When people ask me why I don’t drink, the reasons I give vary from “I don’t like feeling drunk” to “I do it for my boxing” to “I did Stoptober and just kept going.” They’re all true, but not the whole truth. And the whole truth is a long story. A long story I’m not ashamed of anymore. So, if you’re interested, pull up a chair and let’s go back a few years…
After moving back home after university, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. A month later, I was referred to a psychologist and told I “presented with symptoms of Borderline Personality Disorder.” If you’re unfamiliar with BPD, symptoms include: chronic feelings of emptiness; intense, unstable relationships; impulsive, dangerous behaviours (such as substance abuse, binge eating and reckless driving); and an unclear self-image. You’re also more likely to need treating for others disorders, such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders. The cause of BPD is still unclear but research suggests it’s a combination of genetics and environmental factors, like childhood abuse or neglect.
Thanks to a nerdy personal interest in psychology and the movie Girl Interrupted, my diagnosis didn’t come as a shock. I was an eccentric and incredibly sensitive child who always felt different – and wasn’t alone in that opinion. Other kids (and even my own mum) always told me I was “weird.” I had intense relationships from a young age. At uni, two nights out ended in A&E because I’d gone a few rounds with a wall and lost. But I should point out now that, other than those two ambulance rides, I’d never had a problem with drinking. Since I went to my first house party aged 13, all the way through to my student days, I was never The Mess but more the Holder Upper, The Kebab Shop Shepherd or The Mother Hen.
For 18 months, I took my anti-depressants and went to group for dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT), which is like CBT but with more focus on mindfulness and self-acceptance. (And if you want to take the piss out of mindfulness for being part of the trendy “wellness” culture, it works better for BPD than any drug, so fuck you.) Eventually I “no longer presenting” with as many BPD symptoms, stopped going to group and went on living life.
And life was good. I moved to London, got a job in journalism and had a great social life. Then, without warning, my solid friendship with booze fell on its arse. Drunk Ally, who had always been a fun, good-time girl, would suddenly get a darker look in her eyes. She’d totally shut down, wouldn’t listen to anybody and would sneak off to a quiet spot and self-harm. I didn’t recognise this person. The hangovers were also worse; not physically, but I’d feel incredibly sad and ashamed.
But alcohol tolerance changes all the time, right? Especially after uni, where you’re used to drinking every day? But this wasn’t that. This was excessive drinking, simple as. Every time I knocked back a drink, I’d be straight up for another and, thanks to a strong stomach, I never needed to stop. As for the consequences…
“You really weren’t that bad last night, Ally. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
Well... alrighty then.
When I first told people I was going teetotal, most were surprised and thought it was extreme, because I wasn’t a “liability” when I drank and nothing “that bad” ever went down. But I’m a firm believer that you don’t need to be hospitalised to take your mental health seriously, or for anybody else to. If you think you might be depressed, but don’t deserve help because “I haven’t tried to kill myself”, stop it now. Don’t compare yourself to others. Be kind to yourself. When I drank too much, I self-harmed and didn’t tell anyone. And I figured, because I wasn’t hurting anyone but myself, everything was fine, right? Looking back, I was my own worst enemy.
After a particularly messy night in September 2015, I decided to try Stopober. And what a revelation! I felt great. Being a confident person, I didn’t feel awkward or anxious without booze. I sank Virgin Dark & Stormies and woke up with nothing but sore feet from dancing. No hangover, bloodied knuckles or cuts. No sinking feelings of fear, shame or dread. No apology texts. I missed having an excuse to eat pizza at 4am but thought, yeah, I could get used to this…
Not only did Drunk Ally get a few more outings before 2015 was done, she also started testing a theory that maybe her choice of substance was the problem, not her. Yeah, things were starting to get really dangerous. My last drink was some time in the early hours of New Year’s Day. I was a wild nuisance and woke up that afternoon feeling more sad and pointless than ever. I’d had enough. Feeling this low for the sake of a little buzz just wasn’t worth it anymore. I’d done Stoptober. I survived a hen do without a drop of booze, for goodness sake. I could do anything! And so I decided, as many of us do on January 1st, that I’d never drink again. That was over a year ago. And get your sickbags out, guys, because it’s one of the best and easiest things I’ve ever done.
Mental health isn’t black and white. I made a mistake thinking I was “cured” after therapy. The symptoms of BPD will always be there because this is who I am. And I’m OK with that now.
Since stopping drinking, my mental and physical health are the best they’ve ever been. I spent a lot of 2016 (ironic that that’s my best year to-date) having words with myself and finding out what my triggers are. I realised that those “impulsive, dangerous behaviours” happen when I feel empty because there’s no emotion, no natural instinct shouting, “Hey, Ally, put down that glass/fist/knife, this is probably a terrible idea!”
You can’t always control how you feel. Some days you just feel shit. But if you can identify your triggers, you can start to turn things around. I now know that if I work too long or too hard, I turn into a robot. Lesson? Take a lunch break, Ally. Nobody’s going to thank you for that overtime.
Also, I often hear people worry that stopping drinking will make them boring. Give. A. Shit. If this is you, maybe you should try a dry month to work on getting a better opinion of yourself. Being teetotal in no way makes you “better” than other people, but it definitely makes you more comfortable in your own skin. There’s something really liberating about acting like a silly bugger with nobody able to say “Oh, she’s just doing that because she’s hammered.” If I dance on a table or text someone I probably shouldn’t at 2am, it’s because I want to. I now live a life with absolutely no regrets.
So is this teetotal thing forever-ever? Yeah, probably. I just don’t miss it at all. And I’m not saying all this to try and convert anyone. Do what ya like, mate. My dad loves a bottle of red, doesn’t get drunk or hungover, and apparently has the cholesterol of a 25-year-old. Why should he stop? But if one person reads this and takes comfort, decides to get help or makes a positive change, then that’s something I can raise a cuppa to.