In November 2013, after years of dedicated binge-drinking, I took the decision to become teetotal for a year. 14 months later, I am still dry and my life has improved immeasurably. The key to this achievement was building self-esteem.
Why is self-esteem so important? The compliments of friends/someone of the opposite sex, a promotion at work, a smile from a stranger all improve our moods. Criticism, rejection has a negative impact. This external reliance can extend to material success (income, possessions etc.), the lives of celebrities or the success of a sports team. The extent to which our happiness is tied in with these factors is a good measure of our self-esteem and our vulnerability. If we depend on people or situations out of our control for our happiness then they effectively own our happiness. We are rudderless boats in the ocean, at the mercy of the changeable currents for our direction. My self-esteem relied heavily on the good opinion of others and popularity-gaining drunken nights out were as much an addiction as alcohol.
My 'addiction to belong' made me many great friends and presented lots of interesting experiences, but it also threatened to tear my life apart. Here are some examples of how:
1. I failed my first university stint - Three years 'studying' law where an overwhelming desire to be parts of nights out meant I missed 80% of seminars, 90% of lectures and slept through two exams.
2. I was always penniless - up until the age of 30 I spent every month living a subsistence lifestyle As a student this was understandable, but as a full-time employee it became clear that more money simply meant more opportunities to socialise. I took on second jobs as a waiter or pizza delivery boy and used the tips to go on nights out. I would visit Cash Generator to sell DVDs/birthday presents and use the funds for the same reason.
3. I was Mr Unreliable - I regularly missed work because of hangovers. I missed my cousin's Christening after deciding to go to a club the night before. I slept through promises to take family members to important hospital appointments. I cancelled dates.
4. I begged - I would regularly borrow money off friends, to the extent that I stopped feeling guilty or embarrassed about it. I suspect I still owe some of them.
5. I lied, I smoked, I cheated, I gossiped, I played the fool.
Pretty bad eh? And yet, it's not the actions described above that really make me cringe. Some are simply part of growing up and playing adult. Others are a result of the chemical effects of alcohol. What really hits me is that such was the depth of my self-esteem that I was willing to risk destroying some of the key foundations of my life (family, finances, work), just to gain that hit of approval. I could quite easily have turned down almost all of the occasions mentioned above without offending anyone or 'losing popularity', but my paranoia did not allow it.
The problem was that I was desperately lacking in confidence and this was evident in all aspects of my life. I had moved to London not for myself but for the praise and respect a better job would earn me. I dreaded public speaking/presentations (I drunk about six pints before a best man's speech) because I knew I was being judged by onlookers. I was petrified of first dates and would drink four ales (sometimes five) beforehand. All social occasions would be accompanied by alcohol. And of course I would never turn down a night out for fear of losing popularity.
In 2011 I visited a self-development centre called Inner Space London and it changed my life. I learned that my issue was self-esteem not addiction, and they taught me the theory behind a happier existence. I took up meditation and learned to detach myself from my situations and from other people's opinions. It gave me the strength to pursue long periods of abstinence and (shock horror) to turn down nights out. I went on a date with my now girlfriend to a coffee shop (not drinking the obligatory five pints beforehand).
Around two years later the classes gave me the strength to go completely teetotal.
But it's not just the sobriety and love life that is on the up. Health, finances, fitness, my Polish have all improved. I haven't lost any friendships and having developed my own identity, many friends respect me even more. There are of course still times when I look for the support of others, but the difference now is that I am no longer hiding in their shadows or desperately seeking their approval for my happiness.