Did social anxiety get you drunk?

My first summer in Madison was one of firsts. I was living on my own, making my own money, chipping away at my own student loans. I was also making my own rules; I couldn’t look to the next dorm room over to see what was normal. Rather, I was establishing my own habits, setting precedents for what was to come.

It was time to consider the type of drinker I would be. Or perhaps more accurately, to observe the type of drinker I’d become. Although I had pre-gamed the pre-games in college, it felt markedly different from drinking alone in a one-bedroom apartment. In the latter case, I was making the conscious decision to become less conscious for the mundanities of everyday life: cleaning, reading, paying my taxes. To drink, or not to drink?

It was rare that I drank in the morning, particularly in the absence of a socially acceptable reason. I vividly remember four years ago when one such reason arose. My boyfriend at the time had organized a float trip, and this terrifying and beautiful group of strangers was set to leave at 10am. There it was: a reason to drink at 9.30.

Even with a buzz, I was worried. Worried about the strangers, worried about being literally tethered to them for 3 uninterrupted hours. Worried at the impossibility of wearing makeup, as it would most certainly be washed off. Worried at the emotional impasse of wearing a swimsuit: should I wear a bikini and worry about my stomach, or wear a one-piece and appear to be worried about my stomach?

I wish I could tell you that the trip was unremarkable. In truth, I can’t remark on even that. My ex had emptied a bottle of Kraken rum into a 2 liter bottle of Coke and sent it my way. (He knew I was alcoholic, and therefore knew that alcohol was the way to my heart.) Kraken in hand, I ceased to feel anxiety - and indeed, to feel much of anything at all.

This past weekend, I returned to Wisconsin's S&B Tubing with over three years of sobriety under my belt. In many ways, the situation was the same. Alcohol everywhere, bikini-clad, tethered to strangers. No option to leave.

And yet - the differences. I was the designated driver. I ended the day burping on bubble water rather than passed out on rum and coke. And then of course, there was me: I was different.

When it came to quelling social anxiety, alcohol felt like my best (and ultimately, only) tool. The evidence would say otherwise. Four years ago, I fell into a drunk sleep in an inner-tube just to evade the job of impression management. Last weekend, I felt a lot of things - some of them complex - but social anxiety wasn't one.

Rather, I felt sober. Sobriety isn’t the absence of nutty thoughts, but rather the capacity to examine them. Do they think I’m rude? Boring? Ugly? Are they wondering why I’m here? When these ideas cropped up, I was able to look at them critically. I was able in large part to dismiss them. They aren’t thinking about you. Ninety-nine percent of the time, people are blessedly, charmingly thinking about themselves. That’s one of my favorite things about people.

If alcohol wasn’t actually helping me deal with people, then what was it doing?

It was delaying the inevitable. When an alcoholic starts drinking, developmental milestones are put on hold. For me, this meant that the self-consciousness I felt fresh out of high school, just before trying booze for the first time, was precisely the same feeling I had five years later on my first-ever float trip. Will they like me? Will they think I’m weird?

No one is really thinking about you. That lesson is central to growing up, but in order to learn it I had to say conscious. In order to learn it, I had to think one thing, and then have a different experience. This process is impeded by alcohol; it’s hard to examine the evidence or re-examine beliefs when you’re drunk.

In many ways, I feel “caught up” developmentally. No, I’m not married or raising a kid, the way my mom was at my age. But the questions that challenge me, that keep me up at night, are pretty common among 25-year-olds. Will they like me has been replaced by Do I like me? What am I doing? Where am I heading? Can I find true intimacy with other human beings along the way?

Alcohol plays no part in answering the questions above, in stumbling along that uncertain path. Perhaps I’m not healed - not fully - but neither am I using crutches.