From co-presenter of the award-winning BBC Radio 5 podcast Hooked, Sobering: Lessons Learnt the Hard Way on Drinking, Thinking and Quitting is Melissa Rice’s candid, irreverent memoir-on-a-mission detailing her struggle with alcohol addiction. From pickled, batshit and utterly hopeless to sober, sane and hopeful, Melissa shares her story, along with the lessons she learned along the way.
Straight to it, no messing about and no pussyfooting around, we have to talk about mental health and alcohol. (I can hear my mum’s thoughts already: ‘Oh god, why is she starting this book with her mental health? She’ll never find a husband now.’) I was trying to think of a lighter subject to begin with, but when I think about my story, the fact is that the one constant that has stuck with me through thick and thin is my (poor) mental health; whether that be good old anxiety, bouts of depression, intrusive thoughts, self-destructive behaviours or self-defeating coping strategies – they all matter, and contributed to my reliance, and then dependence, on booze.
I don’t separate my mental health issues from my addiction, and I don’t favour or prioritise one over the other, because I can’t. They are two co-existing, nightmarish bedfellows: when one kicks off, the other rears its ugly head; they are a loyal tag-team who, if left to their own devices, would have me locked in the family home like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre, pickled and batshit. To manage my mental health is to manage my addiction and, let me tell you, when there is the infrequent moment that I feel like I have a good grasp of both it is pure bliss.
We are fortunate to live in an age where mental illness and prioritising your head and well-being is commonplace – I’m pretty certain that if I had been born in the nineteenth century I would have been living the rest of my life in an asylum. (It still shocks me to the core what those suffering were subjected to in the name of ‘treatments’.) Society has progressed and evolved with respect to mental health. We are more aware, are becoming more tolerant, and people are less likely to change the subject when they hear words like ‘depression’, ‘anxiety’, ‘borderline personality disorder’, ‘bi-polar’ and ‘antidepressants’ (to name a few). Some workplaces have well-thought-out mental health and well-being policies and in-house counselling services, while Instagram is packed full of mental health accounts. There are podcasts upon podcasts on ‘how to cope’, multiple national campaigns to spread awareness, while phrases such as ‘It’s OK to not be OK’ are all the rage. I’m here for it all – the destigmatising of the mental health movement is a good thing. It is a great thing. I wish these resources and this level of human understanding had been around a decade ago when I was tying myself in knots, paralysed with fear, thinking I was the only person who thought and felt the way I did.
But as wonderful as this shift has been for us all, when I think about where addiction is placed in this well-being uprising, I feel somewhat dejected. Stigma around the topic, and unhealthy stereotypes, create a wall of shame, a barrier to seeking help, and form (perfectly ‘valid’) reasoning for keeping your struggle and even your success hidden until the time feels right and you feel safe enough to share your truth. During the height of my harmful drinking days, and even in my early days of sobriety, finding someone or something that really embraced addiction as part of the ‘mental health’ family was a struggle, and to a large part continues to be. The way I see it is that addiction is considered to be that embarrassing uncle at the wedding, the one you don’t want the new in-laws or guests to see. He is of course family, and by principle he should be attending the do, but he is not representative of your family and, by god, you don’t want pics of him in the wedding album. This may seem a little harsh but, believe me, I’m not the type to upset the apple cart or ruffle feathers (if anything, I’m the type of person who would go to any lengths to keep all the apples perfectly placed and those feathers silky smooth), but I know I’m not a lone ranger with this feeling that addiction is not considered, perceived or received like other mental illness ‘relatives’.
Living in a ‘recovery house’ for two years – a block of flats for women who are leaving rehab and in early recovery – meant that I had a focus group to hand. I asked the girls their opinions on addiction being detached from ‘mental health’, and all eight women shared their thoughts and experiences with me. What was wonderful about our impromptu chat was that we all experienced feeling shame or being shamed for suffering with addiction – that in having this affliction our other mental health issues were delegitimised.
Unanimously, we agreed that putting ‘addiction’ and ‘mental illness’ in two separate boxes wasn’t helpful at all – the fact that to treat our mental health means we have to treat (and manage) our addiction to maintain good mental health shows just how grey this area is.
Basically, if Mental Illness and Addiction were on Facebook, their relationship status would definitely be ‘It’s complicated’.
Sobering: Lessons Learnt the Hard Way on Thinking, Drinking and Quitting by Melissa Rice is out now from September Publishing (9781912836673, p/b, £12.99)
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