I drink a lot, some weeks nearly everyday, some weeks once or twice, and once I’ve started (usually when I get home from work) I always keep going until I go to bed. I’m OK if I do it alone, but if I communicate with people in any way while I’m not sober and then the next day I don’t remember each and every word of the conversations I start panicking and feeling I did something horrible.
I’ve had a rough life, but I’ve worked hard and, after a couple of psychiatrists that didn’t help much and 1.5 years of therapy that did, I’m finally, at 29, in a very good place. I have very interesting and kind sisters and friends, a job I really like, lots of projects and great dates with myself and crime novels in new restaurants every Friday night.
A year ago I cut my narcissistic abusive parents out of my life for good, and now I’m working (pretty successfully) on being less productive, going on more adventures and not chasing after unavailable pigs who didn’t even read my comics. I’m starting to think men liked me more when I was deranged and full of anger and that’s a bit upsetting, but I’m very happy with my life in general.
A few months ago my therapist and I decided I was ready for a break so I’m not seeing her at the moment, and I was drinking much less during my time with her and never addressed this, so I ask you.
I’m not a loud drunk. I don’t cry, vomit, derail the conversation, break stuff, put myself or others in danger. I’m polite and mostly dance or sit around having fun and being nice to people. Then what’s the problem? How do I stop waking in panic the next day, going over my memories looking for the part where I screwed up and now everyone hates me?
I was raped while I was in a K-hole once (or twice), so I could just be getting triggered by the feeling of not-quite-remembering the night before. Or maybe it’s just my mother inside my head going all “Look at what you’ve done, you relaxed and had fun and probably forgot to stop the horrid real you from shining through, and who’s going to love you now?” I don’t know. I struggle with the idea of loveability being subjective, a lot. A part of me will never stop looking for the exact formula.
Or maybe those are just excuses and I’m just a good ol’ drunk.
I’m not hurting anybody (but me, and only by panicking) and I don’t want to stop drinking if I don’t have to. Can you think of another way of stopping the panic?
Thanks a lot!
You should stop drinking.
That paranoia and panic you feel isn’t irrational or avoidable. That panic is your soul pleading with you to put aside your elaborate justifications and your self-protective intellectualizations for once, and accept that you are actively choosing a self-destructive path that will eventually destroy the happiness you’ve worked hard to achieve.
I want to urge you to open your heart and read this without quickly deciding I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about. I want to urge you to treat yourself with real care for the first time in your life. I know you believe that self-indulgence is self-care. You’re wrong. You want me to help you with this relatively simple matter of feeling less panicked and paranoid in the wake of your binge drinking sessions. It’s not that simple.
All of your growing self-doubt and self-hatred is pushed to the side when you drink heavily, so you have to wade through much more of it whenever you’re sober. No wonder you seem to want to be sober less and less. But when you drink as much as you do as regularly as you do, you lose the ability to reflect rationally on the big picture of your life. When you’re always drunk or a little hungover or gearing up to get drunk again, trust me, you don’t see yourself or the world clearly. You think your sober moments are unreasonably negative when, in fact, they’re rare chances for clarity, during which you question your self-savaging impulses, and grasp for a chance to take care of yourself, to keep yourself safe.
You believe that alcohol allows you to access who you really are. That’s not true. What you access when you drink is a temporary escape from your self-hatred and anxiety. It’s a short-cut you haven’t really earned, that doesn’t stick around for long. The boisterous, dancing, celebratory self after 2 or 3 drinks might be OK, but you never stop there, do you? It sounds to me like you’re incapable of stopping there. You believe that you’re owed more than that, that you have to grab more for yourself because no one else will. And soon the happy drinker is replaced by a sloppy, forgetful drunk.
Wanting to remember what you said to other people when you were wasted doesn’t make you a control freak. It makes you a conscious, considerate human being who doesn’t make excuses for her selfishness. Do you think you’re a good listener to your friends when you’re drunk? If you can’t remember what you said, how do you remember what THEY said? Do you care what they say at all? How do you think it feels to have a relationship with someone who doesn’t remember a lot of your interactions?
But thanks to your narcissistic parents, you may not be able to hear what I’m telling you. You may think I’m saying that YOU’RE BAD. You may think I’m saying that no one will ever love you, because you are horrid and rotten to the core. That’s the black and white thinking of the damaged. That’s not what I’m saying. In fact, what I’m saying is that you’re turning your back on your vulnerability at the exact moment when it holds the key to moving forward. You’re trying to push your sadness away, to write it off as irrational, instead of confronting it and accepting it and learning from it. Maybe you THOUGHT your way through your problems in therapy, but you haven’t FELT your way to the truth yet. You can recognize intellectually that you were once open and nice and you were misunderstood and hurt and rejected by a cruel world, but you haven’t mourned that loss completely and given yourself permission to feel disappointed and broken. Instead, you’re determined to sally forth armed with ideas about what you should and should not accept, shutting out all naysayers and giving yourself exactly what you THINK you need along the way.
You ARE good, but you are going to lose that goodness if you can’t ever make yourself vulnerable, if you can’t feel your feelings and admit that you’ve gotten off track, that you can’t survive by shutting the world out and drinking until you feel alive again. You’re hoping that you’re not THAT crazy. And when I tell you that you have to stop drinking yourself into a stupor and dare to be a hurt, crumpled, flawed, sober person who has made more than a few mistakes, you will hear me saying YOU ARE CRAZY AND BAD. This is your big challenge right now: to listen very closely and accept the fact that the people who SEEM to reject you don’t loathe you as much as you think, and that the people who SEEM to accept you completely may have problems with certain aspects of your behavior that they’re afraid to voice. Or, they’re damaged like you, and they’ll flee the second you show them your real, sensitive, emotional self.
I suspect that you’ll find some inaccurate details here and use that to justify ignoring ALL of this. You might think that if I’m right about you, then everyone else who’s ever rejected you (including your mother) and implied that you’re nuts (including your mother) will ALSO be right about you. But that’s not true. People can ask you to change your behavior without rejecting you to the core. You don’t know that because you don’t have good role models for that in your life, and you don’t do it yourself. You either embrace people or reject them. They are either great or terrible. That’s what deeply damaged people do.
You know what else damaged people do? They get very, very good at telling themselves elaborate stories about their rights and entitlements, how healthy they are, what’s wrong with the rest of the world. When you were younger, this was an adaptive strategy, a matter of survival. As you get older, though, you are using these same tools to shut other people out, to become a self-reliant planet of one. Instead of NOT getting blackout drunk, you’re simply going to stop calling people to talk. Problem solved. And slowly but surely, you yourself will become a judgmental narcissist. Where do you think they come from, anyway? They grow from the wreckage of damaged, overly criticized, under-loved, self-protective humans like yourself.
The first step to becoming a narcissist is making your own rules for everything. “Other people consider this alcoholism, but they don’t know shit. All I’m doing is going on great dates with myself, and making myself happy. I won’t let any more unavailable pigs tell me that I’m not lovable. I am lovable if I decide I am.”
You know why men liked you more when you were deranged and full of anger? Because that was real. Right now, you’re pretending. You went through therapy, but never told your therapist about your drinking. Maybe you were drinking less then, as you say, but it seems strange that it never came up, and that you started drinking more once you quit therapy. When you lie to a therapist? That’s not therapy. That’s bullshit practice, easily and cheaply sourced from any local bar.
You also say that you were raped once—or maybe twice—while you were in a fucking K-HOLE?! Dude. WHAT. THE. FUCK.
To state the obvious, you have been through some horrific shit. And I really am sorry about that. But your confusion and inability to trust yourself or take full account of your actions will continue until you stop bullshitting yourself and everyone else. This is your moment. Today is your day to look at the truth, to accept the truth, to feel the panic and the pain and the hurt of where you are. You have constructed something that won’t last. The walls are rotting around you. It’s time to look at what’s true here, without fear, without hiding.
You were judged badly. You were hurt. You felt like nothing you did was ever right. You took on your mother’s voice and adopted it and now it’s in your head. You gave yourself shit constantly, and then you learned how to turn those voices off: By drinking too much, by giving up. When someone else criticizes you, you have an easy solution: you shut them out completely because you can’t stand one more harsh word. You used to be furious at yourself all the time, for being unproductive, for falling behind on everything. So now you’re over that. You think that’s the solution, treating yourself like a petulant baby who needs what she needs no matter what. You pretend you don’t care about being productive, that you’re nicer than you are, but the anger is still there. Alcohol helps you to pretend.
So today, you have to try something really hard. You have to try to look at the truth without overgeneralizing and thinking that you’re ALL BAD. You have to listen to other people, and allow them to give you guidance and support. You have to choose a path that leads away from narcissism. That means recognizing that other people with opinions and suggestions aren’t ALWAYS just as unfair and selfish as your mother. You have to be vulnerable, feel your sadness, feel your grief, without believing that it means you’re weak. You have to embrace your truly open, available friends and stop chasing men (and friends and family) who prefer the pretend, drinking, boisterous good-time-girl to the flawed, messy, sober, scared you. You have to accept that flawed woman and love her fiercely and try to protect her from rapists and K-holes and friends who think it’s kind of funny that she gets fall-down drunk regularly, or friends who don’t care enough to ask if she’s been drinking too much, or friends who also drink way too much, or friends who get weird and squirrely the second she shows the slightest needy or negative emotion.
You have to return to your therapist or find a new therapist and tell that person the truth about your drinking and everything else. You have to tell everyone the truth. You have to ask them to challenge you, instead of playing along with your lies.
You may laugh off this reply. I know I would’ve done that, when I was hiding and rationalizing my bad behavior, telling myself that I never hurt anyone, telling myself that anyone who criticized me was just damaged or jealous. But this happiness you say you have is tenuous at best. Your identity is still forming, and you’re warping your sense of yourself with this boozy horseshit routine of yours.
Today is the day that you decide to care for yourself, flaws and all. You need to make a commitment to yourself, to stop serving up drinks that keep you confused and hazy and bewildered and full of empty bluster. Do you know what that empty swagger of yours is worth? It’s worth nothing. You might love basking in the illusion that you’re carefree, but no one else is buying it, not really.
Today, you can choose to reach for a life that really IS carefree. You’ll have the earned swagger of someone who truly listens, and remembers everything. You will be productive again—without beating yourself up over it—and you’ll feel real satisfaction in your accomplishments for the first time, instead of feeling nothing. You’ll indulge yourself with rewards that make you feel relaxed and proud of yourself, instead of making you panic. You’ll return to therapy and you will stop drinking and after a few weeks of sobriety, the world will shift, and you will SEE where you’ve been clearly. And you’ll see where you want to go.
You will stop pretending. You will go on a run, make a great dinner for yourself, read until you fall asleep, and wake with the sunrise to write your comics. You will love yourself, and the world will love you, too. You will be angry and lost and regretful and distracted and unproductive sometimes; you will be messy and emotional and way too sober, and you will be loved.
Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) is The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses. Photo by Alan Levine.