Earlier this year I was diagnosed with diabetes, anemia and a tumour, all at the same time. Amid the plethora of directives given to me by the doctors about my diet, there was one which sent chills down my spine. It was ‘stop drinking’.
I have a chequered history with alcohol. I have been in a situation where alcohol prevented me from living my life, but clawed my way out. Since those dark days of my mid 20s I’ve never been an alcoholic who had to drink every day, but everything from a teetotaler during one year in Dublin, to an occasional drinker at formal functions and yes, also partying like there’s no tomorrow. There always was a tomorrow of course, and after alcohol it was mostly painful.
Alcohol plays Russian roulette with our sugar levels. It gets priority one in the liver processing line because our bodies rightly recognise that it is a poison and make every effort to excrete it. Normally it’s the liver’s job to process food and produce glucose which maintains our blood sugar levels. So the risk of alcohol intake initially is to have severely low blood sugar levels – hypoglycemia – whilst the body tries to get rid of the alcohol you’ve consumed. But what if the wine you’ve consumed is a sweet white Riesling? Well after your body’s processed the alcohol, it will turn its attention back to the huge amount of sugar waiting, sending your glucose levels into a spike of blood sugar coursing through your veins (hyperglycemia). And if you’re a ‘lifestyle’ diabetic with no access to insulin, there are very limited options to bring it down.
They say if you can’t imagine going to a party on a Friday night without alcohol to socially lubricate your interactions then you have a dependency on alcohol. But if I am to give myself any label at all nowadays, I would say I am a mild alcoholic. But ‘mild alcoholism’ is still alcoholism. Yet because alcohol is not an all consuming factor in your lives, because you can go weeks or months without a drink you might think you aren’t an alcoholic. After my diagnosis, I went four months without a drink… until the doctors told me that it was likely the high blood sugar levels in my system, the indicators of diabetes, had been caused by the presence of the tumor which they had removed. Thank god.
Because during those four months I tried to embrace the teetotaler that I had become. I went to my friends’ parties and felt a complete misfit. Everyone was drinking, the jokes became more inane as the night rolled on and the conversations were illogical and half finished. They were having fun and I felt like the party-pooper. I got tired earlier and on several occasions I didn’t finish the evening, preferring to go home at 11 instead of 2 or 3 am. I missed what others considered the ‘good’ part of the night, i.e. the most drunken. Inappropriate behaviour is where many friendships are cemented. Eventually I stopped going out with my friends so much and instead went out more to restaurants with my teetotal boyfriend. The servers raised their eyebrows when we chose sparkling water and our glasses were more like school beakers, the only glass deemed worthy of water, which was regarded as a second rate drink for second rate customers, despite its inflated price.
So my friends choose to spend their some of their free time with a glass of wine, or two. After working all day and bringing up children, it’s their small respite. They love me and I them. I want to be part of their lives, but there’s only so much free time we have and their parties will always involve alcohol. Rewriting your script where alcohol is concerned is a difficult one. If you’re not drinking you become the party pooper, the early leaver, you are not able to conduct conversations on the same level. You become boring, and introvert. It’s not just psychological, it’s also chemical. While your brain’s reward pathways remain tempered, everyone else’s are flooded with dopamine, triggering a sense of euphoria you simply can’t access without drinking.
Of course, not everyone has a desire to drink to excess as I do. But my desire to drink, is also my desire to experience such dopamine highs. My alcohol dependency started in my teenage years as a way to quell anxiety and stress. I’m more susceptible to stress because put plainly, a stressful childhood has reduced my ability to cope with it. Research shows that prolonged exposure to stress during childhood will alter brain architecture. It can change the stress system so that it responds at lower thresholds to events that might not be stressful to others which means my stress system operates constantly – like revving a car engine for hours every day. But when you find a way to cope with stress, like alcohol, the mind will latch onto it as a survival mechanism. It’s what fuels addiction in those who have had difficult pasts and what makes many see alcohol as a godsend to their stressful lives. It’s even what encourages drinking in social situations, because the very fact you do not drink when surrounded by drinkers, is stressful. It’s a choice, but a hard one.
Today I face a hard truth. I don’t like myself or my life without alcohol. I don’t like the way I am treated in restaurants. I don’t like the fact I get tired and have to leave the party. I don’t like to see my friends joking with one another and not be able to join in. I don’t like being the outsider. It all makes me feel rejected. It taps into my childhood fears and causes my stress levels to rise. Not being able to self-medicate with alcohol is even more stressful.
And so now I can drink again (well the doctor’s they got it wrong, but let’s not go there). But not only can I imagine what a Friday night looks like without alcohol, I also know what it looks like. Horrible. It means exclusion. It means loss of friendship. It means missing out on wine culture, appreciation and I’m sad to say, the respect generated in others when you order an expensive bottle. It means a new identity. Who are you at a party when you aren’t drinking? Are you able to be fabulous and extrovert even when surrounded by drunken tomfoolery? Probably not. It means – for those who are susceptible to it – a lot of stress, to which alcohol is one solution. It’s convenient. It comes in a bottle. It provides an illusion that you are in control of your life.
But it is just an illusion.
Finding healthier coping mechanisms for stress levels is a must (although I doubt that I will ever launch into a yoga series of sun salutations in the middle of a party). Writing is one such mechanism. That I express my feelings constantly through blogging means that the build up of stress is reduced and I drink far less frequently and less excessively than I have done in the past. That I confront difficult situations head on – including bitter commentary on many of my articles – means I become more and more at ease with challenge. That I re-frame my perspective and bring positives to commonly perceived negative situations also helps. That I forgive myself and have more compassion for my so-called faults, reduces my stressful need to strive for perfection and creates better self-esteem.
Loving myself, recognizing the positives and expressing gratitude for them and connecting with others who appreciate me without alcohol is essential. As is ditching those from my immediate circle who disapprove of my drinking water or who see my mild dependency as a sign of character weakness… because exclusion, shame and judgement is stressful. Unfortunately that’s much of society and indeed several in my family. I hope it’s not my friends because if the choice is them or me, I’ll have to choose me.