‘I thought my dependency on alcohol made my anxiety better’

Aoife McElwain: Giving up drink was ‘the most important life change I’ve made’

‘Niall had this gorgeous glass of wine, and I took a sniff of it. The sensation I got was as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff and I was going to fall over'

‘Niall had this gorgeous glass of wine, and I took a sniff of it. The sensation I got was as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff and I was going to fall over'

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The Time of My Life is a weekly column about a moment that changed someone’s life – for the better or the worse.

When I turned 30, I started to get really crippling hangovers. They weren’t just a day, but three, four days, of terrible fear and physical illness. For most of my 20s I was a little bit worried about my drinking. I kind of always knew it was unhealthy. But because I always had a job and relationships, I thought “maybe it’s okay, maybe it’s grand, maybe it’s normal to wake up in a toilet in a nightclub with vomit in my hair”.

I decided to give myself a target of three months without drinking. I had previously done a week, two weeks, but I don’t think I’d stopped consistently before that, which always worried me. I was determined to prove to myself that I didn’t have anything to worry about. My anxiety was pretty intense around that time, and I wanted to remove something I was anxious about. I thought: this is something I can do, so if I remove alcohol I might feel better.

I’m not an alcoholic and I wasn’t. I had a dependency on alcohol that I thought made my anxiety better

In the first year, there were immediate physical benefits. I lost weight, began to look healthier, my hair got really shiny, which was weird. What was interesting was the first year was so difficult with regards to my anxiety levels. All this stuff that I had no way of processing without a glass of wine was still there. The best decision I made was to get a therapist, who I still see. That helped me work through some of the roots of my anxiety that I had been numbing with alcohol.

The anxiety started to go away as I started to figure out how to be a person again without this crutch I had used for so long. I was worried my relationships would change, with my friends, with my husband, that I wouldn’t be able to be part of the craic. I think that’s something Irish people think. It’s such a part of how we hang out with each other and live. The craic is mighty, but for me it had become really damaging.

The first time a glass of wine looked appealing to me again, we were out for dinner and my husband Niall had this gorgeous glass of wine, and I took a sniff of it. The sensation I got was as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff and I was going to fall over. It was a physical reaction. I thought, “I’m not going to drink again until I get the feeling that alcohol isn’t as dangerous as a cliff”. That was a really big moment for me.

It’s the most important life change I’ve made. It has made my relationships better, not worse

Looking back – it’ll be five years this summer – it’s the most important life change I’ve made. It has made my relationships better, not worse. I don’t think I would have achieved the things I’ve achieved in the past five years. It’s given me room to learn more about myself, get to know myself better, and to grow in self-awareness, which has informed a lot of my projects including my new book, Slow At Work.

I’m not an alcoholic and I wasn’t. I had a dependency on alcohol that I thought made my anxiety better but it made it worse. My body knew, the voice in the back of my head knew. I heard someone say once that a problem with alcohol is sort of like mice, if you think you have a problem, you do.

  • Aoife McElwain’s new book Slow at Work: How to work less, achieve more and regain your balance in an always-on world is out now published by Gill Books.
  • Do you want to share your Time of My Life story? Email magazine@irishtimes.com with “Time of My Life” in the subject line
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