Tom Bithell 19th November 2018
I never really had an appetite for alcohol when I was a late teenager. It was present in my life, for sure, but it wasn’t a part of me. I was more prone to be found nurturing a hot mug of coffee at the kitchen table with a book, than a cold pint of beer in the pub with my friends. And that was perfectly fine with me. I didn’t think twice about it.
I’m not saying I had never drunk alcohol before — just that I had never drunk myself into oblivion before. My earliest experience with alcohol was always around the dinner table at a celebration or on a Friday night supervised by my parents. And that was that.
But in 2016, I was accepted into university, and the following September I moved from my small town in Wales to a larger town in West Yorkshire. I was determined to get my life started, make the most out of this new-found freedom and explore my capabilities. In a way, I wanted to ready myself to take my seat at the adult table upon graduation. I was so excited. This was my chance to reinvent myself and be the confident, outgoing person I knew I could be but just hadn’t been until that point.
The day that my parents moved me into my new accommodation was, looking back, the first phase of my self-renovation. It was the first opportunity for me to reinvent myself.
The brutal truth was that back in my hometown, I hadn’t had a core group of friends. I had a few like-minded classmates who I met up with outside school every now and then. But I had left them now, and I had a very vivid image in my mind of what my university experience was going to look like. I was going to find my lifelong friends, experience different cultures and livelihoods, and excel on the course I had worked so hard to get on. It would be straight out of the movies. So, it was time to find those undiscovered friends that I had so desperately wanted and, as luck would have it, my new flatmates were the perfect cast.
The alcohol started to flow and everything got 10 times better
On the day of the big move, once the boxes had been unpacked and the parents had said farewell, my flatmates and I wandered through each other’s rooms, introducing ourselves and complimenting the different décor tastes, before we all gathered in the kitchen and decided what we would do with the first night together. It was exciting, it was nerve-wracking and it was so much fun. I was confident, energised and happy.
Then the alcohol started to flow and everything got 10 times better. I was even more confident — dancing, talking non-stop, truly enjoying myself. But I wasn’t really myself until I made a split-second decision. We were all sat around the table with our chosen beverages to hand. The atmosphere hadn’t died but it had lulled slightly. “Just so you guys know,” I exclaimed, “I am gay.”
The guilt monster was there to damn me for telling these strangers something so critical about myself before I had told my family
That three-letter word. It just streamed out of my mouth like a piece of silk from a spider’s rear. I had always known. But it was the first time I had said it aloud to anybody. It felt as though a closed, rusted gate had suddenly turned golden and opened for me. Waves of emotion rushed through me — waves that I was not expecting to ride that night or any night soon thereafter. The relief was glorious, truly, but a sense of guilt was damningly present. A strong guilt monster began to block my golden gate. The guilt monster was there to damn me for telling these strangers something so critical about myself before I had told my family.
I hadn’t experienced this type of guilt before. It wasn’t the sort of guilt you get if you break something and don’t confess. It was more of a deep-rooted guilt that I suspect, looking back, was always there just waiting to make itself known. A grey entity within me that I had just shone a light on. And I wanted to switch that light off immediately. It was not the time or the place to be figuring it out. So, I took a large gulp of the drink in my hand and the room moved on. Nobody excessively reacted to my announcement. It was immediately accepted, and that was that.
However, the room in my head was still stuck in that moment. It was repeating the scenario over and over, questioning if it had actually happened. On the surface of my mind, it wasn’t a big deal. It was something I had known most of my life. But, subconsciously, I was processing the fact that I had just told my deepest secret. Right there and then, as if I was telling somebody I am right handed. But the drink in my hand quietened that noise, each drawn out sip at a time.
In the heat of my hidden inner battle, I was also forgetting something crucial: I didn’t drink that often. I hadn’t built up any tolerance to alcohol at all and, as you would expect, the rest of the night turned into a fuzzy blur that I could hardly recall in the morning.
‘I had to put you to bed before the rest of us left,’ she laughed as she buttered the toast that had just popped up
When I woke, I felt horrendous. For a 2018 comparison, I felt like I had just been resurrected in the Spellman Cain Pit. The taste in my mouth was horrendous. The smell of my skin was revolting. I was sweaty and uneasy on my feet. Worst of all, I couldn’t remember why. The last thing I remembered was agreeing that we should all go into town and see what the nightclubs had to offer.
I stumbled into the kitchen and found one of my flatmates fixing herself some food. She started saying what a fab time everyone had and how the town’s nightlife was so good. Everyone had been dancing together and the music was on point.
“When did we get in?” I asked.
“We? You didn’t come. I had to put you to bed before the rest of us left,” she laughed as she buttered the toast that had just popped up.
I laughed along with her. “What! As if!” I howled.
She told a few more stories. I remembered my impromptu coming out, and we discussed that evening’s freshers week agenda. Then we parted company; she going to watch some TV, and me heading for the safety of my bed.
I was mortified, and that guilt monster reared its head again. Not only had I now not told my parents I was gay, but I had also made a fool out of myself on the first night with my new flatmates. But at least I had the forthcoming night to redeem myself, right? I instantaneously shut that guilt monster down. I just had to control myself. That was all.
I didn’t know the limits to my alcohol consumption, so I couldn’t control them
But having control over something like that is a precarious balancing act. You need to know the limits of what you are controlling, otherwise you’re out of control by default. And I didn’t know the limits to my alcohol consumption, so I couldn’t control it. But that drive to explore and ready myself jumped into action. Quite sensibly, I had a need to know my limit, and I allowed myself the permission to explore that. It felt like what I imagine a mission into space to be: go out, explore, find what you’re looking for and get back safe and sound.
I couldn’t recognise myself anymore. I was plagued by emotions that only went away with a ‘cheeky drink’
Fast forward to almost the end of my first year; my life had completely changed. The drive I had begun with had driven off out of me, the majority of my friends were found to be fickle and had vanished, the university dream hadn’t lived up to my expectations. I was an emotional wreck. I still hadn’t told my parents I was gay, and I couldn’t recognise myself anymore. I was plagued by emotions that only went away with a “cheeky drink”.
In my self-indulgent quest to find my limit, I had let myself explore too far and hadn’t returned in time to get back to myself. The space shuttle had left without me, and I was constantly stranded on the sticky floor in the flashing lights of a club.
I ignored the times I was inconsolable, the times I was left stranded, wandering on my own
I had become hooked on the feeling I got when I walked into a club. The rush of energy, the excitement and the hype of everyone around me; the dancing with strangers who would become my best friend for the night, to whom I would tell my life story to. I guess one night I simply stayed in the moment for too long, and it was all I wanted to do from then on. I wasn’t addicted to alcohol, but it was the shuttle that delivered me to my fantasy land each night and I was a willing passenger.
I never got obliterated like the first night ever again. I could always remember the night before the day after, but I chose the bits I wanted to remember the most. I ignored the times I was inconsolable, the times I was left stranded, wandering on my own. But it was because of selective memory that I wanted to do it all over again, to relive the moments of euphoria.
Until one night I really didn’t want to.
I woke up the morning after in the woods at the bottom of my accommodation, alone and with nothing on my feet
A good friend and I went out for the night and didn’t come back until 6am. I had lectures all the following day, which I attended. Then the evening came and, after a quick bite to eat, I was off out to the club again. It wasn’t the first time we had done it — it had become an almost consistent loop of events.
But this time was different. I woke up the morning after in the woods at the bottom of my accommodation, alone and with nothing on my feet.
Nothing sinister had happened, I remember clearly. I simply just didn’t want the night to end. I didn’t want to return to the mess of the reality I had created through my new party lifestyle. I wanted to carry on, but everyone had gone. So, I went for a wander to sit by my favourite spot down by the lake to watch the sunrise. It was when I was woken in a light drizzle of rain by the noise of a distant dog walker that I knew I had gone too far. The reality of the danger I had put myself in that night suddenly hit me like the rays of sun I had desperately wanted to see and I quickly faced the cold light of day.
From then on, I stopped drinking alcohol. I stopped borrowing money to party. I stopped going out. At the time, I hadn’t known why I was drinking the way I was drinking, but now, looking back, I know I was doing it to be that person people would recognise on the dancefloor; to be the person who always had a group of friends to dance with, and to be the king of my own self-indulgent midnight dream.
But that was never the reality at all. I was recognised, but for being there too much. I didn’t have a group of friends. I had out-partied them all. I was more alone than I had started out.
I still enjoy alcohol, but I have a new-found respect for it
Today, I have moved on. I have shut that chapter of my life. I now have a stable boyfriend, and I got my shit together on a new course. I enjoy alcohol, but I have a new-found respect for it. I understand my limit. I don’t push past it looking for more.
My mission has been completed with little-to-no lasting damage, thankfully. I know I was lucky. I could have gotten into some serious trouble on many occasions, and I am thankful that I didn’t. But now I am aware of those new explorers who descend on university campuses each year; those determined seekers who need to push everything to the limit. I hope that they have the strength and sense to not get caught out by themselves the way that I did. It’s natural to want to brave new horizons, but I hope they pick their exploration missions carefully.
To know the facts, visit Alcohol Concern. To get the best out of your university experience, remember: everything in moderation, with a strong tether to yourself. Have fun and create wild memories. But be cautious.
Tom Bithell 19th November 2018