I generally write about how good life is as a non-drinker, how much happier and brighter the world appears now that I’m not looking at it through a fogged up lens. I’m incredibly passionate about living a clean existence – more so because I can still recall (with great clarity) the polar opposite: the hangovers, the awful sense of shame on particular mornings, and the secrecy, the double life I seemed to be leading sometimes. I especially remember the kernel of dread that I’d wake up with, a knot of fear in my stomach that I desperately wanted rid of but which routinely took days or even weeks to leave me.
I often read on Soberistas.com (frequently on Monday mornings) blogs that describe feelings of shame. The people who write them have typically picked up a drink over the weekend, truly believing that they will be able to stop after just a couple (haven’t we all done that?), but who have then gone on to have a major blowout. This, in turn, leads to a variety of catastrophic consequences – an angry argument, a regrettable sexual encounter, passing out in front of the kids – none of which are unfamiliar to me.
I often think when I read these confessional posts, at what stage should we start to blame ourselves? Is it correct to feel shame over something we’ve done when absolutely out of it? With what or whom does the blame lie, when we have acted inappropriately or embarrassingly because of the amount of alcohol in our bodies?
Here’s the truth: if a person who cannot moderate alcohol comes to recognise the fact that if he or she has A drink it will inevitably lead to LOTS of drinks, then things become a whole lot easier. When that time arises, happy days – it becomes less of a struggle to stay away from booze, knowing that the stuff is likely to bring about the eruption of a sequence of disastrous events (as Robert Downey Junior once said, “I don’t drink these days. I am allergic to alcohol and narcotics. I break out in handcuffs”).
The problem comes about before this epiphany occurs, when a little voice is perpetually whispering, ‘one won’t hurt’ and ‘everyone has a few too many at some point or another’.
A desire to drink in moderation is simply not enough for some people to actually be able to drink in moderation. And for those people, once the first drink goes down, all self-control is lost. At that stage, a person is stripped of the ability to exercise caution or good sense in whatever it is they are doing. It becomes a lottery situation, a Russian roulette of life – how bad things end up is just a matter of potluck. This is how it always was with me, never knowing where the drink would take me, almost crossing my fingers at the beginning of a night out as I prayed things wouldn’t descend too low.
Until you genuinely recognise that you don’t have an off-switch (and you’re not alone if you don’t – approximately one in ten people in the UK are unable to stop drinking alcohol once they have started) and subsequently make the decision to become teetotal, then try to exercise some self-compassion the morning after.
We should not be speaking of feeling ‘shame’ when we have attempted to impose restrictions regarding our alcohol intake, restrictions that failed to work. We should be talking about alcohol dependency, and understanding that when you’re in the thick of a problematic relationship with booze, it isn’t as black and white as just saying, ‘OK, that’s me done. No more drinking’. Sometimes (usually) it takes a long time to establish a concrete acceptance of an inability to control intake.