Here’s a string of words that, until quite recently, I never thought would ever fall out of my mouth: not a single drop of alcohol has passed my lips for 230 days.
W… T… F!?
Despite the temptation to sound like a preachy reformed alcoholic, I want to talk instead about the crossroads that got me here. Because it’s important. Because everyone should know about it and everyone should be able to talk about it.
Because sometimes in life, we arrive at the kind of crossroads that demand a choice, rather than just offering one: turn left or turn right, get up or get down, stick or twist, should I stay or should I go—music’s been telling us so for years. However you choose to phrase it, at some crossroads there’s no leave to remain, nor to turn back. To do nothing simply isn’t an option; something’s gotta give.
I recently arrived at that crossroads. And quite unexpectedly, what I’d always assumed would be a difficult decision turned out to be a no-brainer, even though the outcome seems to be… well… frankly, pretty dull.
And as a ranty old man blogger, of course I’ve written it all down, although this post is definitely more catharsis than rant.
Before I begin: this thing I’m doing right now is absolutely not to be described as a “journey”. Not ever, under any circumstances. Every sodding thing’s a “journey” these days. The word’s been so overused for so long that whatever limited metaphorical value it once had is long since lost. So whatever this thing I’m doing actually is, for the purposes of further discussion we’ll just refer to it as a process I’m working through, and definitely not as a “journey”.
A wise friend once told me, “we all drink for a reason”. For the longest time, I truly believed there were multiple reasons why I drank and it was easy to put a positive spin on all of them: socializing with friends, a refined appreciation for my poison of choice, I quite liked the sensation of being pissed—all harmless positives, surely.
For the longest time, I had myself convinced that there was nothing more to it; for at least some of that time, it’s even possible that there wasn’t.
Our modern western culture is built around alcohol. From a young age most of us are surrounded by opportunities to over-indulge in the stuff. But despite the bad rap that Australia’s drinking culture gets, the reality is that most people know when to stop. Most people don’t go too far or get into trouble. Most people don’t have a problem with alcohol.
Some people, though, are less proficient in the art of self-discipline and, for whatever reason, they never manage to call time on, or even acknowledge, their own excesses.
Who can say why problem drinkers drink in the first place? There are so many potential reasons, though I’ve no intention of psychoanalyzing everyone who ever drank a bit too much. This is about me and why I drank too much… so why did I?
There’s a school of thought that would probably argue it was a slippery slope from the first time I drank alone. I don’t entirely agree with that view, though neither do I entirely disagree. But it goes back further than that. Something must’ve triggered it.
Some people are lonely. Some people are shielding themselves from a reality they don’t much care for. Some people drink because they just prefer being drunk. Some drink to self-medicate—it’s quite amazing how quickly alcohol dulls all manner of physical and psychological ills. That’s how it started to become a problem for me, by self-medicating to push through the pain of a serious back injury, although, in truth, by then I’d already been drinking far too much for years anyway.
The sad fact is that some people drink every day and I became one of those people. It gets easier. We appear to function (relatively) normally. The superficial effects of alcohol gradually lessen. Two glasses become four, one bottle becomes two and, before you know it and without ever meaning for it to happen, you have a problem.
There’s probably another school of thought that would say I became an high-functioning alcoholic. God knows I’d employed it as a jokey throwaway line often enough over the years. But I never really thought of myself in those terms and I’d never seen myself as a candidate for AA. Maybe that’s just my arrogance, coz seventeen online surveys told me I probably had cause for concern.
If you’re very lucky, getting that kind of feedback just about dovetails with your arrival at the crossroads. And if you’re even luckier, you know the best decision to make for yourself and you somehow muster both the courage to make it, and the conviction to stick to your guns.
And I knew full well the decision I had to make. It was simple: I needed to stop drinking and I was confident that I had the psychological wherewithall to handle it myself. The idea of walking into a parquetry-floored community centre and affirming to a bunch of complete strangers “Hello, my name’s Matt and I’m an alcoholic” was never hugely appealing. I’ve seen it so many times on TV and in movies that it seems almost like a cliché, so trying to say it with 100% sincerity would probably just make me laugh.
Plus, I was already depressed enough when I was sober. I didn’t need to be in a room full of crying people, all moaning about their addictions to booze and drugs and eating disorders as teenagers, blah blah blah… I’d start watching reality television again if I wanted to immerse myself in that crap! And besides, I didn’t really believe it was a statement of fact anyway; without a doubt, there was a problem I had to do something about, but I certainly didn’t want the contrived melodrama of signing up to AA when I knew I didn’t need to.
It’s hard enough admitting to a mental illness, without having to fess up to some pathetic addiction as well. And I knew, in my heart, that that was what was going on; I knew that that was the real issue that needed tackling. The drinking was just a by-product, a symptom, if you like, of something bigger and potentially more harmful.
When you’re still young enough to bounce back without feeling it, it’s easy to believe there’s never too much. It’s easy to find positives when it hasn’t become habitual or problematic. But when you stop noticing the hangovers because you’re almost permanently hungover, dehydrated and run down, it’s an entirely different story. Particularly if you’re happy to stick with the situation because that story is far more palatable than the truth.
But when the fact that you almost never feel well becomes, all at once, both the reason for drinking and the reason you feel less inclined to drink, the choice becomes very simple: reign it in, or ignore at your peril.
Maybe there’s such a thing as too much change all at once, though. Maybe it wasn’t wise to give up alcohol, nicotine, sugar and carbs all at the same time? But that’s what I did—not at exactly the same time, but close enough to it. And I swear, for much of the first month and a half, I actually had withdrawal symptoms.
I think everyone expects reformed alchos to only have stories of happy outcomes to share. But when you’re actually one of the aforementioned people who use drinking as a shield against a reality they’d rather avoid, there’s really not going to be much good to come from it. Not initially, at least. The truth will out. And believe me, when this happens our bodies remind us, with relentless vigour, of exactly how badly we’ve been treating them and precisely how much reality we’ve avoided.
Before this, aside from the occasional mild craving during ten-or-more previous attempts to quit smoking (which really don’t count), I’d never truly experienced withdrawal symptoms of any kind, so it’s entirely possible that whatever I was feeling was something else altogether. But after some online research and ensuing self-diagnosis, it seemed almost inevitable that having quit alcohol cold turkey—particularly the volume of it that I’d been consuming—would result in some level of withdrawal.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months, but the ‘withdrawal symptoms’ sensation never eased. It just moved from place to place. My back, my muscles, my head, my foot, my hands, my kneck, my wrists, all of my joints, my jaw, my knees, my lower legs, my upper arms and shoulders, basically anything that could ache, or swell, or experience a burning nerve-like pain, did.
But I’m doing something good for myself, dammit! Not smoking, not drinking, better diet, losing weight, exercising… so why don’t I feel great? Why don’t I feel like running along a beach wearing flowing white linen head to toe, with the wind in my bouncy thick hair and my perfectly white teeth reflecting the sunlight? Why don’t I feel like going to the gym and pumping iron? Why don’t I feel like running a half-marathon, like everyone else apparently does these days?
And while I’m at it, why am I still avoiding phone calls? Why don’t I ever want to go anywhere any more? Why am I always so snappy and grumpy and irritable, most of all with those closest and dearest to me? Why don’t I care about work any more? How come I’m not enjoying anything at all?
I couldn’t avoid the question for a moment longer: why have I felt so fucking awful for so fucking long?
Then, all of a sudden, it stopped. Over a period of a week or so, I began to feel… I don’t know… ‘good’, maybe? Something like the way I used to feel when I didn’t feel awful. I was talkative, I was moving faster, I felt physically well; I was laughing, I was socialising, I got my creative edge back and re-started writing and making music; I was engaged with the world again. I felt good about the future. I could see positivity stretching out before me in a way that I hadn’t seen it for so very long.
I was hardly sleeping, but it hardly mattered. If I felt tired at work the next morning, I’d just guzzle some more coffee. And whoever said there was anything wrong with 7-8 coffees a day, anyway? Even if there is, I’m so happy that I don’t even care. I’ll just laugh it off because that’s how funny I find it. Then I’ll write a blog post about it. Then I might even write a song about. Then I’ll go out with friends and rejoice in my sobriety by proving that I can have a perfectly good time without alcohol, however much they choose to swill and however addled their brains become.
If you’d given me a big old ship, doubtless I would’ve run to the front and, even without anyone standing there to support me, I would’ve climbed up on that railing, hands outstretched, and proclaimed, I’M KING OF THE WOOOOOORLD!
Hmmmmmm. Shoulda kinda seen it coming, I guess. There was something distinctly not right about all of that. It just wasn’t me. Even when I was (for want of a better word) ‘normal’, I wasn’t like that. Indeed, the only other times I’d ever felt like that were many years ago and always under the influence of illicit substances.
My mind was constantly racing. My ceaseless enthusiasm and boundless energy had kept me more-or-less awake for nearly four weeks. I couldn’t stop thinking and it was kinda starting to hurt. I was worn out. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. The thoughts that kept going around and around in my head had become little more than a jumbled mess of nothingness, that I could no longer make any sense of. I pleaded with my Doctor to make it stop.
And that’s when I was given the initial diagnosis of Bipolar.
Finally, it had a name. Finally, I had something concrete to attach to all this shit. Finally, something that I could work with, a condition that I knew to be eminently treatable. Finally, I could begin to understand the way I am and how my life had panned out.
Honestly, if you’ve never known anything like this before—and trust me when I say, if you haven’t then you’re really not missing anything!—you can’t know what a relief it is to finally have a diagnosis that tells you, yes there is something going on here, you’re not imagining it, you’re not going crazy. To finally hear someone say those words to you… well, let’s just say it’s a suitably emotional moment.
Then, almost as soon as I had the diagnosis, the manic stuff stopped. As quickly as it had arrived, it went away again. And I went back to how I’d been before, which only felt worse, given how ‘up’ I’d felt for weeks on end.
You’d think it would’ve been better, right? You’d think I would’ve felt some relief. But, even having pleaded with my GP to make it stop, after such a sustained period of feeling so well, positive, creative and engaged with everything, to go back to how I’d felt before was just cruel. It probably felt little different to how I’d felt five or six weeks earlier, but after what I’d just experienced it now seemed so much worse.
Cue a bit of pressure and a handful of less-than-positive incidents in the office, and BOOM! Matt: welcome to Meltdown City.
It was the perfect storm.
I think it might’ve been described as a “nervous breakdown” in the olden days. Essentially, I lost it. I had to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. It didn’t matter where, as long as I wasn’t there.
I’m so lucky to have the best Doctor in the world. He’s never done me wrong or led me astray or given me one scrap of bad advice in the decade I’ve been seeing him. I trusted him implicitly with my situation and, as I knew he would, he immediately recognised what was happening.
Long story short (…. whoops, too late!), for the first time in my life I’m on medication to resolve and, hopefully, to stabilise my mood. This was a significant back-down for me. When I was originally diagnosed with Clinical Depression about five years ago, I’d steadfastly refused to resort to meds. “Fix it with diet and exercise and the power of positive thinking!”, I said to myself at the time. And, blow me down, if I didn’t do just that! I think I even surprised myself—especially how I came to actually enjoy exercise.
Maybe it all felt a bit unreal last time. Maybe I thought resorting to medication was over-the-top. But with this recurrence—and with the formal diagnosis of Bipolar II Disorder attached—it seemed the only sensible course of action.
For now, it all feels a little bit guinea pig-ish, given that the meds I’m on aren’t actually anti-depressants, which I’ve never wanted to take anyway. In fact the meds I’m on were never even intended to treat depression; the discovery that they could be used for this purpose was, apparently, just a happy coincidence. But my shrink (yes, I have a shrink—I feel so American!) thinks it’s the best thing ever; he’s so enthusiastic about me using it and so confident that it’ll set me right again, in time.
Meanwhile I’m exercising again. Fourteen hours of my week are spent in the gym at the moment. That’s not sustainable in the long term, but it certainly seems to be working for now. I’m almost back to enjoying it. Actually that’s not true. I’m back to feeling good about doing it and feeling energised and positive afterwards. And if my gym routine is ever disrupted for whatever reason, I get itchy feet to get in there and get going. I guess that’s a good sign?
Since I gave up drinking, friends have often said to me, “Please have a drink… Drunk Matt was more fun”. Drunk Matt certainly felt more fun than the first months of Sober Matt. I used to respond by saying that I might take it up again some day. But I don’t really think I can. I don’t believe anyone with a predisposition to depression should ever knowingly and voluntarily over-indulge in anything that will inevitably bring them down. It’s just stupid and pointless.
But for me, it’s not even a question of over-indulging; I don’t think I can indulge at all, ever again. I know what I’m like. I now have a better understanding of my addictive personality and, at least to a limited extent, why it’s there and what it can do. Now, when people share ‘fond’ recollections of Drunk Matt, I just smile.
I’m smiling a lot more these days. Even to myself. I caught myself literally stopping in my tracks the other day, when I realised that I was concurrently humming and grinning after hearing something on the radio that I thought was really sweet. That’s when I realised that, finally, after so long, my life, my existence, the world, everything around me, seemed just that little bit brighter, and the weight on my shoulders just that little bit lighter.
I used to only ever cry if I was drunk. And as I drank more, I cried more. Always in the wrong places, with the wrong people, for the wrong reasons.
Now I cry when I watch a sad movie, or when someone dies on tele, or when I hear an especially poignant song, or when a baby’s born; actually, I cry at the drop of a hat. And afterwards, it feels so good. I wasn’t crying out of sadness for no apparent reason, or out of anger or envy or jealousy, or in frustration at my condition, or despair over how my life’s played out. It’s just a good old cry, while I’m sober, coz something was sad. That makes me feel so healthy. And so very normal.