At the beginning of March, my closest friends — beer and bourbon — finally betrayed me.
After two weeks of dashing to the bathroom at 2 a.m., my lips pursed to hold back vomit, my doctor laid it out for me: My stomach was eating away at its own fleshy lining. It was an ulcer.
My doctor reassured me it wasn’t caused by my drinking habits, perhaps sensing the from-my-cold-dead-hands look in my eyes, but my sometimes-reckless alcohol consumption certainly wasn’t helping it. Knocking back eight pints without a second thought can come with consequences worse than waking up with a headache and 25 new Tinder matches.
At least the timing was right for me. I’d already been toying with the idea of taking a break from drinking, but the thought of actually following through always left me covered in a sheen of cold, panicked sweat. Picturing myself sober was dreadful and dark. While my gut told me I needed to give it a try, my brain told me I would fall apart.
I wasn’t the heaviest drinker, but I was drinking to keep my mental state in check rather than, say, to enjoy my social life. I drank to numb out any feeling deemed inconvenient. So I decided that I’d go cold turkey for a month: No post-work happy hour, no wine with dinner, no shots on the weekend. I wanted to know if I could even stand to be by myself without a drink in hand.
Alcoholism was a known reality within my extended family. There were always the aunts and uncles who skipped wine at Thanksgiving. When someone abruptly started showing up to reunions with nonalcoholic beer, you didn’t question it, you just understood. Alcoholism hasn’t affected me directly, but it’s always been in the periphery, something I was always told — more than drugs, more than sex — to be careful with. It was in the stories, the warnings, passed down from my mother of her experiences with family members that haunted even that first sip of a saccharine cooler at a sleepover.
It’s also why, upon finding a large bottle of raspberry vodka in my closet when I was 17, my mom’s first question was if it was all mine, if I’d been drinking by myself, if I was OK. The vodka was left over from a night of doing shots out of Dixie cups with my friends, rather than my own personal stash. But it was a reminder of exactly what I’d been taught: The line between pleasure and addiction is an easy one to cross.
That history nags at me everytime I consider cutting my consumption. But at 26, drinking and socializing are one and the same. Nothing kills a good time like putting words to the nagging suspicion that a family history of addiction and woe has seeped into your DNA.
The first social test during my month off drinking was a wine-and-cheese soiree hosted by a friend. While everyone else swam in bottles of red, I sipped a mug of tea. Before anyone could even ask, I started conversations with “Hello! I have an ulcer! I’m not drinking!”
This, frankly, is a much preferred statement to “Hello! I have crippling anxiety and depression and I drink so I can feel as little as possible!” Which, despite being what I’d wanted to say for years, just isn’t as cheery.
This is the first thing that became apparent once I stopped drinking — the unnamed thing I’d been dreading was feeling things. Messy, unkept emotions. Feelings had never been kind to me: They’d dragged me through a dozen or so years of therapist roulette while I sampled one antidepressant after another. I knew it wasn’t my fault, that it was yet another genetic gift, but clinical depression and anxiety had turned much of my teenage years into a blur of sadness I didn’t understand and couldn’t stop. Feelings landed me in a mental health unit for 72 hours when I was 16. Feelings made me distrust every adult I’d ever asked for help, only to be told to simply calm down. By the time I was of legal drinking age, I’d decided that any emotion not nipped in the bud as soon as possible was a problem. Alcohol is the quickest fix.
For the first time in a long time I wasn’t doing that anymore. And it turns out the ramifications weren’t just while drinking, but the morning after. Sure, I’d be dehydrated the morning after, maybe a little groggy, but it was nothing compared with my friends who would moan and shrink from the light after a night out. I was a drinking champ, the product of good genetics, hangover-free, and a huuuuge dick about it.
I realized just how real hangovers are the morning after a friend’s birthday where I’d spent the night nursing two soda waters. The next morning I was expecting to wake up feeling fresh, but I wasn’t expecting to wake up so happy. Like, tingling in my body, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed — like, happy? Do other people just wake up feeling that way every Sunday?
A typical response after a night out was sudden-onset depression that smothered me from the moment I woke up. I was likely to be a slug in a bed all day, morose and mulling over every wrong turn I’ve ever made. They tell you alcohol is a depressant in health class, but they also made it sound like pot would kill you, so it was an easy fact to ignore. When I drink to forget what I’m feeling, it’s a survival tactic. It’s to get through the moment — whether it’s a too-loud bar or a quiet evening of rumination — in one piece. The morning after never feels important when it’s still the night of.
Turns out I do get hangovers, and it comes in the form of my sad body being its sad self. I was starting to realize that maybe, just maybe, I had options here. Maybe there was a space between clinical lunacy and pristine numbness that I could carve out.
My month of reprieve continued with a similar theme — I let myself feel my feelings. To someone so used to pathologizing and subsequently squashing so much, it felt radical. On a first date I sipped a diet cola and let the nerves rattle through me rather than chase them away. After a particularly stressful day at work, I sat on my couch and let the nerves dance around my body until they went quiet.
I wasn’t a ticking time bomb. I didn’t explode out of my flesh.
There was only one day among those 30 when I broke my self-imposed rules.
It started when my phone buzzed and I saw my mom’s number appear on the call display. We don’t have the type of mother-daughter relationship that gabs on the phone, so when I saw her calling, I assumed the worst as I always do. In this case, I was right.
“Hi, Laur,” she said in the tone she saves for only the worst news — flat, controlled, with a slightly cheery intonation to soften the blow. That was enough to let me know what the call was for. My grandmother had died.
She was the only grandparent I’d been lucky enough to grow up in the same city with. The one I’d brought to every Grandparent’s Tea in middle school and did puzzles with my when my parents went away. The one who, in the middle of my teen goth phase, would sincerely compliment my spiked leather chokers. The root of a towering family tree spanning four generations, she was two weeks away from her 100th birthday. Instead of flying in for her party, all those aunts, uncles, and cousins would be flying in for her funeral.
I sat on my couch, numb at first, until a shaking sensation worked its way up my spine. I couldn’t sit still. I couldn’t breathe. I glanced back at the phone that had delivered the news but phoning a friend felt like too much. I didn’t want to talk, I didn’t want to anything. So I took the bottle of vodka I’d been pretending wasn’t in my freezer and downed four shots in a row. Enough to make it stop. Enough to let me sleep. I didn’t know what else to do.
It felt like a failure. But the next day, despite turning that vodka over in my hands a few times, I didn’t drink. I was supposed to be grieving, so I grieved. The weight of it all sunk into my bones as I cycled through despair at the loss, anger at myself for not having visited more, helplessness at the thought of my mom, now motherless herself. There was even the occasional flicker of joy for a long life well lived.
The weight of all those emotions returned me to the frenzied shaking of the night before and then straight on into panic attacks — the first I’d experienced in months. When they happen, a clammy nausea cascades down my face as tunnel vision takes over and the real world melts away into a fog. My legs can’t hold my body, my lungs can’t take in enough air. No matter how many I’ve had, they’re still the worst feeling. Alcohol kept them at bay, or at least helped me forget them once they were over.
This time, however, I didn’t fight the panic. I let it wash over me. When I emerged on the other side I was shaking and sweaty but more clear-headed than ever.
By April Fools’ Day — of course it was April Fools’ Day — I was done. At the end of the work day, I cracked open my favourite, a dark, chocolaty ale. I wanted the first sip to be miraculous, but it was just…fine. The buzz hit me halfway through the can but all I could feel was nausea. I spent the rest of the night curled up in bed nursing a headache.
The first time I felt drunk again came after three measly beers drank over four hours. I felt woozy, sluggish and, worst of all, vulnerable. I think I’d convinced myself that drinking was a means of gaining control because it let me forget when everything felt terrible. But, of course, it doesn’t do that at all. It takes away control — of my mind, of my body, of my ability to suppress any wayward feeling.
It was disappointing, both the realization that I’d been savouring alcohol for all the wrong reasons, and the loss of it all, no matter how much I’d deceived myself. And it was a deception, because I’d made it through the month more or less intact. Despite what I’d told myself, I didn’t fall apart.
At my grandmother’s wake I looked around the room, noting who had a beer in hand and who didn’t. I wondered how the ones sipping water got there, if they had to hit some sort of terrible bottom or if it was a slow realization. If they were ever where I was. If they felt broken, too. My own mental illness had made me feel alienated from my family in the past; now I’m not so sure I’m all that different.
When faced with the question of whether their drinking habits were sustainable, many of my family members had decided no, they weren’t. I’m not there yet, and may never be. I’m slowly building back up my tolerance, enough at least that I can have a few drinks at a bar with friends. But the bottle of bourbon I used to drink after work is collecting dust on my kitchen counter. I wanted to know if I could stand myself sober, if some things are worth feeling, if some demons can’t be as ugly as they seem.