This week's Sober Story comes from Gary, a 53-year-old living in Wellington.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Gary: Around 12 years.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Gary: I remember as far back as when I was 17 not being satisfied with only have a pint or two, I wanted/needed to get drunk! I'd get angry and upset if I couldn't afford to buy another drink. 25 years later and with a massive amount of alcohol under my belt I still didn't think I had a problem. I would easily manage a dozen beers a day and throw in a couple of bottles of red rounded off with a single Malt or 2, 3, 4. . . The last few days before I began the road to recovery were a complete blur. It was Christmas, I was alone and I had the cash to buy whatever I wanted. I drank myself to oblivion as soon as I woke, regardless of the time. I'd then sleep it off, wake up and do exactly the same. My stomach ached, I couldn't/wouldn't eat, my body was shutting down.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Gary: My girlfriend at the time had decided to leave me and said that I had anger management issues as well as drinking too heavily. I didn't want to lose my girlfriend so I agreed to go to counselling for anger management. After 2 or 3 sessions with my counselor I found out/realised/admitted that I was suffering from severe depression, had been having suicidal thoughts, missing work, in financial trouble and was an alcoholic. I told my ex-girlfriend and we cried in each others arms. I remembered my dad had died from alcoholism and I decided I had to quit after virtually non-stop drinking for 25 years, every day.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Gary: Once I realised (or admitted) how big the problem was, the actual 'not drinking' part wasn't difficult. I think my body was in such a state that it was a physical release as well as a mental one. The most difficult for me was the shame brought about by the stigma attached to being an alcoholic. I have only ever admitted my problem to family and a limited number of close friends. I've always wanted to get involved with trying to help other sufferers but the fear I have 'coming out' and jeopardising my career is a real problem for me.
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Gary: Weird! From the people that I told the reaction was mostly hugely positive, my ex-girlfriend and my children especially. The older generation however were quite different. I was, for the most part, a very functioning alcoholic. I have a very technical and highly paid job which I do well in. I'm not sure if the older generation couldn't see I had a problem, refused to believe there was a 'real' problem given the work I do, or just didn't understand! My mother was the worst offender which still confuses me given how my dad was!
Mrs D: Experts say relapse is often a part of recovery, was it a feature of yours?
Gary: Fortunately it hasn't been so far. I think the depths I got to, what I'd risked and what I stand to lose if I did relapse are all still very clear in my mind. I do have thoughts about drinking, thoughts about being able to just have the cheeky glass of red with my dinner, that nice cold refreshing cider on a hot day, a beautiful smooth and smokey single malt with a cigar or a classic tasty ale with the lads. However, I'm still in a position to recognise that I can't do that, I'm an alcoholic and I'm incapable of having one or two drinks of anything!
I hope I always remember that and I hope that I have the control and the will to not give into temptation.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Gary: My counselling helped me enormously. The alcoholism took a backseat for a while as I tried to sort out the depression. I didn't find the not drinking overly difficult in the initial stages as my head was really all over the place. I actually got even more depressed at the beginning but with the help of medication, the fact I wasn't drinking and the support I had, my head started to slowly clear and I begin to take control. I could feel physically better within myself after as little as a week but emotionally took a lot longer. Good days and bad days for around 6 months I would say.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Gary: I thought I'd lose my sense of humour and my social skills after giving up the drink! If anything I think I'm worse! I didn't receive any peer pressure to have a drink really, most people thought it was a good idea to give-up which makes me think that they realised I was an out of control pisshead long before I did! Once they realised I was giving up for good though I did get a lot of questions about why. Is it your health? Has the missus told you to? Are you an alcoholic? I haven't yet found the courage to answer truthfully, I just say that I've drunk enough over time for the rest of them put together, it was time to stop. Which in my defence is true, but not wholly true.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Gary: Yeah, I'm actually a pretty funny bloke without the need to have the drink in me. I'm actually a really nice fella who doesn't get angry, laughs a lot at anything and generally doesn't let things bother him. I like me.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Gary: Physically, emotionally, mentally and financially my life has changed completely really. The drinking/depression combo was going to kill me sooner rather than later. I can now see how bright my future is and my only worry is how I'm going to fit it all in!
Mrs D: What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Gary: Physically I can actually tell now when I'm sick. Before I never really knew until I'd sobered up a bit. Now, if something is wrong with me I know immediately. And I know it's not drink related. It's a real revelation to me to be able to wake up and say "I don't feel very well" and know that I've actually caught a bug or done something to myself. Mentally I am stronger than I've ever been. My head is always clear and I can make rational decisions always. They might not still be the right ones but at least I remember why I made them. Emotionally I'm in control. My counselling taught me several techniques to use to ensure I remain in control. When you're in control your emotions don't get the better of you. I still get upset and irritated of course but I feel I'm able to quite quickly bring those emotions under control. Financially I am more secure than I've ever been. I could never figure out why I was in debt, why I couldn't pay the tax man or why I couldn't afford something I wanted. I have a plan in place, a saving scheme and several goals I want to achieve. But the single biggest benefit that came out of me getting sober was my ex-girlfriend agreeing to come back, helping me sort my life out, sharing my pain, loving me and agreeing to be my wife. We've been married now for almost 7 years. She doesn't like me saying this as she believes my recovery was all down to me, but if she had not had the courage to leave me in the first place I'm not sure I would have taken that first step on my own. I owe her my life and will adore her forever for bringing me all the rewards that have come from getting sober. My children have a father they can be very proud of now and having them tell me that was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Gary: The obvious answer would be to say I'd do it earlier! I was lucky with the counselling and support I got. The whole process seemed to flow for me with ups and downs along the way but in a way I could recognise.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Gary: I'd congratulate all of you who have taken the first step. Everyone I am sure has different reasons for stopping and will react differently to stopping but if your story is anything like mine or your road to recovery has been/will be anything like mine, you have started a great thing. You will notice some benefits immediately and lots more benefits along the way. You'll start to appreciate things more, notice things more, be more aware of your surroundings and recognise what's really important to you. You'll build up more control and mental strength as you go along but you will get tempted. It's at those times that you can use your new strength to remember why you began your journey in the first place and what you stand to lose if you are tempted. For me the fear of losing my wife and the respect of my children is enough for me to quickly quench any thirst for alcohol. I hope that fear stays with me forever. If you can just keep one thing close to you that you know you will ruin if you start to drink again, use it whenever you're tempted. The strength and control you build along the way will help you make the right choice.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Gary: Be happy 🙂 If you can, get a hobby. I found keeping busy helped keep my mind focused.