This week's Sober Story comes from Matt, a 43-year-old writer living near the foot of the Port Hills in Christchurch. He has previously written guest posts for us on parenting sober, navigating social spaces sober and physical activity and recovery.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Matt: I’ve just ticked over three years of sobriety, but I guess the intention to address my problem drinking started many months before that, perhaps years. It took a long time to decide to just take the plunge and give up completely.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Matt: I started drinking at 13 when I took advantage of the distracted adults and got myself rolling drunk at my mother’s 50th. Alcohol was part of my life through my mid-teens and into adulthood. It seemed the perfect antidote to my crippling shyness. It brought me out of myself and helped me feel like I fitted in. I felt like I needed it because I alone wasn’t enough. I also loved to get drunk. I had some fabulous times stumbling around with my mates. The drinking culture of the various rugby teams I played with suited my binge style perfectly through to my early 30s. I drank heavily to survive social occasions such as weddings and parties – going out was agony for me. My attitudes to alcohol started to change when I became a journalist and covered stories on alcohol related harm in hospital EDs, drink drivers, and covering court hearings where the vast majority of crime was due to alcohol and drugs cast a negative light on booze. I continued to drink to cope with the anxiety and pressures of working in a busy newsroom.
Mrs D: I did a lot of heavy drinking when I was working in newsrooms as well..
Matt: My drinking changed when I gave up work to look after our first born in 2010. Becoming a full time stay-at- home-dad was a huge privilege and continues to be the best 'job' in the world. But my drinking became more solitary and pervasive. I’d open a bottle of wine or beer while making dinner and continue to drink after the girls were in bed. More and more it become about squashing down negative feelings about myself, and less about bringing out my social animal. Eventually it would be to numb bouts of mild depression (not that I knew how to label my down times till I was diagnosed in 2017). Towards the end I was suffering physically from the nightly drinking and the occasional binge. As I neared 40 my body was getting less willing to put up with hangovers. Even a couple of glasses of wine would leave me feeling horrible in the morning. My soul was also suffering. I was feeling desperate and miserable and my drinking was the obvious first thing to address.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Matt: My wife and I were invited to a dinner with a group of friends. The plan was for everyone to meet at one of the couples’ house for a few pre-drinks before getting taxis to the restaurant. I didn’t want to drink too much (I think I was already trying to moderate at that stage) so we took one bottle of wine for the pre-drinks and one for the table at the restaurant. It would be shared between my wife and I and others at the table. Despite the plan, I cranked straight into the wine then had skulled a couple of shots of whiskey before I’d finished the first glass. I also got stuck into a few beers offered by the host. I was well on the way by the time we arrived at the restaurant, where I drank most of our second bottle, and helped myself to everyone else’s too! In a nearby bar, after dinner, it all hit me and it wasn’t long before I was home vomiting violently (bursting the blood vessels around my eyes – not a good look). I stared at the blurry, red, sweaty face in the mirror and didn’t recognise the person staring back. That was the last straw - when I realised I couldn’t control my drinking, and that I was an abject failure at moderation. It was also the moment when I knew I didn’t want to drink anymore. I wanted better.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Matt: I found the key thing was deciding to give up completely but with no certainty I would ever drink again. It wasn’t a period of abstinence, such as the month-long dry July. It was indefinite. I needed to give myself long enough off alcohol to gain true perspective on it. Deep down I knew I would never drink again. Physically I coped fine. But I agonised over whether or not I was over-reacting. Did I really need to give up When I questioned myself all I had to do was remember my trembling hand hovering over the mouse when I was contemplating signing up to Living Sober, and how desperate I felt, to know the answer. I stripped my house of most of the alcohol. I replaced the glasses and bottle of spirits on our bar. It had become a habit to open a bottle of cider or beer at about 5pm to drink while I made dinner, so I had a plan to drink ginger ale instead (my subsequent ginger ale addiction became the lesser of two evils). When I had my worst cravings I logged in to Living Sober and wrote how I was feeling, and received immediate support. Many of the people I met online then have become friends in the real world. They were a true inspiration and lifeline when I was feeling weak.
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Matt: I had overwhelming support from friends and family. But quite a few people told me they didn’t regard me as a drinker. In many ways I felt my drinking was similar to many of the people around me. My wife didn’t feel my drinking was out of the ordinary. While I wasn’t a chronic drinker, I was certainly a problem drinker. It certainly became a problem to me.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Matt: I considered drinking again many times, but I decided never to make a knee-jerk decision. I’d always let the thought in and then let it go. By the morning I’d feel ok again. I would also remember the worst times drinking and how I felt before I gave up and that usually dealt with the temptation. I haven’t relapsed, but I did once order a ginger beer off the non-alcoholic drinks list at a restaurant. When I went to order a second they told me there was a small amount of alcohol left over from the brewing process.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Matt: The first year was up and down emotionally. I was rolling from highs to lows. It was in the second year when my not drinking became bedded in as something I didn’t have to think about so much. The last two years of my life have been a rollercoaster of dealing with anxiety, panic attacks and a major depressive episode. It was during that time I have felt grateful for being sober – that I didn’t have a depressant added to the mix.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Matt: Socialising sober takes practice. But once alcohol was of the table for me I just focussed on being with those around me and I soon began to value being able to build conversations that I would remember. When I drank, the more I drank the more inside myself I would go. I drank to be able to socialise, but by the end of the night I was struggling to walk straight let alone have intelligent conversations. After several months of sobriety my 40th rolled around. By then I was comfortable in my sober skin. I had the most amazing night chatting to all of my friends and family. At the end of the night I drove my wife home. It was one of the best nights out I’ve ever had.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Matt: I was surprised how I didn’t need alcohol to enjoy being out. I really valued being in control. It made me feel really good about myself.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Matt: I’m a far more present person. I feel like I can be a better version of myself. Giving up alcohol has also forced me to develop far healthier coping mechanisms for my problems. I’m a far more content and connected person. And I’m just so grateful I decided to kick alcohol out of my life.
Mrs D: What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Matt: The at times chronic dermatitis I had on my eyelids (for most of my adult life) cleared up completely. My skin overall is so much better. My weight has also settled down. No more yo-yoing up and down the scales. I also love my mornings. I haven’t had a hangover in more than 3 years and that is a beautiful thing. Most importantly I feel calmer. I also like myself a whole lot better sober.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Matt: I would probably have done it earlier, and I would have started addressing my depression at the same time. But you only tend to address things when they are at a desperate stage, so I can’t imagine it happening any differently.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Matt: Be kind to yourself. You might slip up. You might question yourself. But remember why you made the decision to quit and keep going towards your goal. Be patient. It takes time but gradually things get easier. You can do it!
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Matt: I wrote a blog in the first year of sobriety. Writing about how I was feeling was another essential tool in my sobriety.