One night a few years ago I was staring at myself in the mirror, clutching the bathroom sink, wrestling for control of my own mind. I was drunk. It was neither uncommon nor a regular occurrence then. Only weekly, perhaps, but a pattern was emerging, and it was one I feared. ‘If you keep going like this, you’ll be an alcoholic’, a social worker once told me. I was 15.
Some people have an addictive personality. I’m unlucky enough to be one of them. I was also foolish enough to let that pattern of behaviour continue. There isn’t a specific way of dealing with emotions. It’s something we shy away from and expect people to just get on with. I found intoxication and the erasure of memories easiest. Alcohol misuse hasn’t been a constant in my life, but like a bad case of herpes it rears its head at frequent intervals when life isn’t going so well.
Despite studying for A-Levels, I lived a student lifestyle. I lived in Galway, an Irish university town, and adopted the persona of a ‘fresher’. I mixed with students and participated in society socials. This environment allowed me to fuel a habit largely without detection. Regular nights out during the week were normal, as was randomly hopping on a bus to Dublin for a weekend away. My inevitably lopsided sleep pattern gave me the cover of darkness, and many a night was spent sipping on what can only be described as paint-stripper rum from Aldi. Thinking back, I feel queasy.
That summer I took myself off to Bath to work in a hostel in return for a bed. The regular turnover of guests and the lack of a parent hovering over my shoulder meant I no longer had to hide. I befriended a middle-aged woman whose life had gone rapidly downhill due to alcohol, and for the next few weeks we enabled each other. We would drink together, normalising the behaviour. She would buy booze in bulk and share it with me. Guests and residents at the hostel would always be ready for a night out, providing yet another outlet. My budget was centred around drinking, with the majority of my £50 a week going towards the cheapest wine and cider I could find.
When it came to A-Level results day that August, I underachieved and could only see one solution that would ease the pain. The next month in Dublin centred on nights out. I didn’t even know where I would sleep on many of those nights. It was the end of summer, so everyone, it seemed, was at it. I could blend in with the crowd.
I can count on one hand, maybe two, the number of days I had spent without a drink in the months prior to arriving in Liverpool. Surprisingly I took freshers week easy. I was broke and exhausted, but I continued to forego food and other essentials so I could fuel my habit.
Many people I first encountered at that time will have an ‘iconic’ Danny story to tell. Although, I can’t say it’s an icon I recognise. One that stays with me is of a friend who returned from a 9am lecture to find me sitting in the Crown Place smoking area with a bottle of vodka, which I then proceeded to offer them. It is a memory I laugh at, but it is not one I’m proud of.
At this point, my cover was broken. The lack of a need for secrecy opened the flood gates and my situation deteriorated. I could not leave my flat without having a drink, well into that first semester. It took someone asking me if I was an alcoholic, to which I replied, ‘High functioning’, that my fears were validated. Not long after, a friend pointed to a middle-aged drunk man stumbling across the street and declared, much as that social worker had years before, ‘That will be you if you don’t stop now.’ As long as no one else had said it, the nagging voice in my head couldn’t possibly be true. It was the very lack of secrecy that had allowed my downward spiral that made others confirm my fears. It was convenient for me to incorporate two facades: one of a stereotypical Irish fella who was a bit too fond of drink and a student who likes to party. However, this image could not be sustained.
Fortunately, I’m not an alcoholic, but one need not be a full-blown addict to develop a dependency. I relied on a substance to get me through everyday life. With the help of the Liverpool Community Alcohol Service I learnt how to change my relationship with alcohol. When I began with them, the very thought of not drinking was terrifying. Now, drinking for me is generally once a week, if that, and getting drunk is even more rare.
One of the main pieces of advice for someone in my shoes is to remove oneself from situations involving their substance of choice. For a student, this is near impossible when all roads lead to Concert Square and society socials tend towards the conventional bar crawl. I had to make note of every alcoholic beverage I consumed. I had to unlearn the instinct to turn to drink as a default reaction to pretty much everything. Instead of removing myself from alcoholic environments, I had to remove alcohol instead: that meant nights out stone-cold sober. It started with one day off at a time, which then became a week at a time. Imagine carrying a sofa up ten flights of stairs, and it sliding down a flight every couple of floors: that’s how I spent much of first year.
That March I decided to go at least two months sober (minus Saint Patrick’s Day, obviously). I didn’t quite make it, but I was shocked by how energetic, happy and productive I felt after only two weeks, more so than I had been in years. I decided that was the person I wanted to be. It still took until this year to be confident in my ability to drink responsibly. By the end of this Easter, I realised I’d reached the end of a four-pack in my fridge. I’d had one can a week without thinking about it.
It is so engrained in our culture, nationally as well as among students, to associate alcohol with every emotion under the sun. It is how we celebrate as much as how we cope. I’ve had to learn new thought patterns and resist the urge to do things as simple as having a can when I get home in the evening, going out with friends for a drink when I’ve had my heart crushed, or to have just one (it never is just one) when I’m feeling anxious or down.
I’m not telling this story because I want sympathy. Far too often I see the same patterns of behaviour in those around me. The fact of the matter is that as soon as you turn to alcohol to cope, as soon as it becomes routine, as soon as there is an urge behind it, and as soon as it becomes something you feel a need to hide or do alone, it has begun to be a problem.
If you notice a pattern in you or your friends, like with any disease, address it early. It’s all well and good to say, ‘just one’, to have fun, but it gets harder each time to break out of that cycle, and it is far easier than people realise to slip back in. I could have been able to say that I stopped back then and I’m not an alcoholic. Instead I’m saying, ‘At least it didn’t go quite that far.’
For more about The Liverpool Community Alcohol Service, visit: https://www.merseycare.nhs.uk/our-services/a-z-of-services/alcohol-services/alcohol-services-for-people-in-liverpool/
You can also access guidance and support through Student Services on campus or from your GP.
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