Things You Only Know If You Went To Rehab In Your 20s
The Debrief: ‘Addiction is a progressive illness. So the more you drink, the more you can tolerate.'
Our relationship with alcohol in Britain is a complicated one. It logically follows that, because of this, attitudes towards addiction, specifically, alcoholism, are equally complex: we’re reluctant to think of addiction as an illness, often we see people who suffer (still, today) as weak somehow, we turn drinking too much or partying too hard into a mark of being fun, into a sign that you have some kind of desirable stamina.
None of this is helped by the fact that our culture, particularly on the silver screen, glamourises addiction. The rather tired and hackneyed trope of the fictional manic pixie dream girl is still rolled out all to often and is just one example of the glamourisation of women with addiction issues.
It’s a well-known pop culture cliché but it’s ubiquity does have real world implications and not only when female celebrities with addiction issues go into rehab and, in the most tragic cases like Amy Winehouse's, die very publicly and very young. The thing is it’s never a cut and dry case of art imitating life or life imitating art, the two bleed into one another. Drug problems and alcohol problems fall into a category which, for some reason, we find difficult to define – we, as a culture, don’t seem to understand that addiction is an illness not just a case of never wanting the party to end.
The reality of having addiction in your 20s, of being an alcoholic, of going to rehab, however, is anything but glamorous. Kate* tells me she started drinking alcoholically at university, she wasn’t really much of a drink before that. By 29, she was in rehab.
‘I didn’t drink excessively when I was a teenager I was studious and responsible, I enjoyed going out with my friends. Occasionally I did overdo it at parties like any normal teenager would. But during those years I developed bulimia. When I was at university I decided to do my best to overcome that and that’s when I discovered alcohol…it felt sophisticated, we’d stay up late at night drinking. Alcohol also provided a welcome distraction for me, I would drink instead of bingeing on food. But I didn’t realise what a dangerous substitute it was.’
‘After university I landed my dream job in the charity sector. I never quite shook off the bulimia and when I was in my mid-late 20s I started a new job in London, I went through a lot of changes. By this point I was in a long term relationship and my partner was a heavy drinker but not alcoholic. We had an unhealthy, problematic lifestyle – but also I wasn’t honest with him about my problems with food – and this stress meant I turned to drinking, alcohol was my friend, getting me through difficult situations, I was desperate to conceal my illness and make it look like I was coping.’
‘Addiction is a progressive illness. So the more you drink, the more you can tolerate. And the harder it is to cut down. I tried to cut down in 2010 and was so stressed by food – there was no way I could stop drinking without getting to the core of my problems with eating.’
‘My dependence on alcohol got really bad – I lost a lot of weight – my boyfriend became concerned – I was using alcohol to stay numb and avoid how increasingly unmanageable my life had become.’
‘I got to a breaking point and couldn’t manage my life anymore – it was obvious to everyone else that I wasn’t coping. I went to see my GP about my dependency and was advised that because of the amount I was drinking it wouldn’t be safe to just stop, that I should cut down.’
‘I tried to manage my drinking by cutting down but spectacularly failed. It wasn’t something I was able to do. My brother suggested that I went to an AA meeting but I was still worried about giving up alcohol completely – I needed it to soothe me and comfort me because of my relationship with food. The idea of never drinking again with food, with my family and friends…it was too much.’
‘But what I saw at AA was that people from all different backgrounds, who were at different places on the scale of addiction had recovered. That’s a key message in AA that took a long time to accept – that I would never be able to touch alcohol again – I thought once I was physically off the drink I'd be able to drink in moderation, but that’s just not how it works.’
‘Addiction is a psychological illness, and some would say a spiritual one as well. I finally learned this when I went into a special detox unit. I was supported with medication and other treatments to come off alcohol.’
‘During the first two days of the detox I had to stay in my room on observation, with a nurse checking on me every hour. I couldn’t eat because I was vomiting so much. I was on Librium to stop the most extreme symptoms of withdrawal but they give it to you for controlled periods of time to come off alcohol. You need to take it if you’re physically dependent on alcohol so I had a very high dose of that which was tapered off over the course of a week. I was just alone in my room, recuperating and vomiting. I couldn’t sleep because I was in pain. My muscles were spasming constantly – but to be honest I barely remember the details because I was so exhausted.’
‘I’m a year sober now. I am 100% clear that I don’t have any kind of life if I drink again, so I’m really happy to have realised that I’m an alcoholic and what the nature of that illness is and I know that ill never find a solution to my problems with alcohol and that’s fine I accept it now – I still go to AA meetings and work with a sponsor on that kind of stuff.’
‘In rehab there were people from the ages of 19 to men in their 70s and women too – a real mix of very different backgrounds – people from broken homes, homelessness, some people were parents…I went into a community rehab programme after the initial detox, there was a real mix of people there too.’
‘There was a girl who I was really close to – she was my age and had a PHD and was a human rights barrister, but she was in the grips of addiction, she kept relapsing, it was tragic, she didn’t make it to the end of the programme.’
‘Sometimes the way I presented – my accent and my age and the fact that I’m quite mild mannered did surprise some of the volunteers – they would be like ‘do you work here?’. I’d say ‘ no I’m in treatment’, they sometimes seemed surprised, because I think possibly they expected the people who ended up in detox treatment to be a lot different to me.’
‘I look back now, at pictures of myself…my face was like a full moon – that’s what happens with chronic alcoholism – you get a really puffy face – I look at pictures and think I looked pretty terrible.’
‘But it was only when I realised that alcohol was going to kill me that I could tackle my problem head on. For anyone who’s an addict, they have a reason for using the way that they do and that reason is just so strong and powerful and in some ways it makes sense to that person – I let my eating disorder prevent me from taking the steps that I needed to in order to stop drinking. But, by the same token, I needed to stop drinking before I could tackle anything else in my life.’
‘By the latter stages of my drinking I had severe withdrawal symptoms if I went just 6 hours without drinking – that’s where I got to – I would shake and vomit if I didn’t drink and at least three times I had a seizure where I blacked out, I didn’t break anything or get concussion, thankfully, which is a miracle, but I seriously bruised and injured myself and was taken to A&E. It happened in an airport and it happened on a bus, physically I needed medical attention and it was very dangerous for me to go without alcohol. That’s how far things had gone.’
‘Its not easy for anyone who’s trying to give something up to face their problems but once you jump over the first hurdle of thinking you’ll be able to do it you realise that you can.’
‘What I’ve discovered is that for myself and I think for a lot of addicts - we tend to look for answers in the wrong places for a question that anyone can relate to: a search for and a need for belonging, a community, genuine relationships, peace of mind, an ease with themselves and we all have that. We all look for that in life – but I think what I did was I found that in alcohol – and you realise that what happens is that you’re consumed very quickly because of the addictive nature of that substance, but a year on I know I’ve got to the point where I can say I’m looking for something else – not alcohol – it might be that I’m tired, lonely stressed or miss my mum.’
**names have been changed
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