“Am I actually an alcoholic, or am I just British?” Lizzi Sandell discusses her love affair with alcohol, and why using alcohol as a crutch—in terms of both our social lives and mental health—can begin to feel scary as we become fully fledged adults (ugh).
Lizzi seen above, getting crunk at graduation.
I love to drink. At 25, I am basically a drinking veteran, comfortably into my second lubricated decade. If I don’t actively contain myself, I will easily drink 4 or 5 nights a week, due to a combination of my alcohol-oriented social life (a.k.a. life in New York) and my own self-motivated drinking, which usually manifests as a $20 bottle of Pinot Noir, consumed in my apartment over two-ish evenings. More recently, I beat myself up about this habit a lot, despite it being fairly “normal” according to my age and geography. I don’t have a rock bottom story, I haven’t ruined any lives or hit any teenagers with my car, so why am I suddenly so bugged out about my drinking? Am I a budding alcoholic or just an enthusiastic drinker? And how do I distinguish between the two?
When I was a teenager, my dad used to say, proudly, that I wasn’t much of a “boozer.” I was never exactly sure where he got this impression, as I often did show up to his house grey-gilled and hungover. He would always ask, before I came over, if he should “get the [Bacardi] Breezers in” for me, and I always partook, welcoming the novelty. But I suppose I wasn’t a boozer back then, in that I hadn’t yet descended into the sort of mild, evening-relaxation drinking that I now so enjoy. I still get drunk at the weekends like I always have—although now it’s more expensive because sitting in fields chugging Baileys mixed with Bacardi is frowned upon (randomly)—but I now also slither over to Ocean Wines often enough that I’m convinced the guy who works there thinks I have a problem.
My dad is indeed a boozer. He drinks often and plenty, although, more recently, has gone for conspicuous stints of abstinence. He is a very large man at 6’6 and my mum used to remark that he could “put away” multiple bottles of wine without appearing inebriated. I am similarly tall and not scrawny, at 5’11, and similarly inclined to drink large quantities without seeming particularly out of control. This is both a blessing and a curse: For all the embarrassing vomit sessions and blackouts I’ve missed out on, I’ve surely consumed more alcohol than is healthy. But this piece is not, or at least only laterally, about these “daddy issues”.
My mum drinks too. She drinks every evening, albeit fairly sparingly, and considers it her only vice. She is the chill, very regular drinker to my dad’s heavy, also regular drinker. Somewhere along the line I guess I was like, “Cool. I’m just gonna be both.” I love red wine in the evenings after work, and I also like to drink too many mixed drinks or whatever at the weekend, talk shit, spend too much money, and feel bad the next day. Between my mum-type drinking and my dad-type drinking, I drink too much. Medically, at least, if not quite socially or pathologically. Amongst other things, I feel that I am starting to look old. Often I look at myself in the mirror and worry that I’m aging double-time, like Benjamin Button in reverse.
Due to these Bad Vibes, I’ve been trying to take more and more breaks from drinking. I recently went 12 days, and it was fairly agonizing; I didn’t have the shakes or the sweats but I did feel bored and pissed off most of the time. Not drinking also gives you a lot of downtime to think about drinking (e.g. how nice it is), and consider some of the Big Drinking Questions like, “Am I actually an alcoholic or am I just British?”
In Britain, we drink to commiserate and to celebrate and because we’re bored. We drink because we’re stressed, jubilant, and perpetually awkward. And ultimately, we drink because drinking is so very fun. It breaks my heart a little bit (a lot) to imagine a life of weddings and birthdays and reunions where I don’t drink, not to mention the small moments: wine before a movie, cocktails after a shitty day, beers at a barbecue. But somewhere along the line, I feel I need to unpick the rat’s nest of habits and neuroses and problematic urges that have led to alcohol being my number one coping mechanism and almost my number one past-time. Maybe if I stop drinking for a few weeks, a few months, or (heaven forbid) a year, I keep telling myself, I can gain some clarity; I can reprogram my post-adolescent mind.
I can’t work out what’s more depressing: never drinking again, or needing to drink every time I feel that familiar swelling in my heart and head associated with lingering stress or oncoming anxiety. On one hand, my fanciful self-image is of this amateur sommelier-type who enjoys a complex wine, a good book, and a passionate conversation. In some ways, my identity feels inextricably linked to my alcohol consumption—in this depressed-Modernist-writer sort of way but also in a “Lizzi is up for a laugh” sort of way. I am holding a drink in almost every social media picture that exists of me, as if it’s part of my personal brand or I’m being sponsored by the Willamette Valley. When I drink, I often feel like a more exciting, gregarious version of myself. But on the other hand, I think perhaps I am just a dull apple, fallen not far from the family tree, wasting my time, and slowly fermenting. Maybe I should actually be writing more, working out, being “productive”, instead of drinking, drinking, drinking?
Despite this relentless self-analysis, I can’t seem to convince myself that my habits are problematic enough. This is naturally proving as something of an obstacle to stopping drinking permanently. I went to one AA meeting last Christmas, but it all seemed so absolute. I still have lingering questions… Is it worth it? Will I write a novel? Will I lose weight? Will my premature forehead wrinkles disappear? Will I be less anxious? Less depressed? Less perpetually tired-looking? It might just be magical thinking to imagine that quitting booze will improve me in some fundamental way. Especially as I’m only an almost-alcoholic to begin with. Right?
Every time I try to write about this, it becomes more like a love letter to alcohol than a real, thought-out thesis. (I guess I just really, really like wine.) Legit alcoholic or otherwise, this is clearly taking up too much headspace to be the lighthearted pasttime its intended to be. I know I need to gain some perspective. Like, sometimes when I have plans, I think more about the involvement of alcohol than the people I’m supposed to be seeing. That’s bad, right? But sometimes, even when I adore the person and can’t wait to see them, I still want to get fucked up so we can let our egos slide away.
I know I use alcohol as a crutch, when it comes to both my social life and my mental health, and often it’s less of a crutch and more of a full-blown wheelchair. But sometimes I crave respite from being an acceptable, delineated version of myself… Is that such a crime?
Lizzi Sandell is a British writer and an editor at powerHouse Books in New York.