So, you think you’re an alcoholic?
“So you’re an alcoholic?”
The answer to this question still troubles me more than any other. Not because I don’t have an answer, but because the answer is complex and nuanced and cannot be shoehorned into a ten second reply. In order to fully understand my answer to this question, I need to take you on a journey with twists and turns which ultimately ends up at my truth. This is, after all, the only thing I can comment on. For some, the very foundation of their freedom from addiction rests upon answering ‘Yes’ to this question.
Answering ‘Yes’ transfers a wealth of information between them and the person asking. They quickly and openly declare their decision to follow an alcohol-free life, and the asker is provided with a predetermined (depending on their understanding of the term) picture as to why this is their choice.
If this is your answer and your truth, I respect that deeply. There are many paths to freedom and judgement should not be a part of any of them. However, when I’m asked this question, I can’t say yes, because it isn’t my honest answer. Personally, even though I have been severely addicted to alcohol, I do not feel the term ‘alcoholic’ is useful on my journey.
Let me try to explain, through a number of experiences…
One of my worst periods of drinking took place over three months while I was living in Poland. I was living alone at the time and as long as I arrived to work by 10am, I was able to do my job well. Every night I would ‘speed walk’ home (no joke) from work, powered by the thought of cracking open an ice cold beer, sometimes stopping off at the local supermarket to stock up first. The first beer while preparing dinner, would hit that bullseye, and a whole day of craving would finally end. The second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth would follow, accompanied by a blur of shit TV. If I ran out of beer (strong Polish beer), I would often open a bottle of vodka or have a few whiskies before finally retiring to bed. I’d always feel subpar in the morning but I always made it to work. At this point, I stayed in on Friday nights, this stopped me from going too mad and meant I could go out on Saturday afternoon with mates. I didn’t admit this of course, Fridays were my ‘me time’.
So here, I would fit some people’s definition of an ‘alcoholic’ but to others, I would be a ‘heavy drinker’.
At the end of that period of drinking, I took a month off. It was seriously tough for a few days but after a couple of nights where I really struggled to sleep, I started to feel better and even got myself to the gym. By the end of the month, I was feeling great (in comparison). I no longer felt depressed or as trapped by my thoughts and was practising yoga everyday. I started to think about having a few beers on weekends (I thought about this a lot) but I had found it incredibly hard to stop drinking just a month before and I knew this was the addiction talking. The real me didn’t want to go back there.
So here, from the outside, I could stop and start drinking as I pleased. From the outside, I didn’t fit a lot of people’s definition of an ‘alcoholic’.
It’s 10am on a Saturday, I’ve been lying awake beating myself up about the night before since about 6am. My head is pounding. The day before I had gone out about 2pm and stayed out until about 3am (I think). As I look around my room, I notice strange things. Someone has broken my lamp, my lightbulb is broken on the floor and there are cushions everywhere. I crawl to the bathroom, I can’t stand because it hurts my head too much. I remember I promised my pal I would meet him at 11am for coffee before we go on a pub crawl. All I can think is that I can’t make it, I feel like death, but I desperately want to go and have ‘fun’ (drink more). I walk to the fridge and pore a glass of cider. Within 20 minutes, I’m feeling better. I drink more. I tidy my flat. I fix my lamp. I go out. I do the same again.
So here, I fit many people’s definition of an alcoholic. This is the only time I ever technically drank in the morning (apart from festivals and holidays but that doesn’t count, right?).
It’s another random night. I go and meet my pal for a few beers after work. We grab a couple of craft beers, put the world to rights and then he leaves as it’s a work night. I head home, drink a ’nightcap’ and put myself to sleep. I wake up early and head to the gym. This is one of those nights where I magically ‘stick to the plan’.
So here, I don’t fit anyone’s model of an alcoholic.
My last period of drinking was after 19 months of living alcohol-free. There was one final hypothesis to test, surely after this long I had ‘learnt my lesson’? Over the course of 3 months, I slowly slipped back into old patterns of drinking. I had learnt a lot though, I had learnt about myself and the things I could do to slow my descent. I buried it again. Over this period, I drank socially, I partied and I started studying again. Day by day, a cloud descended over me until one day I awoke to intense anxiety both physical and psychological. The thought of drinking all day to smother these feelings was intensifying day by day. I knew I had to stop. I could see the path ahead and nothing had changed, it was just slightly different terrain which would take a little longer to traverse. I stopped. I will never choose to drink again. Life is too sweet. It is this positive choice that makes my life without alcohol feel like an act of freedom and, for me, this act removes me from the idea of ‘recovery’. I know I will never drink again.
So am I an alcoholic? At which point did I cross the line?
I will write more about this topic because this is only part of the picture. I have thousands more experiences I could list here, but I don’t believe it necessary for this post. Our personal interpretations of our experiences help us to define who we are. Now I am free from all of the above and it’s truly wonderful. My energy is no longer given over to something which just demanded more and more. This is why semantics matter. Find the words that empower you to change and don’t be afraid to use them. Whatever they may be. No, I am not an alcoholic. I was heavily addicted to and dependent upon alcohol, but I am not anymore. The term ‘alcoholic’ is fluid and means different things to different people. I know people for whom it has greatly helped and others who have slipped into highly problematic drinking because as yet, their drinking didn’t fit their idea of what an ‘alcoholic’ looks like.
For all these reasons, there is a large divide in the alcohol-free community between those who associate as an alcoholic in recovery and those who don’t, and this affects so many of the personal beliefs that we have. For example, is a non-alcoholic beer okay? Should I attend meetings? Should I follow this person on instagram? (More on these in a future posts). Surely, the only person who can truly speak for you is you, and if our opinions differ, that’s great. The more voices we have in this space, the better.
The more options we have, the better. The more we think about this as a society, the better.
About our author, Sam:
Sam is currently building his online blog ‘unaddicted.co.uk’ as a way to help anyone who may be struggling with their relationship to alcohol (in any form). Having spent years under the spell of alcohol, he understands the feeling of helplessness that can come from addiction. Thankfully, a series of life circumstances, the words of others and seemingly disconnected events conspired to finally set him free. This inspired him to put his words on paper in the hope that he may help a few people along the way.
After returning to the UK after 8 years living abroad, he is continuing his career as a teacher and coach. The idea that his story and outlook could help even a few to realise that leaving alcohol behind is a cool and subversive choice is one of his main drives and he’s working hard to try and make a small difference with his writing.