Trigger Warning: mentions of specific drinks, alcoholism, eating disorder
I’m an alcoholic. To be more specific, I’m a teenage alcoholic. I got sober 15 days before my 17th birthday and so I have never had a legal drink. I find that entertaining to think about, but it’s also a block to my recovery sometimes. How can I say I’m an alcoholic (which is vital for me to accept in order to recover) if I’m so young?
While getting sober at any age and for any reason has huge challenges – that may vary and cannot be compared – getting sober young comes with a unique set of difficulties. One of the very first struggles is that it seems no one else in recovery is your age; it feels like there are no teenage addicts and alcoholics out there. So it can be a very isolating experience. Especially when the rest of your life stretching out ahead of you seems so long to go without a drink. So I thought today I’d share a little of my story of getting sober young to show everyone that we exist! And we’re thriving.
Before I dive in I will be honest and say I was very apprehensive to post this. I’m used to being open, and sharing my other mental health battles to some extent, but this is scary to post. Much scarier than anything else. And I think much of that is to do with stigma – fear that if someone reads this they might not want to know me, might not want to hire me etc. But I have decided to post it anyway because that’s exactly why it should be posted. So often fear keeps people quiet about important experiences that need to be shared and understood. I don’t want another teenager out there to feel alone like I did. I don’t want people to be afraid they won’t be able to move forward in life because of something in their past. So this is my story, and I’m not ashamed of it. I wouldn’t be the person I am today and the person I’m going to be in the future without it. If it can help just one person, then it’s worth it.
I ‘only’ drank heavily the way I did for a year and a half/ two years, but looking back I can see I was different in how I drank from the very first time I had a drink at 13 years old. Everyone else was fine to stop the next day, to stop that evening, but for me it finally made being in a group something that felt easy, and I wanted to drink again right away. I always took it further than others or was more excited about it than everyone else when the opportunity to drink arose.
I did stop drinking for a period of a few months, but only because I was struggling with an eating disorder, and the calories in drink scared me shitless. In a strange way I feel very grateful for that, because I don’t know what my path would have been if I had been drinking at that time. You can’t exactly buy other substances at the corner store, so I was saved from that spiralling off in a way; alcohol became my drug of choice.
In the space of two weeks I went from drinking a can of gin and tonic every night to a bottle of vodka every evening, and within a few months I was drinking in the morning and had to start changing my routines to fit around when I would be able to drink. I don’t remember once going to the cinema or visiting my grandma when I was drinking – it would have been impossible. I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how this transition from low amounts of alcohol to day drinking took years, decades even. And that used to make me feel very alienated; it played into the idea that this was just a phase for me. But now I see it like I took the exact same path, I just did a speed run of it.
This began in the months before the covid lockdown and carried on through the return to schools and socialising. I won’t go into the details of what I did, because some of it’s personal and also I don’t think it really matters overall. Because every alcoholic has a different path, different consequences and patterns of drinking. But the one thing we do have in common is once we start we can’t stop. So what I will talk about is my feelings, how it felt to be like that.
Some people may say I was a high functioning addict, and I suppose in a way I was. I could drink a huge amount and still be able to hold a conversation or even write coursework graded A*. My blackouts were very very rarely passing out or waking up somewhere I didn’t recognise – they were walking blackouts. Whole weeks have gone missing from my memory and it’s only now that small moments are returning to me; it’s a very strange experience. Terrifying really. So yeah, in a way I was high functioning – but being a functioning alcoholic is like saying you’re painting a house with a toothbrush. Yes you can do it, but nowhere near as well as you could.
I was also the star student. And I’d already had to grapple with my identity as the perfect A* student when I stopped being able to go to all my lessons a few years prior. But when I was drinking it was like losing this part of my identity entirely. I had to leave (was asked to leave) school 3 times in year 12. I became the total opposite of everything I thought I was; I lost myself and I used the disappointment to fuel my drinking more. Nowadays I choose to try and see the light in what I went through and put others through, so in a way I’m grateful for having to deconstruct my perfect student persona, because now I see more of the parts that make me who I am.
Although there are many many ways to recover, I use AA (alcoholics anonymous, a worldwide peer support group) as the foundation of my recovery. I went to my first AA meeting on 28th September the year before I got sober, and though it would take me another 10 months for me to stop drinking, I continued going to AA. Because really I knew I needed to be there. And that’s the thing – just because I knew I was an alcoholic and would later want to stop drinking, doesn’t mean I could just stop. It wasn’t that simple. But AA being there throughout, welcoming me when I felt like nothing, and slowly helping me build up whatever it was that allowed me to stop, was invaluable.
I hurt the people closest to me, people I could never have dreamed of hurting. I lost touch with reality and who I was. I lost a view of the future. All there was every day was the planning and expedition to get drink. It was the only thing that shut my head up. And the second it started wearing off, or the search showed up empty, the panic and hurt and self loathing and anger would all start to creep in again. It was like I wanted total oblivion.
Some of it looking back is truly laughable to me – the ridiculous extent of the lies, convincing myself that one piece of chewing gum would cover the smell. And the best of all – hiding bottles all over the town, not just my house or the school, the town. And not just one town – 3 towns! You have to be able to laugh at the ridiculousness to survive I think. It also does no good to tell myself it was all awful, because I did have some good days while I was drinking. Several good days. And if I try to convince myself it was all awful it’s easier for me to forget what it was really like long term, and I run the risk of relapsing. I had some wonderful times and great fun, but overall it was so crushingly painful, even if I didn’t realise the full extent at the time.
I was always trying to escape, trying to distract. But in doing so I was throwing away all the love and brightness in my life too. I didn’t even realise how sick I was physically! All the time there was something wrong with me, and not always something small. I didn’t get hangovers, but I was always in pain in some way.
I swung between wanting to stop drinking more than anything in the world and deciding it was pointless to try. It was never really that I wanted to keep living like that but rather that I couldn’t conceive living any other way. I came up with several schemes to help me stop that are ridiculous in hindsight – split the same amount into more than one bottle, change the mixer, listen to a particular song before drinking again etc. None of them worked. There were so many more logical times to stop drinking than when I did: times when I hurt worse and hurt others worse. But I couldn’t. And that’s the thing – an alcoholic can’t simply put the drink down, and if they do by some miracle manage it they can’t sustain life without dealing with the emotional symptoms beneath.
I was given an ultimatum from school a week before my last drink. This wasn’t what made me stop, but it did however allow me to see, even slightly, a future without alcohol. Or rather refuelled my want for that. And this happened to coincide with me being in the headspace I was; truly tired of it. My rock bottom didn’t coincide with events in my life or chaos of my creation. My rock bottom was when I realised I had completely lost myself.
It was a serendipitous concurrence. My last drink was nothing spectacular or awful. It was just my last. And I knew it when I woke up the following day. I felt it. The relief, the lifted weight. And I can’t explain that. It was not a renewal of will power, it wasn’t a specific motivation. It was a miracle (if you possibly believe it). I was done, I was free. Within days I started to see my life return in colour around me, though it would take months for the fog to truly lift in my brain and trust to be regained. To this day I dream about it and wake up thinking about it (one major sign my relationship with alcohol is not normal).
My journey – which is not the same as everyone else’s – included a remarkably easy first few months. I was free from cravings and the opportunities that came to me were amazing. I got to go back to school, continue rehearsals and deepen friendships. But in a way I was white knuckling it. I sprinted forward like I was making up for lost time and in later months I would have to grapple with how hard I had fought to get where I was. For me though I wouldn’t have had it any other way. The cravings emerge still in full force, as do life’s challenges, but now I have a fighting chance. And I have so much love and support around me.
Stopping drinking was the bravest decision I ever made. I got my future back. I got my friends and family back. I got my dignity back. And I got so much more than I could ever have dreamed of. No it’s not easy; some days it’s a real fight. But I’d rather fight this fight and grow than shrink myself back to what I was. And do you know how great it is to remember all the fun I have?? Being sober means I get to honour what I actually enjoy doing.
I made a list the very first day I got sober of all the things I wanted to achieve through sobriety. It had things like do my A-levels, get into drama school, gain my family’s trust back, feel more physically healthy and more and more. I’ve done every single thing on that list. In a year. Every single one. That is beyond my wildest dreams. With the words ‘I am proud of you’ my list was complete and the second I heard them I burst out in tears. My path is not what I expected, even with all the things I hoped to achieve completed, life is always unexpected. It’s different from how I imagined, and I’ve had to deal with some real upheavals sober. It’s not always fun, but it’s always worth it. If I can grow that much in just one year of sobriety, I cannot wait to discover what else lies on the horizon.
If you’re a young person struggling, know that you’re not alone. I’ve found young groups of alcoholics and addicts too now, and it was such a breath of fresh air the first time I went to one! It reaffirmed that I was not too young, I was not being dramatic. I was being very very brave, and so were all these other amazing people. You can get better and there is a future waiting for you.
So much love and support to you all today xx