July 15, 2013

What 20-Something Alcoholism Is Really Like

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In the past three and a half years, I have not been sober for more than 24 hours.

Contrary to what you might assume, I rarely get hungover. I’m not unproductive or lazy – in fact, my job is the envy of most of my friends. I’m not broke, and I have a very happy-go-lucky personality, even when I am sober.

I date – although I’ll admit I haven’t had a steady girlfriend in years – and I have friends. Nobody I work with or interact with knows that I’m an alcoholic, and even my former therapist told me that my ability to live a normal life while under the influence is “impressive.” I don’t drive drunk, and I rarely miss my alarm clock in the morning. In short, I’m no different from anyone else in their mid-twenties, and probably better off than most of my peers…

Except for the drinking.

When you think about the word, “alcoholic,” your mind probably draws the same picture mine did 4 years ago. You see a drunken, used-up mass of humanity bumming quarters on the sidewalk to buy his next 40. You see a sick and tired old man, unemployed and hopeless, who beats his wife or his children. You see a drunk driver who murders a young family driving home from a late soccer game. You don’t see me.

I still struggle to admit that the label itself fits.

Even as I pour my sixth whiskey tonic, alone in my apartment on a Sunday, I have a hard time saying, “I’m an alcoholic,” but there’s really no other way to describe my self-medicated condition. I’ve tried to slow down or quit with varying degrees of success, but the truth is I haven’t slept a night in the past three years without at least a few drinks in my system.

Back when I still felt like it was worth quitting, my therapist had me on a plan where I would cut one drink per night out every week. “If you can just monitor your intake, you’ll see your progress,” he told me. That was great for about a month. Week 1 and 2 were fine – I just didn’t go out – and instead, I drank my 8 then 7 beers alone in my room. By week three, the challenge was 6 beers per night, and we added another challenge:

One night with only two drinks.

If you’ve ever been physically addicted to alcohol, you know that going from 12 drinks to 2 is a big deal. If you haven’t, you are probably saying to yourself, “What the fuck is wrong with this guy?” It’s harder than you think. Spend 2 years drinking 12 or more drinks a night, then get a therapist who wants you down to 2 and you’ll see what I mean.

The night I only drank two beers still stands out as one of the most difficult nights of my life. I laid in my bed for hours, unable to sleep or shut my brain down. Within an hour or so, I started to feel a crawling sensation all over my legs and arms. I later found out this is a common symptom of alcohol withdrawals, but at the time, I thought my apartment had fleas or bed bugs.

I shot out of bed and flicked on the lights, hoping to catch the vermin in the act.

My bed was clean, and the crawling sensation had gone away. With my heart racing, I looked over at the clock. It was 1 am, and I had to be up in 5 hours. Normally, I would have started drinking around 7 or 8, and been passed out by 11, but with only two beers in me (and those being consumed hours ago), I wasn’t at all tired.

I got back in bed and closed my eyes. Everything I needed to do for the next five days flew through my mind, and every creak and slammed door in the building seemed to be right next to my head. As I lay there for 20, maybe 30 more minutes, I felt the crawling return, but I knew that jumping out of bed again wasn’t going to fix it. If anything, it would just keep me up longer and make me more aware of the imaginary vermin.

A while later I started to drift off, but the sleep was not fulfilling. For the first time in months, I dreamed. They were the most vivid, frightening, and terrible dreams I could remember. In one, my teeth were falling out by the handful. In another, I was running from something until suddenly I couldn’t bring myself to move anymore. I would briefly wake up between dreams and feel the sweat covering my back. I’d reposition and get back to sleep, only to restart the process again.

Sometime around 4 am I gave up on sleeping. I felt terrible, but after about 30 minutes of laying in bed, I felt like I had to get up and do something. I got an early start to the day, went for a run, made breakfast, and watched the early news. I didn’t feel rested, but there was a sense of accomplishment in having only had two drinks and making it through the night.

I wish I could say that night was a turning point in my recovery, but it wasn’t.

Not long after that, I stopped seeing my therapist. I felt like I was in control, and I was on a good path to drink like a normal twenty-something. This state of mostly-controlled drinking lasted for about two more months, but as soon as something distressing happened – in this case, looking for a new job – I went back to my old crutch.

You have to realize something about alcoholics. We don’t necessarily function any worse when we drink. In fact, I wrote some of my best cover letters and filled out most of my job applications while I was under the influence. Unlike people who go out drinking on the weekends and wake up unable to function for 12 hours, I thrive in a semi-drunken state. I make the best of the increase in creativity and lack of inhibitions, and use my time drinking to get things done that I would normally find laborious. It frees me to take on mind-numbing tasks like filling out online job applications or emailing old contacts or classmates.

Basically, I’m a happier, more productive person when I drink regularly.

I used to spend a lot of time wondering why I felt the need to drink when others don’t seem to have the same perpetual desire. There wasn’t a traumatic event that brought this on. I can’t blame it on a wrecked family life, alcoholic or abusive parents, or even a devastating breakup. I don’t think there is a reason that I do drink; I just have a hard time figuring out why the hell I wouldn’t drink.

That said, my habit hasn’t been a free ride.

My drinking problem has dominated my social and medical life since it started. In the beginning, I was in college, so there was always someone to get drunk with, and if I was lucky, there was a girl to hook up with at the end of the night.

The problem is that if you spend a couple years playing the odds on random sexual encounters, you will eventually get burned. In those first two years of alcoholism, I contracted one (fortunately cure-able) STI and got caught up in one pregnancy scare. In some ways, I’m thankful that neither incident had serious consequences , but I almost wonder if I would have stopped drinking had the worst happened.

Meanwhile, I have let myself go physically. Before I started drinking regularly, I completed a couple half marathons. Working out was a daily routine, and I was extremely disciplined. As my drinking increased, my desire and ability to complete strenuous exercise faded. My weight gain has been noticeable, and I can feel the difference when I walk up the stairs. It sucks to feel yourself getting out of breath halfway up a three-story flight of stairs.

Besides the sexual and cardiovascular risk, I’ve started to experience other undiagnosed medical issues. For example, there was a week or so where I vomited every morning a few minutes after I woke up. This wasn’t the hangover kind of vomiting; this was serious stomach tissue damage vomiting. Every heave was half-blood, and I’m not even going to elaborate on what later came out the other side.

I’ve also started to act like more of a sociopath.

My ex-girlfriend still texts me every few days. When I am relatively sober, I ignore it, and just go on to watch another episode of South Park, but when it’s later in the night and I’m drunk enough, I make a complete ass of myself. One time, I responded by telling her how hot her little sister was; another time, I went on a rant about her dry and unforgiving pussy. Like I said, this shit isn’t pretty, but it’s life for me. I hate reading those text messages the next day, but I know I don’t have control when I send them.

The fucking crazy thing is that none of this makes me want to stop.

Even when I’m at my happiest and most sober, I don’t have any desire to quit. I know that going back to the perpetually sober state that I once knew won’t make my life any better. I’m still going to wake up every day, go to a job that I enjoy, and meet new people. The only difference would be that I couldn’t get drunk before I passed out every night, and at this point, I just can’t see how that’s worth it.

I guess you could make the argument that drinking like this will shorten my life, and that would be valid. I know that what I do is killing me, but it’s killing me at a slow enough rate that I just don’t care. Every day without alcohol is a day I’ll have to live in agony. I’m not ready for it, and I don’t care enough to go that route just yet. TC mark

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