My first memory is of experiencing a muddled, fuzzy sensation in my stomach and chest, combined with overpowering doubt, confusion, and a buzzing of unspecified fear in my head. I’m about 4. My Granny is at the door.
Unadulterated, free-floating anxiety in its purest form, as demonstrated in a small child about to receive a visit from a beloved earl grey tea and soap-scented family member. I can still feel it today.
I didn’t know what it was then - I certainly didn’t identify it as anxiety. It just was. It became my baseline, the core of my being. Where I lived. My normal.
When life started for real, I became a mess. Anxiety is a pervasive condition; as I grew, it grew with me. When I had real things to worry about, my anxiety made them worse and blew them to catastrophic proportions. Circumstances and anxiety interacted in a cruel way leading to a terrifying never-never land of fantasy and skewed perspectives. This was my inner world. Outwardly, you might not have known unless you looked really hard
When I was about 12, I got drunk with some friends on my father’s booze, behaved appallingly, threw up, woke up mortified and didn’t touch it again for 2 years. But when I was 14, I tried it again, and this time, there were fireworks. Everything changed.
It wasn’t what I felt. It was the absence of what I felt. No more anxiety. No more shyness, awkwardness, or sense of not belonging. I wasn’t the small kid, “the fat blonde English kid” as they called me, the one with the funny accent, the stupid one. Relieved of fear, I became someone completely different - confident, funny, a showman, an entertainer, a go-getter, a person who mattered.
But in the morning, I was back to me again. Baseline Matt, with a profound sense of wonder at what had happened the night before, the person I had become, and the possibilities that existed with this new way of being me. I never identified the simple fact that the alcohol had truly but only temporarily relieved my anxiety for the first time, and I loved it. I wanted that state of consciousness permanently - that blissful absence of fear. And I spent years trying to achieve it.
Of course, the problem was that this deluded quest for inner peace actually caused more turmoil, as is the way of addiction. A self-fulfilling prophecy where my behaviour deteriorated as a consequence of what I was drinking and taking in search of relief, thus increasing levels of anxiety in the long run, that needed further medicating. And that’s not an effective long-term solution. In fact, for me, what had seemed like the solution quickly became part of the problem.
Over the years, psychological and physical dependence developed into the overpowering need to continue taking the very things that were poisoning me, my life, and the lives of my family. The inability to do so, in the face of so desperately wanting to stop, and trying so hard, is the misunderstood tragedy that underlies addiction.
In parallel, I was diagnosed with OCD during my teens, which is a severe and oft-misunderstood anxiety disorder. So, I was really carrying 2 torches - a growing addiction to alcohol and a bonafide nasty mental health condition. Alcohol relieved the growing symptoms of OCD, and as I grew older, I consciously drank to relieve the symptoms. I knew that 2 or 3 glasses in, I’d feel fine. But could I stop after 2 or 3?
I’d never blame my addiction on my OCD, but they were kindred spirits. A dynamic duo.
As a teenager I didn’t get on with conformity or authority so my life was unsettled, to put it mildly. Unable to regulate my myriad of emotions other than by self-medicating with alcohol and other substances, my behaviour was unmanageable, and there were a lot of consequences from a young age. I have a lot of empathy for that boy who was in a massive amount of emotional pain along with the fear that OCD brings, trying to self-soothe it but only making it much worse, caught in a downward self-perpetuating self-destructive spiral.
Outer appearances can be so deceiving. I became one of those so-called functional alcoholics you hear about. Labelled rebellious, creative and eccentric which led to a patchy education, I subsequently thrived in a chosen career where there was more camouflage for this alcoholic than an army surplus warehouse. Outwardly successful, married with adorable children, you still wouldn’t have known much was wrong - unless you looked very hard. But inside I was screaming. And eventually, when the wheels finally flew off, the whole of me collapsed into the abyss after them.
I was in free-fall for a long time and almost didn’t make it. But recovery does happen to the most unlikely people in the most unlikely ways, and it came to me after a long and very bumpy road. Slowly - sometimes one minute at a time, I was brought back by the love of other people, a treatment centre and the 12 Step fellowships. All I had to do was turn up and let it happen. And after a long period of defrosting, I began to feel vaguely human again.
And as they say - “the good news is you get your feelings back; the bad news is you get your feelings back.” My anxiety and OCD were still there waiting for me and in early recovery, without the anaesthetic, it was tough.
Life on life’s terms, they call it. But recovery also teaches us how to manage the feelings, and how to replace the unhealthy and ultimately destructive coping mechanisms with healthy, constructive ones. And psychiatry helped me with the OCD. I’m a great believer in getting the right treatment for the right condition from the right people. The 12 Steps couldn’t, and wouldn’t cure my mental health condition any more than they could cure a cold. It’s massively important to remember that.
I’m quite a few years down the line now. Recovery has given me a whole new life which includes all my children, a grandchild and a career in the field of recovery that constantly blows me away. Although I still suffer from acute anxiety and my OCD is always there in the background, doing push-ups alongside my addiction, I know that a drink or a drug won’t make it better - not even for a short time, and I need to look elsewhere for relief. For me, it’s through the practice of the 12 Step fellowships and connection with other people. But other things work for other people and if they haven’t worked for you yet, please don’t stop trying.
Because recovery is possible.
If anyone is still reading, there is hope, and if you think you're a lost cause, you're not.
Please ask for help and support, a new life could be waiting just around the corner. Reach out to us here.