This week's Sober Story comes from Graham, a 57-year-old male living in Kent, UK.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Graham: 16 years. My sobriety date is 14th May 2004.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Graham: I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol from my teenage years which lasted about 25 years. In the last three years or so it really ratcheted up – there were some things that happened and I just was getting worse and worse. In April 2003 I made a vow to me and some others to “do something about my drinking.” The next 13 months were hell. I’d stop, start again all the time planning to control it better, I’d change drinks, have drink diaries, etc. etc. However, every time I started again it got worse quicker and quicker. Each time a new bar was set on how much I’d be drinking and how much disturbance it had on my life and those around me. I was more concerned, bewildered, and remorseful every time. But above all simply more frightened.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Graham: We had some good news about a financial situation. My wife texted me and said “Tonight we can celebrate!” My head flipped and I thought “My life is still shit!” And I was off on a day long bender. That culminated in a huge row with my wife and that evening, 14th May 2004, I lay curled in a ball sobbing on the floor knowing I just couldn’t go on. It is described in the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous so aptly “Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it.”
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Graham: I went to rehab almost straight away within a week of that last drink. There I felt safe. When I left there 6 weeks or so later the biggest thing was the craving in my head. The obsession and desire for a drink was there daily for at least the first 9 months. I sometimes only got through by breaking the day into hours. I simply would say “I’ll not drink in the next hour”. I went to AA meetings most days and just tried to stay occupied and really I think my own stubbornness helped at that time. How I didn’t cave in and take a drink I sometimes wonder at myself. When that obsession started to ease it was such a relief. My experience though is that the obsession will ease, so if you are new and feel like that just trust that it will pass in time.
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Graham: My family were supportive but also confused. I was out the house more than before at AA meetings and there was some jealousy as to how these other alcoholics were helping me where my family could not. But they saw it was working, over time the meeting frequency decreased and the trust in me and the programme came, and my AA and family life have co-existed happily for a long time now. Most friends were really supportive – I was very open about my issue as I didn’t want to be somewhere with friends who didn’t know. If someone said “How about a drink?” I wanted at least some people there who knew so I couldn’t just go “Yes – one won’t hurt”. I did lose a few friendswho couldn’t understand that I needed to change, I needed to not be in the places where I’d be tempted etc. But really that boils down to one or two friends I regret losing/hurting in the process. Others I lost contact with I realised didn’t matter to me in the end. Other friendships grew closer - a couple in particular where those friends truly just wanted me to get well. I truly value the love they showed me.
Mrs D: Experts say relapse is often a part of recovery, was it a feature of yours?
Graham: Not since that night. However I think the 13 months before where I went through that stop, start, lose control cycle were my relapses and taught me that I couldn’t ever drink safely again.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Graham: AGES! Seriously it did – you can’t rely on alcohol for 25 years from about 17/18 and it not I suspect. As I said before it was 9 months before the daily mental obsession started to lift. I then had a three month cycle of going from euphoric to desperate. That evened out in my second year. However I was emotionally stunned after all that time drinking to numb these things. I’m still developing emotionally. Physically, I’d say for me about 3 months – I’d simply not eaten correctly for years whilst drinking so heavily that was the physical bit my body most struggled with. Luckily my liver function was reasonably ok – I had blood pressure issues as I’d been on tablets for high blood pressure… stop drinking and that all went away. Funny it wasn’t the stressful job after all!
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Graham: Still is! I don’t socialise well – emotional development stuff again. There was a family wedding in the first few months of my sobriety. That was hell! I was convinced I’d drink or everyone would look at me and see I wasn’t drinking etc. But once I’d done it I was ok about it. Now things like that don’t faze me at all – however I still wouldn’t go to a “wet place” without a reason to be there. Say a colleague is leaving I may go along but not on a general social gathering in the pub. A colleague is leaving work next week – they start their leaving do with some cakes in our kitchen before going to the pub. I’ll eat the cake and then say my farewells before the pub thing.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Graham: Can I point you at a series of books? Seriously I’ve learnt so so much. But main things are.
* I don’t have to be perfect or exceptional to be happy with myself.
* I have to look inside to feel fulfilled, nothing external will ever complete me.
* I can easily get addicted to other things beside alcohol so I have to take care.
* I can do anything sober – lose a parent, have kids, move away, celebrate success, be made redundant, go back to study, volunteer to work in a prison with recovering addicts, stand on stage with a guitar and a mic and no band and perform my own songs to hundreds of people, etc. None of these need me to have a drink inside to get through.
* Finally…. Nothing is worth putting my sobriety in jeopardy. If I feel at risk I need to get out of there fast!
Mrs D: How did your life change after you stopped drinking?
Graham: Externally not that much. I was a “high bottom drunk” with a nice house, family still there, two cars on the drive. My neighbours if you asked them would no doubt have not noticed any difference in that view. However… after 30 years in a technical based career discipline I’m now training to be a counsellor, that would never have happened without my recovery. My relationship with my family is changed beyond belief. My kids (both adults now!) and I talk openly and regularly. My wife and I have rebuilt our marriage to something considerably better than it ever was before – how she stuck with me in the dark days I’ll never know. Oh yes and I understand gardening now. You mow the grass it grows back so you have to do it again and weeds will grow after I’ve weeded and plants will die etc. Doing a little gardening to mow the grass, remove the weeds and feed the plants often is what it is about… that is also a great analogy for my spiritual and emotional wellbeing too!
Mrs D: What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Graham: We were instantly a lot better off financially! Seriously I drank in pubs, paying inflated pub prices. The first month I was in rehab my wife had to deal with the family accounts for the first time in our marriage. She asked me what I did with the several hundreds of pounds left over… we never had £10 left over normally. Just a few years like that meant we have a small nest egg allowing me this career change now.
* Family – a relationship with my kids and wife that I never dreamt possible.
* A rebuilt relationship with my brother that is terrific.
* Chance to help my Mum when she was ill and then to grieve properly for her.
* Totally changed perception on what is important in life, to me and my place in the world.
* All the fantastic other recovering alcoholics I’ve met in AA, online and through volunteering who continually show me how someone can change if they believe in it and how others can just enable that to happen by simply believing in the sufferer and caring for their wellbeing in a non-judgemental manner.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Graham: I’d do it earlier! I knew I had a major problem 15 years before I got sober I do regret missing that chance but that was my journey. Other than that? No.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Graham: Never give up on yourself or recovery. If you lapse or relapse try, try, try again. If I can do it, you can do it, there is nothing that makes me special in this. Seek out others to walk with. I’m a huge supporter / fan / member of AA. Try it. Try other groups if available. It only worked for me when I stopped trying to fight the addiction and the world on my own, accepted the world as it is and allowed others to support and guide me in sobriety.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Graham: Two big things that have helped me throughout my recovery.
1) “Progress Not Perfection” – for me in the beginning simply not drinking that day was progress. I only have to make some progress to be winning in this game.
2) “Inner Resource” – this is used in the big book of AA when talking about the “God thing”… I’d spent all my life looking for external things to fix me – booze, money, cars, jobs, houses, guitars, clothes, women… etc. None worked – when I looked inside at what was the real essence of me, what drove my being and existence in the world I realised I had it all inside me if I was prepared to look for it. I charge that resource up through meeting with other alcoholics and being inspired by their stories of recovery.
With those two simple concepts at the forefront of my mind I fundamentally believe I can continue to build my sobriety today.