How I Went From ‘Normal Drinker’ To Being Addicted To Alcohol

Photographed by Poppy Thorpe
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Christmas, New Year's Eve, Zoom birthdays, work functions, date nights, leaving dos, christenings... It often feels that every life event is centred around alcohol. Yet despite the long list of social activities based around booze, in the last decade our relationship to drinking culture has changed drastically, with an increasing number of millennials choosing to give up alcohol altogether.
This was the case for American author Holly Whitaker, who in 2012 began her own journey to sobriety after developing an alcohol dependency throughout her 20s. Although life-changing, her recovery unveiled the male-centric frameworks that exist within recovery programmes and the patriarchal forces at play in the alcohol industry.
Since then, Holly has gone on to create her own sobriety school, as well as detailing her battle with addiction in her debut book, Quit Like A Woman. Discussing recovery through a female lens, she aims to give insight into our obsession with drinking, why alcoholism is a gendered issue and the strength that can be found in going sober.
In the following extract from Quit Like A Woman, Holly discusses how her relationship with alcohol started...
Nearly a decade ago, about a year before I stopped drinking alcohol, a friend of mine showed up at my door. She lived in my neighbourhood, the Tendernob of San Francisco, which is another way of saying we lived somewhere between a shithole and a fancy tourist trap. It was early on a Saturday afternoon, and my friend was carrying a Solo cup full of whiskey because some man she’d met on OkCupid had broken her heart. It seemed a reasonable solution to me at the time: to walk around the streets of San Francisco sipping Maker’s Mark to dull the specific pain of being rejected by someone she met on the internet who wasn’t good enough for her in the first place. Only, I would have chosen Jameson.
We called a few friends to come over, and we sat in my little studio apartment smoking pot and drinking even more whiskey and cheap wine from the corner store, when my dear, broken-hearted friend announced to the group that she was pretty sure she was going through an "alcoholic phase." Alcoholic phase. I looked around the room at the faces of my other friends for a hint of the same reaction I felt, which was relief. I saw not only looks of relief but also ones of deep knowing — we’d all experienced something close enough to that to empathise. Huh.
When you’re terrified that maybe your drinking has gone off the rails, nothing will rein in that hysterical, ridiculous thought more tightly than a group of successful, intelligent, attractive, "together" women who normalise your affliction with a new term: Alcoholic phase! This scenario is only one of a few hundred examples of why I couldn’t figure out whether I really had a problem with alcohol, or if maybe I was just going through a little "thing" that would straighten itself out.
Around the time of this particular incident, when I was thirty-three, my drinking was escalating in a way that felt out of control. It was no longer just one or two at home, or a drunk night out with the girls, or hangovers on the weekends, or any of the things I’d done in my twenties that felt moderately in control or normal-ish. I was drinking by myself after going out; I was hungover more days than not; keeping it to a bottle of wine a night felt like a win; five o’clock stopped coming fast enough, and I started to leave work at 4:45, then 4:30, then 4:00 p.m. At some point, it made sense to carry airline shots in my purse — just in case.
Sometimes (especially when working on a deadline) I holed up in my apartment for days on end, drinking from morning until I passed out. That kind of thing. But (and there is always a but when you want to invalidate everything you’ve just said) I didn’t drink every night, and I didn’t drink any more than my friends when we went out. I’d recently made it twelve days without booze, and — perhaps most important to me — I had mastered the art of keeping my shit together when drunk in public. I was never the one being carried home, and I was never the one who got sloppy. I made sure of that.

It took me seventeen years to realise alcohol had never done me any favours, seventeen years of trying to control it and master it and make it work for me like I imagined it worked for all the other people.

To my mind, there was enough evidence to prove I was a "normal drinker," and equally enough evidence to qualify me for the Betty Ford. I went back and forth between knowing I needed major help and thinking if I just did more fucking yoga, I’d be fine. My passage into sobriety was both slow and fast. Slow, in that it took me seventeen years to realise alcohol had never done me any favours, seventeen years of trying to control it and master it and make it work for me like I imagined it worked for all the other people. Fast, in the sense that once I crossed some invisible line, one I still can’t retrace, I was hurtling so quickly toward total dissolution that I couldn’t pretend to have the strength to stave off what was happening to me. The whole thing was like that Price Is Right game where the little yodeler is climbing the mountain and you never know when he’s going to stop or how far he’s going to make it, but you also know he has the potential to go all the way.
It might be helpful to mention that during this time I was simply killing it at work. I’d joined a start-up in 2009, and because I was a cutthroat workaholic with a habit of fucking men in charge, in a few short years I landed a director title — something typically reserved for Ivy League MBAs who favoured Ann Taylor pinstripes. It was a health care company, and many of my friends were medical doctors, so I dropped in to see one of them about my "thing." I explained that I might have a teeny-tiny drinking issue and a habit of throwing up most things I ate, and when she had to google how to treat me and suggested Alcoholics Anonymous, I knew I was completely screwed. I bought wine on the way home from that appointment, because I wasn’t an alcoholic and there was no way in hell I was going to AA.
But over the course of the next eighteen months, one by one, I stopped drinking, smoking pot, taking all recreational drugs, and I got over my bulimia. I started meditating and crawled out of the depths of depression, addiction, sickness, and crushing debt. Within twenty months of that afternoon with my friends — drinking room-temperature whiskey and pondering if maybe all of us are sick or none of us are — I also quit my job. I did this because I had finally become someone who (a) wasn’t the kind of woman who reports to someone she’s been sleeping with, and (b) had a pure reason to exist: I knew I was supposed to start a revolution around alcohol, addiction, and recovery.
What I didn’t quite know was exactly how I would do that, or that this revolution would become stronger with the strands of activism and energy woven into other major social forces: fourth-wave and intersectional feminism, the reaction to the Trump election, the legalisation of marijuana in several states, the Black Lives Matter movement, the opioid crisis, and the growing and vocalised dissent against a very racist, classist, imperialist — and failed — War on Drugs.
This journey has been an evolving one. At first, it was the story of a dead woman walking, of all the women in this world who try to conform to a life they are told they should want — one that looks good on paper. I drank green juice and I made the right sounds when I fucked men I didn’t really like and I crushed it in the boardroom and travelled to Central America all by myself and my ass was yoga tight. I did all the right things until all the right things became so suffocating I wound up prostrate, drunk, on the floor of my apartment.
It then became the journey of a woman waking up to the world and all its possibilities and wonder, her own power and voice and unique identity, the bigness that a life can be when we centre it on our true desires, compared to the smallness of the one we accept when we centre it on the desires we’re supposed to have.
That personal awakening was followed by the part where I discovered that alcohol was not only something I could not abide, but perhaps something we all shouldn’t, and that was paralleled by the part where I discovered that the systems in place to help me stop drinking the chemical we’ve been trained to tolerate — the chemical that was physically and emotionally and mentally murdering me — were archaic, patriarchal, masculine, and hence ineffective for me as a non-man. I discovered that I not only had to claw my way out of hell and construct my own system for recovery, but that also, perhaps, it was my duty to create something more so the women who come after me, women who are dying in broad daylight while we look the other way, might not have to face the same bullshit I had to endure.
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