This week's Sober Story comes from Red who is in his 60s and lives in Wellington.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Red: My clean date is 03/10/87. Coming up to 33 years.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Red: I’m an addict AND an alcoholic. In the two years before I went to rehab, I was working in PR, starting the day with Valium, taking methadone at lunchtime, going home to smoke weed. I’d drink at night. I wanted to stop, but couldn’t, despite trying a thousand times. I was dying, in deep despair. I was funeralising, had a bunch of sad ass death songs on speed dial (though cell phones came in shoe boxes in the Eighties). I gave myself a few years at the most. I never ONCE believed recovery was possible. None of my peer group ever successfully managed to stop drinking or drugging. No one got out alive, let alone happy. It was grim. We just pushed on, using more and getting less and less dignified, pulling each other down, very embattled and sorry for ourselves.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Red: A hundred final straws, treaties signed, endless promises to broken-hearted loved ones. Finally I agreed to go to rehab in exchange for several more months of methadone. In the end I had to get on that plane for the South Island. Sands had run out.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Red: Early recovery was a long season of grief. I was too afraid to see any of my bad old buddies, yet I was really tribal. I didn’t really know or trust my new recovering chums I met at AA and NA meetings. I was strongly advised to attend meetings and I complied. I could feel them working, changing my negative outlook, giving me glimpses of hope. The commodity I most needed. It became like dialysis, my daily medicine. Meetings were powerful, worked immediately. Still do. Don’t ask me why. Finding a Higher Power was tricky. I was prejudiced against organized religion, even spirituality. Hearing the word ‘God’ in our 12 Steps and in meetings made me think ‘Has it come to this’ ha ha. But I knew my best thinking had got me to the rooms, so decided to make the group a power greater than me. Meanwhile I was staying stopped. The proof of the pudding was that I lost the desire to drink or use. A day at a time. I was amazed and hugely impressed. Still am. I had just never managed to stay stopped on my own, and still don’t believe I can. Something profound, transformational was happening.
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Red: On the surface they were delighted. But it proved more nuanced than that. Many old using buddies were threatened by my departing the scene, walking away from our crowd ‘beautiful losers’. I was upsetting the apple cart. Some were very cruel. Family dynamics, too, were tricky. Mum was happy to see me getting well but my sister, a big drinker, couldn’t handle the new recovering me. She struggled to deal with the empowered person I was becoming, no longer the ‘sweet nothing’ she’d always had to care for. I loved my family of origin but in the early years, I had to manage the amount of time I spent around them, they really pushed my buttons. I went to meetings. Basically I had to re parent myself with my new NA community, who just never judged me. They were so kind and accepting; I had never known anything like it.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Red: A few emotional ones. But I’ve always had the gift of desperation. I have never messed with this programme, could feel the benefits real early and wanted in, became a recovering goody-good from the start. That saved my ass. I took the advice of my sponsor and stayed away from romantic relationships for the first two years. Just went to meetings, worked the steps, got into fellowship service, learned how to ‘play with other kids’ ha ha. I have continued to do three or four meetings weekly for 32 years without ever stopping. I also totally love them.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Red: Couple of years. My bi-weekly pushbike rides round the Bays really helped reduce the stress. I spent hours in deep hot baths full of Epsom Salts, listening to old Joni Mitchell records, crying a river. Did deep tissue massages, ate good food, the whole nine yards. Doing a good 4th step really also helped shift some stuff.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Red: Took a lot of practice. Realised I just couldn’t handle being around people drinking more than a glass or two. Did my head in. Still does really. So got cunning and would go to parties for the first hour only. Or just hang out with my recovering crew. Lots of clean laughs.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped?
Red: Recovery totally changed my life so it was all surprising, revolutionary. A journey out of self-loathing, shame, out of self-centredness. My self-esteem began to rise after staying clean and working the steps. I was attracted to healthier, more positive people. People who were respectful to me. I began speaking to myself more kindly. I’d had a terrible relationship with myself. I realized I am a good person who’d never learned how to live and who had always needed anaesthetic to cope with the world. I had just been ‘managing’ everything, I’d been like driving with the handbrake on. So I had to change everything ha ha. But I had the 12 steps and a sponsor and my peers to help me do that.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Red: In every possible way. Working a recovery programme has helped resolve so many buried issues, unlocked so much energy, has allowed me discover and become the person I always was. I got married at five years clean to a civilian (non addict/alcoholic) who really treated me well. We have had a family and have been together for three decades. We have had to work at it though!! I have also gone out and had therapy, lots of it.
Mrs D: What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Red: Can barely put it into words. I got my life back, I recovered myself, that little boy who fell under the wheels. I have many loving and healthy relationships that have been sustained for decades. I’m also actively grateful, make regular lists when I get grumpy and malcontented (which I do). Try and focus on giving back what was so freely given to me.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Red: I’d probably not have worked so hard. I have been so inspired by my brain working well, and tend to overdo it. Work is also a ‘good’ drug, except when it's not. I can honestly say I have worked a ‘boots and all’ programme. And it works if you work it as we say. So work it, you’re worth it.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Red: Give yourself a break. Try recovery out. Go for 90 meetings in 90 days. Get in the middle. It is hard to get a grip what’s on offer with these 12 step programmes.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Red: If I can do it, anyone can.