Sometimes I think I was born a recovering alcoholic. It runs in the family after all. My father was an alcoholic. My maternal grandmother drank heavily for much of her adult life, and it’s quite possible my maternal grandfather did too. It just might be that I was destined to be an alcoholic myself. I think the only thing that would’ve stopped it is if I had never started drinking at all.
You could say I quit drinking quite young, at least the first time. As a child, I used to take sips from adults’ beverages at family gatherings. Often it had a strange taste, and I would ask what it was. “Booze” was the typical reply. I don’t remember ever getting drunk, but I definitely liked taking my sips of this “booze” stuff.
Sometime before puberty, I learned my father was an alcoholic and that was a primary reason why I never saw him. Despite never living more than 20 miles away, I had never met him, and I never would. So well before many of my peers even began drinking, I quit. I made the decision that I would never start, never risk becoming an alcoholic myself.
I held to that decision until well after my 21st birthday. Most of my friends were well-experienced drinkers by then. Thinking it would take a couple decades to lose control, I figured I could have some fun. A friend had bought a six-pack of hard cider, and I decided to give it a try. With no tolerance built up, three of them was enough to make me stumble. I became a fan quite quickly.
After a few years, hard cider gave way to hard liquor. Vodka was so much more effective and never left with me a hangover. I reached a point where I could take down an entire fifth by myself and still function the next day. I might’ve thought I had a problem then, but I found plenty of ways to talk myself out of it.
I made sure never to drink alone. Even better, some of the people I drank with were heavier drinkers than I was. I kept strict limits on frequency. Drinking was limited to our Thursday bar nights with the occasional holiday or party thrown in. Sometimes just to make sure I was in control I would commit to non-drinking for a predetermined period of time, a month or two here and there, all the way up to over six months once. Those stretches could become stressful, but I made my goal every time. Surely I wasn’t an alcoholic if I could maintain that much control.
I ignored the fact that missing one of those bar nights would cause me tremendous anxiety and stress. I looked forward to each of those nights with great anticipation. I was usually a very fun drunk which probably alleviated any concern from friends. Getting drunk almost every Thursday night had no adverse effects on my work life since I never had hangovers. I was far too functional to consider myself an alcoholic.
Within six years of getting drunk that first time, I made the decision to quit permanently a second time. A friend had never tried vodka before. I brought a fifth to a house party, planning to have a couple drinks and let others enjoy the rest. I don’t know if that old friend of mine ever did try vodka. After collapsing in the backyard, I woke up to my problem.
I wish I could say that was the last time I quit drinking. It did last more than five years, and I thought I was well into the clear before my first relapse. Life wasn’t going so well. My anxiety was going crazy. Far away from home, none of the people around me had any clue about the significance of my decision to drink. A month or so later, I quit again.
I was able to hide my shame through that relapse and the next and the next and the next. I’m not entirely sure how many relapses I’ve had. Four? Five? More? Will there be more?
There is a rift in the recovery community between those who believe in 12 steps and those who don’t. I take a pragmatic approach and tell people to do whatever works for them. AA has worked for some friends of mine but never worked for me. In fact, I often hate talking to people in the program about my recovery. The common phrases they used often made me feel worse.
“Don’t worry. It gets easier,” said far too many. That always felt like a lie. I never had an easier day than that first one. Even when I believed it, I wanted to know when it would get easier so that I could treat my recovery just like I treated those earlier stretches of sobriety. If I can hang on to that point where it gets easier, I’ll be fine. More than a decade later, I’m still waiting for that.
“Was your life better when you were drinking?” You bet your sweet ass it was, but I usually lie and say no. I’ve dealt with terrible social anxiety most of my life. I always felt much more at ease when I was drunk. My greatest social anxiety nowadays is often in the company of other recovering alcoholics. That often makes me want to drink.
Worst of all is the shame I feel for all of my relapses. Almost nobody knows about all of them, and many of my friends know about none of them. I certainly haven’t told my recovering alcoholic friends about them. I used to know the exact date of my last drink and even the number of days I’ve been sober. Now I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve relapsed or when that last drink was.
That’s not entirely true. I could figure out when that last drink was. I’m just too ashamed to admit how recent it was. Besides, overcoming that shame would probably require me to drink. I’m also really scared that last drink wasn’t my last.
My name is Drew, and I’m a recovering alcoholic. I always have been. I always will be.
Drew Sheldon is a feminist, survivor and ally. Read more from Drew on Straight White Man Seeks Knowledge.