Trigger Warning: This story contains mention of suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse that may be triggering to some.
“It is impossible for me to pinpoint one sole cause of my struggles with mental health, but one thing I can safely say is as a child, I was scared of everything. My mom leaving the house, my mom coming back home, the dark, loud noises. I’m not talking a little bit of fear. I mean pure, unadulterated terror. At night, I would be curled up, quivering with fear, unable to sleep, and unable to name what it was I was so afraid of.
Now, years later, with 4 years of sobriety and hours of therapy under my belt, I know I was suffering from a generalized anxiety disorder. At the time, I didn’t have the words to share how I felt, and no one could tell how much I was struggling. From the outside, people said I was a happy child with a good home life who sometimes wanted a bit too much attention. Internally, my home life felt volatile and unsafe, and so I was constantly clamoring for something or someone to help me with a life that always felt under threat.
As I got older, I developed new fears: new people, large crowds, fireworks, and pretty much any situation where I couldn’t predict the outcome or know what was expected of me. The fears of my childhood had developed into an overwhelming need to try to control everything to feel safe, and with the world being distinctly uncontrollable, I felt on edge all the time. All my energy was spent trying to predict outcomes and manage people’s expectations, and I was exhausted. At no point did I feel able to let go, or relax. I felt like everyone else had been given a manual on how to be ‘normal,’ and I had missed it. Everyone else seemed to just be able to ‘do’ life, and I couldn’t understand why every day for me felt like such a battle. At the age of 13, I discovered alcohol.
I was at a party with some friends, and doing my usual routine of planning and rehearsing everything I was saying before I said it, assessing the reaction and adjusting myself accordingly, planning when I could leave, early enough so I felt safe going home, but late enough no one would judge me for leaving, and a whole lot of other things in between. When the effects of the cheap vodka started to flood over me, I felt all my fears and anxieties start to wash away. I felt like I could relax for the first time in my life. I could finally be the funny, laid back person I thought everyone else wanted me to be. I finally felt like I was enough.
Every social interaction up to that point had felt like so much hard work. I had to make sure everyone had the ‘perfect’ view of me, and if that didn’t go to plan or someone didn’t like me, I would absolutely fall apart. When I was drunk, I didn’t worry about what people thought or what impression I was making. I felt invincible, and I loved it. After that day, I drank every weekend. I don’t ever remember drinking for the taste or even just having one or two. From that point on, I only drank to feel that relief wash over me. That is where the problem started.
The more often I drank, the more I would have to drink to get the same effect, and the more often I would lose control and end up with horrible guilt and shame at the end of the night. It is a very uncomfortable thing, having a strong moral compass, but thinking you need alcohol to feel like the person you want to be. By the age of 24, I had left London for South Africa, deciding that the city, my friends, and my family were the problem. I thought if I could just find somewhere that made me happy, everything would be okay.
For 6 months, it worked. I was working in a job I loved, teaching in the townships and training volunteers to do the same, surrounded by the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen and had plenty of friends and volunteers to party with whenever I wanted to. Slowly but surely, my old demons began to rear their ugly heads. I started to drink more to try to quiet them, and as I did so, I started to cross both professional and personal boundaries more and more often. All of my volunteers thought I was so fun, outgoing, and laid back, and no one would have been able to predict what would happen next. Every time I woke up after a night drinking, I would be flooded with that all too familiar fear. I would try my best to push it aside, but as time went on, the only way to quiet those demons was with another drink.
18 months in, I was suicidal. I was waking up every morning in fear, full of shame, and just absolutely hating myself. I couldn’t keep going, I didn’t want to exist. I had a wonderful boss who suggested I take some time off and have some in treatment therapy, which I agreed to, and spent 3 weeks in an occupational therapy clinic.
With no alcohol allowed, I obviously began to feel better, and as I looked around, decided I wasn’t ‘as bad’ as all these people around me. I engaged with the groups, ran yoga classes for some of the women, and generally just tried to befriend everyone. At no point did anyone address the fact I may have had a drinking problem. I decided it was time to go home, and after working at the end of my contract, I moved back in with my parents in February 2017.
With my stint in the hospital behind me, I decided it would be a good idea to celebrate my homecoming. That meant a lot of drinking. Cut to the 18th of March, and sat on the floor of a restaurant bathroom with my sister taking care of me and with my head in the toilet, unbeknownst to me, I would have taken my last ever drink.
My sister has always been my person. My main cheerleader. Tash is 18 months younger than me, and since I was about 17, we have been extremely close. If I was ever hungover or low, she would always be there with a pep talk and unconditional love. The night of the 18th of March was her birthday, and she was done. When I walked downstairs, all ready with the usual ‘I’m sorries’ and ‘I won’t do it against,’ she looked at me in a way I’d never seen before, and just said, ‘I knew it was going to happen, I’m not doing this anymore.’ For some, their last drink is dramatic and dangerous. For me, having my favorite person in the world be totally lost for words at my constant choice to abuse myself was more than enough. 2 days later, I found myself at my first 12 step meeting, and there I was to learn sobriety is so much more than putting down the drink.
I didn’t know anything about 12 step recovery, other than the fact people went there to stop drinking. I felt like, as a binge drinker, maybe I didn’t qualify. I thought alcoholics were all people who drank for breakfast and couldn’t hold down a job, but when I walked through that door, I heard people articulating all the fears and feelings I could never voice. I had found somewhere where people thought like I did, and they all looked so happy. I heard people sharing they had been sober for days, months, and years. I finally had hope someone like me could live life without running away from all my fears.
I kept going to meetings, and slowly but surely, I started to get my feelings back. One thing I wasn’t prepared for was the fact I had been medicating my mental health issues with alcohol. Without my self-prescribed ‘medicine’ my anxiety and depression hit me like a runaway train. At 3 months sober, I was suicidal again, but with my new-found safety in the 12 step fellowship, rather than picking up a drink, I picked up the phone. I would be hospitalized twice in my 4 year recovery, once for suicidal plans and the second time for a severe physical reaction to stress and anxiety. Both times, I felt like my world was ending, but with the support of other people fighting the good sober fight, and the work I had put into my recovery, I knew alcohol would not solve the problem.
Initially, I was worried about the ‘God’ aspect of 12-step recovery. I had grown up in the Catholic church, and my concept of God was vengeful and angry. But the more I heard people speaking about ‘a higher power of their understanding,’ the more I realized the power in realizing something greater than me was in control. All of those years of fighting to manage everything around me, and I could finally try to let go of the illusion I was in charge. I had always mocked people of faith, citing they were ‘weak’ to need something other than themselves. What I now know to be true is it takes huge strength to believe we are not the center of everything. I have friends who cite nature as their higher power, others, the law of attraction, and the beautiful thing about recovery is we are each entitled to find our own higher power.
Mine is wholly loving, never judgemental, and no amount of bad or good behavior on my part could make them love me any less. In my recovery, I have officially been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and chronic treatment-resistant depression. Neither diagnosis came as a huge surprise to me, but without alcohol in my system, I have been able to get the therapy and medication I so sorely needed.
I have found a community of people who think like me and who have a solution. My mind still races, and by no means is every day sunshine and roses, but today I have the tools to deal with anything life throws at me. I have learned my drinking was a result of a total inability to sit with uncomfortable feelings. Any feeling I didn’t want, I would drink on it. Nowadays, I have to be mindful I don’t turn to other negative patterns to chase away those feelings. I can lean towards overspending, overeating, chasing male attention, sleep, or a multitude of other things to try to change how I feel. Ultimately, I know none of those things will bring me long term happiness.
With the tools I have now and the incredible community of like-minded people in recovery, I have finally started to feel comfortable just being me. Imperfect me. With that comfort, come genuine connection, because I no longer find it necessary to hide all the parts of myself I previously didn’t want others to see. I can acknowledge uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, and watch them pass by. On bad days, which I do still have, I can call a friend or my therapist to share the load. I can get out for a walk with my beautiful sobriety puppy, Linus.
4 years after I took my last drink, I live in a beautiful flat with my dog. I have friends and family who know and love me just as I am. I am a trusted friend and employee. I show up for people, and in return, they show up for me. My life is simple, but that is all I need it to be. Drinking Alex thought she wanted a big impressive life. Today, if all I do is get up, shower, walk the dog and eat three healthy meals, that is a huge win, and I am truly grateful for it.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Alex O’Byrne. You can follow their journey on Instagram here and here. Do you have a similar experience? We’d like to hear your important journey. Submit your own story here. Be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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