On Relationships and My Relationship to Alcohol
I was never much of a drinker. My brief high school flirtation with alcohol was as successful as my high school flirtations with boys i.e. not very. My first drink, vodka cluelessly sipped straight from the bottle, led to a night of firsts: first kiss, first sex, first time blind drunk stumbling home with vomit in my hair and sand in my knickers. I was happy to have finally locked lips with somebody (at seventeen, my failure to do so had been quite embarrassing), and I was unfazed at having lost my virginity, though it would have been nice to remember it more clearly, if at all. It was the sense that I had no control over my actions and my body that made me steer clear of booze. I didn’t want to give my agency over to a substance, so I gave it over to a man instead.
My ex was a very worldly, precocious, and charming twenty-six-year old. I was a particularly young twenty, fresh from the country, with a sexual history that extended little further than that foggy encounter at a high school beach party. The relationship that was always marked by a significant imbalance of experience and power quickly became abusive. Everyone around me knew it. The old friends for whom I’d made the move to Melbourne tried to help me, but they were soon eradicated, cut out for being “shit and stupid. Why do you surround yourself with people like that, Jessie?”. By the time my twenty-fourth birthday came around, by the time I was finally free of him, I was a ghost of the optimistic and open girl I had once been. Isolated, confused, and full of self-loathing, I went to find, or perhaps destroy, myself at my local bar.
Drinking was my ticket to reconnection with others and disconnection from myself. When I was intoxicated, I was likeable. I made people laugh, though they were all so out of it that they probably would have laughed at anything. Having felt so anxious in my closest relationship and so scared in my home, I adopted the bar as a sort of safe space in which Ghost Girl was left at the door. Over a Negroni or five, I shone as Jess: fresh, wild, talkative, and fun. Drinking gave me the confidence to exist, to take up the space that I had been coerced out of. It dulled my pain and my self-hatred, at least temporarily, opening me up to me up to sexual exploits and friendships that I hadn’t believed could be mine; drinking seemed to open up my world.
My twenty-fifth year was marked by the unprecedented number of new friends I made, as well as the many, many, too many drinks we shared. Through loud, cocktail-fuelled conversations, I came to see my ex’s behaviour for what it really was: abuse. With this revelation came another: our oppressive relationship had prevented me from experiencing all the fun and growth that one should have in their early twenties. I carried this line of reasoning wherever the night took me, throwing myself into social and sexual situations with uncharacteristic gusto. Apparently fewer tears = more energy, an equation I took in my stride on the endless nights out of 2018; I barely slept that year, brimming with energy and excitement after feeling exhausted for so long.
I loved the anecdotes written on a night out. There was the time I picked up a Danish backpacker on the tram and, convinced that he was the exchange student we’d hosted back in high school, called him Johan right through till morning when I groggily escorted him from my bed to the bus stop. There was the time when Alice dyed my hair purple in a stranger’s bathroom, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. It was a bottle of Jameson’s that made her spend an entire party speaking to me in French, and Sasha would have never pissed on the doorstep of an awful ex-boyfriend’s house if not for a six-hour stint at our local. Alcohol wrote wonderful stories, but there were regrettable ones too.
Too many morning-afters were taken up with doing damage control on the brazen text messages I’d sent in drunken enthusiasm, “Davey, I’ve had a crush on you since I was 18… why haven’t we slept together???”. Other mornings, I awoke to find myself next to a man I couldn’t remember talking to let alone sleeping with. I spent six months coming in and out of the flu, my body too depleted by drink and lack of sleep to fight off illness, and, finally free to write, I could hardly string together a sentence, my words lost to the incessant hangover haze.
There was no distinct turning point. There was no moment that saw me spending the afternoon at the library, taking notes from books like Sober Curiosity. Instead, there was an increasing and overwhelming sense of dissatisfaction with life. This feeling revealed itself slowly, creeping into my daily hangovers, which no longer seemed like a romantic excuse to loll about in bed all day, a cute new boy fetching me coffee and sparkling water. It then found its way into the few sober conversations I had, when simple questions like “so what have you been doing?” rendered me as disinteresting and silent as I had felt in my relationship; the answer I had to give was always the same: “Got drunk, went home with this guy, probably won’t call him though, what’s the point?”. I didn’t want to be that person and yet in sobriety I didn’t have the confidence to be anything else. Fun, sparkly, joyous Jess was a green fairy of sorts, born from booze, dazzling during drinking hour, but leaving only a headache and heavy disappointment in her wake.
I spent 2018 reclaiming the lost years of my early twenties and, while it had certainly felt necessary, I came out of it as tired and confused as I had been cradling that first drink twelve months earlier. I had believed alcohol to be on my side, nursing me hastily through a grieving period, before handing me the world. As it turned out, booze had just been a band-aid, one that had now deteriorated, worn down and washed away by the endless two-hundred-dollar nights. The soaring highs that alcohol sometimes afforded me, coupled with the hellish lows that always followed, were not dissimilar to the manic love I had experienced with my ex; I was still trapped in a mode of thinking and feeling where the everyday was a dreary, colourless waiting period before a rare but magical moment of warmth.
Although I had not healed as much as I had hoped, the way in which I interacted with and confronted my trauma had shifted. Where I had once been a silent sufferer, internalising the pain that was inflicted and turning it into another reason to hate myself, I was now part of a supportive group of friends. The friendships that had managed to survive sober morning-afters were accelerated and fortified by the Deep & Meaningfuls that late night drinking inspire; one is especially vulnerable at four am, crying into yet another tequila soda. To my great delight and surprise, these intimate conversations did not cease with the night; we would continue them in sobriety, speaking as we shared hangover Vegemite toast. It wasn’t the alcohol that made us feel comfortable, it was each other.
As the circumstances of our conversation began to change, so too did the contents. Or perhaps my increasing Alcohol-Free Days (okay, Alcohol-Freeish Days) were simply affording me some clarity. Whatever the reason, I began to really see the struggles of those around me, especially in regard to drinking. A good friend’s evening shiraz was not an act of self-care after a long day at work, but a way to escape a job that she loathed and dreaded. That’s why one glass so often became a bottle and a morning commute panic attack. Another friend went through a couple of cartons a week, using the footy as an Aussie boys-will-be-boys excuse, when he was really withdrawing to his bedroom to wallow in depression-bred shame. It became clear that the feeling of dissatisfaction with life I had been experiencing was a common one and that it was closely linked to our collective dependence on alcohol.
I had believed that my vulnerability with my ex, the way I would heaving cry as he spat cruel words at me, was true intimacy and then, later, weakness. In friendship, I discovered that intimacy didn’t have to hurt, and that vulnerability could actually mean strength. In being vulnerable with others, in being open about my experiences and the reasons I drank so much, I found community after years of isolation. There is so much power in open, honest conversation, and I am in awe of the way my life has shifted so positively since I began letting my wonderful, supportive friends in. That we can discuss the underlying, often sinister reasons behind our excessive boozing without fear of judgment or dismissal is something I am still learning to accept as reality and not just some beautiful dream. Perhaps my experiences have made me naïve, but I go to sleep each night overwhelmed with gratitude for the friendships I have made this past year.
For me, the goal is not sobriety. We all have our vices, our poisons, and I am quite comfortable with mine being a glass or two of red, sipped at the bar with friends or in the bath with a good book. What I am uncomfortable with is why I drink, who I believe it makes me, and how little belief I have in sober me. These feelings are fading, admittedly slower than I would like, and I find strength and satisfaction in this progress; that sense of disenchantment with life is lifting, as I know it is for many of my friends. That we now have more command over our respective decisions to drink or not drink, is so satisfying and empowering. We can choose to have an early, productive morning or to laze around in bed with a welcome lover. We are confidants to and supporters of one another, and the more discussion around drinking there is, the less frightening or absurd sobriety seems. Now that I am open to it, I am forever meeting people at parties who “just don’t feel like drinking tonight” or “don’t like the way alcohol feels”, and who are not, contrary to what I once believed, ostracised for their choices.
There are still, of course, boozy nights, lock-ins at our favourite bar, and drunken debates with strangers about whether tacos are technically sandwiches or not. Drinking can be fun, it can be liberating, and I personally feel that it was necessary to my story. It is, however, the supportive, loving friends I made and re-made during 2018 who have truly helped me heal. Community is more magical than even a top-notch Negroni, and that’s saying something.