I woke up with a killer hangover on either May 31 or June 1; the details are a bit hazy so I looked back at my calendar to see if I could figure it out. Was there a big virtual event I attended where everyone was drinking? Surely there had to be some reason that I woke up hungover. Well, the 30th was my friend’s virtual birthday party which would not have centered around drinking and the 31st was a family zoom call.
And yet. I woke up hungover. For the millionth time. Headache, diarrhea, nausea, exhaustion. My body was talking to me and I wasn’t listening. My body has been trying to have important conversations with me that I’ve denied and ignored over and over. Let’s chat about gender. No! Let’s chat about sexuality. No! Let’s chat about Hormone Replacement Therapy. No! Let’s chat about your drinking problem. No! Instead of building up my muscles of self-reflection and healing, I became a champion of pushing things down and ignoring them. It was a pattern of realizing I needed to face something, denying it, then coping with alcohol. And that manifested into a nasty drinking problem.
I’d been tossing around the idea in my mind for a while that I might actually have a problem but it was so much easier to pretend it didn’t exist. Ignorance is bliss. Except I wasn’t ignorant; I knew it was there and was actively ignoring it. And it certainly wasn’t bliss; I was miserable. Upon the first sips of any alcoholic drink I consumed, I got a headache and then immediately needed to use the bathroom. If I could help it, I’d pre-game with pain relievers and antidiarrheal meds to get ahead of the poison I was consuming. I much prefered the buzz/escape to caring about the literal warning signs my body was shouting at me. I’m surprised my liver didn’t just up and leave years ago. The hangovers of the first 15 years of my drinking were not the movie-montage hangovers which consisted of “Roll out of bed, get some coffee and food, and grumpily and begrudgingly begin my day” hangovers. No. My hangovers typically included SPLITTING headaches, throwing up in my trashcan or toilet (really just depended on urgency or energy) and being out of commission for hours and hours. After Top Surgery in 2016 and feeling the most settled in myself I’d ever felt, my drinking leveled out and my hangovers mostly resembled the dream movie scenario I mentioned instead. Every time I woke up hungover, I’d beat myself up. “You’re so fucking stupid, why’d you do that?” “What the fuck is wrong with you?” “What an idiot, I’m never going to do this again.” I started to believe that narrative about myself and then the next night I’d do it again. And I’d break promise after promise. And that gave me another excuse to hate myself and to drink.
In March of this year, I nodded to the idea of my drinking problem by purchasing a book called “The Easy Way to Control Alcohol” but I just stared at it on my pile of books. If I opened it, it’d be admitting that my problem was real and I wasn’t ready for that. This was a global pandemic after all and I needed my crutch. I relied on alcohol as my release. My relief. My escape from the pain and the fear I was carrying around that had everything to do with gender and not feeling like I could be myself without the help of alcohol. I used alcohol to numb pain outside of gender issues, too. Anytime I’d had a hard day (which is often), I’d drink. I’d grown up with alcohol and it’d become my best friend. I didn’t know how to act or be in social situations without it. Would I still be able to function on dates? To this day, I’ve only had ONE sober first kiss. ONE. I shiver and get nauseous every time I think about that. I’m tempted to tell myself how pathetic I am but I know I was doing the best I could because I was scared beyond belief to come to terms with certain parts of my identity and I was coping the best way I knew how. I was truly in survival mode. And that kiss though, that kiss was the best first kiss I’ve ever had because I was present and I felt ALIVE. Now that is the kind of high I wouldn’t mind chasing for the rest of my life.
I think one of the excuses I kept telling myself over and over in helping me deny my actual problem was that I didn’t drink at work. Or, I could stop whenever I wanted. Or that I only drank socially and never alone….except when I did. And as we got deeper into the pandemic, I noticed the social drinking I did with my roommate turned more frequent, heavy, and eventually transitioned to me drinking alone in my room and I found myself on a slippery slope. This feeling felt familiar.
During pandemic living, the possibility of starting Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) kept re-emerging for me. For as long as I can remember, I had undeniable denial of wanting to start HRT. That specific change felt too big and too scary to even entertain the thought in my mind let alone face it head on. So instead of letting myself think about it, I drowned those thoughts in alcohol. A muscle I have built over the years is learning to trust myself, my own process, and timeline. Only I know what’s best for me and only I know what feels right in my heart, body, mind, and soul. It takes practice to tune out all of the noise and pressure that surrounds my every move. I trusted that when I was ready to face it, I would.
So, through a perfect storm of the aforementioned trust muscle, therapy, reading Brené Brown and internalizing her book, “Daring Greatly”, the impacts of shame and vulnerability, and learning from Glennon Doyle that ‘We Can Do Hard Things,’ when I woke up on May 31 or June 1 hungover as fuck, it all kind of just hit me. Right then and there I decided that that was it. I was done waking up feeling like this; I just couldn’t do it anymore. This wasn’t the traditional rock bottom most people think about but honestly, I’d done some pretty dumb and dangerous shit over the last 20 years that definitely could have (should have) qualified for rock bottom.
In 2008, my friend and I were leaving a club called Berlin in Chicago and some older guy (I’m talking like...at least 25 years older than us) was literally like “Get in my van, let’s party”, and we did. I then invited him back to my apartment and as the night became morning and we started to sober up, it dawned on me what was happening and I freaked out and made him leave immediately.
Or the time (actually many times) I wasn’t positive if I’d had sex or not so I took Plan B just in case. Or when I lost my virginity on the top bunk at an AEPi frat house. Or when I sat in a puddle yelling at police officers to leave me alone. Or the literal hundreds of nights when I blacked out and woke up deathly ill the next morning. Any of those moments could have been when I decided to turn things around. Nevertheless, I persisted.
At first I was going to just take June off and see if I could keep this promise for myself. Now, six months in without a drop of alcohol, I’ve had a lot of sober time to truly reflect on the depth and magnitude of my relationship to drinking. I knew it was bad and I can see now just how bad it really was. And honestly it’s really hard to know that that’s my truth; but it is. And I like to pretend that people around me didn’t notice. But there’s no way they didn’t. Had I kept it a secret that well? Was I that functional whilst wasted? Did people notice but not say anything? Did people think of me as “the drunk friend”? Did people think I was a mess? All of the above? I was always so embarrassed for forgetting huge swaths of my night. And those swaths, when added together, equal large parts of my life that were gone. Wasted. Literally. But even feeling that embarrassment never catapulted me into stopping my behavior. I was in a toxic cycle I wasn’t ready or willing to escape from.
There have been quite a few moments since I’ve stopped drinking where I’ve had to check to make sure I’m not drunk because my body was so used to being drunk at certain points in the day/week. I continue to have nightmares where I’d accidentally drink and get drunk and I’d feel SO disappointed in myself and I’d have to wake myself up to make sure it was only a dream. Sometimes I wake up fully expecting to be hungover and then am somehow surprised that I’m not. I am navigating a new existence.
I haven’t really had the opportunity to see what it feels like to go to happy hours after work or go to parties with friends and not drink because of quarantining and social distancing. I haven’t spent the afternoon at the bar with friends or gone to a sporting event or a family gathering or really anywhere where I’d normally drink. When I think about what it will feel like once we’re all able to be together again safely, I get really nervous. I know it will be really hard. I know I will be tempted. I will feel awkward. Will my friends still think I’m funny? In the few times I’ve had the opportunity to drink socially or had super hard days/weeks, I’ve been tempted. But I’ve also noticed those temptations fade pretty quickly for me and I’ve used these few and far between opportunities to test the waters and to practice being social without alcohol and I’ve survived. And I think, I think my friends still think I’m funny...the jury's still out.
I miss alcohol. Couldn’t I just reset my relationship with it and see what that’d be like? But would one or two casual drinks lead to more and then I’ll be back to square one? And more often than not I think “what’s the point of having just one if I’m not gonna feel a buzz?” and that to me is a sign that I’m not ready to start casually drinking again.
Maybe at some point I can have one and be fine with it but until then, I need to keep working on proving to myself that I’m enough without alcohol. That I’m funny without alcohol. That I can do hard things without alcohol. And maybe I’ll get to a point where I won’t miss it anymore and won’t think about it. Honestly, that seems unlikely. Or maybe I’ll realize that I won’t need ‘just one’ and continue on not drinking. That’s the beauty of this journey and learning to trust myself; I can feel it out and will know what’s right for me. And if it turns out it was the wrong choice, I can learn from it, adjust and move on. I’m proud of myself for going six months without alcohol. I truly never thought that it was possible and look at me now! Not only do I feel physically healthier, my mind is more clear and most importantly, I’ve shown me that I can trust myself and count on myself to do what’s right for me. And that has been the greatest gift of all.