Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Too young to be an alcoholic?

Ducking the gaze of the puffy-faced stranger in the mirror, Jessica reached for the green bottle of mouthwash and tipped it down her throat; then sagged in relief at the alcohol’s comforting burn.

Entire continents separated her dim, bottle-strewn flat from the spacious, loving home of her childhood in rural Cheshire, but the gulf between the two went far further and deeper than mere miles.

Ten years ago, she had been a hopeful university student. Now, stringy-haired, overweight and sinking five bottles of wine a day, the prospect of even leaving her flat left her in paroxysms of anxiety.

Even now, 30-year-old Jessica, who this month celebrates a year since leaving rehab, struggles to put her finger on why she became an alcoholic.

“We had a nice house in rural Cheshire,” she says. “I had a typical mum and dad, money was not an issue, I had a really good education. I went to music lessons, all kinds of dance, ballet, tap, acting classes, and we would go abroad on holiday. Everything you could possibly ask for, really.”

Over the past year, she has spent hours examining her past for any early signposts to her alcoholism. But the unsettling conclusion she has come to is that alcoholism could happen to just about anyone.

“I did ask mum the other day what I was like as a child,” she says. “She said I never wanted to share anything with them, and I was not always terribly motivated, but that could describe countless youngsters. I was quite bookish and loved going to the cinema, but, again, nothing overtly unusual in that.”

In her teens, she says, she started hanging around with older boys and drinking. But she describes herself as “naughty” rather than wild, managed to complete her A-Levels and take up a place at a university down south, studying foreign languages.

“It was the first time I was completely on my own,” she says. “I remember thinking that everyone else must have been given instructions on how to do all this stuff and I had no clue. I was completely out of my comfort zone, and it was then I really turned to alcohol in a big way.

“I’d drink a lot of wine, moving on to vodka and spirits. Basically, I’d drink until my money ran out or I passed out.”

She decided the seat of the anxiety lay in the city she’d chosen and the course, so she embarked on another subject at a more local university. The place changed, but she hadn’t.

“When I went on nights out with friends, I often wouldn’t remember where I’d been or how I got home when I woke up. It was quite dangerous.

“On one occasion, I got so drunk I didn’t know where I was. I made a reverse charges call home and my dad drove a couple of hundred miles through the night to pick me up from a police station. I wasn’t flavour of the month after that.”

She left university again, and landed a job in the entertainment hospitality industry back in Cheshire.

“There’s lots of alcohol around in hospitality, and you do take advantage of it,” she says. “You’re working anti-social hours and it was quite normal to start drinking at 2am when you finished your shift. I’d still be able to function the next day and paste a smile on my face, but I couldn’t understand why, compared to other people my age who were finishing university, my life was such a disaster.”

Her dependency stepped up a gear in her mid-20s.

“I went through stages where I could keep everything ticking over for a few months at a time, but following the break-up of a relationship my drinking started to get completely out of hand.” Her life was spent at work, now in a banking job, or drinking. She was frequently late or off sick.

“I would wake up anxious and not being able to go in was normal. I clearly remember sitting in work, watching the clock, and counting down the time until I could get back to the only thing that never let me down.”

She’d have a few gulps of vodka before work and a steadying swift one at lunch. Eventually, she was found drunk at her desk.

“I even couldn’t stop myself from having a drink on the way to my disciplinary hearing,” she confesses. “It was horrible. I’d kept going thinking nobody realised something was wrong and everything came crashing down, with the guilt and shame and all those things you would expect. But I quickly turned it round and decided to take the opportunity to borrow £10,000 and go off travelling.”

In Australia, she found a job with a not-for-profit company. For a while, it seemed, amid unfailing sunshine and her optimism in that country, she would be able to start over.

“As soon as people started saying ‘Come out for a drink’, it all just started again,” she says. “It’s a big drinking culture there, which wasn’t the best place for me perhaps. I’d go out once or twice a week on massive benders with friends, but I’d continue on my own for the rest of the week.

‘IT WAS the same old story. I would swear off drinking for a few days, weeks, once even a month, but as soon as I started again, and I always did, I would be back to square one in a very short space of time.”

The pattern continued over several years, each time she stopped and started again, bringing her a further circuit down the spiral.

“I hit a point where I couldn’t function any more,” she says. “I was drinking four to five bottles of wine a day, and if I had to go out for any reason I’d have miniatures of vodka first.

“In the morning, if I could get myself out of bed, I would be dry retching, shaking and soaked with sweat and I would promise myself that I wouldn’t do it again today. Ten minutes later, I would be drinking mouthwash because it has a high alcohol content. All I can remember thinking is that I didn’t want to be here any more. Not dead and not alive, just not to ‘be’. I spent my last week in Australia lying in a darkened room, scared if anyone came to the door and unable to get to the shower on my own.”

Concerned friends contacted Jessica’s family. She was taken back to the UK and she agreed to enter full-time treatment, at the Priory in Altrincham. Initially, she planned on staying for a week before heading back to Australia. “Deep down, I did not believe that there was anything on the face of this planet that could stop me drinking,” she admits.

But things she heard at the Priory began to make sense and she stayed on for three weeks, learning how to turn her life around. “For the first time, I began to see what a horrendous mess my life had been and, if I didn’t get help, I was going to die.” Today, she says, her booze-free life is often difficult, but it is challenging and ripe with opportunity.

She is studying to become a counsellor and does voluntary work at a care home. She’s lost a stone and, she says delightedly, her hair has started growing again.

But she can never become complacent, and part of her recovery is avoiding the people and places where she would drink.

“I’m always going to be an alcoholic, and I’d be lying if I said when I see people having fun drinking I didn’t think, ‘That would be nice’,” she says candidly. “The reality is, it would not be like that for me; I wouldn’t be in a sparkly dress with heels on, I would be vomiting in the gutter.

“When I do see girls who have had too much, of course it makes me shudder. It reminds me what I was like and what I have done. It’s horrible to watch what the likes of Amy Winehouse are going through and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. But everyone has their own journey before they realise they have to seek help for themselves.”

She wants young women who read her story and identify with it to know they’re not alone and they can get better.

“I thought I was too young to become an alcoholic,” she says. “People need to be aware that it’s always possible for people to become addicted to alcohol, and it doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from.”

source: Liverpool Daily News

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