Are you sitting comfortably? It’s time for a story.

Once upon a time, a young girl went to a party.  And because she hadn’t been to a proper party before, the sort with boys and alcohol and no parents, she felt a bit nervous.  So she took along a new friend, who made her feel more confident, and she had a good time.  You’re popular because you’re with me, her friend explained, and she swore that she’d never go out alone in case that were true.

And the years went by, and she grew up, or at least older.  She fell in love and got married, and her friend was right there with her at the wedding, bubbling congratulations and joy.   And later that evening, curled up on the couch with her new husband discussing the day, she couldn’t resist letting her friend join in.  Through thick and thin, bad exams and good job promotions, she turned to her friend for comfort and support, to help celebrate and share the pleasure.  When she had children, and could no longer go out in the evenings, her friend came to her house instead.

But as time went on, her friend changed.  Or perhaps it had always been this way, and it was only when her life changed and she could no longer accommodate such a constant companion that it became clear.  Who knows. But one way or another, the friendship turned sour.  The friend who had once crooned compliments into her ear now whispered poison; look at you.  You’re fat. You’re lazy.  You’re boring and suburban and dull.  Where did my fun-loving girlfriend go?  You used to be cool when you were younger.  Now what’s happened to you?  It’s because you married him, it’s because you had children, it’s because you and I don’t go out any more.

She was terrified that her husband would notice how her friend was treating her.  Because if he noticed, he’d demand that she gave up the friendship, and she was too scared. She – fat, lazy, suburban she, she who was wasting her education and snapping at her children and doing nothing particularly well – to lose the one true friend she had, the one friend who was there, every evening, to soothe her cares away?   And if that friend demanded too much sometimes, kept her up late so she staggered red-eyed and headache-ridden into work the next day, well, that was just how it was.  It was worth it, not to lose the love and support she gained.

So she tried harder.  She tried harder to make the friendship work.  She tried limiting how often they saw one another, she tried only getting together with her friend in certain locations.  And because she didn’t want her husband getting jealous, she started seeing her friend in secret.  Just another thing to feel guilty about.  Another reason not to ask for help.

I knew it! crowed her friend.  You need me more than you need them.  You can’t do without me, baby.  Nobody else would have you now, you know that.  And she believed it, because who else was left to tell her otherwise?

But And by now, she knew that she needed help.  But who could she tell?  She didn’t want to tell her husband that she had been seeing her friend so often, for so long, behind his back.  Her parents would be disappointed.  Her other friends either wouldn’t believe how nasty the friendship had become, or urged her to just cut down on contact.  Nobody else would understand how stupid she’d been to get herself in this situation, and nobody else had a friendship like this.  It was all her fault, and she couldn’t ask for help because she should be able to fix this on her own.  If she tried harder.

Besides, she was in love.

 

There isn’t an end to this story.  There is no climax and resolution, appended by a pleasing happily-ever-after anecdote.  I stopped drinking, and I started listening to the stories of others and talking to them about mine, and that has – so far – broken the spell.  I can’t say that I’ll never drink again (I am, like a lot of others, very sobered by One Crafty Mother’s recent relapse)  but I can tell you that I will never again mistake it for love.  And by far the most powerful tool I have is the storytelling.

Abuse thrives on silence and on shame.  And it doesn’t matter whether you take the phrase ‘alcohol abuse’ to mean that you are abusing alcohol, or that alcohol is abusing you – the script is the same and so is the cure.  The cure – or the treatment, in a disease model – is to talk, and to listen, and to embrace the ideas that you are not alone and you are not unique.  Just because somebody else is ‘worse than you’ doesn’t mean you’re okay, nor does it mean that you won’t find yourself in those situations down the track.  But also, just because you think your behaviour is different, or worse, than others, doesn’t make that true either.  The chances are good that everything you have done, every step you’ve taken on this journey, mirrors the steps of others.  If alcoholism is the disease of terminal uniqueness, the best medicine is community.

Almost a thousand people read this blog yesterday.  Not all of those people will be sober or wanting to be, but some of you are.  Will you share your story in the comments?  It helped me, when I was trying to work up the courage to break it off, to read about all the people who were like me, who had done just that, and who were living their lives free from alcohol abuse and happier than they’d ever been.

My name is Allie.  I’m 36.  I’m an alcoholic.  I’m three months sober.  Pleased to meet you.

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The horror of labelling yourself an alcoholic

I participate on the on line parenting forum Mumsnet, and there is a long running thread for those of us who are trying to abstain completely from alcohol here which I’m sharing in case it’s of use to anyone reading.  Every now and then, somebody comes on to detail their relationship with drink and ask whether we think they have a problem.  The replies are excellent, and the point is often made that one doesn’t have to embrace the term ‘alcoholic’ to accept that life would be better without alcohol,  We know, don’t we, that the term alcoholic is off-putting to so many people that if you say it to them too early, you run the risk of scaring them off.  So we couch it.  Problem drinker; almost-alcoholic; overdoing it.

I completely understand the horror of calling yourself an alcoholic, one poster says.  And I do, too. I mean, I remember feeling that horror, and side stepping the issue, and spending far too long thinking of reasons why I couldn’t possibly be.

Some of that is, of course, that while you’re drinking, the addict voice is actively lying to you, and it’s easy to deny and minimise and obfuscate.  Giving up drinking is a very good way to see if you need to give up drinking, because you can’t see your life clearly through a liquid veil.

But quite apart from that, I no longer think that most of the reluctance to so label oneself is about stigma, really.  It’s about finality.  Because we all know that if you’re a proper alcoholic, you have to give up drinking alcohol completely and forever.  Whereas if you just have, you know, a bit of a problem, then you can probably just give up for a bit, see how you feel, and the future is a convenient series of ellipses.

When I was drinking, I was horrified at the possibility that I might be an alcoholic.  Because that admission represented a line in the sand.

Now I’m not drinking, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m an alcoholic.  And that’s fine, actually.  I’m also an expat, a writer, a mother and a pretty decent cook.  They’re just things that I am, and one of them means that I don’t ever pick up a glass of wine again.  Could be worse.

Imagine that this post is backed by the Jaws soundtrack

My mother-in-law is coming to stay for a few days in order to admire the new house.  She’s a regular, although not particularly heavy drinker.  Exactly like LH, in fact; he can stop at one, but not at none, so for both of them the 5 pm G&T and/or the glass of wine with dinner is a social necessity.  Wine decorates every social occasion despite her late husband having, to my eyes, quite an obvious drinking problem.  There is no fucking way that my abstention will fly under the radar.  

That’s fine.  What is not fine is that she’s the sort of woman who, under the guise of kindly concern, attempts to ferret out every single possible thing that might be wrong with one’s life, or highlight any downside to a triumph.  It’s hard to even describe how this manifests, but for example;  you’ll announce that you have bought a new, bigger house!  Hurrah!  Oh, that’s lovely, she says. Are you not concerned about the cost of heating?  I suppose you’ll have to postpone that planned overseas holiday for a few more years now.  When her son announced that he’d been awarded his PhD last year, she said Oh, well done for finally finishing, especially since it took so long with the children and everything.   An acquaintance hasn’t just had her first baby, she’s had an IVF baby, who will be referred to that way for years to come.  Conversations devolve very, very quickly into us defending ourselves against imaginary problems, or explaining why a good thing is a good thing.  Unconditional approval is not a thing that happens in LH’s family.

And she is obsessed with weight and diet, although she will claim not to be.  She doesn’t diet herself, having maintained her weight throughout her life through a combination of genetic luck, a job that requires physical movement, and just having some self-discipline, really.  So weight loss or gain is noticed, diets are noticed.  Less than 24 hours after I’d given birth to my second daughter, who weighed in at almost 10 pounds, she commented on the fact that I still had a bit of a tum. 

All of this means that she will almost certainly have issues with me not drinking, and any explanation I give will be an excuse for a barb.  My usual ‘thought I’d stop drinking and see if I could lose some of this fat’ line will be a weapon in her hands.

It doesn’t matter, of course.  I realise it doesn’t matter what I say or what she thinks of me.  And to be very honest, it’s a lot easier now that her husband is not around, because he was the obnoxious alcoholic type; drank, got loud, went into long monologues, often got insulting, spent the next day being defensive and cranky.  Mostly I used to cope with that by drinking, because alcohol is very useful in creating a bubble of numbness around one.  His whole family reacted by just tuning him out most of the time, and it was so horribly, awfully uncomfortable.  But nobody ever talked about it.  Ever.

So compared to that, being ‘the sober one’ looks pretty good.  But there’s still that thing.  She’ll go back home and tell everyone that poor AA must have had more of a problem than we realised… or, I guess, poor AA’s weight is so out of control now that

Oh, and we’re throwing a house-warming this weekend.  No problem at all being sober and hosting a party, and I think it’ll be a lot easier to go unnoticed in that context anyway.  

I’ll report back.