This week’s Sober Story comes from Dave, a 61-year-old living in Golden Bay at the top of the South Island.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Dave: “Sobriety” and “Recovery” are different things. I was 54 when I had my last drink (I haven’t had a drink since July 2010) so that’s when I stopped being a drunk. But I didn’t begin doing anything about recovery until about a month after that.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Dave: I didn’t set out to be an alcoholic. I never intended to become an alcoholic and I certainly didn’t want to be an alcoholic. Where I came from alcoholics were the lowest of the low, they were useless and irredeemable; they’d never amount to anything and couldn’t be helped. They were the tramps and dossers of the town that nobody wanted anywhere near them.
Mrs D: That wasn’t you?
Dave: I wasn’t like that. I had a job, a house, two cars in the driveway, and a family. I went to work in a suit and polished black shoes. I was respectable, I couldn’t be an alcoholic. But my life had become incredibly small and dark, and I couldn’t stop drinking. Every day was like Groundhog Day. My waking thoughts were always about drink. When and where would I get my first drink? Did I still have any hidden nearby? Under the bed? Under the deck? Down in the garage? What I’d done the previous day would start coming back to me as I stood in the shower and I’d cringe inside at the bits and pieces that came back. Often I’d still have some wine left in a cask behind the drivers seat. I’d have a huge gulp and try to hold it down while the stress eased off and I could go to work. Most days at lunchtime I went to the park. I wasn’t the dirty alcoholic on a park bench drinking from something in a brown paper bag. I was the one sitting is his car enjoying the scene… drinking a bottle of wine decanted into a sipper bottle.
Mrs D: Sounds dark…
Dave: It was never ending. It was impossible not to drink. Sometimes I’d walk into a bar determined that I’d only stay for one, but once I was there the reasons to have another came flooding in. I never, ever left a bar having had only one drink in my life. Why on earth I thought it might be different each time I tried… I have no idea. Time alone was awful, but I often sat and drank on my own; most other people didn’t drink fast enough. The first swallow was wonderful… instant calm and relief, but soon my head was a tangled mess of churning, raging pieces of my past, all chasing each other round to find a better resolution than the last time. But they never did, and it never stopped. I was constantly taut as a bowstring. I couldn’t understand why no-one else saw my distress… but they didn’t, they didn’t understand how hard it was to be me. So I drank. I had many reasons to drink… I was never short of them. I drank when I was sad, stressed, distressed, bored, busy, idle… but not happy. That didn’t happen anymore.
Mrs D: It often starts out happy but doesn’t end that way..
Dave: My first memories of drinking were of fun and good times. When I first started drinking it was liberating, freeing, I could join in, I could be a part of the crowd. But that time was long gone. It was still there in my mind though, in the biggest letters possible… D R I N K I N G I S F U N… but it wasn’t. I couldn’t drink enough to get happy any more. But it didn’t stop me trying. But in the end I was alone, desperately alone, and that loneliness was completely crushing. I could see no way out. All I could see was that I would die alone and miserable somewhere, or kill myself. I favoured the latter.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Dave: If things didn’t change then I was going to kill myself. I already had it planned. The best conceivable outcome was that I would die in my sleep and not wake up – that’s what I wished for, but it just wouldn’t happen. The hopelessness of everything in my life finally got too much for me, and essentially I gave up. Nothing I tried fixed my life up to any measurable extent. I was confronted with something that I just couldn’t fix. I didn’t know how to. I didn’t know what was wrong. Nothing worked. I was out of ideas. I was beaten. I knew in my heart… “I don’t know what to do. I can’t fix this. I give up. I need help”.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Dave: Fighting the lie was the most difficult. My head would be screaming at me “have a drink! Have a drink! It will all be better if you have a drink!”… convincing myself that my mind was lying to me was hard. Sometimes it was easy to push back the cravings, but sometimes it was very hard indeed. I knew that if I had a drink then I’d immediately feel better, that wave of calm… that aaaaahhhh, would wash through me, and I’d feel better. But only in the short term. In the long term it just made things worse and worse. It was extremely difficult to pass up that immediate relief I knew would come in favour of the longer benefit, “just one will make you feel better”, but it was never just one.
Mrs D: It’s amazing how our own brains try to sabotage us by convincing us to keep drinking.
Dave: One of the things that really did my head in was thinking about the future without a drink. Would I really only be holding a glass of orange juice at my childrens’ weddings? What about birthdays? Christmas? New Year? What about my friends that I drank with every day… what would they think? How would I explain it to them? The idea of stopping drinking forever was too hard, and I had nothing in my own experience to suggest that it was even remotely possible. I drank, because I drank, because I drank… and I always would. So I never decided to stop drinking forever… it was too unlikely a thing to even imagine. I set out to give it a rest for a few days… and that is all. I’m still giving it a rest for a few days; it’s the only commitment I’ve ever made about stopping drinking, and, so far so good.
Mrs D: I like that – just giving it a rest for a few days. So how did you get through the days without drinking?
Dave: When I first stopped I took stock of what I knew about my previous attempts. In the past I’d gone the first day fairly easily, usually on the back of a ferocious hangover… but by the afternoon I was getting twitchy and looking for excuses to get out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night… that was one of the things that happened if I didn’t drink, I’d just lie in bed sweating away, my mind racing for hours and hours. The second day would be bad… I’d really want to get away and get a drink. I rarely made the third day. I’d get part way through it then tell myself how well I’d done. I deserved a drink, just one … as a reward for being so good. But it never was just one. So I came up with some tricks to help myself. When the craving was low but resolve was high there was no problem. But the other way around was incredibly difficult… when the craving was strong, but resolve was weak. So I did some things to deny myself the opportunity to even buy drink on those occasions. I didn’t have cash in my pocket. I gave my cards to my wife for her to give back to me only for specific things. I gave my keys to my wife. If I went out I left my phone turned on, I told her exactly where I was going and how long I should be. If I was out then I wouldn’t stop in the car park of anywhere that sold alcohol, and I wouldn’t drive past anywhere that I used to drink.
Mrs D: Powerful steps..
Dave: I had a mantra I used too. It was a line I’d picked up from elsewhere and changed it to reflect the way I drank… “One is too many, ten is not enough!” Ten is not enough… that was me. Once I started I’d carry on until something forced me to stop. Many times those tricks bought me enough time for resolve to rise again and for the craving to subside. When I got to four days it was a major milestone… at a week I was euphoric. I hadn’t been a week without getting drunk at least once since my early twenties.
Mrs D: How did your family & friends react to you quitting?
Dave: I never found out what my drinking buddies thought about me stopping… I have never seen or heard from any of them since; some “friends” they were! I don’t miss them. With hindsight they weren’t even friends at all. They were really only a way to legitimise my drinking; they drank like me, and they didn’t say it was wrong to do so. I only told my wife and few others that I was going to stop drinking for a while. I was quite disappointed by their reaction to my daily/hourly struggle at first. I expected more encouragement, and I expected more congratulations… but it didn’t happen, and really I shouldn’t have expected it.
Mrs D: Why?
Dave: For two reasons. First… they’d heard it all before, and their experience was that this would be short lived, then it would be straight back to the bottle. The second was that they had no conception at all of how hard this was… and why should they? For them to not have a drink for a few days was neither here nor there… they could just choose not to. As far as they were concerned it was an easy thing that I was doing, so why was I making such a song and dance about it? They had no idea how desperately difficult it is. And really, why should they have to understand? There were times I felt very alone early on in this struggle, but it was not their problem to fix, it was mine.
Mrs D: So what did you do to find good support?
Dave: Fortunately I took my sorry ass to AA. I met some people there who would become new friends, but initially simply seeing them and them seeing me was enough. Firstly, I met and listened to people that had actually stopped drinking. So for the first time I realised that something I thought I knew for certain was actually incorrect. It WAS possible to stop drinking, whereas all my experience to date said that it wasn’t. The second thing not to be underestimated is the peer pressure. They were encouraging me, urging me on and waiting (hoping) to see me at the next meeting. I would be asked if I had managed to carry on not drinking. Sometimes that fear of failure was enough to get me through a craving. The third strength I got from these people was that they were un-exceptional. These people that had stopped drinking weren’t highly-driven corporate high-flyers, they weren’t Olympic sportsmen, they weren’t intellectuals… they were ordinary. They were a simple cross-section of society. They didn’t have some special power that I didn’t possess… so if they could do it, then so could I.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Dave: That’s a really interesting question, and I was about to answer, no! but then I realised that “no” isn’t really true at all. The answer depends on when you start counting from! How many times did I try to stop, only to get 1, 2 or 3 days before drinking again?…. countless times. Certainly it was many tens, if not hundreds. So I relapsed many times. Thinking about it now I think all those unsuccessful attempts were actually all essential. Until I really understood just what “addicted” actually meant; how we experience it… just how bad a place it is to be and how hard it was to break, then I don’t think I had the strength to confront it. Only by failing did I understand what it took to succeed. On “relapse” all I can truthfully say is that I haven’t had a drink since I got help and then stopped… all other attempts failed miserably. The most I ever managed alone was four days. However… I expect to live a few more years yet, so there’s still plenty of time and opportunity for another relapse.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Dave: Physically things came right pretty quickly. The shakes stopped, my skin got colour back, my eyes brightened… all within a few days really, maybe a couple of weeks. Something that was a big change at about a week or so was sleep. The first nights were an awful sweaty tangle of bedsheets and a raging mind… the roaring just wouldn’t stop as it churned and churned. Then suddenly I “slept like a baby”… it was a sleep like I couldn’t recall ever having had before. I woke in the morning bright eyed, refreshed and ready to meet the world. Wow! What a difference. Emotionally is a quite different story. My brain had sat in a puddle of alcohol for years, and when that suddenly disappeared my emotions were all over the place. For years I had been drinking to make myself feel good. Now that daily medication was gone my brain struggled to find a new equilibrium. I’ve no idea what was actually happening to my brain chemistry, but some levels of something were flopping around all over the place. It was a wild emotional roller coaster… until it stopped quite abruptly.
Mrs D: What happened?
Dave: After a few months my mind changed in a completely unexpected way. It was like someone had taken my brain out in the night, given it a thorough washing, tweaked all the adjusters, and given it a thorough tune up. I suddenly saw the world and my place in it quite differently. 1. I was no longer at the centre of everything, I was just a tiny part of a huge world, and 2. The world was no longer a hard place to live in. Quite suddenly (I’ve no idea quite what this quote means, but it seems to describe it well) I “wore the world like a loose overcoat”. Suddenly life didn’t hurt, and it wasn’t a struggle. My mind had stopped being a turbulent mass seething with problems chasing themselves around and around… it was calm. All the stress, fear, confusion, frustration, shame, guilt and hopelessness were gone. What was left in their place was a calm contentment. It was a great day when it happened.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Dave: It was uncomfortable. For the first three months I barely went out at all. My sobriety was tenuous and brittle. I certainly didn’t feel able to spend time in the company of people drinking without picking up a drink myself. Slowly though my confidence grew, but whenever I went to a social occasion where there would be drinking I always had a way out prepared so that I could cut-and-run if I needed to. Over time the confidence in my ability to be near drink but not at risk of picking one up has got stronger and stronger. I’ve been to many weddings and parties for example, with no great struggle. But that was actually not the hardest part for me. The most difficult thing for me was socialising AT ALL. For years I’d only gone to social events as an opportunity to drink heavily. Eventually though most people did not drink fast enough for me to be with them, so I drank alone. I spent a lot of time on my own drinking… it was hiding really. Deep inside I felt that what I was doing was somehow bad and shameful, others would disapprove, and I didn’t want people to see it. So I hid away.
Mrs D: Lonely….
Dave: Even though I was married, worked with a whole bunch of people and had teenage children in the house, I felt desperately alone. It took a long time to overcome this. It took a long time to willingly join in, and even years later I still have to work at this. When invited to some social occasion I have to say “yes” immediately, then worry about the fear of meeting people later. It always turns out fine, but for some reason there’s still an instinctive aversion to meeting people. “Safety” is still defined in my mind as being on my own… being with others is somehow a bad thing, that’s still the initial emotional response. I have to actively fight it to this day. If I do not actively intervene on my initial impulse then I can still find that I isolate myself.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Dave: Most definitely. I expected that when I stopped drinking I would revert to the person I was before I drank heavily. I did not. I became someone altogether new.
Mrs D: How so?
Dave: I started drinking in my teens, and by the time I was in my early twenties I was drinking daily and excessively. Socially I stopped growing in my teens. Instead of facing life’s challenges, I obliterated them. I never grew up to be a mature adult, and I can still be completely childish and petulant on occasions. However, the way I see myself in the world and the way I see others is radically changed, as too is my view of material things. I don’t need ‘stuff’ any more. It has little or no interest to me. I need what I need, but beyond that owning things doesn’t have any appeal, nor does it make me feel better about myself. I am materially less well off than I was when I was drinking, but I am far, far more content with my lot in the world. I don’t need praise or approval from other people any more to feel good about myself. The only person that has to think I’m doing the right things in life is me… other people opinions don’t count one iota. As long as I live in a way that doesn’t offend my own conscience, then I stay content with my lot. That’s enormously liberating. The way I see others, and what I expect of them has also changed dramatically. I don’t stand on some moral high-ground… I have none to stand on. So I find I don’t judge other people any more. I don’t know what they’re going through or what the pressures are in their lives. If they do things differently to the way I might like to do them, then that’s just fine. If they say things I don’t agree with, or if they do things that seem foolish… well that’s up to them. It’s their life, and it is their right to live it how they want. It is not my job to correct or direct them. That’s up to them, not me. My job is to do my bit right… not theirs.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Dave: Here are some things that have flipped 180 degrees:
Being right: Is not important.
Being wrong: It’s OK to be wrong. I am not perfect and I don’t have to pretend to be.
Not knowing the answer: It is OK to not know. I don’t know everything, nobody does. Sometimes other people know better than I do.
Acquiring stuff: Is not important at all, it is mostly a burden rather than a benefit.
Being important: Is not important.
Being better than other people: I’m not.
Bigger, better, faster, stronger… fighting your way to the top is now completely unimportant to me. Been there, done that, bought the tee-shirt… didn’t like any of it. These days my life is much simpler, and without expectations. The world owes me nothing. It is what it is. What it gives me I accept with gratitude.
Mrs D: Can you pinpoint any main benefits that have emerged for you from getting sober?
Dave: This is an easy one… peace of mind.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Dave: It would be nice to say “I wish I’d done it years earlier”, but I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think I could have actually pulled off stopping drinking until I was down on my knees. I think that the complete hopelessness and despair is the only thing that allowed me to let go of how things were, and try a completely new way… and stopping drinking altogether was a completely new way.
Mrs D: Any advice or tips for those who are just starting on this journey?
Dave: There are some things, that if I’d known them (or believed them) could have made it possible to stop earlier, and/or made it easier. Stopping drinking IS ACTUALLY POSSIBLE. Lots of people do it. But I thought I was the only person suffering what I was going through. This is not true. There are lots of others, and they have come out the other end smiling. It is not only possible to stop drinking it is well worth it. I didn’t know or believe that. I thought I was giving up something good. Alcoholism is an illness, not a weakness, so treat it like one. Go and get help, because it’s not going to get better on its own – it’s only going to get worse.
Mrs D: We can’t do this alone.
Dave: Alcoholism is a mental illness, and the fight is with myself. Half of my mind is saying “drinking is good. Have a drink. It will make you feel better”. The other half of my mind is saying “drinking is bad. Don’t do it”. The part of my mind that’s instructing me to drink is primal and insistent… it comes from very deep within and is emotionally driven. The part that says I should not drink is intellectually driven. In the long run instinct and emotion will win… they are the more powerful, and the willpower needed to resist them is not infinite. It is a battle with myself, and the illness is (exactly) just as smart as I am. Alone I do not have to power to overcome it. Find someone, or some people, that can and will help you because we lack the power to overcome it ourselves. This is an absolute truth. If I had the power to stop drinking myself then I would have done so years earlier. Only with other people did I have enough strength to win through.
Mrs D: Anything else you’d like to share?
Dave: Alcoholism is progressive, and it’s going to get keep getting worse. You are going to lose everything unless you do something. “If you do not change direction, then you’ll probably end up where you are headed”. If you’ve tried to stop drinking but can’t then tell someone you need help: your partner, your closest friend, your doctor, CADS, AA, anyone… but tell someone, and ask for help! (and tell them the actual, honest truth… not what you’d like them to hear!). There is no point sitting and wishing and wanting things to be different. They are what they are and won’t change until you do something to change them. Your problems aren’t going to go away on their own. No-one is coming along on a white horse to save you. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Do something. Do something that gives you hope that the future can be different.