Those who have drunk with me in the past will know what being alcohol free means to someone like me. Apart from three pregnancies, when I still drank the recommended minimum amount, I haven’t been alcohol free since I was fifteen years old. Raised in Ireland in a pub culture, most of the people I knew went to the pub. If we were celebrating, we went to the pub, commiserating was done in the pub.
If someone was going on holiday, we all went to the pub at the airport to see them off and family gatherings were in the pub. A good chunk of our holidays were spent in a pub, just a different pub down the country and weddings, funerals, holy communions and any other social occasions started and finished in the pub. While there’s nothing wrong with the pub, you can see how patterns are formed.
By the tender age of fifteen I was drinking flagons of cider and bottles of Ritz with my friends in the park at the bottom of my mother’s garden, the thick bushes allowing us to hide and get drunk in peace. A few years later when I was old enough to get served, the weekends were spent in the pub, then the clubs, then the after hour clubs until I’d drag myself home in the early hours of the morning to sleep for the day and repeat the next night.
Moving to London at the age of twenty, my wages were spent on rent, food and as much cheap wine as I could afford, my meagre salary no longer stretching to nights out and when I met my rugby playing boyfriend, we moved in together and our weekends were spent drinking down the rugby club. As my life continued, I had what I believed was a healthy relationship with alcohol. A glass or two of wine at night, more at the weekends, a few extra beers for a rugby match and when I got divorced and my child free weekends became a little excessive, I told myself it was fine, I was just adjusting.
My singleminded approach to alcohol meant that when I drank, it was with the sole intention of getting pissed and weekends away were my greatest opportunity to do so. I couldn’t wait to get to the pub during the day and was always the last to bed at night, ringing out every last drop of alcohol that I could.
When I didn’t drink it was because I was trying to be healthy, usually to lose weight and that cycle lasted Monday through Thursday until 5 o clock, when like a fast moving train, I was clobbered with that Friday feeling, even thought it was only Thursday.
It was wine o’clock somewhere goddammit and I was forced to open a bottle of wine because it would be rude not too. A few glasses on Thursday night, then a few more on Friday night, I might as well have a drink on Saturday as I’ve stared and of course a lunch time drink on Sunday, always followed by the promise of giving it up again on Monday.
In Spring 2016, I began to wonder what an alcohol free life looked like. I was deep on my journey of self discovery and suffering with excruciating anxiety on a daily basis. Deceived by my grand illusion that waking up to a conscious state meant my life would become one of rainbows and unicorns, the truth was more like a baptism of fire as many of my other illusions were torn apart. The person I was when I drank alcohol no longer resonated with the person I was becoming through my self-realisation, and a war within me commenced.
A weekend of heavy drinking resulted in extreme self loathing and deep anxiety, with the early part of my week spent fighting off the demons of unworthiness and despair. I’d categorically promise myself that I was done with drinking only to talk myself out of such nonsense as soon as anyone mentioned the pub, a full on debate ensuing in my head. I’d tell myself I was being ridiculous, how could I possibly give up alcohol? I simply had too much going on.
The thought of not drinking while away for the weekend was absurd, then there was a wedding coming up, free champagne? It was a legal requirement to drink as much free alcohol as possible, whenever it was offered and no matter what is was. A birthday party, a night out, a business lunch in London, a rugby match, my list of drinking appointments seemed endless but as my resistance grew, so too did my anxiety and when forced to face some deep emotional challenges, my reaction to alcohol became so debilitating that I no longer had a choice.
The straw that finally broke the camel’s back happened in April 2018 on a family trip to New York. My mother, aunts and cousins from Ireland and Canada were meeting to celebrate my auntie Breda’s 70th birthday and by now I was seriously contemplating an alcohol free life. I’d been regularly abstaining and was currently at three weeks and looking forward to experimenting with my new alcohol free choices in NYC.
Feeling cocky about my control, I made one critical error. The night before my flight, I decided to have one birthday drink with my sister who was unable to travel due to work commitments. We would have one to celebrate and then I was going to bed. However, my resolve, my willpower and any good intentions I had were just waiting in the wings for an opportunity to be free of these ridiculous restrictions I’d placed on them and one bottle of Prosecco turned into five. You know the rest.
The devil on my shoulder rejoiced at my downfall and my seven hour flight to New York early the next morning saw me plummeted deep into the fires of hell. I arrived at JFK, hungover, exhausted, nauseated, devastated and gripped in the clenches of a self destruct mode that saw me drinking my way through the weekend, having virtually no sleep and a new level of anxiety that took my breath away.
When I left on Sunday evening, I felt absolutely annihilated and going straight to France to ski with my children, I had to endure almost 24 hours of travelling. Arriving late the next day in Val Thoren, the highest ski resort in Europe, I took one breath of the mountain air and suffered an asthma attack large enough to land me in the nearest hospital.
As I lay in my hospital bed, hooked up to an oxygen machine and forbidden by the handsome french doctor from skiing for the week, I wallowed in self pity, tried very hard not to fall apart and quietly contemplated the decisions I’d made that had led me to this, when something extraordinary happened.
Like an out of body experience I witnessed the self loathing and anxiety as it ripped through me. Part of me remained unaffected enabling me to observe this entity wrap itself around my stomach and squeeze. It squeezed so hard that I could no longer breathe and the only outward evidence was the breathing difficulties I was experiencing due to my asthma but I knew better, I knew the real reason I was there.
The truth of my situation looked me straight in the eye, I lost out on spending time with my children because of my greedy, excessive behaviour and I despised myself. Unable to leave the hotel for 3 days due to the altitude, I spent my days alone while my kids skied and I felt as fragile as a piece of glass, knowing it would take something very small for me to shatter.
It was during these days alone that my list of excuses and my reasons for not giving up alcohol evaporated and I had a choice to make. I could choose me, my health, my life, my happiness, my children and that meant giving up alcohol for now or I could choose to continue and keep pretending that it didn’t affect me.
I drank because I thought I had to fit in, I didn’t know who I was without that part of me and I thought it impossible to have fun without alcohol, the two were inextricably interwoven.
Making the decision, I chose to be alcohol free and was astonished to discover things about who I was and how I lived my life that I’d just never noticed before.