Updated: Oct 17, 2022
Five ex-drinkers share their experience of becoming alcohol-dependent.
If you're one of the many people for whom drinking became an issue in lockdown: you're not alone. The first national lockdown in 2020 saw a surge in at-home drinking that has resulted in many people questioning whether they're dependent on alcohol. Those who drank heavily before the pandemic saw the biggest increase in consumption, and the challenging conditions we've all endured over the past two years have meant that, for many people, alcohol has become a real problem in their lives.
Type "Am I addicted to alcohol?" into any search engine and you'll be faced with countless lists, tests and quizzes to help you determine the answer. But these criteria are often pretty vague, or talk of units of alcohol consumed per day or week, rather than focusing on a person's relationship with alcohol.
We discussed some of the most common questions found on these online tests with five ex-drinkers, who share their experience of what it was like to find themselves dependent on alcohol.
1. Do you often drink more than you intend to or find yourself unable to moderate or control your drinking?
One of the key indicators that you might have a problem with alcohol is an inability to control how much you drink. It's not necessarily about frequency - many people drink regularly and moderately - but if you find yourself struggling to get through the week or a day without a drink, that could be a sign that you're becoming dependent. As Lee explains:
"I first began to think I might have a problem with alcohol when I was drinking on more days than I wasn't drinking. Then I started to drink every evening, and more on weekends."
Another one of our contributors, Bea, remembers not being able to keep the promises she made to herself and other people about her drinking. "I would say to myself - and my partner - on a Monday morning, 'I’m going to have a few days off the booze this week' and by that evening, I’d be drunk."
This is a common theme among our ex-drinkers, with some even resorting to extreme measures when they found themselves struggling to get their drinking under control. David locked his keys and bank card away in the evening to stop himself from going out to buy more alcohol. "Needless to say, it didn't work," he shrugs.
Lauren remembers the guilt and shame she regularly felt after she drank more than she intended to:
"I would wake up in the morning full of anxiety, checking my phone to see who I'd called or messaged, trying to piece together the events of the night before. I would plan just to have a couple of drinks, but once I started I always ended up drinking way more than I wanted to, and then regretting it the next day."
2. Has your drinking affected your physical health?
The serious health risks for heavy drinkers are well-documented: liver disease, strokes, heart disease are all major conditions associated with excessive alcohol consumption. But often, before it gets to that point, alcohol can begin to affect your physical health in ways not often discussed in online dependency tests. Bea explains:
"Drinking was really damaging to my digestive health. Eventually, my G.P. prescribed something to help protect the lining of my stomach. Going to the toilet was not pleasant. It affected my shape: I was very bloated."
Jen remembers the effect her heavy drinking had on her appearance. "I was always incredibly dehydrated, my skin was always really dry. I felt sluggish and lethargic because I wasn't eating properly. I looked ill a lot of the time."
The noticeable withdrawal symptoms are something David recalls in a painful memory from his drinking days:
"I was on holiday with my family and my hands were shaking at the breakfast table because I'd not had a drink. My dad noticed and was horrified. I was so ashamed but couldn't do anything to stop it. The only thing that stopped me shaking was having another drink."
All of our contributors mention injuries - mostly minor - that they sustained during blackout (meaning they can't remember what happened after a certain point during a session of drinking). Lauren recalls "getting into scrapes, waking up covered in swelling and bruises" with no idea how they'd happened.
3. Have you found that your drinking has caused problems in your relationships?
Problem drinkers are often in a state of denial, meaning it's often those close to them who recognise the symptoms of alcoholism before they do. One common reaction to the concern of loved ones is to deliberately withdraw from them, as Jen explains:
"The impact on my relationships was never good. I isolated myself, I ended up lying because I felt guilt and shame and remorse. I didn’t want to worry my family, so I used to hide from them. I also let my family and friends down a lot, because I was completely unreliable."
David's experience echoes Jen's. "My drinking drove the people who cared about me away, so I intentionally kept them at arm's length. I couldn’t face their concern - I heard it only as criticism, so I became increasingly isolated, which made me even more depressed and anxious. I put drinking above friends, family and my job, in the end."
For Bea, the consequences of her drinking on her home life were catastrophic. "Drinking was a key factor in the breakdown of my marriage. Ultimately, I know that I chose to continue drinking over working on my relationship. It means that my daughter now grows up as the child of divorced parents."
Lee details his transition from a social drinker to what he describes as a "lone wolf"; frustrated at the pace at which others would drink, he would drink alone so as to avoid people commenting on his drinking habits. Free from others' judgement, however, his drinking increased.
4. Do you think that your drinking has had a negative effect on your mental health?
The relationship between mental health and heavy drinking is widely understood to be bi-directional, meaning that conditions such as anxiety and depression can often lead to increased alcohol consumption, whilst, at the same time, exacerbating existing mental health conditions. It's essentially a negative feedback loop, a vicious circle that our contributors remember vividly.
Lee: "My drinking affected my mental health massively. I went to the doctors on numerous occasions looking for help with my depression because I used to feel suicidal. I just used to wake up every morning and think, here we go again." Jen found herself unrecognisable, in the end. "I just lost all of my passion for life, and all of my enthusiasm," she says. "I didn’t feel like I was living; I felt like I was existing. For Bea and David, their drinking led them to a very dark place. Bea explains:
"Towards the end of my drinking, I was suicidal. I didn’t make the link between consuming high volumes of a depressive substance with wanting to take my own life. I would have very low moods, I would also feel very anxious and agitated. I couldn’t think clearly; my memory was really bad."
David's recollections of his drinking days paint a bleak picture: "I had no self-esteem; I was filled with self-loathing. I had periods where I self-harmed, and I felt utterly worthless. I felt like I was a drain on everyone around me, and that everyone would be better off without me."
5. Have you tried to cut down on the amount of alcohol you consume?
It's worth saying that all of our contributors tried various methods to cut down their drinking before reaching the conclusion that they needed to stop for good. Lauren detailed some of the ways she tried to change her drinking habits:
"I thought things like hobbies or evening classes, or changing jobs or careers, or living in a different city would fix the problem. I thought that drinking different kinds of alcohol - not drinking spirits, only drinking beer, not drinking beer, only drinking wine - would fix the problem.
"I tried various self-help books, written by people by people who’d got sober, and keeping a drink diary, which was suggested by a drug and alcohol service. Some of those things worked for a little while, but I would always go back to drinking as much as before, and worse."
When asked about why they thought they'd ended up dependent on alcohol, our contributors all had different responses. Some cited stress, feelings of failure and inadequacy or simply feeling like they were unable to cope with life. Others had suffered childhood trauma and were "drinking to blot things out". All are adamant that it is only by stopping drinking that they were able to address the underlying issues that led them to alcohol dependency.
Lauren explains: "When I stopped drinking, I finally had the clarity of mind to tackle the issues that I drank on for years and years. It's taken time, but I'm now able to access therapy that, for the first time in years, is actually making a difference to my life."
One thing that they all agree on, however, is the positive effect that stopping drinking has had on all their lives. Jen is unambiguous in her assessment of the difference it has made. "Stopping drinking has changed my life in the most incredible ways. I feel present, awake and so grateful for my new alcohol-free life. I feel like I’ve had two lives, and that this is an opportunity for me to enjoy every single minute."
For Bea and David, the effect on their state of mind is, they say, remarkable. "My life is unrecognisable to how it was before. I have self-esteem; I learned to like myself, then to love myself," says David. "I learned who I was, sober, and I was able to experience new things that were beyond my reach. I live a full and rewarding life, today. My life is no longer ruled by fear." For Bea, recovery is "the absence of daily panic and self-loathing."
Lauren is unequivocal in her assessment of her decision to stop drinking: "It is, without doubt, the best thing I have ever done."
If you find yourself identifying with our contributors and are worried about your alcohol use, Montrose can help. We specialise in addiction and mental health issues, and offer world-class treatment options that will help you make changes in the short term that are sustainable in the long term. Our expert team will create a bespoke therapeutic programme tailored to your individual needs. Contact us today to begin your journey towards recovery.
Photography by Anete Lusina and Cottonbro at Pexels