Alcohol: How I coped with quitting (or didn’t)

I can’t remember the first time I got drunk. With an ethnic family like mine, I can’t remember a time when alcohol was not a part of my life – a gentle thrum in the background of social situations, putting me at ease. But I do know that by the time I was 15, alcohol had turned into a beat I could not resist, and, as easily as I noticed its presence, I felt its painful absence. The first time I wondered if it had become a problem was during a Year 10 science class in a dingy classroom, whose musty smell I’d hoped would mask the the alcohol on my breath, drunk from a ratio of vodka to juice that would make for a truly useless map.

At 19, I decided to stop drinking. By this point, I’d done all manner of shameful things – the worst of which I’d tried to forget with heavier doses of alcohol; like a blurry-eyed attempt at fighting fire with fire. I really only managed to set myself alight. At the ripe old age of 19, I had a job I was committed to, an education I was finally invested in and friends, so many friends that had finally joined me in the Newtown pubs and bars I’d whittled my teenage years away in, having stumbled into a circle of friends who’d taken me in despite (and, most likely, because of) our twelve-odd-year age gap.

But, at 19, I could feel things slipping. Each night out became harder, stronger, more necessary, more harmful, harder to shake, harder to remember. There was no one event that made me put down the hip flask (the one I had bought myself on my eighteenth birthday and put to good use on many a train ride, bathroom break and sneaky mid-dinner sip). But after a number of blackouts and one too many mornings starting in an unknown place with the burning sensation of contact lenses not taken out, I had to admit that things had well and truly slipped.

All up, I lasted six months without a drink, sort of. I’ve stopped admitting to this, as most people laugh, seeing it as a failure, but I was careful not to add a time limit to my dry period. This wasn’t a test of will, this was a rehabilitation. And while I wasn’t planning on staying sober forever, if it took that long, then so be it. I say “six months, sort of” because I broke three months in; election night 2013, Abbott’s ascension. I downed a bottle of wine and a fistful of fingers of vodka. To be fair, it still feels justified, and it all came back up in a timely manner, so I’m hesitant to count it as a transgression.

Now is the time to admit to that thing this discussion would be useless without – marijuana. I’ve been smoking since I was 16 and am yet to have a bad experience with it. I don’t care for the politics of it, your experience of it, or even the discussion of it. Like the work of James Deen, I quietly enjoy it and that is the end of that. So marijuana, pot, weed, joints and jays saw me through those times I ached for a drink, and what a job it did.

See, the difference between alcohol and marijuana is this: Alcohol lets you deal with your problems by not remembering them, marijuana lets you deal with your problems while remembering them. When you wake up from a night of drinking, the issue seems to hit you anew with full, untethered force. When you awake from a night of smoking, the issue has been shepherded into a fenced area, tamed by a night of emotional distance and gentle contemplation.

Of course, not all traumas are met with a desire to be fenced in. Sometimes, like a Michel Gondry character running amok, you simply want to forget.

So after six months of learning to say no, and one wound-inducing e-mail, I scooped up what was left of my feelings and my favourite book and met my best friend in a park, downing bottles of Scrumpy and jumping aloud from novel to e-mail. With alcohol’s rhythm back in my blood, the words became lyrical. Alcohol was a beat I could sing to, cry to, feel to. And after many hours I felt…okay.

To my merit, the intervening months have been largely alcohol-incident free – not alcohol free, but incident free. I’m no longer known for my catchphrase, “SHOTS!”, and I remember most nights of the week. I’m doing new, novel things – I’m stopping at one drink; I’m saying no without really considering the question of “Another?”; I’m remembering the tune that whistled through my head the night before with warmth and almost clarity. I’m not drunk, I’m drinking. I’m not throwing up, I’m chilling out. I’m feeling, without alcohol. And without alcohol, I’m feeling…amazing.

Rachel Cohen