I remember being perched on a barstool, grasping a desperate pint, trapped by the belief that my situation would continue indefinately. I assumed that tomorrow would be a carbon copy of today. There were no blue skys in my future. There was no hope. I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be that way. That by quitting drinking and making simple changes I have managed to redirect my life.
When I look at a photo of me in the drinking days cut next to one of me now I can’t help but think you crazy bastard, you cheated fate.
Usually, a tear and a smile appear together. A tear for the past and a smile for the future. How different the future looks now compared to the dark days of old.
In these six years of sobriety I have been intrigued to learn about recovery and also, how I ended up in this situation. How did I become addicted to alcohol? And more importantly how did I manage to change it?
“Alcoholism is a disease of mind, body and spirit,” is what AA told me. The recovery from which is dependent on following the twelve steps to salvation. The result is a spiritual awakening and daily freedom from the disease of alcoholism. “Follow the steps and they will lead you to freedom,” it seemed simple enough but I had questions. What if the steps don’t work? What if I cannot find a higher power? Am I damned to be consumed by the poison I consume? Some of them went unanswered and I was left with two problems 1) If this isn’t for me where do I go? and 2) Why do I have to question everything? I must have been ridiculously annoying as a kid but that’s a different story.
AA promotes a road to recovery that relies on a spiritual model. It is said that “there is no cure for alcoholism only a daily reprieve.” Eventually, those days stack up to become weeks, months and years but it is still one day at a time. Which, on the face of it, isn’t terrible advice. A lot of my anxiety was caused by projecting into the future. Images of situations that may never occur haunted me as reality but keeping my thinking in the day is a good remedy to this fantastical fear. The downside to this is the endless battle. I just wanted to become a non drinker. So I sought out other advice and books. Some other “quit lit” states that alcohol is addictive to all and should be avoided. Addicts are just a victim of the drug. Overuse, over a period of time, causes the user to become dependent. A healthy fear of alcohol can’t be a bad thing. Especially in a world built on alcohol.
A bit of digging about on the link between genetics and alcoholism leads to the conclusion that it is in fact, a combination of factors, genetics and environment. For example, if a potential addict is born but raised in a household with a restrictive healthy fear over alcohol. The potential addict is thus aware of the dangers of alcohol and is fully aware of their actions. Or a non-potential addict is born, drinks heavily in their youth but suffers no ill effects beyond the usual ill effects but as she ages, grows out of the behaviour. The drinking may return in bouts but addiction isn’t a problem.
In other words, there will be no single “gene for alcoholism” but rather variations in many different genes that together, interacting with the environment, place some people at significantly higher risk for the disease.
These analyses have identified several traits, or phenotypes, that appear to be genetically determined, such as the presence of alcohol dependence, the level of response to alcohol, the presence of coexisting depression, or the maximum number of drinks a person consumes per occasion.
It appears that the belief that addiction as a transferable disease is based on religious beliefs; “Alcoholism runs in families. It was alluded to in the Bible, Aristotle and Plutarch remarked about it, and doctors and preachers of the 19th century were unanimous: alcoholism ran in families and was inherited,” and as a result, the main recovery model has grown to fit this. A recovery of spirit, mental and physical attributes which in turn will lead to a daily reprieve from alcohol.
There is nothing wrong with believing this. As John Lennon once sang “whatever gets you through the night, it’s all right…” but what comes with this type of recovery is a constant fear of relapse. A constant battle with an invisible enemy who is hell-bent on taking us down at the first opportunity. Our addiction is a predator looking for a moment of weakness so it can feast on our misery. Or is it? Is it not enough to come to the realisation that by having one drink it is then possible to have many. By CHOOSING to not have one, the power is taken from the alcohol. The temptation may still circulate as it does with the many products in the advertisements that plague our lives but we have a choice to imbibe or not. That choice to drink or not didn’t exist before the realisation that our behaviour later can be prophesied by our actions earlier. By accepting the responsibility of imbibing I am then empowered. To drink is to give everything away. I am not being cheated by a disease I am being a fool to myself.
Write this sentence and stick it to somewhere you will see it. Keep repeating it. Paint it on the side of your house if you need to. Just get it in there. IF I DON’T DRINK ONE! THEN I CAN’T GET DRUNK! Simple.
The damage starts when the pin comes out the hand grenade the devastation happens where you direct it. DON’T PULL THE PIN OUT?!
I became an addict because I loved drinking and was raised in a world were drinking was a way to be accepted. I, unfortunately, had a disposition that meant I was prepared to forgo the accepted norms to drink alcohol. That is what I believe. I don’t blame anyone or anything. I now own my past and take full responsibility for my actions. I just sort of sleepwalked into a nightmare situation and had to fight my way out.
The reason I like this balanced view is because I don’t want to be weighed down by the label of being diseased nor do I want to find myself preaching the evils of alcohol. I can offer help if people want it but I am not going to convert drinkers into non-drinkers. I had some great times drinking but eventually, my friends slowed down and I didn’t. The fact that both nature and nurture combined to make me an addict explains a lot. It also, allows me to choose my actions around drinking. I have a choice today whether I drink or not.
After the realisation that I was addicted to alcohol I had to change my life.
First, I accepted that I couldn’t drink anymore. Tricky to do with the cognitive dissonance being so strong. I had to admit what I had been trying to hide for years. I have a problem and I need help.
This is where things got scary. Especially as a man who found it hard to open up. Expressing genuine feelings required a vulnerability which, in a world of that I perceived to be full of wolves, left me feeling open to attack. To lay bare the soul is to risk being consumed. I thought it was a dog eat dog world and showing weakness meant that you got eaten. This is the reason I needed to be smashed to pieces physically and mentally before I sought the help I desperately needed. With nothing left to lose there was nothing to lose by taking a chance to reach out for help. An honest, heartfelt realisation that drinking is not the answer was the beginning of my recovery. This was cemented by the fact quitting wasn’t quite as easy as I thought it would be. Like my friend said “drinking wasn’t a problem until I wanted to quit and realised I couldn’t,” for me that was when the real drinking had started. I increased the amount to block out the reality that I was in trouble. Perverse I know but how else do you cope when your only coping mechanism is the problem? There was no option but to cut it out of my life completely.
People have supported me through the journey into sobriety but no one could do it for me. As the old saying goes; “You can lead a horse to water but the horse can still run to the off licence and buy a bottle of whiskey!” I had to want it. I had to realise that running back will never get me forward. It looked scary, the road into the unknown. The suppressed memories stood waiting to torment me. To remind me how much of a bastard I had been. Every minor infraction was brought into clear view and the court was in session all inside my head. It was bollocks. It was just nonsense created by my mind to try to stop me doing something different. It was the fear of the unknown and fear of failure trying to keep me from escaping. I had to talk it through with friends, relatives and therapists. I had to build bridges. I had to take responsibility and OWN MY SHIT for the first time in my life. I had to stop making excuses and start making plans. I had to stand up and say “I fucked up but I want to put it right!” This began to pack my unnecessary ego into a box to be stored away. It was the start of lightening the burden that I had carried around. The walk into recovery is easier with a lighter backpack. The walk into freedom is only possible by removing the burden of the past.
Pray and meditate. Eat well and exercise. Take stock of your thoughts. It’s easier to clean up the past with company, so reach out. Then repeat this process. Simple.
One day, stepping off the train on the way to work I had a feeling that I hadn’t had before. It made me uneasy. It was contentment. Even on my way to work, I felt that everything was okay. I wasn’t used to being okay. I couldn’t handle it and the feeling lifted as soon as I acknowledged that it had made me uncomfortable. I had chased away the feeling of contentment but knew I wanted more of it. It was a feeling of peace. Serenity. Of being present. Of being aware of who and where I was. For the first time in my life, I felt connected. I had to accept that it is OKAY TO FEEL OKAY. I spent my life worrying about shit that probably wouldn’t, and often didn’t, ever happen. Most of my energy was wasted on things that were just projections into the future. I couldn’t differentiate between thoughts and reality. I lived in flight or fight. Anxious and constantly braced for the impact of the imaginary future. Learning to be OKAY took time. Fleeting moments were embraced and not chased away until eventually, they became longer. I am not suggesting that I live in a state of bliss but my head is a nicer place than it used to be.
Alongside this, I learned to recognise when I am not okay. I don’t give myself a hard time about not being at my best. I just look at how I’m doing with the simple things that give me balance; am I eating well? Am I exercising? Am I reaching out? The last time I felt low it was because I was isolating myself and that began to manifest as loneliness. I reached out and spoke to some friends and family. Thankfully, it lifted. I noticed the signs and thanks to the journey of sobriety was aware enough to realise what the problem was.
I have benefited from AA, this naked mind and other books. None was the solution for me but all offered something to help me along the way. Maybe through arrogance, I believed I knew what works best for me or maybe I knew what wouldn’t work. Either way, I had to create a bespoke “program” that keeps me in balance. I keep it as simple as possible; DON’T DRINK. All the other things, such as; peace of mind, connections, good health and fulfilling hobbies are luxuries that are built on the foundation of not drinking. Being alcohol-free removed my chains. It also removed the padlock from the clock. I am no longer watching time, willing it to pass so that I can dash to the pub or off-license under the pretence that I’ll just have one.
If I drink then I lose it all. I tried moderation and I didn’t have the will power to sustain it. I don’t see the value in constantly monitoring my alcohol consumption. It seems like such a waste of time. Plus, if I have to consciously “try to control something then maybe it is already out of control?” I can’t waste my time juggling chaos for the amusement of others.
“Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.”
Things like AA get a bad reputation but I have made some great friends through AA. Thankfully, I didn’t need to cling to people like I used to do. The increase in self-esteem I received from quitting drinking meant, I could allow people into my life who accepted my approach to recovery and I theirs. The fanatical big book thumpers can go and preach elsewhere. I don’t want anymore irrational fear. I’ve had a belly full. It’s now time for peace and positivity. The fear of an invisible enemy is detrimental to this peace.
The big fear when quitting was losing friends and being isolated. I have to admit that there was a bit of that. But it comes back to being prepared to take a chance. To reach out and venture into the unknown. People were waiting for me, I just didn’t know it. Supportive, loving people who need to help others to help themselves. The people who get meaning from life by supporting others. Of course, there are some fanatics in recovery. There are fanatics everywhere. But I have never experienced more accepting and caring people than I have in recovery circles.
I was dubious about the intentions of people in recovery rooms and forums at first. I used to think why does this guy want to help me? What is he after? What sort of weirdo helps people without an agenda? Me, now! Recovery has opened up a new world to me. Although I don’t believe the AA program it is a useful organisation. I was in Siem Reap in Cambodia and found an AA meeting on the top floor of a hotel. I went and met some great people who were backpacking. You never have to be lonely in recovery. It is like a secret society. I have shared on recovery forums whilst being in hostels and hotels all over the world and been helped by people all over the world. Connection has been the cornerstone of my recovery. Even if I don’t adopt a particular program. Each persons journey can help me learn about myself. That’s why I have to be open minded.
I go back to AA every now and then. I have to share my story. Even though I don’t believe a higher power has saved me I know a connection with people has. When a guy I have only met a handful of times phones me up just to check how I am doing it is hard not to be bowled over by the care that develops from a shared hardship. Brothers and sisters in arms, sticking together to get through life. United by the well being of each other. It’s nice to be part of something that can spread a bit of light in someones dark world. The pain that gets thrown up by life lost it’s sting when I realised I didn’t have to deal with it alone. Watching people grow and develop is a beautiful thing to be a part of. Realising that my shit times can help someone have good times is a gift.
The way I view myself now compared with six years ago is completely different. Disdain has made way for appreciation. Shame and guilt have been replaced with respect. Hatred has been replaced with love. I smile a lot more and that alone is worth it :).
To keep it, I keep it simple,
Eat well and exercise. Even just a walk.
Try to help others.
Check my mental health and try to treat myself as I would treat another.
If I’m struggling I reach out. Even though it takes a lot of effort to do so sometimes but I know it helps.
Gratitude; focus on what I have and not what I haven’t.
For years, I sought validation externally and was left hollow and wanting. I felt separated from myself and others to the point of loneliness. The thing I have realised is that by internalising my concerns and gaining validation from looking in, I have made a connection to something that I was lacking. By adjusting the direction I was heading I have been rewarded with a life that is exponentially more enjoyable than drinking ever made it.
I could be wrong about it but I don’t think there is a one size fits all way to recovery but the things I know work for me I have listed here. Give them a try but remember there is no quick fix. Contentment doesn’t arrive as soon as alcohol departs but I can assure you it is worth the wait. As eventually, the weight of the past slips into the ether.
One day you’ll dance around and feel joy. Guilt will try to push the joy away but then you realise that you have done nothing to be guilty of. It is just a joy for life and you’re not used to it. It is the realisation that everything is okay and that’s okay and so are you. The reality is now what was once unimaginable. A decision to quit drinking has been the catalyst for change. The fate of old is like a terrible nightmare. Or an old memory of a place that never you never wish to revisit.
Addiction is a fate worse than death!