Did you have a hangover on New Year’s Day? Journalist Jill Stark started new year 2011 with a God-forsaken hangover, a culmination of just one too many binges, which were now accompanied with terrible panic attacks and self-loathing. She decided to take a break from drinking for January. Which turned into February. Then March. And then the rest of the year. You can read her article, written at the 3 month point here.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’d been depressed for much of my adult life, and I also had a weird relationship with alcohol during this time. Like a lot of university students and young professionals, I got drunk regularly. A university friend texted me recently from our college town to remind me of ‘how we tore this town up’. Not drinking to excess seemed inconceivable – how would I be able to relax, dance, meet guys, laugh, without a getting drunk? I used alcohol as a social lubricant: to fit in, to be more like other people, to get others to like me. I consider myself a fairly confident person, but when I look back at what I was doing, I see the truth was anything but – I was just a frightened, insecure and often angry girl wanting people to love her. Plus the highs were fun, I can’t deny that. This wasn’t just college aged behaviour either. These patterns continued well into my mid-thirties when I was a professional working woman. In fact, the culture in my line of work meant that excessive boozing was encouraged and those who could last on a big night out and yet still be functioning at their desks by 9am the next day were held up as shining examples.
Even during my booziest college and working years, however, I would have periods of very real ambivalence about getting drunk. Times when I was given an excuse not to get drunk became very welcome, such as the year I spent recovering from glandular fever (mono), or Saturday nights spent at a friend’s house eating and watching bad TV rather than in the pub, or the first year of working when I commuted from my parents’ house into central London and had to drive to and from the station every day. When my dad died in 2007, I didn’t touch alcohol for several months, I didn’t have the heart for it in my grief, and when I did touch it, it made the pain so, so much worse.
As well as this ambivalence, alcohol would almost always just make me feel plain miserable. I stopped bingeing on gin when I spent most of the evening in a college pub sobbing after drinking a pint of gin and tonic (5 measures – £1 per measure, 5th one free. Your misery for a bargain). The day after a binge would be horrific, even if physically I felt OK, the self-hatred, the depression, the low, would be the stuff of nightmares. And it happened every time I drank. Why then didn’t I stop?
It wasn’t until I decided I no longer wanted to live a limited, depressed, stuck life, and started to work with a therapist in 2011 that my desire to get drunk began to diminish. It wasn’t a conscious decision, it was just I no longer wanted to be drunk, I no longer wanted to blunt all the edges of my experience. No matter how wonderful or how painful life was at that time, I wanted to experience it, to really feel it, to live it as it was. And the less I drank, the happier I became – and the happier I became, the less I wanted to drink.
The more sober I was, the more I started to learn about myself. It wasn’t always pretty. Realising how I had been using booze to get people to like me for, oh, just short of 30 years, was embarrassing and scary. But I have come to understand and like myself more now. I am an introvert, I don’t really like large groups of people, I find endless small talk and banter exhausting. I like to have real conversations with people. I’m quite a serious person sometimes but I do love being silly (just last week my 4 year old nephew and I played a game in our local park which involved diving into and bouncing off bushes. At least, he bounced, I fell into the bush and got a massive splinter in my thumb. Neither of us could stop giggling for about 10 minutes though, it was hilarious).
I learned that not only was it OK to be like this, but that I like myself as I am. I’m not going to be everyone’s cup of tea but I am very happy being me. Interestingly, those people, especially men, who seem to find the way I am challenging, end up being the most intrigued. I’ve surprised both myself and other people by being good fun, staying out dancing, and having a great time having had just one drink – or even none at all. And I am good fun – although maybe not the kind of fun that people expect you to be.
Most importantly, I learned that the thing we do to improve our connections to others actually doesn’t work. Being drunk destroys your ability to connect and relate with others, despite what you might feel at the time. Why? In order to truly connect you have to be present, here in the moment, truly engaged in what the other person is saying to you. And if you are drunk, then by definition you are not present, you’re not even in the same room. You’ve got drunk in order to escape reality, right? So why do you think you’re still here, when you’re not. So a key result of not being drunk was some vastly improved relationships with friends and family. I also connected much better with the men I met, those real conversations creating a greater intimacy in a shorter period, than any shot downing would have done.
That glass of wine over there. Why are you drinking it?
It tastes delicious
It helps me relax through its neurological effects on my brain
It’s Friday night!
I’ve had a bad day/week/year and it will help numb all those bad feelings I don’t want to feel
Everyone else is having a drink, and I’ll feel odd man out if I don’t; plus it’s expected
After I’ve several glasses, it allows me to escape from reality, from the present, even if only for a short while
I only really have numbers one and two from this list now; in the past I had all of these, and more. I wasn’t even aware that these were my reasons. And even though some of these things can be an issue, the real problem is the lack of awareness of why we’re even drinking in the first place. That is where you need to start.
In her 2010 TED talk on vulnerability, Brene Brown explains how you cannot selectively numb. What this means, is when you use alcohol (or drugs, shopping, work, exercise, whatever) to numb unhappiness, loneliness, grief, boredom, depression, anxiety – you also numb joy, love, happiness – everything. Not drinking quite so much these past couple of years has allowed me to be in closer contact with what I really feel. This isn’t always pleasant, but it is real and I feel alive. It is only by experiencing these emotions that you can set them free – and free yourself from being stuck.
I firmly believe that drinking and getting drunk (as opposed to having a couple of drinks occasionally) is a key component in remaining stuck, through:
A physical dependency on alcohol
An emotional need to numb and keep emotions locked down
An emotional need to hide behind alcohol and not be the real person you are
Not taking responsibility for your words and actions ‘because you were drunk’
Avoiding vulnerability and uncertainty, e.g. on dates or at social occasions
Incurring too much risk e.g. through poor decision making when drunk
I am not saying become teetotal. I am advocating a period of sobriety, especially if you are working on things with a coach or therapist, so you can start to free yourself. You cannot do this work if you are drunk or hungover. You cannot be intentional in this state.
I have travelled round Thailand by myself, regularly go clubbing in Ibiza, go on ski trips, been to weddings, barbeques, parties. I’ve been chatted up – and chatted up guys. All either completely sober or only after 1-2 drinks. I’ve enjoyed all of these things, they came alive for me in primary colours, not some blurred out fuzzy memory.
Life’s too short to be wasted
Life’s too short to waste it