Drinking Problem

On 23rd June, 2022, I drank a sad, soapy, £17 gin and tonic in a hotel bar in Malmo, and thought ‘I think I’ve had enough.’

I was on holiday, on a supersized midsummer city break in Scandinavia. In Copenhagen, I’d had wine flights, white beer, sipping gin. In the airport lounge, I toasted myself with rosé (crap) and sparkling wine (indifferent), then congratulated myself for not buying a tiny wine for the hour-long flight.

At no point had I blacked out, or been sick, or done anything I regretted. I thought I was enjoying some elegant, adult, holiday drinking. A beer at lunchtime, a cocktail before dinner, perhaps a discussion about a nightcap. (This usually ended with my husband and me deciding we didn’t really want a drink, we wanted to go back to the hotel and watch a 10 year old repeat of Death In Paradise.)

But after three days of drinking, I started crying and I couldn’t stop. I was triggered by something so trivial and so shameful. We visited a bright, welcoming bookshop in Copenhagen, with a large English book section. I wanted to show up in that bookshop as an enthusiastic reader, someone who celebrates stories. I wanted to lose myself in someone else’s book, to find something I longed to read, and buy it.

Instead, I went Full Bitter Author.

This bookshop stocked absolutely all of the published writers in the UK apart from me. As I remember it, hundreds and thousands of them. Every single one of my peers was represented. A book I’d read an advance copy of and viscerally hated was prominently displayed. This bookshop had clearly been built as a testament to my personal creative failures. I was, unequivocally, the worst one. In the world. I would never, ever amount to anything. Everyone thought I was a bad writer. Everyone was laughing at me behind my back. I was not talented enough, not popular enough, not pretty enough — mysteriously, that seemed significant, at the time. (And madre de dios, is there anything more pathetic than complaining about a lack of prettiness, at 37 years old?)

‘I think it must be something to do with publisher distribution,’ said my husband, mildly. ‘And for all we know, they had one of your books and someone just bought it.’

But I was off! Crying, apologising, getting it together for long enough to board the train, crying on the train, missing the majesty of the Øresund Bridge, desperately attempting to get on the train wifi, vainly searching social media for any proof that I might be liked and loved, and then proof that everyone hated me, crying at Malmo, blaming Malmo and all the cool, beautiful Swedish people for failing to cure me of my existential malaise.

Maybe it was the result of a hormonal shift. Maybe I was just tired and overwhelmed. This was my first trip out of the country in two years. Two years in which everything had become especially intense, confusing and exhausting. Perhaps I’d be fine after a good night’s sleep.

We decided to stay in that night and recalibrate. No booze. Exciting, Scandinavian snacks. More Death In Paradise. Of course, I felt more guilt and shame for skipping some sightseeing and failing at the holiday. (Surely I should have been out in a meadow, wearing a flower crown, getting photogenically murdered.) Tomorrow would be different!

It was not.

We went on a long, sunny walk, past parks and coffee shops, under a bright sky. My husband wondered whether the record stores of Malmo would yield as much treasure as the ones we had visited in Copenhagen. He pointed out vintage clothes shops, ceramic planters, adorable Swedish dogs.

I tried to listen to him while thinking obsessively about an event the week before. Every single one of my peers had posted a picture of the event to their Instagram feeds. I had not been invited. I started to think about the podcast I host, and decided that if the podcast were more successful, I would have been there. Instead, roomfuls of powerful people were clearly conspiring to exclude me from things, while laughing at poor me, and my pathetic little efforts. I was a loser. Not a victim, nobody’s bird with a broken wing. Just the desperate, ugly, crap one, the one everyone thought should give up and go home.

I wept, openly, on the street. I could not decide who I hated more. Them, or me. I wept because I was ruining our holiday with with my imagination, coming up with cruel thoughts and theories. Nothing awful had actually happened! No-one had died! That we were here at all, after everything, should have felt glorious. Part of my brain, the part that knows about CBT and listens to my therapist and remembers highlights from the personal development books I have read was sighing. ‘For goodness’ sake, love, stop! You’re hurting yourself! Just take a beat! Catch your breath! Remember your Byron Katie? Is this true? It isn’t, is it?’ But my ego, my monster, my whatever, refused to take the time out. It would not go on the naughty step. It was on a mission to burn down the house.

At lunch, I drank two beers, knowing I was breaking my rule. A few years ago, I had cut down on alcohol by promising myself I would stop using booze when I felt sad. Drinking always made me feel briefly better, and then a lot worse. I’ve been bending and breaking this rule quite a lot, lately, I thought, before suggesting to my husband that this was something to do with my Dad, or having a moon in Cancer, or maybe just unusually awful PMS.

Of course I felt better, then worse. And later, I didn’t want a g&t, I wanted to lose consciousness for a week or a month and then wake up, having calmed down and got over myself. But I drank it because I was on holiday, and I was determined to have fun. As I sipped, I thought ‘this doesn’t taste good’ and ‘I don’t feel good’ and ‘alcohol is a depressant’.

Then I thought about a jolly, boozy lunch I’d been to on a Thursday in May, and the bleak, black, terrifying day I’d had on the Friday. And I thought about how I’d come off Citalopram at the beginning of 2020, and how I’d spent a few months thinking about going back on Citalopram, and how the impossibility of seeing a GP where I live is anxiety inducing enough to drive anyone to a quadruple dose of Citalopram. And I thought about how I knew I needed at least a month off booze, because I constantly tired and wired and off beam, but first I had a range of alcoholic events to ‘get through’. A wedding, a 40th birthday, and a bunch of posh publishing parties with the people who definitely hated me and wanted to exclude me from various social gatherings.

And I thought about Anne Lamott, and Marian Keyes, and Glennon Doyle, and Bryony Gordon, and Brené Brown and Julia Cameron. I’d been drawn to the work of sober women for a long time. Some of them had drunken stories about swinging from chandeliers and stealing yachts. But every one of them had stories about what happens when we choose to isolate ourselves. When we decide we are the worst ones. The ‘terminal’ aspect of terminal uniqueness. I sought out their words because they seemed to know about the bleak, black, terrifying days.

And I decided to stop drinking.

I was — am — lucky. I had managed to build a life I loved, most days. My story is not the one we tend to associate with alcoholism, when a person must give up, because they have drunk their lives away. Still, emotionally, I was desperate. Alcohol was making my ego too strong. Every time I drank a little, I was feeding the part of me that would always want to push the button, flip the table, burn the house down. I think this part manifests differently in all of us. Some of us act out in a way that is physical and visible. For some of us, and I don’t think I’m the only one, alcohol is a slow acting emotional poison.

Today is my 109th sober day. I feel mostly glad, and grateful. Occasionally I feel resentful, confused and filled with a violent sadness. I have walked past the St Pancras champagne bar at 11AM, and wanted to weep for a future with no champagne in it. When the Queen died, I had a strange, strong urge to day drink — because my lizard brain still associates alcohol with grief, togetherness and connectedness. Drunkenness looks like a soft place to land.

But I have danced at weddings. I have stayed up late, and laughed hard, and hugged hard, and gone out and come home safely. I have realised that I used alcohol as a way to override what my body wanted. Especially in a post lockdown world. Social events can be overwhelming. I am no longer letting myself access the magic button that prevents me from thinking and feeling. Instead, I must simply allow myself to be overwhelmed. It almost always passes. If it doesn’t, I go home. Anyone who might mind is too pissed to notice.

Ultimately, I have made this choice because I want my life to feel raw, big and bright. I want to feel everything. I want to stop deferring pain and joy.

I might be the worst one. The least talented one. The embarrassment. But being sober makes me feel as though that might matter less. When I drank, I was hoping the alcohol would bring out a smarter, more sophisticated self, and lead me to a more glamorous life. There isn’t one. This is as good as it gets. There will never be a pretty, witty me, in black satin, accepted everywhere like a 1980s Visa card. Just this one, in bed, with her laptop, wearing five year old pyjamas. The one who is a perfect cross between Charles Pooter and Paul Whitehouse’s ‘brilliant’ Fast Show character. Without alcohol, I seem to spend a lot more time noticing birds and clouds and dogs, and lot less time worrying obsessively about whether I might be liked or loved enough.

Is this forever? I don’t know. Sometimes that thought fills me with peace, and sometimes it fills me with panic. I am not scared of not drinking. I am still very scared of never getting any of the things I hoped drinking would bring me, even though I drank for over 20 years and I never got any of those things.

But it’s been 109 days since the bleakness felt wholly unbearable. I’ve fallen down the odd emotional hole, and I’ve always been able to climb out again. I feel stronger — strong enough to pick up the heavy thoughts and feelings, lift them up and look at them. Emotional sobriety is my big goal, my lifetime project. Getting sober from alcohol is a tiny part of this. I hope it’s a small step in the right direction.

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Daisy Buchanan

Feminist, host of the YOU’RE BOOKED podcast, author of various (latest novel CAREERING out now)