I wanted to touch on something a little more serious this week. Coming up to Christmas when everyone is likely to drink the most of course being the perfect time!
I wanted to talk about alcohol abuse in general and how addiction to alcohol can creep up and take a hold leaving you thinking “fuck, where did that come from?!”.
I also want to mention about alcohol abuse being higher within the LGBT Community and touch on why it might be higher, possibly opening up discussion about whether it could or can change.
I work in a bar, so I see it happening every day. But I also know it first hand, because it happened to me.
In May 2012, something changed very drastically where an evening at work came to the point of me almost passing out.
After speaking with doctors over the next few days or so, my fear was confirmed; My body had gone into alcohol withdrawal. I was alcohol dependant. I had just turned 29.
This wasn’t a deliberate thing. I had always been a regular social drinker, but my lifestyle and social circle, accompanied by a break up and losing my home, meant my drinking became heavier and on a daily basis.
And when you no longer experience hangovers (because of your tolerance), you don’t think about the damage it’s doing that you can’t see.
But what happened from that night I can only describe as possibly the worst 12-18 months of my life.
The first thing I was told was to NOT under any circumstances stop drinking. This can put you at risk of hallucinations, seizures, even death. I was drinking approximately 150-180 units per week. If you’re unsure what that looks like, it’s between 65 – 80 pints of lager. Per week.
At the initial point of withdrawal I was just under 9 stone in weight. My average weight a few months prior to this and what I am again now is 10.5 stone. My skin looked almost grey.
They say the physical withdrawal symptoms from alcohol are worse and more dangerous than those of heroin, and they’re probably correct. My symptoms in all honesty were probably relatively mild compared to some. Here are those I did experience:
I would feel as though I was walking on air. I had jelly legs. I would feel faint and lightheaded constantly, like I could pass out at any moment.
I was uncoordinated. I would drop things and bump into things.
I would shake. I would sweat. I’d have hot and cold flashes.
I became extra sensitive to loud noises and more easily startled.
I couldn’t eat proper meals because they just took so much effort to chew, made me feel nauseous, in the first couple of months I struggled just to eat a bowl of cereal.
When I woke up of a morning I would be unable to focus my eyes properly for a good 30 minutes. Quite a scary feeling for someone who has always had pretty much 100% vision.
Sleep. Alcohol can cause damage to the brain in various ways. My whole life I had been the lightest sleeper. Since I became dependant, I would sleep for 9, 10, 11 hours solid. A hurricane wouldn’t wake me. Yet I still feel the need for taking afternoon naps, and never feel refreshed or like I’ve had a decent nights sleep, and am constantly exhausted. Something I still suffer with.
During my worst point of dependency, I also experienced sleep walking, which can obviously be very dangerous in itself. Touch wood, I don’t think I’ve been for a midnight stroll for a while!
In some respects, I am glad alcohol withdrawal happened to me and at the age that it did. Don’t get me wrong, clearly for it to never happen would be much preferred! But I would hate to have kept going the way I was for it to happen twenty years further down the line, when I would be a lot more likely to have done more damage to my body and probably find it a lot more difficult to come off of it.
Of course, if you’re unaware of what it is to be alcohol dependant or alcoholic (and I do see these as two very different things), you won’t know that there isn’t a magic pill, there isn’t anything you can do or take to make these symptoms of withdrawal any less uncomfortable, apart from, having an alcoholic drink. Yes. That is your medicine. The very thing that makes you bad is unfortunately the only thing that makes you better.
And trust me, when you’re opening a can of lager at 11am to help relieve your symptoms, it really does feel like medicine. To the point it makes you gag. It’s vile.
I genuinely don’t remember much of the following 12 months. It is very much a blur. I can remember bits, and I can remember people, but I couldn’t tell you much of what happened in that year. I didn’t have a life. I just had a routine.
Unfortunately alcohol dependency also caused me to suffer severe anxiety, something very common in people withdrawing from alcohol. It also caused the whole alcohol withdrawal process to take a lot longer to recover from, as the symptoms of withdrawal and anxiety can be very similar, therefore making you unsure which you’re actually experiencing.
Although I am pleased to say I am no longer alcohol dependant, I still suffer with anxiety. I’m not sure it is something that will ever fully leave me now, and it makes sometimes the simplest things a challenge; I don’t like crowds, I don’t like queues, I don’t like public transport, I don’t like busy restaurants; all of those things or tasks that used to be so simple, so normal, now bring back those feelings of light headedness, over-heating, generally feeling weak and short of breath. But, it’s one of those battles I work at each day.
Throughout the whole experience, barr three or four days, I still got myself to work every day and pushed myself through each shift and each difficult situation.
They call it ‘Fight or Flight’. And you have to fight.
Now after all that, I don’t want to sound like a bore! I’ve not in any way become part of the anti-alcohol brigade. I still enjoy a drink. Hell, I’m only 31! Yes, I am a lot more careful than I used to be, and yes, sometimes, it is inevitable that we will and can all “fall off the wagon”, but I won’t be beating myself up over it.
I know my limits now. I am very careful with my intake of alcohol and I count every unit.
When you work in a bar and your social life and friends revolve around bars, it takes a lot of strength to give yourself those limits and make yourself stop when everyone else is carrying on; not because the alcohol is tempting you, more just because you don’t want to leave the party. And I guess it joins in to this:
Research done by Birmingham LGBT and HGL showed that between 2002-2008, half of gay men and a third of gay women drank more than the recommended daily allowance.
It showed that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people are twice as likely than the heterosexual population to become alcohol dependant.
Why? I don’t know what the answer is. What I do see is our lifestyles from an early age (I came out at 16), revolve around bar life and drinking.
It’s where we meet other gay people. It’s where we search for a partner. It’s where we find ourselves being comfortable and part of a community.
It’s where we take advantage of the £1.50 Monday night drinks. Cheap student night Thursdays. Then of course we have Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
To the younger community, it’s a whole new world of fun, cabaret, karaoke and bright flashing lights. It can be addictive.
Because it becomes habit and because it becomes the norm, it’s a very difficult cycle to break out from, especially when all your friends are doing the same.
And one the biggest things I guess is that while our “straight” friends are moving on, getting married and having families, we are obviously still a lot further behind from this becoming our ‘norm’. So our lifestyles stay the same and can do for years and years.
I wanted to tell my story about alcohol addiction in the simplest way to help people understand just how easily it can happen to anyone. I want to be able to make someone, anyone, if just that one person take a step back and look at their drinking habits and take note. Going through alcohol withdrawal was one of the most horrific experiences of my life, to the point some days I’d have preferred not to be here at all, I felt that poorly.
In a way I was quite worried about putting this out in the public domain for everyone to see. Knowing I cannot take it back. I guess for fear of being judged or having people’s opinions of me change. It’s quite frightening knowing somebody is reading this and possibly judging me right now.
But strangely, since I have started being more comfortable in speaking about it, less ashamed and less embarrassed, I have discovered many other people, friends also, who have had issues with alcohol at some point in their lives, which in an odd way is quite comforting. So I guess I’m speaking for them also.
If it’s something you’re worried about, or something that is affecting you now, speak to someone. Discuss it with a doctor, someone, anyone, and make sure you get the support that is available.