I am a Free Woman
My best friend’s response when I told her I was going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings was, “but you always said you weren’t an alcoholic!” I had two responses to that: the first being that most non-alcoholics don’t tend to walk around declaring their non-alcoholic status. The other, perhaps more important point was that actually, despite growing up with a mother who had been in recovery since I was 5, and seeing my brother get sober through the rooms nearly 7 years ago, I had no idea what an alcoholic really was. I assumed that the media had it right: an alcoholic was a whisky drinking wife-beater who drank in the morning, drank behind the wheel, drank on a Tuesday, all the things I didn’t do, and, I told myself, never would. It was not in my interest to question this definition; as long as I believed it I could carry on drinking, safe in the knowledge that no-one could ever take my alcohol away from me.
And no-one ever did try to take my alcohol away from me. Nobody told me I was an alcoholic. No-one suggested I might need to attend an AA meeting. My drinking was secret. I never hid bottles (alcoholics did that, and remember, I definitely wasn’t one), but I made sure that I didn’t drink around anyone who really knew or loved me, and surrounded myself with heavy drinking friends and boyfriends, hiding my drinking away amongst theirs. I’m sure drinking was fun for a while. It lowered my inhibitions and gave me the much longed-for confidence that I had always craved as an awkward, shy child. It seemed to take the edge off my fear and act as a buffer between me and the reality that I couldn’t tolerate.
I was scared of life because ultimately, I was scared of death, and alcohol seemingly suspended time, blurred my thoughts and numbed my emotions and I didn’t have to deal with that inevitability. Emerging out of that hazy bubble of oblivion was worse that anything I ever felt before I’d picked up a drink. The crashing realisation that the world was still there exactly as I had left it, that I was still me, and life was still empty and meaningless, that was pain beyond anything. And then came the guilt, the shame, the anxiety, the panic as I tried to remember the night before. Most of it was lost, but the snippets I could piece together were enough. Never again, I’d tell myself, completely unaware that I had no say in that whatsoever.
As my alcoholism progressed, the consequences got worse. I didn’t lose a lot, simply because I didn’t gain much. There was no chance I was going to have a family, pursue the job of my dreams, buy the perfect home. But I fudged my way through university and somehow came out with a good degree that I didn’t feel proud of and trained to become a teacher, thinking it would get people off my back and prove to the world I was a “grown up”. I had a long-term boyfriend who I didn’t really love but would never break up with because I was scared of being alone, of being unlovable. We lived in London in a small flat and our lives consisted of ticking off the week days, barely seeing each other, and then going out and getting hammered all weekend.
My greatest love and best friend was alcohol, not my boyfriend, and he probable knew that, but we enabled each other to drink because he drank like I did, and that made it seem ok. My health deteriorated: at night I saw spiders crawling over me and up the walls. I had panic attacks. I picked rows with my boyfriend to try and release some of the unbearable rage that constantly swelled inside. I cut my arms to release the feelings of self-hatred I had about myself. I was also bulimic and at times very underweight and malnourished; my eyelashes started falling out, my nails broke off, my hair was lank and my eyes were dull. I didn’t care – knowing how many calories I consumed in alcohol there was scant chance of me eating much. I didn’t want to take care of myself as I knew I didn’t deserve it. Self-pity, self-hatred, self-centred: that was me to the core. And so it went on. Like a nightmare groundhog day my life was passing me by and I was stuck on a treadmill of drinking, recovering, waiting to drink, and doing it all over again.
On 28th July 2012 I came to in some flat in Tooting Bec after a typical night of carnage. It was bright outside and my phone showed it was past midday. I was meant to be driving to Bristol for another night out. My hands were shaking and there was dried blood all down my leg where I vaguely remembered I had picked up a piece of broken glass and jabbed it into my shin because I was in pain inside and I didn’t know what else to do. I hadn’t eaten in a few days. The world in front of my eyeballs span into air whirlpools. I started to cry. I wasn’t a crier. Well, I’d often howl into the night at 3am as I sat on the pavement that I hated myself and I wanted to die, but this wasn’t like that. I cried because I knew I was done. I couldn’t drink anymore; I had an overwhelming sensation that if I did, I would die. I didn’t want to die. But I also didn’t want to live. Not like this. And not without alcohol. I was utterly f****d.
And thank God for that. With hindsight I know that that moment was the start of my recovery. I had been given the tiniest window of opportunity and for some reason, that day, I grabbed it. I can’t explain it other than to say that that must have been something bigger than me intervening that day. I waited till the shaking and nausea had calmed down enough to drive and went down to my parents’ house near the coast. I turned off my phone, deleted my Facebook account, ate some homemade lasagne and asked my Mum to take me to an AA meeting.
It was the first time in my life that I had admitted I wasn’t ok, the first time I’d asked for help. Again, I don’t know why. I still didn’t think I was an alcoholic but I knew that I had to do something and I’d run out of ideas. At that first meeting I went to I discovered that alcoholism is an illness, physical and mental, which explained why once I started to drink, most of the time I lost control. It explained why on days when I didn’t drink, I was thinking about it, waiting for it, purely existing and counting off the days until I could drink. I also discovered that there were a lot of people in the world that also felt like I did: people who found the seemingly simple concept of life extremely difficult.
I do not think for one moment this feeling is exclusive to alcoholics; in fact I have come to understand that most human beings suffer from a “human condition”, a “hole in the soul” or a “spiritual malady” of sorts, whatever you wish to call it. Some grow out of it, some find the perfect career, start a family, find religion, somehow find a sense of purpose that drives them forward in life. As an alcoholic, my default is to treat that condition, that malady, that hole in the soul, with alcohol. The obvious problem with that is that, as an alcoholic, I can never drink enough. No amount of alcohol can fill that void inside me; all it can do is blur the edges and allow me to check out for a while, so I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m unhappy, frightened and lonely and can’t seem to find my place. It solves nothing. And the medicine I choose is also my poison. Slowly but surely it robs me of relationships, my health, my job, and my peace of mind. It blackens my soul, separating me further and further from the things that I love and need. It gradually makes me more unhappy, more frightened, and more lonely than ever.
If alcohol is never going to fix my problem then clearly I need another solution. I have found that in Alcoholics Anonymous. By working through the programme (the 12 steps as outlined in the Big Book) with a sponsor I have had a spiritual awakening, allowing me to discover the only thing that can ever properly fill that empty chasm inside me: God. Those words would have filled me with fear-based scepticism and derision on my arrival into AA. My sponsor suggested I prayed to a Power that was bigger than myself to ask to stay sober and to let go of the outcome of my day. I still don’t know exactly what it I’m praying to but I call if God because it helps me to stay humble. All I know is that there is something greater than myself and it’s not a person, an object or anything I can see. For me it’s a feeling inside that I am not alone, that as long as I make contact with it, it will always be there.
I did a pretty awful job at trying to run my own life and control everything around me. But when I pray, and I ask God to handle things for me, and I ask God to take away my fear and my resentment, my bitterness and anger, anything that gets in the way of being a decent human being, and I ask it to help me to be kind, loving and tolerant and to help me learn from my mistakes, and I ask it to help me focus on today, not live in the past or stress about the future, I feel calm and happy. And ever since I have done that, that life-issue I had, that terror of reality and fear of the world that consumed me, most of the time, it’s not there. I have peace in my head and an ability to partake in a world that no longer baffles or frightens me.
I have great relationships with my family. I have some lovely friends, inside and outside of the rooms. I have a place in Alcoholics Anonymous, I do service, go to meetings and sponsor people (which has helped me more than I can ever explain), and I have a place in this world too. I have no idea what the future has in store for me but I know that it will be ok. That I will be ok. That God has a plan for me that I cannot, and do not want, to know. That’s what makes it exciting. I love being sober: there’s nothing I can’t do, nowhere I can’t go. I was once trapped in a prison of self, guarded over by my active alcoholism. Today I am content, have self-esteem, walk tall and have no desire to drink. I am a free woman.