This week’s Sober Story comes from Suzy, a 69-year-old living in Auckland.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Suzy: I have been in recovery from dependence on alcohol and other drugs since February 1987. I was 39 years old then. My daughters were 14 and 6 years of age. I was in a long term relationship. I was desperate! Things were about to change!! Alcohol was the first drug I used. I used it on a daily basis from 16 years of age until I was 39. Apart from two years in the seventies when I was having trouble with my liver. I loved what alcohol gave me in the beginning. I felt connected with others. I felt like I had ‘arrived’. Along the way I used a variety of other substances. Alcohol was always there though and easy to obtain. It was my reliable friend. Until it wasn’t…
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Suzy: My last three years of using alcohol and other drugs were torture. I would wake up each morning, sick, depressed and angry that I hadn’t died in my sleep. I had to get through the day ahead. Being someone’s mother, partner, employee or friend. How was I going to be able to do that? And make it look like I was okay? Exhausting! I couldn’t face into the day without using… I was anxious, guilty, ashamed, crazy, stressed, fearful and isolated. I felt worthless. And I didn’t tell anyone. This was my secret. And I was terrified someone would find out. Secrets kept me very sick for a very long time. I am very grateful for the gift of desperation.
Mrs D: What was the final straw that led you to get sober?
Suzy: Basically the alcohol and other drugs stopped working. I had begun having panic attacks and managed them the only way I knew how – by using more. And that didn’t help. I was looking more intoxicated on the outside and more out of control on the inside. I still thought I had it covered and that ‘you’ wouldn’t know how out of control I was. One day I got sacked from my job. I had been drinking at work and I had been stealing money and time. That was the final straw for me. I was devastated. I had to tell people what happened. It was the beginning of telling on myself. Without the façade of work, I had to face into reality. And the reality was I needed help.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Suzy: Although I realised early on it was easier for me to have ‘none’, than ‘one’, learning how to live without using mood altering substances was very difficult. I was ‘waking up’ to emotions and feelings and it was very uncomfortable indeed. So much shame and guilt for past behaviour and nothing to anesthetise that pain now that I was abstinent. I felt like a raw, naked, nerve. So self-conscious and awkward. And there I was, in a long term relationship and with two daughters. I didn’t know how to be a mother or a partner or a friend or employee. I had to learn to take care of myself and my daughters without anything to fall back on to (seemingly) relieve stress. It was sobering. Blessedly I had the support of others in recovery to remind me that I only had to get through this day without picking up. Sometimes it was getting through one hour at a time. I did it though. And one hour lead to another, and one day lead into another and before I knew it I was acknowledging, 3, then 6, then 9 months of recovery and arrived at one year. What an achievement!!
Mrs D: What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Suzy: Active addiction to alcohol and other drugs impacts on the whole family and on the community. Recovery also impacts on family, friends and community. My family were very happy in theory that I stopped drinking and drugging. They were not so happy that I was learning to identify needs and ask for them to be met. The children were not so happy about going to bed at a regular time each night. Really though, my family and friends were and are very supportive indeed. My partner went to treatment and into recovery. Some friends were inspired to seek treatment and recovery themselves and I was no longer the only one. When my daughter was 17 or 18 she realised she had a problem with alcohol and made a decision to stop drinking. That was due in part to her seeing that it was possible to stop and change and to be able to enjoy life without alcohol.
Mrs D: Experts say relapse is often a part of recovery, was it a feature of yours?
Suzy: Relapse can commonly be part of the recovery process. Just for today it has not been a feature of mine. I made daily decisions not to pick up, no matter what. Then it became a habit not to. Despite the highs and lows along the way, the 10,000 joys and 10,000 sorrows that life brings.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Suzy: It’s difficult to put a time to this. I began to calm down physically early on. I spent 12 weeks in a residential treatment centre and that really helped provide some structure and teach me a routine. Times to eat and time to sleep. My body responded well to that and I began looking and feeling well quite quickly. Emotionally though, I was all over the place. I was beginning to ‘feel’ for the first time in years and I had no idea how to take tender care of and observe emotions. I came from the ‘I feel it therefore I must act on it immediately no matter what the consequence’ school of emotion. Which has caused me much trouble through the years as I was at the mercy of emotions. I was able to access regular counselling in the community to teach me some skills in this regard. I also became part of a 12 step mutual aid fellowship and that was immensely helpful as I was able to see and hear others who had been in recovery longer than me and who were living meaningful lives. These connections gave me the courage and inspiration to continue despite the emotional rollercoaster. What I learned was, no matter what had gone down, as long as I didn’t pick up, it was a successful day. I was not familiar with success. And gradually I began to get some confidence that I could do this recovery thing, and enjoy it☺.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Suzy: I kept it simple initially. I chose which social occasions I wanted to go to and I always went with another recovering person. I would discuss a plan ‘B’ with them and off we went. It was easier than I anticipated, once I got over myself. I would bring my own drink, something I really liked and headed for the food table, (a trap for young players – that’s another story) chatted with some people for a while and was often the first to leave. Instead of the last.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Suzy: There have been many surprises. I am neither as bad nor as good as I thought I was. I no longer think I have to know everything. I feel a connection with myself and others and the environment. I spent so many years desperately looking for spiritual connection, looking out there, in a bottle, smoke, substances, person, food, shopping. I was waiting for someone/thing to make it all better for me. It’s not out there though. It’s in here. It has been here all the time and all I need do is get out of my own way. My part is to acknowledge the joys and sorrows. Let go of the learned behaviours and habits which helped me survive for so many years and were no longer working. Or necessary. I am a spiritual being having a human experience.
Mrs D: How did your life change?
Suzy: My life began to change in 1987 when I made a decision not to pick up alcohol or others drugs. I made that decision daily and still do. The obsession and compulsion to use was taken from me early on. I began to experience freedom. I was able to make plans and follow through. I was no longer at the mercy of addiction. I went back to school and trained for a profession that I love. I have developed loving, respectful relationships with family, friends and colleagues. I have travelled to many places, sometimes on my own, sometimes with others. I can give and receive love. My life continues to change. For me, the decision not to pick up cannot be described as “being on the straight and narrow”. For me, this path, this recovery journey, is wide and expansive. And the journey continues ☺
Mrs D: What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Suzy: I have an easy relationship with me and with others. I have learned to be a good friend to myself. I aspire to wholehearted living.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Suzy: Nothing in particular. Of course, looking back with 20 20 hindsight, there are many things I ‘coulda/woulda/shoulda’ done differently. I did though, the best I could with what I had at the time. The same is true for this day.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Suzy: A very wise woman taught me to take my recovery seriously and not to take myself seriously. You can recover. And you only have to do it for today. And the days turn into weeks and months and years. And waking up to life is such an exciting ride. A life beyond your wildest dreams. Hold on to your hat!!
Mrs D: Anything else you’d like to share?
Suzy: I am a grateful member of Narcotics Anonymous (NA) which is an abstinence based 12 step mutual aid group in the community. NA suits me as it does not distinguish between drugs (including alcohol). More about addictive process and recovery. It’s not what we take – it’s where it takes us. And how to change that with support. For me, recovery is more than abstinence. Abstinence is an event and recovery is a process. It is about connection. I could be abstinent and not in recovery/sobriety. Recovery is about learning how to live well here and now. To repair, build and maintain meaningful relationships with self, family and friends and the environment; about ‘right livelihood’; service to the community; taking responsibility for my actions. Just for this day.