I have a can of Flat Tyre in the fridge for tonight.
This would be a normal aspect of a Saturday night for me, so normal that it’s the kind of thing I wouldn’t even bother mentioning on my blog, not usually.
But it’s not a normal can of Flat Tyre, not to me. It’s the very last Flat Tyre, the very last cider, and the very last alcoholic drink that I will ever have. I’m going to explain why.
As such, this is going to be a long one. But then, it’s a long story.
It was late summer 2004 when someone first told me I had an alcohol problem.
A few weeks earlier, I had suffered a complicated nervous breakdown due to a year of undiagnosed mental health problems coming to a head. The end result was that my parents sent me to the GP, and I walked out with a clinical depression diagnosis and a list of referrals to more specialised mental health services.
There were so many specialists I went to see that it’s difficult to remember them all now, but they were all adamant that I couldn’t be treated unless I also got help for this alcohol problem I apparently had. As you might guess, I didn’t see myself as having a ‘problem’ at all.
I had been a messy teenage drunk for several years – I had discovered the buzz that drinking too much gives you when I was about thirteen, and as my friends and I started to look old enough to get served in pubs, it became routine to spend the weekends binge-drinking, often to the point we would vomit and black out. But that was normal, right? All teenagers did that, or so it seemed. I’m sure this particular brand of teenage idiocy was ubiquitous at the time, but it was especially prevalent in Scotland, where the culture normalised it so much. We were Scots, and Scots were notorious for being able to drink all those other nations under the table. (We were no cop at team sports, so we had to take pride in something.)
When I started university at seventeen in 2002, the binge-drinking weekends became binge-drinking weeks. University culture involves societies, and societies do all their business on weekday evenings, and all of that business is done in the pub. Being a shy person, and finding myself in a position of having to make new friends by myself for the first time since I’d started primary school in 1989, I felt I needed the extra Dutch courage. Furthermore, being wholly in charge of keeping myself fed and watered for the first time, I found I was running out of money earlier in the month than I would have liked, and so I got into the habit of eating less so I could drink more. I had enough energy that I was just about making it to classes – most of the time – but it became normal to me to feel constantly ill due to the drunk/hungover cycle.
However, I was still immersed in a hybrid of cultures that normalised this kind of drinking, and so when my psychotherapist referred me to the Alcohol Problems Unit at the Royal Edinburgh Hospital, neither I nor anyone I knew really took it seriously. I’d fallen into a comfortable role as ‘the drunk one’ in every friend group, and so I was used to treating the whole thing as a joke. I vaguely tried to follow the advice I was given – which was to alternate alcoholic drinks with soft drinks – but as soon as I had one alcoholic drink, I wanted another, and soft drinks just seemed like a waste of time. I attended the APU (sporadically – I would often miss appointments due to being hungover) between late 2004 and early 2006, and yet my 2005 diary, where I recorded my daily intake (the Bridget Jones influence was strong with me at that point) is frightening. Almost half of my entries are written in my drunk handwriting, and I was averaging about 100 units a week.
After I got together with Geth in late 2005, things didn’t improve. He liked a drink as much as I did, and he was also fond of big weekends – Six Nations rugby weekends, weekends away in London, music festivals. All of these basically constituted hardcore weekend benders – there are many festivals and rugby days that I don’t actually have any memory of, and my memory is really good – and that was our lifestyle for a good decade plus.
Furthermore, when I graduated from university in 2008, I quit smoking (meaning alcohol became my only stress-relieving drug), stopped having a reason to walk anywhere, and so started piling on weight. This just meant that I had a greater tolerance for alcohol, so I ended up drinking more, and putting on more weight, and the cycle continued.
Coupled with the weight gain, my becoming more of a hermit – I couldn’t find a traditional job after graduation and so I ended up gradually building my own business, meaning I’ve mostly worked from home since then – meant that I became even more shy, and so unfamiliar social situations felt impossible. Whenever I had to face one of these – such as a job interview, or joining a new exercise class – I would down a few ciders before I left the house to get rid of the nerves. This was probably the one aspect of my drinking that I knew wasn’t ‘normal’, and so I would hide the bottles in order that Geth wouldn’t realise what I was doing. When he was away at work conferences, I would switch to vodka so that I could drink late into the early hours by myself without having to worry about running out of alcohol. On these occasions, I would often get through two-thirds of a bottle per night.
I still didn’t see myself as having a problem. In 2011, I gave up alcohol for Lent, and I thought that managing not to drink for six weeks proved that I had a healthy relationship with booze. But every time I had to tell a counsellor or a doctor what my average weekly intake was (which I always deliberately underestimated), they would look at me with absolute horror. I’m not sure why this never bothered me. I suppose in your twenties, you’re still hanging onto a sliver of that youthful feeling of immortality that caused you to pick up bad habits in the first place. Either way, I had no desire or plan to cut down on my drinking at that point.
But in 2015, the year I turned thirty, three things happened.
First of all, after I moved to Newcastle, I (obviously) had a new GP. I don’t always like going to see my GP in Newcastle, as he doesn’t sugarcoat things. He’s the first GP I’ve ever had who I think may actually be my age if not younger than me (one of those signs that you’re getting old), and he really makes me work hard to explain why I still need my antidepressants at my annual review, which can be distressing. The first time I went for one of these reviews and had to estimate how many units I was getting through per week, rather than doing the usual doctorly ‘you know, you should really think about cutting down’, he flatly told me that I’d end up with liver disease within fifteen years if I kept drinking the way I was. While I still believed that genetics were on my side with that one – my mum has a fairly frequent wine intake and a very healthy liver – it was the first doctor’s comment on the subject that ever stuck with me.
Secondly, I started running. I run in the mornings, and you can’t run with a bad hangover (well, you can, but it’s not pleasant), so heavy drinking nights before run days were out.
Thirdly, the running – much to my surprise and disgruntlement – was not causing me to lose weight. I ran (very slowly, due to my near-constant joint pain) all through the second half of 2015, then all through 2016, culminating in my first half marathon in September 2016. Despite this, in the autumn of 2016 I was back up to my highest weight, and so I decided to join Slimming World in the new year.
Slimming World is the most manageable way of healthy eating I’ve ever tried, which is why I’m still doing it two years later, but it is fairly strict about the amount of syns you’re allowed to have, and alcohol contains a lot of syns. It quickly became apparent that I couldn’t keep drinking the way I had been if I was going to follow the plan properly – my weekly alcohol intake pre-Slimming World probably amounted to about 400 syns by itself, and you’re only supposed to have 105 in a week.
As such, I immediately cut down a lot. I saved up syns for special occasions like weddings and festivals where I would ‘need’ to drink a lot of alcohol, and if I planned a weekend evening where I was going to have a couple of ciders at home, I made sure to time the start of drinking so that I would only have time for two drinks before bed. If I mistimed it, I would end up having more. It simply didn’t occur to me to stop drinking after finishing the two ciders that I’d planned. It’s kind of awkward to explain, sitting here typing this out while sober, but when I’m a couple of drinks down, it feels like the most imperative, important thing in the world that I have another one.
(This is another thing that I just never saw as a problem for many years, simply because it’s so normalised – Geth always refers to the state of having had a couple of drinks and wanting to continue drinking as being ‘warmed up’, and so that’s how I always thought of it.)
As I lost the weight, while I felt healthier than I had done in years, I also found that alcohol was starting to affect me more strongly as my body mass went down and my tolerance with it. Since I’d started taking antidepressants in 2004, I’d been told by doctors that I shouldn’t drink with them because it would negate the effect of the pills, but again, this was just something that went straight over my head. After I hit target in May 2018, I found that even one or two drinks would often lower my mood to near-suicidal levels. It’s very hit and miss – sometimes I’m fine, sometimes I’m really not – and throughout the second half of the year, as my mental health declined for unrelated reasons and the bad experiences became more frequent than the times it was okay, I realised that I would have to stop. Not ‘for now’, not for Dry January, not for a few months or even a year, but for good.
As such, I spent Christmas finishing all the cider that Mum and Dad had kept for me at their house, and observing the way it was affecting me in a safe environment with lots of people around. I had a lot of unhappy, melancholy thoughts over the holidays, just like I always do, but for the first time, I was able to understand how alcohol was contributing to that.
I love cider. But my health is more important, and I’ve finally realised that due to mental health issues I’m not capable of functional, healthy alcohol use.
I’m terrified of giving up in some ways. I’m scared about how it will affect my relationships with people with whom I will no longer be ‘drinking buddies’. I’m scared about how I will feel the first time I catch sight of a new cider that I never got to try. I’m scared about all the things I want to do in my life that I’ve always believed I would never be able to attempt without a few drinks in me.
But, because I’ve made this decision, I’m also feeling more positive about things than I have in years. I’m looking forward to disengaging with all the stress around timing my drinking and worrying about what I said and did when I was drunk. I’m looking forward to being able to focus in the evenings. I’m excited about being able to use my syns for other things.
Tomorrow is my first day as a sober person. I am hopeful that it will be the start of a more peaceful existence.