Now that I’ve sat down to write, I have no clue where to start. Do I want to start at my first drink, age 7, when I tasted a thimble of Baileys and subsequently crept back in to the kitchen steal sip after sip, straight from the bottle? Do I want to start with my first depression, which albeit light, was heavy for an 8 year old? How about my first manic episode at 16, unable to sleep, eat, constantly wild-eyed? Or maybe my first psychotic episode when I began to believe I was two personalities; Max and Me (When I was out of psychosis and not talking to the “other me” in the mirror I used to use the “Max” name for confidence). Trying to pick a starting point is as frustrating as trying to narrow down five pizza toppings to four. Rarely will the answer be the right one so I’m just going to take a deep breath and jump.
Hi, my name’s S and I’m an alcoholic; now there’s a sentence I never thought would give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. In support groups you’re surrounded by people who are just like you; they’ve done what you’ve done, felt what you’ve felt, thought what you’ve thought or at least they can identify with you. Walking in to a room full of people who just “get you”, especially after you’ve been drowning in a sea of people who don’t, is like nothing I can describe; it’s a home you never knew you pined for; a favourite meal you’re tasting for the first time.
I’ve disclosed the alcoholic side of myself within the safe confines of my support networks so many times that the coldness of admitting it to the outside world is sometimes unexpected. I’ve been met with looks of disbelief, confusion and sometimes, disgust. In their eyes I’ve gone from a young, healthy, independent woman to a leech on the NHS, a disappointment to my parents, a bad influence and sometimes, a liar.
Alcoholism is a disease of the mind. It takes over and destroys you and everything you touch. It’s uncontrollable, unshakeable, unstoppable, unless you don’t take that first drink. I don’t know if you’ve watched or remember the scene from The Matrix, when Neo touches the mirror and the silver sheen on his fingers rapidly gathers momentum and swallows every inch of his skin; that is my alcohol.
I remember in summer of 2014, I had made it past 30 days sober, I had money in the bank, a new job, new lease of life and new housemates that thought of me as “well behaved”. One evening, sitting in the garden, I was soaking up the glorious heat. It was 6pm, the sun was low, I was deliciously hypomanic (my favourite, but we’ll come to that next week) and I had relapsed not an hour before. None of my housemates knew of my alcoholism or bipolar, nor had they seen me drink. To them, I’d just graciously accepted a glass of wine and then nipped to the shop for another bottle. I was giddy with excitement, the bottle stashed in the cool shade of my chair. I swung my legs to and fro, chatting away, full of life. I laughed and momentarily leaned back, my foot catching the neck of the bottle, sending it hurtling towards the corner of the unforgiving patio. It smashed in to a hundred pieces and my wine ran a steady stream until it finally dribbled in to the grass. Anyone else in this scenario may have been a bit annoyed at the waste or clumsiness or they may have just laughed it off and forgotten. Not me. I cried. I was devastated, I scolded myself for being so careless. I was ready to launch in to full blown rage when I realised I was surrounded by people so, I swallowed my pride, chased it down with the last few drops in my glass and scuttled off to the shops to buy another bottle along with a couple of back-ups. That night I drank two bottles of rose and I don’t know how much vodka or rum before I blacked out. I woke up next to my housemate and didn’t make it to work. It was midweek.
Alcohol, to me, represents so many things. It represents a long lost love turned bitter, a best friend who stabbed me in the back, it sings the lyrics of Al Wilson’s “The Snake”. I’ve been indifferent toward it, fallen in love with it, feared it, pleaded with it, hated it but I have never controlled it. If I were to get back in to a relationship with alcohol it would be one of intense domestic violence, one in which I would surely be left for dead.
Now, I don’t know when I officially became an alcoholic but I sure as hell remember being told I had, in the spring of 2011. For the majority of my teenage years I had been treated under CAMHS – Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service. Along with the school therapist that I used to see once a week, I hoped I was on the way to getting to the bottom of what on Earth was wrong with me, the word “Bipolar” had been banded around by a variety of therapists and doctors until at 16 I finally looked it up and felt a mixture of relief and fear. I didn’t want to be mentally ill but I was already self-medicating with alcohol and other substances, I had two suicide attempts, self-harm and a nasty reaction to anti-depressants under my belt. I had no idea what to do with myself or my mind most of the time and neither did anyone else. Nobody settled on a diagnoses and so my treatment continued until, at 18, I got transferred over to the adult service. I was thrilled, at last I thought, maybe this time I’ll see a doctor who will just “get it”.
One of the first things they ask you to do as an adult is to fill out an alcohol consumption/drug use/sexual history/you-know-the-drill questionnaire. I answered nearly every question with a lie. Can you blame me? I was 18 years old and I was drinking every night, normally to blackout, so I honestly couldn’t tell you how many units I had drunk, but I knew it wasn’t good. I was using illegal drugs that I worried I would be in trouble for and no self-respecting girl owns to the true amount of her sexual partners, especially not me back then. Even with the lies, my psychiatrist eyed me cynically and asked me questions about my childhood, my education, my eating habits, sleeping habits, hobbies, evenings out, it was all so quickly rattled off he was clearly well versed in cases like mine. The interrogation took all of 20 minutes at which point he looked me square in the eye and said what I never expected to hear. “You need to seek help for your alcohol addiction before I can treat you.”
My jaw dropped; he’d effectively shocked me in to a non-argumentative silence. As I took a slip of paper with a number on it to call, he said he’d see me again in 6 months. The trouble with having a patient that drinks like I did, especially with Bipolar, is that it’s impossible to accurately map mood swings or know if a psychotic episode is induced or natural, but I couldn’t care less, I wanted a diagnoses, I wanted treatment, I needed help. The moment I was out of the building my numbness shot to pure rage. I dialled my best friend and by this point hot tears of frustration were streaming down my face. Lucy listened to me sob down the phone. ‘The NHS is useless! Who the hell did that doctor think he was? An alcoholic at my age? What the fuck?! What a moron!’ you can imagine the rest. I binned the piece of paper the Doctor given me and disappeared in to town to meet some friends at the pub.
It wasn’t until just over a year later, whilst I shared a park bench with an incredibly beautiful and kind man (whom I nearly destroyed) that I began to think the psychiatrist might have a point. Jack and I had been dating for a while and I had been drinking throughout; how he coped is beyond me. I was a state, my life was a state, but I was convincing myself that this was rock and roll, I was special, not to mention young and I should enjoy myself. The irony being I wasn’t enjoying myself, I was in the depths of depression and I was desperately attempting to pull myself out using a bottle-based ladder. Needless to say the attempts were all in vain and I was turning to simple rushes of pleasure to try for an alternate fix. This particular night Jack was forgiving me for my umpteenth discretion whilst I sat and swayed silently beside him. God only knows what I looked like, a friend recently told me that I was always a hot mess, but judging from the pictures I’ve seen I know that to be a lie. My skin was sallow and my eyes were dead with a smile that never quite reached them. Jack was so kind, so caring and he kept saying he knew it wasn’t my fault but all I could think about was the valuable drinking time I was wasting because of this conversation. That was it, I knew that that was not a normal response, it was completely abnormal behaviour. Even with how I felt about him, I would rather he’d have dumped me then and there so I could just go back to the bar and then claw at forgiveness tomorrow. On a side note, if memory serves, that was also the night that I somehow managed to catch my finger and, in my drunken stupidity, made a huge commotion in his parent’s kitchen, rolled around on the floor and insisted I was bleeding to death…from my index finger. Poor Jack, I remember his exhaustion and tempered annoyance as he said time and time again “No, you don’t need an ambulance” and desperately tried to get me to get to bed.
The next day, within my small window of sobriety I told Jack I needed help, he was as sceptical as I had been not two years prior but was supportive nonetheless. I visiting a self-help website and answered 12 questions with 12 resounding YES”s, at which point I read that answering “YES” to four or more indicated a problem, so I swiftly made allowances and brought my “YES”s down to a more appropriate five. That Wednesday, at a get together, just like I’d altered my answers to their questionnaire, I altered my memory and refused to see myself in the alcoholics that surrounded me, I didn’t want to be included and I was scared that I understood what was coming from their mouths. They were mainly over 40 and had problems with their kids/marriage/DUIs. I didn’t even have a car, I was only 19, I reassured myself. I went back for a couple of weeks but didn’t stop drinking and soon I just buried my concerns and went back to my version of normality; I didn’t revisit another alcoholic for another year.