TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses addiction. Some people may find it triggering. 24-hour telephone support is available here.
I had my first drink when I was twelve. In the beginning, it was something I did because it felt so very cool and grown up – my parents would have the occasional gin and tonic on a summer afternoon and while their backs were turned, I’d sneak a dash of gin into my glass of OJ then sit smugly sipping it while congratulating myself on being so bold.
But it didn’t take long to realise that a) that dash of gin gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling in my head, and b) the more gin I added, the faster that warm fuzzy feeling kicked in. Oh, how I liked that warm fuzzy feeling. I began to seek it out, topping up my drink bottle with nips of gin from the liquor cupboard in the laundry. As I watched the tide go out on the bottle, I began to panic that my parents would notice and I started topping it up with water. I can’t remember how old I was when I first got properly drunk, but it was well before my 14th birthday.
By 15, I was replacing whole bottles of gin with water. My parents never noticed because Dad travelled often with work and would return from each trip with bottles of duty-free liquor. Twenty years on I can still see the bright yellow bags with black handles nestled in the bottom of the linen cupboard, each holding two or three bottles of Gordon’s tucked inside a protective foam sleeve. It was so easy to rotate the bottles so no-one knew what I was up to. Less easy-to-hide was my behaviour when I was drunk, but I soon learned how to measure exactly enough to get wasted, but not enough to get caught. It was a very fine line. I began carrying Wrigley’s Extra in my school uniform pocket to hide the smell of the gin on my breath.
While I wanted to keep my drinking a secret from the adults in my life, I was desperate to brag to my peers. Largely borne out of a desperate need to fit in, my drinking not only lowered my inhibitions, it made me popular with the ‘bad’ kids at school, the ones I so desperately wanted to notice me. It gave me the means to forget that I was an overweight, middle class, somewhat-mediocre kid from the suburbs. By sharing my illicit booty with them, for a season or two I was popular. We’d lounge in the sun at recess with the radio blaring hip hop tunes, sipping gin and juice from plastic drink bottles in full view of the teachers. They had no idea. In my fifth form year at school, I was drunk at least one school day a week and I never got caught. There were a few close calls – like the time a friend stood up during mid-semester exams and started pacing the rows between the desks ranting about a plastic ruler – but we never actually got caught. Afterwards, we’d sit and laugh hysterically at how close we came and how apparently stupid the teachers were.
I don’t think I was an alcoholic at this point. I wasn’t drinking because I was addicted – while I loved the feeling of being completely wasted that getting drunk gave me, I craved the social acceptance it brought me even more and that was my primary motivation.
By the time I was 17, I was drinking several times a week. My parents were most certainly aware of it at this point, and they had taken the approach that it was safer for me (and my friends) to have a few drinks at home under controlled conditions than to be out drinking in parks, or worse, in cars. Which is not to say we didn’t also do both of those things, but we certainly took advantage of having a safe place at home in which to write ourselves off. I was still in control of the drinking at this point – the novelty of drinking at school had worn off and we’d instead adopted the culture of binge drinking every weekend that remains prevalent among young people two decades later.
I began to lose control of my drinking shortly after I turned 18. I left school with a university scholarship in english, and enrolled in university to study journalism. Unfortunately, the perfect storm of finishing school, my parents moving to Australia, starting uni and becoming of legal drinking age all within a two-month period screamed ‘FREEDOM’ at me so loudly I couldn’t ignore it, and within a month of the first semester I’d dropped out citing mental health reasons. I got a job at the local supermarket and used it to bankroll my drinking.
The supermarket job lasted less than six months. By this stage, I was drinking every day. Some days I’d arrive at work still drunk from the night before, other days I wouldn’t bother to turn up at all. I maxed out my sick leave and made ridiculous excuses about having to attend funerals for non-existent family members. When I lost my job, I went to sign up for the dole only to be told that because I’d been sacked for poor performance, there was a three-month stand down. I had no money, no job, no means with which to buy alcohol, but still I didn’t think I had a problem. I cut myself off from my family, and from anyone who dared suggest that my drinking might be out of control. Instead, I hung out with people who drank as much as I did. My behaviour became more and more erratic, and more and more reckless. I was unscrupulous about who I slept with (particularly if it meant the stream of alcohol would continue for just one more night), I got into cars with drivers who had been drinking, and I wandered the streets at all hours of the night oblivious to the dangers lurking in the shadows. I got arrested numerous times for disorderly behaviour. When I wasn’t drinking, I was thinking about getting drunk or where to get more alcohol from. My drink of choice was vodka mixed with raspberry and lemonade and my mouth was almost-permanently stained pink, but if I couldn’t get my hands on vodka, I’d drink anything else on offer. Whether I acknowledged it then or not, I had become an alcoholic. I was 19 years old.
I was drunk the night I met Willie, sculling homebrew at his kitchen table with the group of friends we had in common. In fact, the first two years of our relationship were largely built on a shared love of drinking. But he was different to me – while he enjoyed writing himself off of a weekend, he’d sober himself up come Monday morning and spend the weeks working long hours as a truck driver. He was in control of his drinking where I was not. And it began to become an issue. He got frustrated with me always asking for money to buy alcohol, and frustrated with coming home off the night shift to find me passed out on the bathroom floor. Something had to give.
He encouraged me to re-enrol in uni, telling me I was smarter than the drunks I ran with and that I needed to use my brain. Short on options and realising that he was going to kick me out if I didn’t do something soon, I took his advice. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the classes, and my timetable allowed plenty of time for drinking. I almost began to believe that the drinking wasn’t really a problem, that I had it under control.
Until I got sick. I passed out on the bus on the way home from uni one day and got rushed to hospital, and after a panel of blood tests the doctors told me I had glandular fever, that I would need at least a month off uni, and that I needed stop drinking for at least that long or risk permanent liver damage. If you’d told me to stop drinking a week earlier I would have thrown up the middle finger, but I was so, so sick that drinking was the last thing on my mind. I slept for two weeks straight, and by the time I started feeling better, I was beginning to enjoy the new clarity I’d found in my head.
While I had several more benders after that, something had changed. I no longer found the enjoyment in drinking that I used to. In fact, the loss of control I felt while drunk began to frighten me. On May 19, 2002, nursing one hell of an epic hangover, I decided I was done. I was not going to drink any more.
And I didn’t. To put it like that makes it sound easy, it wasn’t. I started attending AA meetings and learning about the twelve-step recovery process. I heard the words ‘Hi, I’m Emma and I’m a sober alcoholic’ come out of my mouth at each meeting and wanted to vomit. I craved a drink (or ten) and cried big ugly tears at the thought of never again feeling the amazing buzz of being wasted. But day by day, one step at a time, I began to find comfort in recovery.
Six weeks after I had my last drink, I found out I was pregnant with Maya. I often think of that as some great synchronicity of the universe – had I conceived her earlier, she might have been damaged by the heavy drinking, and falling pregnant when I did gave me more motivation than ever to maintain my sobriety. My daughter deserved a sober mother, and I was determined to be that for her. Would I have relapsed into drinking had I not fallen pregnant? I don’t know, but I expect so. Instead, taking on responsibility for her new life forced me to take responsibility for my own life.
It’s now been close to 12 years since I last had a drink. I haven’t been sober all that time and the urge to have a drink still gnaws at me from time to time, but I’ve learned strategies to keep it at bay and where I once surrounded myself with those who supported my addiction, these days I surround myself with those who support my sobriety.
They say there’s no such thing as ‘cured’ from alcoholism, that I’ll be an alcoholic until the day I die. That may be true, but if I spend the next fifty years being a sober alcoholic then that’s just fine by me.
Linking up with Kirsty at My Home Truths for ‘I must confess…’