August marked the four-year anniversary of my becoming sober. Though I’ve now been sober for nearly half a decade, I still remember that morning when I was 22-years- old and I decided I could never drink again like it was yesterday.
Like so many other mornings, I woke up with a pounding headache, an overwhelming desire to get to the toilet – without the will to physically exert myself to do it – and a general lack of memory about exactly what had happened the night before.
I tried to sit up, and realized that was a bad idea, so I slumped back down into my bed, wishing it would swallow me whole and not release me until I’d had ample time to forgive myself for whatever embarrassing things I had done.
I didn’t even remember what had happened, but I knew there would be at least one dramatic behavior I’d be filled in on; one mean thing I’d snapped at someone that I hadn’t actually meant.
There always was.
Like countless mornings before, as the seconds passed, the shame swept over me. I began to panic.
Why do I always have to get so drunk? Why does it take me the same amount of time to finish two drinks that it takes everyone else to drink one? Why do I always have to keep drinking, even when everyone else around me has stopped?
Two months earlier, I’d graduated from Brown University, where I’d left with a solid GPA. I had plenty of friends, and I’d started a new nonprofit job the week before.
I’m a good person, I tried to convince myself. I’m a successful, good person.
But, it no longer felt like enough; it no longer felt true. It all felt like an act, like I had learned how to appear and perform the part of a person who was okay.
There must be a way to fix this, I thought. There I must be some way I can rein it in.
Of course, I knew, there wasn’t. I was already seeing a therapist to “fix” my binge drinking. With this said therapist, I had already spent weeks designing custom drinking rules that were supposed to be in place: He’d suggested a maximum of drinking two nights per week, and only having two drinks each night. I’d negotiated it to a three nights per week, with three drinks per night.
“No one in their twenties only has two drinks,” I’d so stubbornly insisted.
Within days, I’d totally disregarded and decimated this plan that I’d myself created. I’d blacked out multiple times, and didn’t even bother to pretend to keep count of how many drinks I’d consume in a given night.
And that was just the most recent intervention: Between the ages 15 to 22, I’d been hospitalized four times for alcohol poisoning. During high school, I’d spent a month in inpatient rehab, and months in outpatient rehab. In college, I’d thoroughly abused and then begrudgingly given up Xanax, Ambien and cocaine when I’d felt my relationship with those drugs had gotten out of control, but I’d never even actually considered fully getting rid of alcohol.
Alcohol is too embedded in society to quit, I believed. It’s so much a part of the fabric of the life I want.
No rules could stop me from drinking; losing the friends who’d had enough couldn’t stop me; breaking up with my ex-boyfriend who couldn’t take it couldn’t stop me; drunkenly trying to run into traffic after breaking up with said ex-boyfriend myself couldn’t stop me.
It seemed nothing could stop me. None of that had made much of a dent in my love for alcohol; none of that had deterred my passion for getting drunk.
And when I realized that, I knew I had to stop.
For the first time, I felt the magnitude of my ‘situation’: I was speeding on a curvy road with no guardrails; it was only a matter of time before I flew right off. Once that happened, I knew there would be no way I could ever recover.
I was drinking toward death, and I suddenly saw how there were so many paths that could get me there swiftly; paths I flirted with frequently as 22-year- old blackout drinker with a self-destructive streak living in New York City. Whether it be alcohol poisoning, choking on my own vomit, falling on the subway tracks, getting hit by a car or getting irrationally upset and making a choice I could never take back, I just felt the worst ending was becoming all too real a possibility, and that it had been all along. I’d just been lying to myself for many, many years.
Yet, though death felt so near, I still could not help but prematurely mourn all of the things I was so sure I was losing. I couldn’t help but think of anniversaries that would feel less romantic without champagne, nights that would feel less fun without tequila, and bad days that would feel less resolved without wine. It was hard to imagine waving the wine glass away as a waiter set one down in front of me, or how I would ever tell a date that I didn’t drink. I literally couldn’t imagine bringing myself to dance without a cocktail in hand and several in my stomach, or having sex with a new person without having such a buzz that I didn’t even feel like myself anymore.
Despite all that I felt was now lost, I knew I didn’t have a choice. I also wouldn’t be able to do any of those things if I was dead, and I wouldn’t be able to do anything else, either. Somehow, in the deepest part of my soul, I knew I couldn’t do it any longer; I couldn’t wake up another time in a hospital with a catheter in my urethra and an IV in my arm.
I can’t have alcohol like other people. It’s going to be the end of me.
So, I did it; four years ago I pulled the cord. I promised those I loved, and more importantly, myself, I would stop drinking, and I have stayed true to my word.
Through years of therapy, countless hours of introspection and probably way too many (sorry!) lengthy conversations with friends, I began to explore what I thought I was losing when I gave up alcohol, and why it had mattered so much to me that I had endured nearly a decade of substance abuse and the misery, loneliness and chaos that comes with it.
Why did I not feel interesting without alcohol? Why was I so scared to be a sexual being when I wasn’t drunk? When had intoxication become my sole coping mechanism? When had blacking out become an expected norm instead of a terrifying slip up?
When had drinking transitioned from a thing I did, to who I was? When had it become the one thing I believed I could always rely on, no matter where I was, or who I was with?
When had alcohol become the only thing I really cared about?
Of course, though frustrating, there wasn’t some clear-cut moment that I could point to where I’d lost the battle to be a normal drinker. In fact, if anything, it felt I’d been doomed from the first time I felt the warm feeling of a beer entering my stomach, and then my bloodstream. The shadow of alcoholism had seemed to slowly and steadily grow from there, until it had completely consumed me.
But, the hope comes from the moments where you begin to let go of what you feel like you’re losing, and grasp on to all that you’re gaining: Mornings you remember, nights you don’t have to regret, the ability to be honest with yourself, and the choice to deal with the reasons – beyond biology – that propelled you to drink so heavily in the first place.
Sure, giving up drinking may feel like giving up your surefire way to decompress, but it isn’t; it’s giving up your way to avoid the things you really need to face, it’s giving up the reason to hide things, to lie, and to repeat that cycle until you’re so emotionally isolated that it feels there’s no way to escape.
There’s always a way to get out of addiction, especially when it feels like there isn’t.
I’d be lying if I said it’s painless, but I’d be lying even harder if I said it wasn’t worth it.
Seamus Kirst is the author of the memoir, Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.