One year ago, I unknowingly had my last drink. Three vodka lemonades.
It was the day after I finished the summer semester of my second year at university. My mom and I were at a bar watching my dad’s band play. It should have been a happy time, but I was struggling with depression and anxiety—and it was getting worse.
Looking back, second year is a blur, but I remember drinking. It started at parties and small get-togethers at my best friend’s dorm. Soon it became Monday nights in, with anyone willing to drink. The parties were long over, but I wasn’t done.
I’ve suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety since high school, but that fall it came back for a number of reasons, some related to school, some not, and hit me harder than expected.
I’m not particularly unique when it comes to struggling with mental health and alcohol use disorders. In fact, a rather sobering survey by the American College Health Association showed that between 2013 and 2016—right when I was enrolled in university—there was a 50-percent increase in anxiety, 47-percent increase in depression and 86-percent increase in substance abuse reported among Ontario university students.
There’s a strong connection between drinking and depression, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
“People who are struggling with mental illness usually end up using some kind of a substance, including alcohol,” says addictions expert Dr. Michael Bertram of Toronto’s CAMH.
For me, it was vodka Sprites. I’d drink four every night, mostly as a sleep aid. Binge drinking is defined as five or more drinks in a sitting for men, and four or more for women, so I fit the bill. Each morning, I’d wake up hungover. Nauseated, with bloodshot eyes and feeling a little shaky, I’d trudge off to class, cradling a bottle of Gatorade. To strangers, I looked like a stressed student. I’d convinced myself it was all OK—how could I have a problem if I was managing good grades?
This cycle of drinking went on for three semesters. During my second summer semester, my close friends started worrying about me. Soon enough, they were telling me I needed to stop.
I made an appointment to see a counsellor through the school, and thankfully, there was only a two-week waiting period. This isn’t the case for everyone. A recent Toronto Star and Ryerson School of Journalism investigation found that there is an “unprecedented demand for mental health service among young people”—so much so, it’s raising alarms among medical experts and universities.
Together with my school counsellor, we slowly began exploring why I was drinking. That’s when I heard two words that would change my life—problem drinker—followed by two more: clinical depression. I completed a series of questionnaires to arrive at the latter diagnosis. Still, it wasn’t enough to change the way I thought about my drinking.
Despite the counselling, I was still struggling. My anxiety felt endless and my depressive episodes began to last weeks, rather than days.
During this time, I started drinking even more. And earlier in the day. I was studying for finals and I had more free time without regular classes. By now, I was drinking in the afternoon just to get through the day.
I dreaded waking up every morning and honestly thought I had nothing left to live for. I started researching rehab facilities because I thought there was no other way out.
Fear was mounting that I wasn’t living up to my own expectations of where I should be halfway through my university career and I spiralled down a darker hole of despair.
I had hit rock bottom.
I remember the day I called my parents crying hysterically and finally ’fessed up to how I was really feeling. They were worried, but knew there was nothing they could do until after my exams. My mom thought I was overreacting and being influenced by my friends into believing I had a problem. She didn’t know I was drinking every day and night.
After exams and on the night of my dad’s concert, I realized I wanted to change. Three drinks didn’t even get me buzzed and they didn’t make me happier either.
I knew my depression wasn’t going anywhere, so I decided the next day that I would get help from a medical professional. I saw my family doctor and told her about my drinking and depression. She prescribed antidepressants—what felt like the answer to my problems. I was told that I absolutely could not abuse alcohol on antidepressants; it could end up really hurting my body. It felt like the perfect excuse to change my life for the better.
That’s when I decided never to drink again—and I would finally hold myself accountable. I don’t know how I did it, but I just summoned the courage and self-control and I quit.
Going cold turkey seemed like an impossible task, but I was motivated. Luckily, being young and not having abused alcohol for all that long meant I didn’t really go through any serious withdrawal symptoms. It helped that I had a few weeks away from school—and wifi. I ditched social media and slept. A lot. I would sleep for most of the day while I got used to the dosage amount of my new meds. Slowly, I started rediscovering the things I love: reading, going to school and laughing.
After my first month of sobriety, I returned back to school with a plan. I knew I’d have the distraction of homework to help me, but I’d have to be honest with everyone around me if I was going to stay sober. I told my closest friends I needed their help so I could stick with it. For the time being that meant eliminating potential triggers, like parties, and instead, I would hang out with friends during the day. No matter how left out I felt initially, I tried to remember that even one sip could threaten my progress. Nothing was going to make me go back to that dark place. My glass of ginger ale would have to suffice—and it did.
It wasn’t as bad as I thought. For the first time, I felt like I had a future.
My counselor gave me ongoing emotional support, teaching me ways to deal with negative experiences. I learned breathing exercises to help reduce my anxiety and was told to distract myself with my favourite songs.
My recovery was going well in the fall semester, but by spring my depression had grown worse. I was stuck in a cycle of self-doubt and believed I would never be as happy as I was before I started drinking. In April, my family doctor switched me to a new medication, which has been helping.
I got myself all the way to summer without slipping up. Not a single drop. Summer would be my biggest test. No schoolwork to distract me, and patio weather just begging for a refreshing beverage.
But I stuck it out. Today, I’m one year sober.
People always ask me why I don’t drink, and each time it gets easier to explain. I simply tell them I have a problem with alcohol—one I don’t wish to repeat.
I now know I’m a different person since I became sober. And I like that person, because she’s way more confident than she ever was before.
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