I realised I wasn’t drinking to socialise, but to mask what was really going on

As a mature student, the heavy drinking norms of freshers’ week have thankfully passed me by. However, growing up amidst the 90s rave scene normalised a lot of things for me that were, in reality, extremely damaging.

It’s a similar problem for some students when it comes to freshers’ week. It’s the cultural norm to get relentlessly wasted and, for some people, they can emerge relatively unscathed (bar a bad hangover and sketchy memories of the night before). But for some of us, whether it’s student parties or 90s all-night raves, the cultural norms allow us to mask a problem that eventually spirals out of control.

When it started to go wrong

It’s really difficult to work out at what point it all went tits up for me. Going out was such a big part of my life. I loved dance music and the whole rave scene and I think being part of it helped me feel accepted into a social group.

I started taking recreational drugs and, in my social circle, we went out a lot – almost every night. But I was always the one who had to take things further – more drink, more drugs, more quickly. 

I think I started to grow up around 24 or 25 when I started working and wasn’t able to keep going out so often. The problem was, even though I had stopped going out every night, I hadn’t stopped drinking every night – I was drinking at home and could quite happily get through three quarters of a bottle of vodka on an evening. I knew it wasn’t good for me but I just thought it was me – it was just what I did, what I had always done. But I was doing it relentlessly, without a break.

It wasn’t until I got to my 30s and there had been instances where things got chaotic and I started losing employment that I began to realise something wasn’t quite right with how I was living my life. I remember at one point I was working in a call centre and I was going out drinking during the day, which resulted in me losing my job.

I moved to Leeds where I met my now ex-wife and my drinking calmed down a little at that point. I’d found a new life, I was living in new surroundings - it was all very exciting. But the drink started to take hold again and I ended up breaking up with my wife and moving back to Middlesbrough. That’s when, with no reason to moderate the drinking, things got really bad.

I was still managing to work - I was a manager in banking and, on the outside, it looked like I was holding it together. Internally, however, I was physically knackered – tired, hungover every day at work, and my goal every day was simply to get back home and start drinking again on an evening. I wasn’t achieving my targets at work, I wasn’t managing my team correctly and I was forever taking my eye off the ball.

My early attempts at sobriety

In 2016 I attempted to stop drinking on a few occasions, and I’d have spates of two to three weeks, sometimes even a month, where I wouldn’t touch it. But I always started again. 

I started going to twelve-step meetings but I wasn’t really doing it for me – I wasn’t there because I wanted to be, I was there to try to please the people around me. I also decided that I was nothing like the others who went to these groups – I didn’t believe I had the same problem they did.

Not long after, fuelled by drink, I landed myself in prison for three months after being found drinking in my car with the engine running. I only had it running to keep me warm and I started arguing with the police officer. I lost my temper and, long story short, ended up jumping in the police car and taking it for a spin, blind drunk.

You might think you’d never do something like that, but when the drink takes hold, everything else goes out the window. 

Of course, I wasn’t drinking for the three months I was in prison and you’d think that stint would have been enough to stop me. But as soon as I was released, I was back on it.

I was lucky to get a job in marketing as my previous employer took me back on and I kept attempting to stop but I ended up withdrawing at work until, one day, I had a fit and almost swallowed my tongue. My colleagues recall speaking to the 999 operator while I was turning blue on the floor, and one of the team had to stick his fingers in my throat to remove my tongue. He basically saved my life.

But it still wasn’t enough to stop me.

Finding recovery

I was living in a kind of halfway house after I came out of prison and was thrown out because I had alcohol in my room. So I made an effort to stop again – this time my motives weren’t really the right ones, and I was more concerned about stopping drinking so I could find a place to live rather than trying to stop because I knew it was killing me. I took part in a step forward programme to get a place in rehab and I realised that it was probably the last chance saloon – so I gave it my all and managed to get a place.

Once I started to get physically better, I began to really identify with what people in the 12 step meetings were saying and I realised that recovery was possible, even for me. It was almost like one of those lightbulb moments -  they were showing me something that actually worked. And I wasn’t too far gone – there was hope.

In fact, I still go to fellowship meetings today and play an active role in that community. Working in recovery also helps me to stay on track with my own wellbeing.

How do you know it’s a problem?

People go out and get drunk and that’s the way it is – it’s a big part of our culture. But I noticed that my motivations were different to some of my friends’. I wasn’t doing it because I wanted to socialise and have fun, I was doing it because I wanted to get as far away from Adam as possible – I wanted to change my persona, to be someone else. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin and I was clearly running away from something.

Looking back, I also realise that I had no filter – I never knew when or how to stop, to say no. I always pushed it further than others. Of course, eventually, it becomes obvious because you’ve failed exams or lost your job or, in my case, landed yourself a spell in prison. But if we’re honest with ourselves, we can recognise the signs before we reach that stage.

For me, it’s clear looking back that I never paid any attention to my mental health. Both my brothers died when I was in my early twenties - within months of each other, and I never dealt with it. I had been trying to grieve but masking it with drink and drugs, jumping from one relationship to the next, feeling alone and not opening up to anyone.

I wasn’t drinking and taking drugs to have a laugh, I was doing it to self medicate, to numb the pain.

I think it’s important for anyone who recognises themselves in some of my story to stop and think about why it is they are drinking or using other drugs in the way they are. What are your reasons? How is it affecting your life? Your health? Be honest. Because I can say with absolute certainty, life is much more fun today as a happier, healthier person in recovery.

By Adam Petson, Campus Recovery Coordinator