“Are you ok?”
I was lying, semi-conscious in an alleyway, slumped against a wall, and covered in my own vomit. I was easy pickings for thieves, robbers, or other violent criminals. Luckily for my physical safety, although not for my ego, these two women seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare.
This incident was the latest in a long line of self-destructive alcohol binges. It was 2004, and a few months earlier, I had attended a terrible scene as a police officer which had led to me developing post-traumatic stress disorder. I had briefly seen a therapist, but now, at the end of every set of shifts, I would call my friend Tom (who was unemployed and so always available) and spend the weekend in London getting hammered.
I wasn’t drinking as part of a fun night out. I was drinking to deaden my pain.
I was frequently thrown out of nightclubs, and it was not unusual for me to collapse in an alley, where I would wake up a few hours later embarrassed and depressed beyond belief.
“Are you ok?” This time, the words played over and over in my mind. I was not ok, and drinking was never the solution. I needed to find better coping skills and get off the drink while still having a modicum of self-control.
It Started Innocently
I did not set off with the intention of becoming a borderline alcoholic. After such a cataclysmic event in my professional life, I thought I was doing the right thing to improve my mental health.
I knew I shouldn’t be alone. I knew Tom was a good friend and I knew London was exciting. I had the chance to meet more people which would surely also be good for my mental health.
What could go wrong?
The problems began when I noticed how the initial influx of alcohol made me feel. For a couple of hours, my emotional pain deadened. Before this, I had not achieved emotional numbing from any other source, and I almost felt excited that I might have found my solution. All I needed to do was socialize, have a good time and drink a bit!
After a couple of hours, my pain returned, along with a splitting headache and a crushing depression. I needed to change my drinking habits to stave off the misery for as long as possible.
Against this backdrop, drinking “a bit” soon turned into drinking “a lot.”
My Drinking Began to Spiral.
By now, I was drinking too much almost every time I had days off from work. I reasoned that I was not an alcoholic because I went at least six days in a row without touching a drop (my shift pattern was six on and four off). However, I frequently caught myself longing for a drink as a way to numb the pain.
My pattern was always the same. We would arrive at a bar early, and I would quickly drink as many shots as I could to get drunk as soon as possible. We would stay there until near closing time and then go to a club where I could continue drinking until the early hours.
Sometimes I wouldn’t make it to the club. I would throw up all over myself, which meant I would be refused entry.
I was thrown out of many clubs. This usually came about when I was in the toilets feeling sick when a hand would grab me around my neck, and I would be thrown out the front door. It happened so frequently that I stopped looking at who’s hand it was. When this happened near my house, my friend would put me in a taxi, and I would wake up the following day, fully clothed (with shoes) on the bed, covered in sick with a very disappointed mum looking at me. I just accepted it as an occupational hazard.
Partly because of the alleyway incident described earlier, I knew I had to change, and I had a narrow window of opportunity before it might be too late. But there was another reason, too—a genuinely horrifying one.
A Horrific Scene.
When I was drunk, I had started to hallucinate. When you have PTSD, which involves copious flashbacks, hallucinating isn’t positive.
The first time it happened, I was drunk in a nightclub when the hundreds of revelers around me were suddenly headless. No one except me had ahead anymore, and my drunk self truly believed there had been a mass beheading.
I fought my way through the crowds of headless zombies and staggered outside. Tom got me back to his house as soon as possible, but I didn’t tell him what had happened, only that I was feeling ill.
By the following day, I was relieved to see everyone again intact, but this turned out not to be a one-off. After I had experienced it twice more, these hallucinations became my most significant catalysts for change.
Finally, not for the first or last time, I began soul searching.
The Misery of Alcohol.
Alcohol is a known depressant. Drinking to stop the pain of my PTSD merely postponed my suffering by a few hours at best before a crippling depression would hit me on top of my hangover. I was burying my pain and leaving myself open to physical attack or robbery. Eventually, the pain might be buried too deep to reach.
There were also things happening that I didn’t realize were part of the problem, except in hindsight. My family told me I was acting out and becoming uncharacteristically aggressive — arguing for no reason. I was at risk of losing loved ones who may turn their backs on me, and I had not even noticed what was happening.
Time for a Change.
I began a challenging period of soul searching. I wanted to visualize in my mind’s eye how I would look without the problem of alcohol. To achieve anything in life, you have first to conceive it in yourself. Your outer reality reflects your inner world, and to get somewhere, you have to have a roadmap. By visualizing what life would look like without alcohol, I would be laying the seeds for the future.
Unsurprisingly, life without alcohol looked pretty good! I saw myself as strong and happy in the future, with better strategies to cope. These “better strategies” were temporarily vague because I didn’t know what they were yet (if I did, I would be doing them), but I had faith that I would learn more as I progressed.
Not only would I benefit, but so would all the people around me, particularly my loved ones.
One potential pitfall to avoid was that I did not want to substitute one unhealthy coping strategy for another.
I began talking to my mum about my problems. Not everything because that was impossibly painful, but most things. I also made the vow to stop drinking. I went cold turkey.
This was possible because I had no physical dependency, so I didn’t need to wean myself off it. I already went at least six days in a row without any alcohol, so my dependence was only ever mental.
Around this time, I also met my wife. If you believe in God, you would say she was a gift because I quickly learned that I could trust her as much as my mum, so I had just doubled my support network. Eighteen years later, she is still here.
This momentum fueled my abstinence from alcohol, and I am teetotal to this day.
Was I an alcoholic? At the time, I did not think so because I assumed you had to have a physical dependency and drink every day. However, I have since taken retrospective tests which tell me I had a powerful dependency. The basis for this jarring result was that I felt shame every time I woke up in such a state, my loved ones noticed the problem, and I injured myself when I was regularly thrown out of clubs and collapsed in alleys.
I had lost control over my drinking, and that meets the definition of an alcoholic.
Nevertheless, I gave up when I realized the full extent of the problem. This makes me more fortunate than many. I was on the precipice of my drinking becoming an illness in its own right, separate from my PTSD.
I no longer see my friend Tom. As sad as it was, he reflected my drinking habits, and it would have been too tempting to meet him and “just have a couple of drinks.” My career, family, and liver deserved better.
The solutions lay in relationships. I could trust at least one person to share my problems and access a psychiatrist to prescribe actual medication.
My biggest lesson is that alcohol is NEVER the solution. I believe it is one of the most dangerous drugs globally, and if it were discovered today, it would be banned. If you must drink, do so socially and never to medicate for any emotional injury.
Never drink to cope with a break-up, depression, or anxiety. Alcohol is never your friend and will poison every part of your life if you surrender to it.
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