I had my first drink when I was 12, but didn’t start drinking seriously until 15. I’d started at a new school and was pretending to new friends that I was cynical and experienced, when in fact I was cynical and inexperienced.
My showoff-y sophistication consisted mainly of lying that I’d kissed a few boys, and when the opportunity arose, choking on cigarettes and gulping booze like it was disgusting medicine.
I wasn’t particularly good at drinking or smoking, but Jimi Hendrix wasn’t very good at guitar when he first started at 15.
Most weekends I could get my hands on some alcohol, and the blurriness that came with drinking too much was exactly what I wanted.
You know that feeling when you’ve had your hair up in a tight ponytail all day and haven’t even noticed, but it’s been giving you a headache? And it’s not until you take your hair out and rub your head that you realise you’ve been suffering.
Drinking is like that for me. The first couple of drinks are a glorious relief. You didn’t even know you were in pain. And then it gets better because a couple more drinks deliver giddy euphoria and silliness and surges of love. And my jokes get better. Honestly.
There’s a saying in recovery circles, “university is a perfect training ground for future alcoholics”. I agree, but I’d have to add that school was pretty good too. Parents are often busy tending to their careers in their prime earning years and there are a shitload of bored kids and unattended liquor cabinets.
I loved to drink. Immediately. It was the medicine that got me through life. And that was perfectly normal.
By 16, I had spending money and fake ID. I didn’t know it at the time, but as I was drinking tons of beer I was also finding my way to my first grown-up job as a music reporter. Music and alcohol, in case you didn’t know, are more intertwined than cooking and eating.
Looking back, there were a few red flags around my drinking.
My friend Kate told her mother she was worried about me when I was 16. I was amazed by this – not that anyone was worried about my drinking, but that any friend of mine would breach the sacred “Don’t Tell Your Parents ANYTHING” code of teenagehood.
At 17, I passed out cold at a rock concert and had to be carried to safety by a friend’s boyfriend. At no point afterwards did I think I might have a drinking problem. I’d just overheated and timed it poorly and been overwhelmed by the crowd.
Oh, and for sure it hadn’t helped that I’d been drinking, but pass me a beer, let’s worry about that later.
What’s now sometimes described as “socially awkward” might then have been called “shy”, and a few drinks killed my shyness and unleashed this ferocious, funny, sexual side.
I used to joke that I’d still be a virgin if it weren’t for alcohol. Sometimes I was very funny. Sometimes I was extremely fun. But oftentimes I was hammered, that messy girl at the party, the slurring idiot.
Another red flag was the blackouts. Blackouts are different to passing out. They occur usually when you drink really fast, and on an empty stomach, and you still function – walk, talk, converse, buy dinner, buy drinks (!) – but you remember nothing. There’s just a black hole where the memory should be. So you don’t know how you got home. I used to have regular blackouts and would try to piece together the night before reading the maps of my bruises, using clues and sending around the shame texts.
I finally got some perspective on my drinking the first time I got pregnant. It was the first sustained break I’d had from drinking, and I was 26 years old. So I’d had 11 years of steady, problem drinking before I realised there might be something off.
It made me realise what it’s like to spend months without a hangover. It sounds crazy but this was a genuine revelation. All the usual clichés applied – glowing skin, lust for life, shiny eyes – and none were attributable to baby making.
The pregnancy break didn’t cure the addiction though, and I returned to drinking with a vengeance.
If anything, motherhood turned my thirst into a rage. I remember being out at a massive stadium to interview the Foo Fighters before they took the stage. There wasn’t any booze backstage (or none that I could find), and I was almost writhing from the craving. It was night, I wasn’t parenting, where was my drink? I was uncomfortable with need. I wanted to stay to watch the band from this unique vantage point, but couldn’t stand to do it without a drink in my hand.
Then during a two-year period of single parenthood, I quit drinking completely, and felt my power land within me like a superhero discovering her gift.
I became effective at achieving things that mattered – like starting a new job, finally getting my driver’s license, meeting deadlines. I was a better friend and better mother.
I told friends I wasn’t drinking, but never really explained why. It would’ve been embarrassing to talk about my relationship with booze when clearly I was kicking goals and everything was awesome, right?
I’d stopped postponing tasks to days when I wasn’t feeling crook, and I did terrifying things like go on first dates without the assistance of a drink. I was amazing!
In fact, I was so amazing that I thought I could take a drink – just one, on special occasions. Or two. Just one or two.
Since then, I’ve quit drinking twice more.
The last time I went on an alcohol bender I planned it. I was going on an overseas trip in April 2016 and even though I was sober, thought I deserved some “me” time. I’d drink on the plane, drink during the holiday, have a few on the plane home, and then quit when I landed back in Australia.
It all went to plan except for the quitting when I got home. By December, I’d reached a point where any day without alcohol was remarkable.
I kept planning to quit. New Year loomed as the day to stop, but a party on January 4 brought me undone. And then that was it. I told my partner I had a problem. I started telling my friends. I couldn’t stop drinking without their support.
The shameful truth is that one of the main reasons alcoholics don’t want to talk about our relationships with booze is because we don’t want judged if we ever decide to start again.
Recently while making an episode of my new ABC podcast, Ladies, We Need To Talk, I found myself talking with women who were also bruised and wounded by the delicious poison that is wine and beer and booze in general.
They were so open that I felt I had to reciprocate, and admitted, off the record, to my own struggles with alcohol. It was painful progress.
Next thing you know I’m going to an AA meeting (I’d been way too scared to go previously), and talking openly about how badly I need to not drink because of how badly I need to drink.
It’s a funny old thing, progress. The Alcoholics Anonymous meeting was great. It was a bit like discovering an awesome new rock band: I wanted to tell everyone about it.
The meeting I attended was all-women and I felt included and safe. Not at all like someone who was lying naked on train tracks while a steam engine roared toward her.
Yumi Stynes is the presenter of the new ABC podcast Ladies, We Need To Talk. @yumichild