So The Huffington Post published my take on Alastair Campbell’s Monday night BBC Panorama Britain’s Hidden Alcoholics today: From Alcoholism to Food Addiction: It’s All About the Feelings. And as usually happens after I publish a piece, on my blog or elsewhere, I have lots of thoughts and feelings about what I wrote and what I didn’t write. As Alastair Campbell likely discovered in making his alcoholism documentary, you can’t say everything you want to say in half an hour. Similarly, I couldn’t say everything I wanted to say in that 800-word post. But what I left out has definitely got me thinking.
Ironically, what’s on my mind is my omission of my own flirtation with alcoholism. I never think to write about the unhealthy relationship I had with booze for almost two decades because the eating, food and body obsession came first – several years before I walked into a public house for the first time – and continued long after I decided, in my early 30s, that alcohol wasn’t doing me any favours. But looking back, I began binge drinking at 14 and didn’t stop until I was about 33.
Over those years, I used alcohol to give me the confidence and self-esteem I thought I lacked and I abused it in the name of “fun” – although I’m not sure where I got the idea that throwing up most mornings after a big night out was a sign of having a good time. There’s a great piece on the Huffington Post about what alcohol does or doesn’t do for us in social situations.
Looking back at my drinking history, it’s not a pretty picture. Yes, I was a party girl and loved to go out, drink and dance but I’d often spend the following day dashing for a toilet in a restaurant to vomit or finding a street corner where I could be sick (yes, really – as I said, not a pretty picture). Fuelled by alcohol, I took many risks and got into countless scrapes. I fell off tables when dancing, went home with dubious men and, blind drunk, hailed taxi cabs off the streets of Mexico City in the early hours of the morning, only to find a few minutes later I was being robbed at gunpoint (yes, really). But just as with the food, I never realised my drinking or any of the above behaviours were self-destructive.
That fact only dawned on me after I came to terms with my eating disorder. Yes, I was a massive binge drinker but I didn’t turn to alcohol to cope with stress at work or when faced with a crisis or strong emotions – food was my first port of call and always had been. But I guess this is what I wanted to say about addiction in that Huffington Post piece – that more often than not it is multi-layered. For me, the alcohol was on top, the food was a little deeper, the workaholism and drive to achieve were always there, on the edges. But the root of my problem went right to my core: to a sense I had from a very young age that I wasn’t good enough and all the sadness and fear that went along with that.
As I began recovering from my eating disorder some nine years ago, I decided to put down drink. It didn’t take me long to work out that alcohol wasn’t going to help me in my bid to recover from food addiction. A hangover would lead me to binge eat, drunkenness would lead me into behaviours of which I’d later feel ashamed and that shame would drive me back to the food. But I do remember when it became very clear to me that my relationship with alcohol wasn’t as it should be: I’d been out for happy-hour champagne after work, followed by a few vodka and tonics – all on an empty stomach – followed by a bottle of red wine over dinner at midnight. I made it home OK but got up in the middle of the night and fell over/collapsed (probably the latter) in the bathroom. I lived alone and remember thinking I was lucky not to have hit my head. Then the next day I threw up a few times. Yep, something was wrong.
I decided to knock the alcohol on the head but it wasn’t easy. I was still a party girl at heart and my social circles revolved around booze – plus I worked as a journalist in parliament, where relationships were formed and stories shared over drinks in the bar or boozy lunches. I felt like I didn’t fit in. But I slowly learned to feel confident enough in myself to be able to socialise with drinkers without feeling the need to drink. And my real friends, of course, accepted me for who I was, even if I didn’t want to share a glass of wine with them. As the saying goes, those that mind don’t matter and those that matter don’t mind.
I don’t drink much today but I haven’t sworn off the stuff. After years of largely abstaining, I don’t have much of a taste for it anymore and my head feels fuzzy after half a glass. I’ve also found that drink emboldens me to do things I wouldn’t do if sober – I realise for many people that’s the whole point but for me, life is much simpler and more enjoyable in the long run if I make my choices with a clear head. Every now and then, though, I have a little wine or a glass of Baileys with ice – but like Alastair Campbell mentioned, I’m not entirely comfortable with it and often, for me, it’s easier to stay away entirely.
Am I an alcoholic? Maybe, maybe not, but perhaps – not to belittle the seriousness of alcoholism as I know how much pain it causes – it’s a question of semantics, for me at least. I still think that the substance we choose to embolden us, boost our self-esteem or fill the emotional and spiritual hole inside us is irrelevant. Yes, I do believe that genetically, some people are more vulnerable to addiction while some of us are brought up around addictive behaviours that we inevitably copy. And if you grow up in a binge drinking culture, it’s not surprising you become a binge drinker. If drugs were more accessible and socially acceptable, maybe Britain would have a bigger drug culture than it already does.
My intention isn’t to downplay the seriousness and fatal nature of any addiction but my point is if we’re trying to fill a hole, we’ll keep trying to fill it with something until we realise no amount of any substance will ever be enough. I began with food, piled alcohol on top and put achievement and male attention-seeking on top of that.
So today, if I’m tempted to eat compulsively, booze to blot out my feelings, overwork or seek validation and affirmation from bosses or men, I try to stop myself and ask what’s really going on deep down inside.
Generally, I’m looking for love, security and attention. And I can learn to give those things to myself. One day at a time.