I have recently made the decision to give up alcohol for the sake of my mental health. I’ve been keeping a mood diary and I’ve noticed that every time I drink, even in very moderate quantities, I spend the next few days feeling down and agonising about stupid things that I can’t change and that don’t matter. I want to take my mental health in hand and make positive, self-caring changes. I’m writing about this because I reason that if I make it public, I’ll have to stick to it. Also, I hope that sharing my experiences will be useful for anyone grappling with similar issues, but doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it.
I’ve been kidding myself for a long time that alcohol doesn’t effect me negatively and I’ve been resistant to making the change because I love a drink. I’ve made friends while drinking and had a lot of brilliant, hilarious nights out, although I can’t remember all of them. Despite the fun I’ve had, my relationship with alcohol has never been healthy. So, with regret, I have to say goodbye to booze. It’s a difficult decision as much of my identity has been tied up with drinking, in one form or another. I used to be a party-girl who danced to Lady Gaga with uncoordinated joy, before staggering to the bar to get a round in. Although that girl was drinking to soothe her undiagnosed Bipolar disorder, I miss her. She was a great laugh. But she often made terrible decisions and the heavy drinking exacerbated the depression and mania, which resulted in yet more drinking.
Since having my son, my alcohol consumption has been more restrained. There’s nothing like caring for an infant while hung over to make one feel like a failure. Nonetheless, having a drink after a day of trying to balance child care and work was a delight. Wine was my go-to beverage; when I was struggling the numbing warmth of red wine soothed my anxiety and depression. The gentle pop as the cork was pulled from the bottle and the first glugs as it flowed into the glass would make my mouth water. The anticipation of the taste of red was one thing, but as the pacifying vapours hit my mouth, my shoulders relaxed, my jaw unclenched and my heart slowed its thumping. White wine had a similar effect, but red was always my preferred choice when stressed or down. At 6 o’clock on the dot I’d twist the corkscrew and gulp back the first sips, eager for the relief. Then I’d slow down and enjoy a glass or three over the course of an evening. I would usually share a bottle with my husband or a friend, mostly at the weekend. But sometimes my drinking would encroach on a week night, if I was feeling particularly frazzled. It was something I needed and looked forward to all day. It’s commonly known that alcohol is a depressant, and yet I still drank regularly. Wine would make me feel that my worst anxieties were unfounded and things might just turn out ok. Of course, this feeling never lasted and was always replaced with something worse. There are lots of mums who wind down with a drink at the end of the day and there’s nothing wrong with that. But if you’re dealing with Bipolar or another mental illness, booze is not always helpful, in the long run.
My relationship with red wine was one of cuddly toxicity, I had different feelings towards other, more celebratory alcohol. Champagne and prosecco was reserved for parties, weddings, and work events where the caterers would roam the room with bottles in hand, re-filling the glasses. I was quite lackadaisical about top-ups and one champagne could easily turn into 5, which was most of the time. Over the years, I became skilled at putting on a respectable, sober facade and the casual observer wouldn’t know I was hammered. Then there were the harder drinks like gin and tonics and potent cocktails, knocked back late at night in the bars of Soho and East London. I had a lot of fun but, occasionally, I would put myself in danger. This was during my 20s when I was having a difficulty managing my mental health, before my diagnosis. My hedonism could quite easily slide into indifference. I wasn’t necessarily suicidal but I also didn’t care if something bad happened to me.
There was always something unhealthy about my drinking; something compulsive and needy and dark. The potential of developing full blown alcoholism was never far away. I have an addictive personality combined with more than one mental illness, it makes sense that I would self-medicate with alcohol. I’m sure there are people who don’t have Bipolar who consume alcohol in the exact same way I did, without it seriously effecting their wellbeing. Quitting is the right choice for me but it’s like saying goodbye to an old friend; a toxic and destructive friend, but a friend nonetheless. Not only am I letting go of who I used to be, but I’m looking into a long future without my faithful buddy red to mollify me on the sofa. Or my bubbly mate who celebrated all the significant occasions. And my favourite good-time-girl gin, who came dancing on the wildest of nights. I’ll miss them all.
Our culture is so bound up in alcohol that it’s scary to imagine a future without being able to celebrate or commiserate with a drink. I fear that will curtail my ability to participate in social events. But as time creeps on, I’m finding that it’s not quite so worrying. Part of the problem with Bipolar is not being in control of one’s moods. I can feel suicidal one day and elated the next with no significant change in circumstances. After a few months of not great mental health, I’m determined to be well. Taking responsibility for my equilibrium by cutting out a destabilising depressant, feels empowering. There are plenty of people who drink in the same way I did without a problem. I’m rather jealous of those people and I wish I could still do it. But I guess part of being an adult is accepting the undeniable circumstances of one’s life and dealing with it accordingly. For me, that means sobriety.
If you feel that you might have a problem with alcohol or your worried about someone, you can get support and advice from Drink Aware via their website or their free helpline on 0300 12 1110. You can also get help by attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, you can find out everything you need to know here. They also have a helpline, 0800 9177 650.