I had a very interesting experience a few weeks ago that gave me a real, if somewhat unsettling, insight into my own dependency on alcohol.
When I first stopped drinking just over a year ago I found social events like meals extremely challenging. The urge to drink if I sat down for a meal with others was almost overwhelming. Restaurants were things to be avoided. I had tried going to one a few weeks after stopping and far from enjoying a nice meal with friends all I could focus on was their drinks, my misery and a sense of grievance as to why was I having to miss out.
Having friends or family round for meals was also a major abstinence battleground and again my strategy was mainly withdrawal rather than engaging in the fight. The problem there was that if I avoided things I liked, abstinence was going to be pointless. So I tackled the meals out and the meals in. Gradually as I successfully navigated a few meals I could feel the urge to drink lessen. The urge was still there though and I knew that this had to be less about a physical addiction to drink and more an association. Or was it? My urges took on a pattern which I am sure is familiar to other drinkers; meals with friends and family, social events, weekends; all triggering waves of anxiety.
After the first few months I could go days without wanting a drink at all, zero desire and then a trigger event and my cravings would start. The strange thing was that the cravings would ease rather than grow as the particular situation evolved. I knew these cravings were based around anxiety, the need to blot it out, but I mistook the nature of this anxiety. I thought my anxiety was based on my inability to enjoy myself without a drink; could I still have fun, be convivial without the aid of a few glasses of booze inside me? The answer was yes I could and as the months passed so gradually did some of this anxiety dissipate.
Back to a few weeks ago. I was hosting a meal for for four people. I was cooking and I knew that none of the people were big drinkers. As I prepared the food, I could feel the urge to drink creeping up on me. What! Still? I thought to myself. I rode the anxiety, we had the meal and my feelings settled down. Then last week we had four people round including my son and his girfriend. We all knew more coronavirus restrictions were on the way so this was likely to be the last such meal at home for some time. The urge to drink kicked in as I was preparing the food. Two meals on consecutive weekends and two lots of urges to drink. I was really disappointed. I thought I had beaten this thing. I enjoyed being sober and not having to plan my life around the next drink. I was annoyed that I was still experiencing times when I felt I really wanted a drink. That’s when I stopped and really looked at what was really happening. Up to then I’d assumed my anxiety was triggered by wanting a drink because it was a social occasion but this was something more. I have had a year of many social situations where there was a zero urge to drink. I knew I was anxious and that a drink would soften and kill off that anxiety but what was the real cause of it?
Anxiety is often explained as fear without a home but I needed to identify that fear. But not at that moment. Guests were arriving, food had to be prepared, table laid, drinks chilled. Both meals went well and I enjoyed both evenings. I knew I had to revisit what was going on and as I replayed the evenings and my feelings the location of the anxiety I felt started to reveal itself. It was located deep within me, and I think it was a fear of failure , of not being able to produce good food, a good evening for my guests. Would they like the food, would they approve or would the whole evening end up as crashing failure with my being revealed as the flawed individual that I am.
Wow, I was a bit shocked, was this what it’s always been about, drinking to avoid feelings of failure of being something less than others? I knew that tendency had been with me for a long time but felt that I’d successfully overcome it. The reality was that I had probably used alcohol just to mask it and give me a false sense of confidence in some specific situations. My urge to drink was really an urge to avoid that confrontation with the hurt and shame buried deep within me, to mask it. For me giving up the drink has allowed many things to surface and this particular “thing” seems the most significant. Had I not stopped drinking I would have carried on just drinking “to take the edge off” and that worked for me in a way. It blotted out a sense of failure, of not being good enough but it came at a cost. Part of that cost was that my drinking, in itself, became a cause of shame and yet another failure. A failure to control the very thing that was supposed to help. Better have another drink then, and so it continued.
When the current lockdown ends and I can enjoy a meal with others, I shall try and cook that meal reminding myself that my meals are OK, that I have put on good evenings for others in the past, that I’m alright as I am without the need to top myself up with booze. In fact what having meals like that has shown me is that the anxiety decreases as the evidence shows me that I wasn’t a failure. The food was OK, everyone had a good time and I have been able to enjoy that occasion sober. That takes time to sink in. The next time I prepare a meal the same feelings are likely to reemerge and I need to finally confront those uncomfortable feelings, look them in the eye and comfort the young Jim that grew up believing he wasn’t good enough.
Maybe it’s things like these that constitute the real challenges of giving up the booze and I’d be interested to know if others have had similar insights into their own patterns of drinking.