I remember the first time I ever tasted alcohol. Like most people's first experience of the stuff, it was away from the watchful eyes of my parents. It was in a park with friends, all of whom older than me. It was, I believe, a Summers' evening, just getting dark. It was some sort of cheap cider I'm sure, shared around the group from a communal plastic bottle. I can't remember who it belonged to but I remember the cocktail of excitement, dread and rebellion that I felt in the pit of stomach as the bottle emerged from someone's rucksack and how it increased as it was passed round in my direction. Reading this, you may think this is a fairly typical experience of someone's first experience of alcohol. You probably also imagine I was around the age of 16. In reality, it was shortly after my 12th birthday.
I had my first sip of alcohol aged 12.
By 13, drinking was not unusual in my social life and I drank with my friends somewhat regularly. In that same park as well as others, in back lanes, in car parks, in shared cubicles in train station toilets and in fields.
By 14, my social life depended upon drinking. Without drinking, there was no social life. I drank every weekend and often on school nights too. Sometimes for days in a row. I remember when people would ask what we were doing at the weekend, mine and my friends' response would be 'getting drunk'. As if that alone is an activity. It was around this stage that my mental health really began to spiral out of control and retrospectively, I depended heavily on that lukewarm cider and that bitter wine which I drank directly from it's screw top bottle to escape how I was feeling and to numb myself, all the while assuring myself that it was fine because all my friends were doing it too. I felt incredibly lonely a lot of the time but drinking seems to alleviate that, at least temporarily anyway. That was until, of course, I would stop drinking and sober me would resurface and I felt lonelier than ever. So I'd keep drinking and keep running away from myself.
I remember once in school, in physics class I believe, getting my textbooks and pencil case out my school bag and pulling out a plastic bottle of what I thought was water. It wasn't til half way through the lesson that I absent-mindedly took a sip. It was vodka. My friends and I found it funny at the time but looking back, I find that a sad and uncomfortable story. That straight vodka, disguised in a water bottle, was as commonplace in my school bag as textbooks or a pencil case. I also remember going out drinking the night before my Standard Grade maths exam and consuming nearly a litre of vodka to myself. I eventually went home around 6am and I can remember clear as day, sitting on my front steps of my house, giving myself a pep-talk through my drunken tears and desperately trying to sober myself up. I didn't even go to bed, but instead showered, put my school uniform on and stumbled in to school to do my exam, still drunk out my face. Sorry mum. Alongside with my issues with food (more info in this post), alcohol became as stable a part of my diet as it had my social life.
Drinking was pretty much a core theme of my entire teenage life. When I went to university, it came as quite the shock to me that my new group of friends who came from very different backgrounds to me were only just beginning to experiment with drinking alcohol. A few watered-down vodkas in a packed Freshers' Week nightclub and they were hugging a toilet bowl by midnight while I was quite proud of the fact that, at 18, I count drink almost anyone under the table and that was always the last one standing. I never wanted the night to end and that was pretty much my stance the whole four years of uni. My classmates were content with the predictable student night out formula of pre-drinking cheap wine in someone's shared flat before all piling in a taxi to some grotty nightclub where nobody was over the age of 22, stocking up on 3 99p vodka's on each trip to the bar, mandatory chips and cheese at 2am before going home to bed while I never knew when to stop or even felt like stopping was acceptable. I never wanted to stop. Still drinking at 4am became still drinking at 9am and then still drinking the whole next day, and then the next. I had continued to use alcohol to distract me from my ever-deteriorating mental health and as a social lubricants as my circles of friends and acquaintances widened. It was also more accessible than it had ever been when I was younger, I could buy my own alcohol at any time of the day or night. And I did just that.
My confidence was so low that I felt like I needed alcohol to be the least bit worthy of conversations with anyone new which my friends interpreted as shyness so would keep buying me more and more to drink in the hopes that it'd loosen me up. I also don't appear outwardly drunk in the same way that a lot of people do. I can hold myself up, I can form sentences and maintain eye contact and walk in a straight line without falling (which often I can't even manage sober). My friends' would, and still do, often joke about how illusive 'drunk Sophie' is. People often don't realise I'm drunk when I'm absolutely gone which, while that was a blessing in disguise when I was younger and trying to hide the fact that I'd been drinking from my parents, it's a curse too because people don't believe that I'm drunk and will spur me on to drink more. They'd spur me on and I'd let them.
After graduating, my university friend group quickly disintegrated. People moved home from the big city to their family homes in the countryside or to their graduate jobs down south, work schedules clashed and soon the friends I saw every day and drank with several times a week became people I'd occasionally text and very rarely saw. As I was working full-time as well as doing an internship and writing in my free time, I was going out less and therefore drinking less. Student life felt like a different life time and I missed it dearly so whenever I did go out, I went incredibly hard to compensate.
As I've moved through my twenties, drinking remained a huge part of my social life. I don't have any friends at all who don't drink alcohol and most social events in my life involve the stuff in some way. I think this is common for a lot of people in their twenties. My relationship with alcohol and the ways in which I use it though are very different to how they once were, but I still at times rely on alcohol to have a good time. The thought of going to a bar with friends and not drinking while they all do feels both daunting and unnatural to me. The idea of going to a nightclub sober sounds ludicrous. The very notion of celebrating anything, no matter how small, without toasting the occasion with a tipple feels bizarre. And it's never just one drink either. It isn't the same type of dependancy on alcohol as in my teenage years but it still was, in some respects anyway, a dependancy on alcohol. Whether that's a personal thing or a knock-on effect of my social circles or of the society I live in, I'm not sure, but either way, it is definitely there.
At the end of last year, this video was recommended to me on my YouTube home page. If you haven't watched it, please please do. It really hit home with me. I'd never seen any of Lucy Moon's videos before but I really related to everything she was saying. I would never have said I have a problem with alcohol as such, but that video really made me reassess my relationship with it, both at present and at various stages in the past and the relationships, friendships and opportunities that I've lost as a result of excessive or careless drinking. There is alcoholism in my family and in my social circles, and while I wouldn't consider myself addicted to alcohol, I knew the absence of it in my social life made me feel very uncomfortable and almost scared.
Earlier this year, I decided to give up alcohol for Lent. Although I'm not religious, 13 years of strict Catholic education has left me with a strong internal obligation to give something up for Lent each year. More of a personal challenge than to prove something to the big guy in the sky I guess. This year, I choose alcohol. And caffeine and chocolate but that's another story. Almost all my friends told me I was crazy and were quite open about the fact that they didn't believe for a second that I'd manage it. A reflection again, on both my generations' attitudes towards alcohol as well as my own personal relationship with it. It seemed wildly ambitious of me and to many, like too big a sacrifice for no reward as such. But on Saturday evening, as my girlfriend poured me a pint of Strongbow Dark Fruits in the pub she works, a pint I drank in under 5 minutes, I felt like I'd really achieved something of value and proven to myself that I could not drink if I tried hard enough. It was something that I didn't think I would manage and something that I knew other's almost wanted me to fail at. Of course, that one pint turned into many, with tequila, vodka and rum following, a bruised knee from falling up the stairs and a taxi ride home at 4am that I barely recall.
Whether I have a dependency on alcohol, I don't entirely know. I don't think I do, or at least not the same extent that I thought I did before I conquered Lent. Alcohol has been a part of my life since, I suppose you could argue, I was a child, and I quite honestly, I think I'd be cutting off my nose to spite my face to think the presence of it could ever be completely gone from my life, but I'm proud of how well I've done over the last 7 weeks and it's shown me I have a control over alcohol rather than it having control over me which, at points, I've very much doubted.