Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic details of drinking and substance abuse.
I had my first debilitating panic attack (as in, hyperventilating to the point of passing out) around age 16. I had my first Zima (that alcoholic “cooler” drink popular in the 90s) at about the same time.
I managed pretty much my entire high school career on the energy of anxiety. For the majority of those years, I mistook the feeling of anxiety for excitement; I had no idea that the frequency of the emotion vibrating through my body was one of pain, avoidance, and slow-the-fuck-down.
I remember slumber parties where my stomach felt entirely full of butterflies. I remember driving around with my friends, my hands shaking so hard I had to drum along to the music to appear “normal.” I remember listening to my girlfriends’ stories about how far they’d gone with their boyfriends and sitting, literally, on the edge of my seat, my body so tense I’d have sore muscles the next day. It felt like excitement. We were growing up! We drove! We knew what blowjobs were, or at least they knew and they explained them to me. So exciting!
For the majority of those years, I mistook the feeling of anxiety for excitement; I had no idea that the frequency of the emotion vibrating through my body was one of pain, avoidance, and slow-the-fuck-down.
Although in most cases I’m a decidedly quick study, waking up to how well alcohol worked as an antidote for anxiety was a long, slow path. I drank only a handful of times in high school. At that time, with my mind and personal experience still firmly in the camp of “non-drinker,” I hadn’t warmed up to the potential benefits of booze. I didn’t view alcohol as a social lubricant but, even if I had, I wouldn’t have considered myself a good candidate because in those days I was an “extrovert” and very “outgoing” and “talkative.” I knew myself not even a little bit.
Then came college.
What I’m about to say will maybe come as an atypical surprise, but stay with me: I pretty much maintained my status as “non-drinker” through college. I went to a small, private school in the Midwest and we prided ourselves on things like chai and politics. We were bad activists and ambitious about being vegetarian yoginis before those things were cool. There were the odd nights of stowing kegs in my boyfriend’s bathtub and hanging out at the speakeasy downtown, sure, but these were one-offs. For my part, I had discovered Prozac (as so many of us did in the late 90s) and I was “fine.” Head down, pencils up, debating philosophy for fun. Things really were equal parts fine and “fine,” if you know what I mean.
The anxiety felt better for the moment, but it was quietly waiting.
Fast-forward through a painful break-up and job searching where I carried the anxiety with me like an ugly, heavy, awkward box. I showed up. I got shit done. I was pretty good at whatever I put my mind to, in fact. But I carried this burden with me everywhere. I struggled with it and squeezed it into space next to me wherever I went. I convinced most of the people around me that it was “part of me.” People (and I mean friends, family, bosses, you name it) were in on the game; I’ll carry the anxiety, you will all help me make allowances and excuses for it. We all agreed to enable and feed my anxiety.
I’ll carry the anxiety, you will all help me make allowances and excuses for it. We all agreed to enable and feed my anxiety.
But then, my 20’s. Oh, my wine-drenched 20’s. The past few years of dabbling with alcohol and, almost more importantly, witnessing others’ dabbling, meant that I was finally catching on. Added bonus: I was out of college and therefore past the kegs-full-of-PBR phase. Full-time jobs meant big-girl paychecks which translated to wine (red AND white), vanilla vodka, and Cosmopolitans (coming of age during the era of Sex & the City meant we *all* drank cosmopolitans).
But anxiety-related things kept happening during this time of my life:
- I had a horrible panic attack at my first job while wearing a fantastic pair of pale pink pumps. I never wore those shoes after that day because I mistakenly, but fiercely, associated panic with them and put a boatload of fear into those gorgeous pink heels.
- I had another panic attack at a Mexican restaurant and didn’t eat Mexican food for almost 5 years. Of course, the anxiety had nothing to do with the food but I tied the two together so that, like the shoes, I could put my fear on something outside of myself.
- I walked into work at my second job post-college at 7 am, had a panic attack, turned around and went home. I called in sick that day. But, since I couldn’t avoid my job as easily as shoes or burritos, I began a nasty cycle of morning panic attacks. Almost daily. I would have to leave meetings, go to the most remote bathroom to hyperventilate without witnesses, and having a tunnel-like vision as I tried to disassociate from my body and the present moment.
- Crying during a meeting with the Pentagon. This is maybe my favorite. It seems so extremely dramatic but I wasn’t really crying for any big reason. I didn’t mean to cry. I didn’t even notice I was crying until one of the directors steered me out of the meeting and into his office.
Outside of college, the stakes were higher (job versus class, mortgage versus college apartment).
Culturally, things were shifting during this time. This was the early 2000’s, so we all got personal computers, Netflix DVDs were delivered to our mailboxes, and wine tastings were ubiquitous in the big city. I could find a wine tasting everywhere, from the neighborhood gourmet grocer to the big chain pharmacy (and there’s nothing sexier than sipping on lukewarm Chardonnay in your pajamas while you’re standing with a bunch of strangers in the tampon aisle). We bought houses we couldn’t afford with loans we had no business getting, started driving foreign cars (because why not?), and collected shoes like it were our job (see the aforementioned obsession with Sex & the City). There were bad boyfriends and not-so-bad-but-not-quite-right boyfriends and I was a bridesmaid, like, 10 times.
We drank to celebrate. We drank to get over break-ups. I mean, we drank because The Bachelor was on TV. Or not, whatevs! Basically, any emotions that surfaced were a reason to drink: Happy, angry, sad, bored, excited, angry, grieving, lonely. We didn’t recognize that we were drinking at our emotions, of course. That would have ruined the fun of it.
We didn’t recognize that we were drinking at our emotions, of course. That would have ruined the fun of it.
I got married. I had kids. And not even in that order! When my sweet boys were babies and I felt so fragmented and isolated and as we would never leave the house without tears ever again, wine was there. And when they got a wee bit bigger and wanted to play Thomas the Train nonstop and things felt so monotonous, wine was there. And when I wondered what the hell I was doing (as a person and as a mother) and spent nights wracked with anxiety over ridiculously specific potential (but not at all probable) threats to their safety, wine was there. It was there during all the general ping-ponging from the deep contentment of being a part of this family I had created to the chaotic tumult of a never-ending inner dialogue over what-ifs and never-good-enoughs and back again.
It was exhausting. And hard. And yes, the wine helped. The wine turned the volume way down. The wine softened all of the corners and what-ifs bled into not-gonna-happens and I coasted a current of Chardonnay for years.
But the wine tastings and friendly get-togethers and drinking to accompany every-damn-thing had snowballed. It was no longer a question of if we’d drink, but when. It was also never a question of if I’d be anxious, but how anxious.
A coach of mine asked me in the midst of all of this: “What if you quit drinking?” What? The question threw me. I would have been better prepared to field a question about quitting yoga or reading or gluten. Those were the kinds of “see, I’m healthy” passions I hid behind for a decade or more. Questioning the alcohol in my life seemed random.
But you can’t un-hear a meaningful question, even if it seems completely unrelated to you at the moment it’s asked. That question sat with me for years. Y.E.A.R.S. What If I quit drinking?
Questioning the alcohol in my life seemed random.
Unsurprisingly, this ushered in a new era of quitting and starting and quitting and starting. It’s hard to quit drinking in a society that’s drenched in the stuff. And for someone who was so caught off guard by the suggestion to look at my drinking, it was remarkably tricky to give the stuff up, even for small amounts of time. And in all the back-and-forth, my experience with anxiety seemed to skulk nearby.
It became impossible not to notice the relationship between alcohol and anxiety.
I believe, for most of us, there is a baby pool area where alcohol works to soothe our anxiety. It eases social situations, calms our fears, and gives us a boost of courage. But unfortunately, inevitably, we all outgrow that first clumsy experiment with externally managing our emotions. There is simply no staying in that space. It’s a liminal phase which we must pass through and, when we are spit out, it’s like Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper say:
“I’m off the deep end, watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground.”
I never again met the ground of having the wine manage my anxiety. It was an edge I jumped off again and again hoping to find those first few hits of what had felt like such freedom when I initially associated booze with peace. But that freedom was never truly free…
The only path to true liberation around anxiety, or any emotion, is inside. There is no out there that can magically fix the in here. If you’re chasing that one-time freedom, please let me be the one to ask you: What if you quit drinking?