Hi. My name is Beth and I don’t drink.
My love of alcohol began in my teens. Like loads of other rebellious kids in my year I’d save up my dinner money and then, on a Friday night, ask some poor unsuspecting bloke outside the corner shop to grab me a bottle of lambrusco (classy) and 10 B&H. It was such a different time then, and there were no shortage of men willing to break the law in order to put a smile on a school girls face.
I was only 13 when I started doing this on a Friday night and by the time I was 14 I was doing it on Saturdays too. Sunday was recovery day. This created an all or nothing cycle which has stayed with me to this day.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t addicted to alcohol at that time. I was just doing what we all did, getting pissed with my mates. But it started me off on a path of frequently bending my experience of reality, and I loved that I didn’t always have to live in the boring old real world.
Thankfully (or not, whichever way you want to look at it), I quickly met my first proper boyfriend. At 22, he was 8 years my senior (which by today’s standards is appalling but back then I was just “one of those girls whose boyfriend has a car”. There was a choice name for “girls like me”, used by both my peers and adults, teachers included, which I won’t repeat here. That’s a whole other post which I will go into another time). Me and this fella were “serious” but also on again/off again for around 3 years.
He was controlling and strict, so when we were “together” I wasn’t allowed to drink (smoking was fine though). But also, as is common with these types of guys, he would frequently mess me around and dump me for another girl, leaving me heartbroken again, before coming back a few weeks later professing his undying love.
During the times when he was off with someone else, I’d go back to getting pissed at the weekend with my mates in the park, and it was in one of these times that I started going out with a small time dealer who introduced me to pot. I was about 15 at the time. When the affects of the first drag hit me, I realised I loved it and my addictive personality revealed itself to me in all its glory. But I had a lucky sudden moment of clarity that if I didn’t get a grip of this and fast, it would be drugs or alcohol that killed me, and likely much earlier than my time. Because like with alcohol, I wanted more of this feeling of being in an altered reality. It was so much more exciting than real life.
Luckily, by happy coincidence, I’m also a massive nerd who not only wants to experience everything life has to offer but also obsessively learn everything there is to learn. But before the birth of the internet you had to be a bit more creative about how you got your knowledge fix. Back in the 90s, in the midst of the worldwide “War On Drugs” there was a government backed service called Talk to Frank which, as a certified rebel, was my dirty little secret. You could call up Frank for free from any phone box to talk about drugs and request a leaflet about any you were concerned about. The leaflet would have photographs of each drug so you knew it when you saw it, a list of its different street names, how it made you feel and all possible side effects. I collected every single one and prized my drug info library like many people now collect Harry Potter or other book series (“oooh I just need magic mushrooms and then my collection is complete”). Weird as it was, I know this obsession saved my life because I made a decision then and there never to touch anything but pot and my first love, the booze. I knew even then that my all or nothing mentality signalled that I was a natural addict who was highly likely to end up like Zammo from Grange Hill, sitting awkwardly against a wall with a needle hanging out of my arm (I also have a vivid imagination which helped in the decision making process).
My teenage dalliance with the local drug scene didn’t last long and I was soon back to the older guy who sat smoking fags and watching porn on VHS while he insisted I study for my GCSEs, which I passed with flying colours, largely thanks to him. (I finally ended that relationship during my A-levels and since then my boyfriend’s have all been much more age appropriate).
I didn’t drink much while at uni but by Christ I must have smoked at least 10 times my body weight in skunk. Me and my mates were basically the Cheech and Chong of halls of residence, anytime my door opened it was with a puff of smoke like the entrance to a grotto.
Then I went off and lived in Ibiza for a few years where access to all kinds of drugs was easy and cheap. And the drinking and drug culture was so ingrained there that I was actively encouraged to drink on the job where I worked at a bar. I kept to my hard drug free rule though, as hard as it was, and survived without becoming a statistic. But even back then, in an environment where people getting their stomach pumped was a daily occurrence, I knew that alcohol was becoming a problem for me and I’d have periods where I attempted to not drink, sometimes even going a week or more without it. But then I’d get right back on it, often harder than before. It wasn’t uncommon for me to lose consciousness (and completely lose control of all my bodily functions, yep ALL of them, and I often announced that little fact as a badge of honour “well you know you’ve had a good night if THAT happens right?? Wahey let’s get trasssshhhhhed!!!”).
I also desperately wanted to stop the pot, but there was no chance of that. I was far too addicted and used to living in this altered state where the edges of life were softer and inside my brain felt like here and everywhere else felt like the “other”.
On my return from the White Isle, I unexpectedly became a mum and the pot smoking and getting smashed on vodka did stop, for a while. The ex and I settled back into UK life as proper grownups and suddenly I was shopping at Boden, pureeing baby food, and it was all about The Wine. The newly burgeoning Facebook was full of memes about wine, anytime I got together with other mums we drank wine. Wine o’clock, wine time, wine is mummy’s special juice. Let’s open another bottle, fuck it why not eh?
After splitting up from the ex, alcohol became an opportunity to introduce more much needed glamour into my life as I rediscovered going out and a part of me that had been dormant since before becoming a mum. Alcohol became something I could do as Beth. Cocktails at the weekend (even when home alone). Beer during the day when socialising with friends. Wine in the evenings.
I would wake up most days with a hangover, and then struggle to get through the day with 2 kids, waiting for the magical 6pm when I could have a wine. Every morning I hated the me from yesterday who drank and made me feel so rough, and vowed not to do it again. But at 6pm I’d be there with that wine, sighing happily as I took my first sip. My child free weekends were an opportunity to get absolutely shitfaced with my mates or latest bloke, and then suffer for the following days. I had two states, hungover or holding a drink. But everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing, so in my mind it was ok and I didn’t have a problem. Wine and cocktails is what dignified ladies drink, not alcoholics, people with “alcohol problems” only drink cheap whiskey, cider or meths under motorway bridges…
But thanks to my all or nothing mentality I have managed sometimes quite long periods of abstinence in my lifetime. Weeks or even months of no booze at all when I was the designated driver and I felt like I was finally coming alive and living the life I should. I’d get shit done, start smashing my life goals and seeing real changes in my life. But I never really put the success down to not drinking so was easily coerced back into the drinking fold by a well meaning friend or family member… oh go on, you can have just one. Life’s too short, why are you punishing yourself by not drinking?
But it took me 42 years to learn that it’s drinking that was punishing me. And to accept the fact that I personally find it virtually impossible to stop at one. And when I realised that it was also virtually impossible for me to go a night without drinking, with more evenings than not being spent somewhere on the scale between merry and hammered, I was actually addicted to drinking. And this year I believe I reached the point of no return.
2020 has been a shit year in so many ways. And it started with me feeling really quite depressed.
I had an awful Christmas, which is my absolutely favourite time of year. I got so drunk that I can’t remember anything of Christmas Day. While we have, me included, all laughed about it since (incidentally how fucked up is it that it’s normal for us to find that kind of behaviour funny? Is this the same in all countries or just the pisshead nation that is the UK?) it was the start of me feeling like I had completely lost control of my life. My kids are getting older, Christmas is becoming less special for them and I’d missed it. On top of that, we lost my father in law in August, so I missed the last Christmas with him too.
I was fat, bloated, exhausted and hungover. I didn’t even drink that much by modern society’s standards. A couple of beers a night, more on weekends. Occasionally wine, or vodka and tonic. Often purposely getting completely wasted at the weekend because I thought I enjoyed it. But I felt awful. All. The. Time. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised how bad it was.
The final straw was a friend’s 40th in January. I should have enjoyed every second of our fun weekend away in a cool house by the sea but I felt constantly hungover and/or drunk, anxious and depressed. I realised that my life felt like I had become tethered to the back of a car and I was being dragged through life getting more and more battered, but having to smile through the ordeal and pretend I was loving every second of it.
Since then I’ve largely been alcohol free. But I have had the occasional reminder that not drinking is definitely the right choice for me.
At Easter, after over 100 days sober I decided “oh I’ll just have one glass of wine for Easter to prove that I can, not drinking at all seems so extreme when every other fucker is having a drink”, then proceeded to drink the entire bottle and suffer for the next 3 days.
I had 3 separate occasions this year where after a very long period of abstinence, I did incredibly manage to stop at just one drink, a glass of champagne with my bestie to celebrate an important moment in her life (it tasted gross and I felt like crap the next day), a bottle of beer on holiday (it tasted gross and I felt like crap the next day) and a glass of red at the funeral to honour my father in law (same).
It’s only when you completely stop drinking that how much alcohol is so rooted in our daily life really comes into focus. It’s so hard not to drink when it feels like everyone else is doing it.
Giving up smoking was so much easier for me because it’s no longer socially acceptable. So you can say “I’m giving up smoking” and people are like “wow well done you, smoking is disgusting anyway”. Say you’re giving up drinking and many people either look at you like you’re mad or say “oh, but you can just have one can’t you? One won’t hurt will it?”
Being the only non-drinker in a group is frankly pretty miserable at any get together, particularly in these earlier, more fragile days. And you can’t help but think that everyone else who is drinking might think you’re kind of boring. (But it all becomes worth it the next morning when you wake up hangover free).
And also deciding to give something up is so final. You kind of want that with smoking, you want to stop and never go back. But with drinking, the finality of giving up is uncomfortable. What about weddings? What about the beer garden in the summer? How will I treat myself? How will I celebrate? And the big one: What if I say I’m giving it up and I fail???
When I say I had a problem with alcohol and I’m giving it up, some friends have been noticeably perplexed “but I didn’t think you even drank that much” or “it’s not like you were an alcoholic or anything” as if there’s some kind of invisible line into addiction that they didn’t witness me cross and therefore I should still be cracking open a bottle of wine on a Friday night or having a bucket sized G&T like a normal person.
My choice to now give up alcohol is the same as the choice I made as a teen to never try hard drugs, it’s a matter of my own survival. And any time in my life that I’ve made a decision to keep my brain firmly in the real world, has always been a good choice. I now love our crazy weird beautiful and difficult real world with a passion, and I don’t want to miss another second of it because I’ve imbibed something that has shifted reality for me.
Giving up booze has highlighted to me the extent that alcohol in general is very much a normalised and accepted addiction for many in our society, but I’ve also noticed that the sober conversation is getting louder. I’m discovering a whole load of new supportive folk in the sober community, and while at first I thought I had to be a “serious alcoholic” before I spoke up about my struggle with booze, I now realise that no one knows what addiction/dependence/a problem looks like to someone else. I’ve battled with my addictive personality my entire life and it manifests in different ways at different times, no one knows it’s true extent but me. And this is the same for everyone. So let’s just support each others decisions and love each other, pissed or sober
And now, as we near the end of the year, I can’t claim a full year sober. But it’s been long enough and I feel supported enough that I can now comfortably say in public, loud and proud, I’m Beth and I don’t drink.