This week's Sober Story comes from Tom a.k.a @behind-the-sofa, a 40-year-old living in Auckland.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Tom: I quit drinking and smoking on March 8th, 2014. So almost eight years.
Mrs D: Why did you start drinking?
Tom: Drink was always around. Our fridge was always stoked with beer, the pantry with cask wines and brandy and whiskey, it seemed that it was a right of passage. Men drank, if you wanted to become a man you had to drink.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about your early drinking days?
Tom: I had my first heavy drinking session at 15 years old which saw me dragged out of a flooded ditch face down - I could have died. I then carried on to experiment with drink and weed, going to raves, getting annihilated, starting trouble, getting ten tones of shit kicked out of me. Then I stupidly tried glue sniffing and covering my face with a rag of petrol to get a cheap high. When I was 17 I started working underage in a pub and really earned my drinking spurs. I was able to get drunk near enough every night (on my actual 18th birthday I ended up getting arrested and thrown into a police cell). After that the drinking escalated into Class A drugs. Things were spiralling out of control, too many messy nights to talk of. I was often late for work, and often turned up unfit to work. I worked in bars and restaurants and had many debouched and diabolical times - often involving the police and often ending up with me getting fired.
Mrs D: But despite all the drinking and drugging somehow you managed to get yourself through University as well?
Tom: At 25 I went to University which was a real chance for me to turn my life around, but I was unable to curb the drinking. At one point I went to the local GP, nervous as fuck, sweating and shaking. It was a real struggle to tell a complete stranger that I thought I was an alcoholic. I was gagging on the words, could barely get them out.. but I managed to tell her. I thought she was immediately going to intervene; tell me how perilous my situation was, subscribe me heavy medication, whisk me off in an ambulance to a clinic, or at least be outraged at my immorality and profound degradation. Nothing though, she just pleasantly said that she didn't think I was an alcoholic and gave me a pamphlet with some numbers I could call if I wanted to and wished me a good day. I left feeling that I'd failed to convey the weight of my problem and a little let down that she'd failed to see it for herself. I went straight to the pub from the doctor's office. During my final year at Uni I drank and studied and drank and studied and I did manage to get a first class degree.
Mrs D: That's impressive!
Tom: After Uni I moved in with my older brother. We were both drinking heavily and it all ended one night in a big drunken fight when he kicked me out. I spent a few wretched weeks in a motel, then a couple more wretched months in an apartment. I was pretty low and drunk by this point. I wasn't looking after myself. Aimless, clueless, depressed and drunk. My drinking was really spiralling out of control. Whatever time I started drinking I wouldn't stop until I passed out so I had to try and start as late as possible. But as soon as I woke up I needed a drink. I was becoming a mess. I was fully dependent on alcohol now, maybe worse than at any point of my life. And this phase lasted for quite a while. There were fights, vomiting, being kicked out of bars, being smashed over the head with bottles, stealing, vandalism, you name it I've done it when drunk.
Mrs D: What were the last of your drinking days like?
Tom: My last days of drinking were heavy but not extraordinary given all my years of boozing. The final night itself was pretty low key. A mate took me out and treated me to a few drinks. I remember feeling disconnected from my surroundings, extremely self-conscious, at this point in my life a social pariah. I had no money, no job, no nothing. It was getting harder and harder to pull off any charade, my life was narrowing down further and further and there was nowhere left to hide. The next morning I lay on my bed with the curtains drawn, eating fried chicken, the sun was out and it was getting hot and I felt like shit. Really disgusted with myself and the way I was living. Broke, in debt, no job, no hope of getting a job, next stop homelessness. So I decided that was it: no more drinking and smoking, I had to sort my shit out. I'd made this decision a hundred times before but this time it felt different.
Mrs D: Wow that's powerful. And how did it go in those early hours and days?
Tom: I spent a week sleeping (i.e lying on my bed all day and night watching cockroaches scuttle across the ceiling) punctuated by long nightime walks (I wasn't going out during the day, sunlight would have been too much in my highly sensitive, state of withdrawal). I just white knuckled it through the first few weeks/months, nearly succumbing many times. I couldn't go out. I couldn't socialise. I had no money. I was fully alone. Three months into this purgatory I was lying on my bed feeling hollow and sick and randomly listening to Radio NZ when this very clear, articulate, intelligent, woman starting talking about her alcoholism. It totally struck a chord with me like someone had just hit my brain with a giant tuning fork. Her candid openness - what the fuck? She's dealt with all this shit already and come out the other side? A real person, living a real life, articulating the problems and the addictiveness and the wickedness of booze and how it had trapped her and brought her low. I found her blog, it took me a while before I posted anything but when I did I got some replies. It felt great and I was hooked.
Mrs D: I'm so happy that radio interview reached you and got you into communicating with us here online. How did it go for you after that? What reaction did you get from family & friends when you started getting sober?
Tom: I kept it quiet until a point I felt confident enough with it - that was a good six months into it I'd say. By then I was beginning to believe that I might be onto something. When it did emerge that I was getting sober my Mum was incredibly supportive but I think my brothers and my mate (I only really had one friend at that point) kept egging me on to drink and they didn't really believe it would last long. I guess to them it felt like they were losing me, that I was setting myself apart from them. I was moving away, distancing myself, moving to a new country, speaking a new language, while inhabiting the same space, watching on with a sober eye... of course it made them uncomfortable and of course they encouraged me to drink. I would have felt exactly the same way had the tables been turned.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Tom: My whole drinking career was a relapse. I wanted to stop drinking from quite early on, I swore to quit on hundreds of mornings and by the evenings I was drinking again. I always failed and put it off 'til next month, or next year. But I've not had a drop in the last eight years - barring an accidental liqueur chocolate.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Tom: I don't think I'll ever be calm physically or emotionally. I've never felt comfortable in my own skin. I fidget, I tap my leg, I crack my knuckles, I click my back and neck, I find it hard to make eye contact, I'm awkward socially, I'm a bag of nerves basically. Certainly not drinking has enabled me to handle my insecurities better but they're still there. I will say though the first couple of years I did really feel low a lot of the time. No energy, lethargic. I'm undoubtedley better now but I think it's long process. I'm cutting back on sugar and caffeine but it's a constant refinement, a constant battle with the self, stripping away things. There's always the next thing to give up or to do, but that's ok. Currently I'm trying to get addicted to things which are good for me - the latest thing is that I've joined a gym and I'm trying to become addicted to that. Maybe one day I'll reach a place that I'm really happy and comfortable in. As I say, I'm certainly a lot better off now than I was eight years ago. Not drinking gives you the opportunity to grow.
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Tom: I avoided most social situations for the first year, and then found out I didn't like most of the social situations I put myself in when I was drinking. I'm not outgoing by nature, alcohol made me outgoing and I think that's one of the reasons I liked it so much. The reality is I'm happier alone most of the time. I have a couple of mates and my brothers and my mum. My relationship with my brothers is good now which wasn't the case when I was drinking. I'm firmly re-branded as a non-drinker - whereas before it was shocking to see me without a drink, now if a friend or relative saw me with a drink they'd probably drop theirs.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking?
Tom: That drinking wasn't the primary problem - drinking masked the problems and stopped me from dealing with them. I didn't know that before. I honestly thought if I got sober everything else would magically fall into place - my anxiety, low moods etc. Learning that I hadn't cured myself simply by stopping drinking and smoking et al was kind of a depressing realisation. I'd used a fuck load of energy and had to spend a lot of downtime getting sober and now the real work had to begin. So yeah, I've learned that getting sober for me was really just the start in learning to deal with 'life', and I'm still at the bottom of that pyramid scheme.
Mrs D: I'm just making my way up that pyramid scheme. But yeah, that was a bit revelation to me too.. how much I had to work on once the booze was taken away. How else has your life changed?
Tom: I'm more positive nowadays and I don't have to go through withdrawals anymore. I generally have better thoughts but when I have boring or negative thoughts I can't escape them with booze. I get stuck in boring thought loops, the same boring words and self conversations and negative self-talk pops up, but I can cope with those thoughts better now and step outside them and know they don't define me. Life can be dull and frustrating and I still don't connect with people the way I'd like to. I'm working on relaxing and being more open and spontaneous but I'm still quite up tight and awkward. I'm still on the periphery of everything but I can live with that. It's not what I wanted from life but I guess I still have time (maybe!). I'm chipping away slowly. I'm not all guns blazing positivity all the time but I do have moments when I'm upbeat. I would say my good days outnumber my bad days which wasn't the case when I was drinking.
Mrs D: That's good to hear. What are the main benefits that emerged for you from getting sober?
Tom: A second chance at life is a fairly big benefit. No hangovers (I really don't think hangover is an adequate word to describe the hell of days after heavy drinking sessions, not being able to leave your room, anxious, reliving the previous night's goings on over and over in your head... the shame, the sickness, a 'hangover' almost sounds like something fun). Being able to sleep fairly soundly most nights is good too. Not so much of that self pitying melodramatic shit, your own company becomes more acceptable. Self esteem and your image of yourself improves dramatically too.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Tom: I wouldn't tell that fucking chef that I was an alcoholic. Let me explain: A few months into my sobriety I was flirting with a chef job at a fairly decent restaurant. My anxiety was getting the better of me and I didn't turn up to a couple of trials that had been arranged. I made the effort to go but couldn't actually walk through the door. I made excuses and got another trial and went in and worked and it went well. Then I was supposed to go back and chat to him and I didn't do that. Then I finally did and he offered me the job. I worked one shift and then backed out. My main issue was that the kitchen was open and it faced a bar. I would have been looking at beer taps and people drinking my whole shift. I thought this was going to seriously put my sobriety on the line. I didn't want to risk it. I felt like I'd been mucking the guy about though and I thought honesty was the best policy. We'd been having a text exchange and I just said to him; "look mate, I've only just recently got sober and I think this job might jeopardise my sobriety." That killed it. No more replies. I felt seriously wounded by his silence. It felt like society was giving me the finger: You're a useless fucking alcoholic who can't handle anything. A big fucking baby. That's what I felt like. So if I were to go through this process again I wouldn't let my guard down like that again.
Mrs D: He probably just didn't know how to respond to such honesty, so chose silence. Disappointing but some people just can't deal with such realness. Good on you for owning your truth. Any advice or tips for those who are just starting on this journey?
Tom: Don't listen to what anyone tells you. Anything's possible. Get sober anyway you can - alone, in a group, up a mountain, out at sea - what works for one person might not work for another. Don't worry too much about what people tell you ("you're a dry drunk"; "you'll always be an addict"; "you can't get sober"; "you're boring"; "what's the point of living without drink?") you'll hear lots of shit and some of it from your own brain: ("why are you doing this to yourself?", "you're too far gone"; "you need it"; "you deserve it"; "you're making yourself miserable for no reason"; "give it up mate you're not fooling anyone"). Just learn to ignore all the voices, forge your own path with that good part of yourself, follow the part of you that has noble intentions, the more you listen to that part of yourself the louder it becomes. Don't hold back, commit, be prepared to lose everything, be prepared to go to prison (as you'll probably want to kill a few people on your journey to enlightenment – only do it if it's the only way to stay sober 🙂 ), be prepared to be ostracised, brace yourself for the worst. It gets rough, but you will come out the other side if you don't have a drink.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Tom: This may sound oxymoronic but: I want to drink again but I also want to get to a place where I never want to drink again, and I think I might get to the latter - I think it just might take time. I'm eight years sober and I'd like to make it to ten. At ten years sober I'm going to reassess (I'm hoping by then that I'll be fully entrenched and committed to sobriety and that I will just chuckle at the thought of having a drink). I think that by giving myself this ten year goal it's actually helping me to stay sober. I think saying "never ever again" is too absolute for me. It's taken a big effort to get sober.... - and I think luck has played a part and also the time and opportunity maybe wouldn't come round again. I'm thankful that at the moment I'm out of it and that touch wood I haven't done any serious permanent damage - many other people aren't so lucky. Getting sober is the one thing I can cling to when all else crumbles in my hands. I can give myself a shot of optimism every time I remember. Sobriety is the gift that keeps on giving.