I stopped drinking. Why was I still so anxious?
Los Angeles Times February 11, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — After a wildly successful drinking career, I finally retired 11 years ago. I’d love to say that it was a considered decision after mature reflections and conversations with loved ones. But no. After yet another solo drinking spree, I woke up fully clothed on the cold hard tiles of my bathroom floor. Mornings like this had led to weeks of sobriety before. But this day, it felt different, and as I vowed never to self-medicate again, I knew I was done for good.
The winter after I stopped drinking, I wrote a horror screenplay, full of betrayal and torture, an accurate reflection of my state of mind. Less than a year later, I had moved to Los Angeles and co-written a sitcom, a manifestation of my lightened spirit. Still, something inside didn’t feel quite right. I had emerged from my addiction alive and physically healthy. I had a supportive social circle. I moved in with my dream girlfriend. I was Kevin 2.0, relaunched with energy and enthusiasm. So why was I often anxious? Wasn’t this the life I had always wanted?
Perhaps because I’m Irish, from a culture that tends to believe that when good fortune blesses you, it won’t stick around long enough for you to enjoy it, I wouldn’t ever feel at ease. In America, amid the U.S.’ endless pursuit of personal and professional perfection, was I denying who I was?
Where I grew up, men didn’t discuss problems; they deflected and joked and drowned them in alcohol. And being outgoing was essential. Quiet children were seen as faulty, in need of being fixed. Over the years, being called “quiet” became the worst insult you could throw at me.
The truth was I had struggled with anxiety and despair since I was a teenager, a weight so heavy I sometimes couldn’t get out of bed. Playing video games for days at a time in my youth pointed to my future career as a film and TV editor, locked in a dark safe world with only the problems on a screen to solve. But I also yearned to belong.
All my early relationships started at parties or in bars or clubs. Soon I didn’t know how to be around people without drinking. I silenced the quiet, studious kid in me, drowning him in delicious red wine.
Once I got sober and moved to the U.S., I was sure that if I pushed hard enough, I could control every aspect of my life. I chased relationships with women who I thought Kevin 2.0 deserved to be with. Adventurous movers and shakers. Each time I did my best to keep up, but eventually got exhausted and tapped out. In my professional life I modeled positivity, suppressing my natural cynicism for fear of being called a downer. My overworking caused me to crash and burn for weeks at a time, but I always came back for more. And despite successfully not drinking for years, the ghosts that alcohol had once fed continued to haunt me, and it started to show.
In 2022, I went on a boat trip in the south of France with some lifelong friends to celebrate our 50th birthdays. I was nervous about sailing through wine country with enthusiastic drinkers in a confined space. So while they chilled on deck, drinking, I worked out and ran around playing photographer. Several days into the trip I had exhausted myself with busywork and eventually gave myself permission to relax and enjoy our time together. But as soon as I got home, I went back into overdrive.
My family from Ireland visited me in September, and I was their tour guide for the week. My extreme efforts to put on a brave face didn’t fool my youngest sister. After a vulnerable conversation, she suggested I ask my doctor about medication. I had always thought that taking a drug, whether recreational or prescribed, would be cheating. I had vowed to never artificially alter my mental state, to never hide from my emotions or problems again. But to my huge surprise, a wave of relief washed over me, and I said yes.
I’m now a few months into my medication journey and still learning to live with the effects. I realize that getting sober was just a beginning. Exchanging Ireland for LA was just a beginning. Starting medication was just a beginning. Forward motion is what’s important. For me that means letting go of the need for perfection, the need to please, the need to be a version of myself that is unrealistic and ultimately damaging.
But I’m starting to learn to say: Hey, Kevin 3.0, this is you. Just deal with it. And let go.
Kevin Lavelle is a freelance writer living in Echo Park, Calif.
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