Wednesday, March 5th, 2014

Ask Polly: How Do I Stop Hating Myself For Getting Black-Out Drunk?

Hi Polly,

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!


Dear Paranoid/Drunk,

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.


What are you running from? Write to Polly and find out!

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.

23 Comments / Post A Comment

I know Polly already said this, and more eloquently, but you SHOULD STOP DRINKING.

I'm chiming in because I had many similar patterns to the ones you described in your letter, and I stopped drinking. My life is SO MUCH BETTER now. No panic, no regret, no anxiety. It's MUCH MUCH better on this side. Give it a try.

Your body will thank you. Your soul will thank you. You will feel better.

sarahbee (#11,692)

@Sharilyn Neidhardt: Also she will be reducing her breast cancer risk by an alarming amount. I find that one to be very motivating.

Joy Smith@facebook (#262,593)

Polly, can you be my therapist please.

rosyfive (#252,114)

:( I feel you, LW. Although I've never had a real drinking problem, I think I can understand your frame of mind and previous experiences. Do not beat yourself up for doing this, cause that will just keep you stuck – but realize that you cannot help yourself this way, you're only hurting yourself. And you deserve to be in a better place. Sometimes we don't realize we're hiding from our truth and our hurt until something goes seriously awry, or we develop bad habits, or our gut instinct sends us red flags. We think we're trying really hard, and fighting against the difficulties of life, and this one thing is so simple and easy and helps us escape the sadness for a while, and who cares if it's destructive anyways because we aren't worth health and happiness. But listen to your inner voice that tells you shit is wack. Get a therapist, wade through the hurt, listen to Polly. Life is hard and bad shit happens to many of us, but you can come out the other side with some hard work. Don't take shortcuts, that will only prolong things and compound your problems. Don't hide from them either, cause that won't make them go away. I'm speaking from experience here, and I'm rooting for you!

themnemosyne (#241,230)

…What is a "K-hole"? It does not sound pleasant.

Paranoid/Drunk (#262,602)

@themnemosyne it's when you take so much ketamine time stops for you and it feels like a near-death experience.

themnemosyne (#241,230)

@Paranoid/Drunk Okay. So. You are already well aware that there is something wrong. Wrong enough to write an advice column about it. You are not looking for advice; this is not a memory issue. Your problem isn't special or unique, you are not in any way alone. You are looking for permission to change yourself, to fix yourself.

You have our permission. Go. Call your therapist and tell them it's an emergency, call a crisis hotline, go to your nearest hospital, go ask for help. Whatever it takes, go. Go now. Do not overthink it, do not sit here replying to all the commenters in this thread, do not allow yourself to distract yourself.

Take action. You have our blessing.

Paranoid/Drunk (#262,602)

Hi… LW here. OK. I wrote to my T asking her to fit me in as soon as she can. What do I do now? Do I go to an AA meeting or something today before I change my mind? Does AA even work?

Leon (#6,596)

@Paranoid/Drunk if you really want to work the program, it can work for you. there's parts of it not everyone loves – for example, some atheists i know don't like the higher power part – but they just kind of accept it in the context and keep at it. it doesn't work for everyone, nothing does – but if you want to stop, it's a very good place to try.

you can just google 'aa meetings near' wherever. you'll probably find one. even if it isn't the path for you, you will find a lot of very understanding people there to relate to. just, be open.

noodles (#262,605)

@Paranoid/Drunk Hey! Just want to say you are really brave for even contacting your therapist and thinking about going to AA so quickly. I started sobbing at my desk when I read this because it reminded me so much of myself. I too have a therapist and while I tell her that I drink, I definitely minimize the blacking out and the frantic text messages and anxiety associated with figuring out wtf I did the night before. Conflating self-indulgence with self-care is a huge problem for me…I feel like there is so much wrong with my life and I spend all day literally vibrating with anxiety, that what's the harm in doing something that lets me fucking relax for a little while?

I went to AA for 7 months and I hated it so I am a terrible role model and I don't want to say this to scare you. If you try it for awhile and you still want to go back, you always can. I had a sober 30th birthday party and it wasn't so bad. I also lurked outside AA meetings and then ran away before they started for months before I could bring myself to go, but it's definitely worth it, and I think about it a lot. Sorry for the novel about me (I may also be a narcissist…) but I just had to chime in to say you are not alone. I don't know where you live but I had the best experience at women's meetings if there are some around you. Good luck xx

PistolPackinMama (#231,054)

@Paranoid/Drunk It can work. You should go. If it doesn't work, it won't be because you didn't try.

And you are so. smart. and. brave. for asking this question- you probably knew the answer, and asking makes it real. You can do the next step, and the next.

re: Polly's comment about how being challenged to adjust behavior =/= rejection and condemnation. Remember these two things:

1) Your worthiness does not come from being perfect. It comes from being human. You don't earn it, it's not something you work for. It's hard, if not next to impossible, to lose that worthiness. Being a human makes you worthy of love and respect. The UNDHR says is when it says all humans are "born equal in rights and dignity and should behave toward one another in a spirit of brotherhood." Your narcissist mom has been wrong about you all along.

2) Being asked to adjust your bad behavior isn't a thing people do when they don't care about you or want the best for you. It's what people do when someone they love and care about is hurting themselves and needs a change. If you're asking yourself "should I change? Do I need a change?" you're acting out of love and self respect. It's the same kind of love and respect other people who might tell you to quit drinking would be acting with, if they said those things.

Good luck, LW. You can do it. <3 <3

Duckinwater (#262,606)

@Paranoid/Drunk Good for you. Really and truly: good for you. You have already made such a strong, brave, important step. The rest will be harder, but YOU are strong and brave and so you will make it through. AA can definitely work (I have many loved ones for whom it saved their lives) and I would encourage you to try it, if only to find a community who will support and not judge you, who are fighting this with you, who will see the true you and love you for it. We are all rooting for you and sending you so much internet love.

gulleyjimson (#235,121)

@Paranoid/Drunk AA helps some people to stop drinking, but be aware that it is substituting one habit (drinking) for another (meetings). Among the people I know who have tried AA, it does not address the underlying problems for why they are drinking too much. But stopping drinking can allow you to address those, if you want.

Why do you want to forget yourself? Why do you feel unloveable, or unworthy? And, more importantly, how can you cope with those feelings (which most everyone has in some degree from time to time) in a way that isn't just trying to escape? And what do you really want to do with your time now that it isn't blacked out? (As Baba Yaga might say – more artfully, of course – you must walk alone through the forest with your fears stalking beside you; if you obey the urge to flee into the darkness, they will hunt you down like predators — far better to meet them as tame allies, or at least indifferent creatures.)

chevyvan (#201,691)

@Paranoid/Drunk AA saved my dad's life. Like you, he knew he had a problem with alcohol, but tried every possible way to get around actually having to quit (e.g., "I just won't drink *vodka* anymore. I'll stick to brandy."). YOU ARE SO NOT ALONE in this. Whatever you decide, I wish you the best.

@Paranoid/Drunk AA works for a lot of people, and not for others. I don't think it's the only way to get sober. I did not go to meetings, and I know a handful of other people who quit on their own as well. It's a VERY personal choice. I DEFINITELY recommend (talk) therapy, and if you are physically dependent on alcohol, I also recommend the guidance and care of a physician (for the first couple of weeks at least). I go to the gym every day, and that keeps me on track. I find the steam room really helps too.

But you don't have to do any of that. All you have to do is stop drinking. Just decide you won't drink anymore. And when you need help staying sober or dealing with your life, get help.

For what it's worth, this book really helped me.

@gulleyjimson There's a big difference, though, in that one habit (drinking) will kill you, and the other (meetings) definitely will not.

Honestly, I'm not AA's biggest fan, but it helps a lot of people stay sober, including many of my relatives. It's important for people with drinking problems to try WHATEVER WORKS. It may work for you! If it doesn't, find something that does.

I know it's a hoary cliche, but the first step really *IS* realizing that there's a problem. LW is there! And the next step is getting help for that problem. Godspeed! We really are all rooting for you.

@gulleyjimson "you must walk alone through the forest with your fears stalking beside you; if you obey the urge to flee into the darkness, they will hunt you down like predators — far better to meet them as tame allies, or at least indifferent creatures" I am going to write this down and put it on my wall!

@Paranoid/Drunk et al… A lot of people confuse the meetings with the program, and try to get sober by just going to AA meetings. Those people might very well be substituting meetings for drinking, and you're right, if you just do that then it's not going to address the underlying issues. What does is working the steps. All of them. Like a motherfucker. I know, even though I'm not an alcoholic, because I've worked them on all the other things that the above poster mentions – emotional abuse, rape, etc. – and been freed of all their effects, sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly, pretty much in direct proportion to how hard I'm working the steps. And because I learned how to do this from alcoholics, and I have seen how it does the same thing for them.

Personally, I've done therapy and self-help books and a ton of other stuff like that, and I've found that the twelve steps are way more powerful for dealing with any of the issues in my life. The thing is that you can't just read that lost of steps abs be like "that seems like it will/won't work" – the actual instructions for sine of them go much deeper and may not be at all what you had imagined. Plus it's free :)

LittleE (#270,348)


I just wanted to check in and see how you are doing. You may or may not see this response, but I hope Polly's response and the comments from others showed you there there are people out there who want you to be well. Try going to the gym on a regular basis, it will help tire you out and will give you endomorphins that will help replace the presence of other substances.

Take care of yourself.

Paranoid/Drunk (#262,602)

@LittleE Thank you! I'm OK. I haven't drunk or done drugs since the day this was published and I'm feeling worse and losing friends like crazy, so I guess everything is working as planned.
I come back and read the answer every couple of weeks and it sounds more compassionate and less cruel every time. I'm glad I wrote in.

Oh honey! Oh honey honey honey. Really wish I could give you a hug right now.

Good for you on calling your therapist. You've already changed your path by doing that. @gulleyjimson was absolutey right in asking that bigger question: Why do you want to forget yourself? Being completly honest and vulnerable with your therapist will help her/him figure out what tools to equip you with, and how to teach them to you so you're able to protect yourself.

In order to detox from the regular influx of alcohol, I strongly suggest seeing a physician. Your body will physically react to the lack of alcohol, and this can cause much of the anxiety and physical/mental discomfort you're feeling when you're not drinking. Withdrawl is dinstinctly unpleasant, but it doesn't have to be quite so much so.

Be honest with your sisters. They may be a help to you, either to support you emotionally or to spend some time with you in the evenings when you usually drink.

But what to do right this instant? Get outside. Go for a walk. Pump your arms, and work some of that anxiety out. Take deep breaths of delicious air. While walking, pay attention to your thoughts. Smack the negative thoughts in the face with a big stop sign. Focus on beautiful, lovely, positive ideas and thoughts. And smack those negative thoughts in the face again because they will interrupt your lovely thoughts again and again. That's the practice.

Brene Brown has some really wonderful TED talks, where I wrote down this quote: "How do you numb your vulnerability? When you're doing that you're also numbing joy."

Your alcoholism (yes, you, OWN it. it is not shameful.) is HOLDING YOU BACK. It is sneaky. Conniving. Persuasive. It tells you that everything is okay. And that PREVENTS you from fixing what is making you self-protective, anxious, and unhappy. Don't let it chain you to that space, breathing the same murky air, thinking the same shameful thoughts. It is quite literally poisining you.

Here is Brene's TED talk on vulnerability:

Sending so much love and support to you!!! xoxoxoxox

Myrtle (#9,838)

AA can work where nothing else did. The people that share their stories, the real stories like what you haven't been telling, and reach out to support others in the same fix, are doing a lot to making something work.
I've seen what doesn't work very recently, with an alcoholic family member who said no one cared about him and shut out the people who loved him. Last I saw him, he was on a tabletop in a jewelry -sized box. He was 49.
And I see it's time to change my avatar. Hillary taking a shot ain't that funny to me these days.

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