TW: addiction, gender dysphoria, suicide, mental health

Almost exactly three years ago, I was sitting in hospital waiting for a space to open up in the psych ward. I was nominally there for suicidal ideation, but my actual journey was one of self-medicating my depression and dysphoria with alcohol and self-harm. Now, 32 months sober, I want to talk about my experience with addiction and how it relates to my experiences at Oxford.

I would like to put my name to this, but I’m concerned that a future employer would see it and deny me a job. Of all the characteristics for which I’ve faced discrimination – gender, sexuality, race, and disability – addiction is the only one I still feel unable to talk about on the record. Both in the media and at Oxford, it seems that addiction is the drunken elephant in the room that many people have experience with (whether they know it or not) but no one wants to discuss.

I should also mention that my experience is by no means the ‘default’ or ‘average’ experience of addiction. I only drank alcoholically for less than half a year; I never used drugs; I got sober within four months of joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – and I want to emphasise that there are other ways of becoming sober that may be a better fit for most people than AA.

I think it would be most helpful if I painted an impressionist picture of my alcohol use (think Monet instead of Vermeer). There were a couple patterns to my drinking that you will hear in almost any story told in AA. 

The first went like this: “I decided to only drink at the weekends. But then, Friday evenings are basically the weekend. And if I was drinking on Friday evening, then it wouldn’t make much of a difference to drink during the day as well. But if I drink on Fridays – well, Thursday evening is basically Friday, so I can drink then as well. And so on, until every day of the week and every time of day became acceptable”. I’d walk into school in the morning with gin or whisky on my breath, and have another drink to wind down afterwards, before drinking in the evening and then again after midnight.

The second chain of thoughts was: “I’ll only have one drink today.” But after the first drink I’d want another, so I’d go, “I’ll have a second drink today and make it up by going sober tomorrow.” Then after two drinks, “a third drink is only a 50% increase so it barely counts”. And of course, the same pattern would repeat the next day.

I’ve mentioned drinking after school before, and the third pattern has to do with justifications for bending the rules. Had a bad day? Drink to forget. Had a good day? Drink to celebrate! Nothing to do? Drink to alleviate boredom. A lot to do? Drink to relax. Etc.

These patterns can be roughly summarised as: after one drink, I can’t stop; and if I do stop, I can’t stay stopped. There’s always a reason to drink.

Of course, I didn’t see an issue with any of these patterns: they made complete sense to me at the time. Looking back, there’s an obvious lack of control on my part, but I didn’t recognise or accept it at the time. In fact, recognition of one’s lack of control and acceptance of it are essentially the first two steps of AA, and were the most difficult. I had to hit a bottom before I could get sober, because only at my very worst could I see that I didn’t have control, and that what I was doing wasn’t working.

And when I went a few hours without a drink, I would start to crave one. When most people say “I need a drink” they mean so figuratively – it’s more of a want. But for me it was an actual physical need: my thoughts were consumed with my planning on how to get the next drink, while my body felt like it would shut down without immediate alcohol. I’m told that feeling is something that non-alcoholics don’t experience.

I always drank alone and in secret (more red flags) so I don’t know much about the amounts I drank or whether I blacked out. Ultimately, that doesn’t impact the fact that I’m alcoholic – it’s more about the way I drank, and my need for a drink, than the amounts.

At one point, I faced the prospect of not getting a drink for a day, so I turned to self harm. I won’t give details because I don’t want to trigger anyone. What I will say is this: self harm is, in my experience, an addiction. Physically, it affects your body chemistry (causing the release of various hormones and chemicals) and mentally, the same patterns emerge as the ones I mentioned for alcohol. I also got cravings, though not as strong.

As the self harm and alcohol use – I didn’t consider it abuse at the time – increased (and frequently occurred together), I became suicidal. I told a friend, who convinced me to tell the school nurse; she told my parents, who brought me straight to my therapist who suggested I go to the nearest psych ward. I was 17, so I went into a teenage psych ward (much nicer than the adult one, apparently). Telling my friend, and the chain of events that followed, was the best decision I’ve ever made.

The psych ward was a highly regulated environment – I had essentially no autonomy. I’ve mentioned before that addiction is characterised by a lack of control, and so to hand over the reins in the psych ward was incredibly helpful. When you can’t make any decisions, you can’t make bad decisions. It was in the psych ward, with nothing to do, that I was able to reflect on the people in my life that cared for me.

Upon emerging, I began antidepressants, a new type of therapy, and AA. Still, it took me a few more months of alcohol use and self harm to reach bottom and finally become sober (when I say “sober”, I mean from both self harm and alcohol). Some days I still get cravings, but I now have the tools to sit through them instead of acting.

I want to say at this point that if you can relate to anything I’ve described thus far, you may want to look into addiction and recovery. Talk to a peer supporter or welfare officer, or a friend – see how your experience compares to that of others, and get help if needed. In AA they say that if you relate to someone’s story, then you’re likely an addict of some sort, and I firmly buy into that claim.

That said, my experiences both while drinking and in AA showed me some of the most important aspects of sobriety, many of which I think Oxford lacks.

The key to many sobriety programs is support networks – usually friends – who can hold you accountable, notice when things are wrong, and talk to you consistently. My friends all knew I was an alcoholic and deeply depressed months before I did; they were also key to my recovery. But they were only able to do that because they’d had similar experiences – most people would require training on warning signs, how to talk to people, and what to do. Oxford generally has none of that, and so people either ignore warning signs like drinking alone, doing work while drunk, or going clubbing (and drinking) every night, or they don’t know what to do.

I’ve heard horror stories about GPs and University Counselling when addiction comes up – one GP told a friend of mine “maybe you should drink less”. That’s like telling someone with depression “maybe you should think happy thoughts”. Not helpful. 

Then – of course – there’s the drinking culture. When so much of addiction can be termed as lack of control, events where excessive drinking is encouraged and normalised is obviously going to present issues. For someone in the midst of their addiction, I don’t think those events would have much of an impact. But for someone newly sober, those events are incredibly difficult to navigate.

That’s not to say that we should get rid of drinking or drinking events – my view is “to each their own”. However, we should work to normalise sobriety at all events. There should be *highly recommended* workshops about addiction for all students (preferably run by people who have personal experience with the matter); University Counselling might also need better training on these matters. And students who are interested should be easily able to become Mental Health First Aid certified – a program which teaches you how to respond to mental health crises.

Ultimately, addiction will always be a secretive, lonely endeavour. But hopefully we can begin to normalise recovery from addiction – by sharing stories, normalising sobriety, and learning to support each other. I’ll leave you with some words from AA that I try and embody every day:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

the courage to change the things I can,

and the wisdom to know the difference.