I don’t remember much about the night of my 18th birthday.
I remember feeling embarrassed because I was drunk before the food arrived, and I remember being sick in the toilets before going back to the bar and ordering another vodka orange.
Other than that, the night is pretty much a black hole. Gone.
I woke up the next morning with a horrific hangover and a sense of impending doom. The hangover lasted three days. The sense of impending doom lasted three weeks.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been drunk. It wasn’t even the most drunk I’d ever been. But it was the first time I’d got drunk since I was mugged the year before, and something had changed. I had changed.
I wasn’t drunk when I got mugged, but I had been drinking. Subconsciously, I started to associate alcohol with feeling unsafe and out of control because of that.
The decision to stop drinking entirely, which I wouldn’t make for another four years, was my way of regaining some control.
But initially, despite that messy 18th, I didn’t quit drinking altogether.
I thought I might lose friends if I became teetotal, so instead, I became someone who rarely drank.
I still hated how it made me feel – like anxiety was burning me from the inside out – but I feared the social consequences of being an official non-drinker, especially at such a young age.
I kept it on the table so my friends wouldn’t ostracise me while simultaneously dreading and avoiding any occasion they might expect me to drink.
I’d also started to notice a pattern. I would dread social situations that involved alcohol, and then when I was in these social situations, I would feel like I needed a drink to relax.
It was a vicious cycle. I would have a drink to take the edge off my social anxiety, and then my anxiety would go into overdrive for days.
I’m incredibly lucky to have the friends that I do and, looking back, I know they would have loved and supported me whatever I decided.
But I didn’t want to look ‘weird’ or draw attention to myself by not drinking, and I wasn’t ready to deal with all the inevitable questions.
They did, of course, notice – after all, there’s only a certain number of times you can lie and say you’re on antibiotics before people start to think there’s something seriously wrong with you.
Slowly, I started to open up to my closest friends about how alcohol made me feel. Anxious. Out of control. Unsafe.
Invitations to events started to come with caveats: ‘Don’t feel like you have to come, there’s no pressure. You don’t have to drink! We can do something else!’
It was a weight off my shoulders. I could be myself completely, and my friends were still going to accept me. I didn’t have to pretend anymore.
My decision to stop drinking entirely came after a completely innocuous conversation with one such friend last June.
I was in America visiting my brother and his family. We were camping and socialising with people on the campsite that I didn’t know very well, and I had a few drinks. I’m not sure why I did it.
Perhaps it was the anxiety of being away from home. I don’t remember consciously thinking I needed a drink, it was more of an automatic response to feeling ill at-ease.
I mentioned this to my friend on the phone a couple of days later. She went quiet for a moment and then said: ‘You had a drink? Why? What’s wrong?’
It then dawned on me that not only did I only drink when I was anxious, but everyone knew that about me.
But I’d been so preoccupied with how other people felt that I hadn’t considered how I was feeling.
If I was allergic to alcohol, I wouldn’t force myself to drink it to save face. So why was I disregarding my anxiety to please others?
I needed to stop putting myself into situations where it became unbearable.
So, aged 22, I quit entirely.
I knew it was the right decision for me, even though it was hard.
The difficult part, for me, wasn’t saying no to alcohol. The difficult part was saying no to the social events that accompany it.
Again, I didn’t want to lose my friends.
But I didn’t. The only thing that has changed is how we show up for each other: we go to more coffee shops and restaurants together than we do bars; they order me mocktails without me having to ask, and they never buy me bottles for my birthday.
They still invite me on nights out, but they hold space for me to say no without feeling any guilt; they appreciate my honesty.
My friends know I might miss their birthday parties, but I will never miss their birthdays.
And we still have fun. That hasn’t changed. If anything, we have more fun now because the time we spend together doesn’t involve me being constantly on edge.
I’m now comfortable enough around alcohol that I can go to some events and choose not to drink without feeling crippling anxiety, or obliged to drink to satisfy others.
There have been times when I wish I could drink – when I feel like I’m missing out on something.
I didn’t get to get wine drunk with my friend when she broke up with her boyfriend. I didn’t get to drink beer with my boyfriend when we were on holiday in Germany.
But I did get to wake up early the next day both times and make us coffee without feeling like the world was ending – and that’s enough for me.
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