Drinking as Self-Harm

By Kristance Harlow 05/15/17

When I can only see the world through foggy glasses, the urge to destroy myself by drinking again becomes an enticing option.

Image: 
Black and white drawing of silhouetted woman coming apart in pieces.

In recovery, I have heard many stories about relapses that started because someone thought they could handle a drink at some joyous occasion. Turns out, they couldn't suddenly become a non-alcoholic, no matter how happy they got. Then there are others who found themselves craving a drink when their basic needs weren't met. Twelve steppers might know this warning as HALT: hungry, angry, lonely, tired. Falling into the trap of grabbing a drink to take the edge off, to loosen the tight feeling of social anxiety, or to get cozy in uncomfortable circumstances.

For me, I fear something different than any of those scenarios. I fear the manifestation of self-hatred. I fear my depression, my post-traumatic stress disorder. I fear the strong urge to harm myself when despair is the filter through which I see the world.

Drinking is a method of self-harm. It was a punishment I sentenced myself to. It joined the ranks of other self-harm methods I dabbled in. When I was a little girl, I would send myself to my room. Rarely did my parents need to put much effort into that punishment, I did it all by myself, even when circumstances didn’t require it. I would punish myself, the sensitive child I have always been could rarely handle interpersonal conflict. Certainly, not with grace, anyway. I was the one who set high standards for my own behavior and success.

I received my first B when I was in high school. It was in health, aka sex-ed. I lied to my classmates about my parents' reaction. They weren't upset at all but I was, so I had to do something to feel punished for my grade. I grounded myself for three days, for no reason other than I thought I should be in trouble.

Other manifestations of self-punishment were much more severe. I experimented with cutting when I was only 14. My feelings of sorrow and fear were all consuming. I cut my legs and it became a rare method I would engage with sporadically in the future. It brought the internal pain outside and punished me for being, what I thought of as, an awful person.

I starved myself, when my high school boyfriend and I broke up for the first time. I began purging early in my college career. I would binge to fill the empty spaces inside. I made myself feel unworthy of love by gaining weight in such an unhealthy way. I would get sick from eating too much and force myself to throw up. Each self-destructive action amplified the next.

Eventually, alcohol became part of that self-harm repertoire. I had been a bad drunk on and off since I first got wasted. Blackouts, drunken hysterics, fights, making the worst choices possible -the whole nine yards. When I felt regret the next day, it was another opportunity to punish myself with isolation and shame. I knew I'd do something awful and that I would feel terrible about it later.

Things in my life changed, as they tend to do, and I began to drink just to hurt myself. I felt unworthy of the good things in my life. I wanted to be grateful but I just felt like a coward. I didn’t care about myself at all. So, I drank and drank. It was a bad choice every time and usually I knew it. I didn’t see the point in treating myself well.

There were only two eventualities of that path. Either I was not going to survive or I was going to have to get help. I took the second fork in the road and went to therapy. Therapy brought me to a psychiatrist and to sobriety.

In sobriety, I’ve had times where I wish I could drink. Fleeting moments of social bonding or some fancy looking cocktail. That is more of an imaginary “if only” kind of experience for me. The times I’ve had an actual urge to drink have only come when the symptoms of my mental disorders have surged to unmaintainable levels.

I got married recently, at an all-inclusive resort, I was the only sober person there, but being around alcohol all the time didn't make me feel like taking a drink. I sipped my virgin piña coladas and didn’t feel any kind of way about other people’s drink of choice. Joy, even exuberant happiness and celebration, has not (yet) threatened my sobriety.

What has made me feel like taking a drink is when the desire to harm myself comes upon me. I know that drinking is a choice that comes in tandem with throwing my life away. It is a connection I am very aware of. I am so cognizant of this duality, that I must watch out for my depression. When I can only see the world through foggy glasses, the urge to destroy myself by drinking again becomes an enticing option.

Despite the similar patterns, everyone’s addiction tale is different. My sobriety story requires the mixing of multiple elements. I have been learning to care for my body and to take stock of my mental health. I go to therapy every single week, no matter how I feel. I am in a sober program that I participate in fully. No matter how happy I get, I know my addiction lives in the shadows and I cannot evict it. What I can do is learn to live with it and to not feed it with the sorrow that it craves.

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