Exactly three years ago, I thought I was the only woman in the world who put drinking ahead of her family. I thought I was the only mother who hurriedly put her four-year-old daughter to bed – dummy, no bedtime story – so she could crack open a bottle, often on her own at home, and set to work on banishing the stresses of the day. I thought I was the only person in the world who could not drink responsibly, no matter what it advised on the back of the boxes of booze. I thought I was evil. I thought I was bad. I had no idea that, actually, I was ill.
Back then, I was so full of shame that I thought I was going to drown in it. That, or the vats of alcohol I could not stop putting away. I was 37, a best-selling author and mental health campaigner, but while I could happily tell everyone about the horrific intrusive thoughts and obsessive compulsive disorder that had plagued me since childhood, I was too ashamed to admit the terrible coping mechanism I had developed to try and banish these thoughts: namely, self-medicating with alcohol.
People spoke about my bravery in conquering my demons, but I felt like a fraud. My demons were actually conquering me – I wanted to stop drinking, knowing it wasn’t the right way to deal with mental illness, but I couldn’t stop. My life had come to be defined by alcohol. I thought about it every waking moment of the day, even when I wasn’t drinking it. Especially when I wasn’t drinking it. I told myself that because I didn’t drink during the day, or even every day, I wasn’t an alcoholic.
I was so full of shame I thought I was going to drown in it. That, or the vats of alcohol...
My drinking structured my whole week. If I had an important work meeting on a Tuesday, that meant I couldn’t drink on Monday, which meant I had to drink on Sunday. If I had a party on Wednesday, that meant I couldn’t schedule in any important work on Thursday. And so on.
These rules – never drink before 7pm, or in front of my child – were very important to me, because they proved I wasn’t an alcoholic. And sometimes, it felt as if my entire life’s work was proving that I wasn’t an alcoholic. Of course, the effort I expended doing this should probably have told me that I absolutely was an alcoholic, but I could not bear the word and would have done anything to avoid it.
In my mind, it conjured up images of vagrants on park benches, of the destitute and the desperate, and I was none of these things. Well. I was only one of these things: desperate. But I couldn’t be an alcoholic, I just couldn’t, because my career was thriving and I had a house and a mortgage and a husband and a child and I had written books and run marathons and I had even recently interviewed Prince Harry about his mental health. Me! An alcoholic? No.
But in the end, after two decades of drinking myself into the oblivion I craved, I realised it was going to be easier to admit I was an alcoholic. Me! An alcoholic? Yes.
People often ask me why I decided to stop drinking, as if there was one single moment. As if there was an epiphany. But the truth is, I decided to stop drinking almost as soon as I started as a teenager.
I knew, almost immediately, that me and booze did not get on as we should. But its power to briefly make me feel ‘normal’ was too strong, and so I stuffed this knowledge down beyond several layers of denial. Life was easier that way, until it wasn’t.
The truth is, I decided to stop drinking because if I didn’t, I was going to die. I was going to die either by accident – falling off a balcony or down a flight of stairs or choking on my own vomit. Or I was going to die on purpose, by actively making the decision to kill myself. Or – absolutely worst of all – I was going to die very slowly, by living in only the most literal of senses, my so-called life tiny and toxic, a Groundhog Day of misery and anxiety. I stopped drinking because I wanted to start living.
But the problem was that I had no idea how to live without alcohol, no sure confidence that there was life beyond booze. It was only the intervention of a sober friend, who took me to some Twelve Step meetings, that allowed me to see the possibility of a life without alcohol, one day at a time. I met other people like me. I saw that I had an illness, and a pretty common one at that. I took myself to rehab. It was hard beyond belief. But I reminded myself that it was no harder than the alternative, which was losing everything.
Before I got sober, I had no idea it was possible to like myself, or respect myself, or wake up every morning and just get up and be without first having to go through my phone to see who I needed to apologise to. Before I got sober, I had no idea that it was possible to live a life in which the world doesn’t constantly feel like it’s going to end.
Now, I learn something new about myself and the world every day. I am three years sober, three years alive. And I am glad to be able to call myself an alcoholic, because through hitting that rock bottom, I have found the most glorious, natural highs.
‘Glorious Rock Bottom’ by Bryony Gordon is out now (£16.99, Headline)
Visit alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk for help
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