT, meditation, one-on-one therapy, group therapy, yoga, AA, running, anti-depressants, a healthy diet and supplements. I'm sure these all helped somewhat, but the anxiety, discontentment and despair persisted. Nothing else provided the quick and intense respite that I could achieve with the booze and the drugs. When times were shit, they allowed me to regulate the situation - or rather my feelings and emotions towards it - to something more bearable. So I took them in more and more situations. Alcohol and drugs became my go-to mood regulator. And they worked beautifully for years.
And then eventually they didn’t. Alcohol numbs depression and anxiety but, for those who abuse it, will eventually make these issues worse. In the last few years of my drinking and drugging, no matter how much I drank or took, I could never reach the point of getting totally out of my mind, which would come so easily to me in my younger days. I was doing more and more to achieve less and less: I remember getting blind drunk, my body unable to walk or function, but the negative thoughts and feelings remaining. Blissful numbness became elusive and, in trying to catch it, I would often overdo it and blackouts began to happen more and more frequently.
Suspicions that I had a problem with alcohol and drugs started about four or five years ago. The line crossing into addiction is blurry and there doesn’t appear to be a definitive test to check whether you have substance abuse issues or not, but here is a list of some of the stuff that I now think were early warning signs of dependency for me:
- Drinking or using alone;
- Losing my job because of drink/drugs;
- Hanging out with people I didn't want to hang out with because they drank or took drugs, like me;
- Drinking/taking drugs during work;
- Drinking/using while studying;
- Lying about/hiding my drinking and drugging;
- Feeling guilty about the way I used;
- Extremely risky behaviour while drinking/taking drugs;
- Attempting to cut down but unable to.
My initial response to the feeling of losing my grip around alcohol was to try and control it. I kept track of how much I drank, what kind of alcohol I drank and on what days I drank it. I made notes of my intake on my phone and Word documents on my laptop. I made promises to myself to last a few days before my next drink or that I would drink only beer or wine on a night out. All these lasted a while but invariably never stuck. Despite my attempts to control or cut down, my drinking would inevitably return, continuing unabated. Actually, it got worse. This is one of the most confusing and worrying aspects of my substance abuse; the more I tried to control or cut down my intake, the more it crept up.
There is the saying that you have to reach "rock bottom" with a problem before you do something about it. It took me quite a few "rock bottoms" with my addiction before I stopped. There are a lot of preconceived ideas about what an addict looks like and what getting sober looks like, and both of these things stopped me seeking out the help that exists. Here are the thoughts that stopped me getting sober: "I am too young"; "my drinking/drugging is not bad enough"; "getting fucked up is cool and it helps with creativity"; "it is not a total disaster every night I drink/use"; "friends say I am fine"; "the word 'alcoholic'/'addict' does not apply to me"; "my social life will be ruined"; "I don’t drink or use every day"; "I don’t drink in the mornings"; "I need it to have fun"; "I need it to relax". My idea of an alcoholic was someone on the streets with no friends, family or job. I still had all of these, so I continued to drink. My only significant spell of being "off it" in the last ten years came about three years ago. It was after a particularly bad holiday where I spent half of it either hungover or blackout drunk. On the plane home I vowed to myself that I would get sober for a while. I managed four weeks but it was a struggle; I felt no improvement in my mood and with all my friends still socialising through partying, I was pretty bored and lonely.
The following few years were spent in a very frustrating and confusing place. Drinking and drug taking had ceased to be much fun at all but I was scared - and seemingly unable - to stop. Desperate to stop, I eventually went to AA and with it I have maintained my longest and most enjoyable period of sobriety.
In the last eight months, the fears I had towards getting sober have proven to be unfounded since I have stopped. I have also come to realise that my idea of what a person with a drug or alcohol problem looks like is also completely false. Images of people in gutters or hedonistic celebrities have been replaced in my mind with normal folk. Addiction is indiscriminate across race, class, gender and sexuality. An addict does not look a certain way… I have, however, noticed common traits that seem to exist in most people with substance abuse problems: fear-based thinking, negative emotions, self-loathing and self-centeredness are rife. And whilst it is true that people that have been brought up in stable and loving families can end up with substance abuse problems, it is also undeniable that childhood trauma and addict parents are common.
A presumption that has turned out to be accurate is the idea that coping with life without drugs and alcohol would be challenging. Once I got all the shit out of my system that I was using to numb myself, my troubles were initially made more acute. But – and this I stress – it has gotten a lot easier.
In the last few months I have had to let myself think and feel all the stuff I was avoiding by drinking. This is obviously a scary thing to do and, I think, the main reason I failed so many times before when trying to quit on my own. Trying to figure out your traumas and issues alone in your head is confusing, lonely and painful. You can't fix the shit in your head with your own head. This is why AA has been so crucial and helpful to me; it has given me support and guidance to work through my issues and to develop better coping mechanisms and ways of thinking about life. Important, too, has been the fact that this support and guidance is coming from people who are in a similar position to me and not from doctors, therapists or other professional types. My guard has come down in a way that it simply refused to do in a therapist's office.
I go to three meetings a week. One reason I do this is because addiction is hallmarked by denial. If I don’t go to meetings for a while, thoughts creep into my head telling me that I wasn’t that bad or that I could start again but drink differently. Addiction, whether you believe it is a disease or not, is always there and lurking, constantly on patrol and waiting for weakness so that it can take hold again. Going to meetings and talking with others with substance abuse problems helps prevent this from happening. People can and do relapse and when it happens it is often a lot worse than their using prior. Philip Seymour Hoffman relapsed after 20 years sober and was soon dead. Yes, staying sober can be hard work and challenging, but I remind myself that so was getting fucked all the time.
The other reason I go to meetings so often is because I enjoy them. They are filled with laughter, joy, strength and hope. They can be difficult and painful but I nearly always feel better afterwards. They are full of empathy and hope and love and humour and offer a space to show a vulnerability that is off-limits in other areas of life. After a few meetings, I began to find a lot of identification with a lot of the stories people were telling. I found people that feel the same way as I do, that drink the same way as I did and for similar reasons. Most importantly, I have found people that have managed to stop drinking and using and are living what appears to be contented and fulfilling lives.
Whilst I don’t regret my past use or want to deny how fun or useful it was (addictive behaviour, though damaging in the medium or long term, undoubtedly saved me in the short term), quitting alcohol and drugs has been the best thing I have ever done. For years I thought that the alcohol and drugs were treating my anxiety and depression. Yet, in the half a year that I have been actively treating my addiction issues, I have found both these conditions to be mitigated greatly. I have also found total abstinence to be much more enjoyable and less mentally exhausting than trying to control.
Addiction is widely misunderstood and misrepresented in the media. It is both glorified and stigmatised, and the trend towards more and more young people getting sober is too often met with ridicule and accusations of self-indulgence. Yet, the amount of people suffering "rock-bottom" and actively meeting to try and overcome their addiction is rising. This can only be a good thing.