This week's Sober Story comes form Toni, a 52-year-old living in Silverdale in Auckland.
Mrs D: How long have you been in recovery?
Toni: I am blessed to have been in recovery for 18 years.
Mrs D: What can you tell us about the last months/years of your drinking before you gave up?
Toni: It felt to me as if it took a long time for me to find recovery, but I think in hindsight that it wasn’t really that long in the scheme of things. I’d known that I had a problem with my drinking from really early on. I used to regularly ring the AA Helpline in my late teens (back in my day, the drinking age was 20 and I’d been ringing AA on and off since I was 18 years old). I was one of those people who would dial the number with a trembling hand and then put the phone down as soon as it started ringing. Then I’d convince myself that I didn’t have a problem and it would be all okay if I didn’t drink for a while. I’d last all of a week or two without a drink and the cycle would start all over again.
Mrs D: But you got to a point where something had to change?
Toni: I finally hit my rock bottom when I was 34-years-old. I went to my doctor and described my out-of-control life and lied about how much I was actually drinking. He suggested that I was depressed and needed to go on medication. Fortunately (for me) the medication required a reduction in drinking, so I stopped drinking. I immediately felt better and decided that the anti-depressants must have been working. What I know now, of course, is that it was stopping drinking that made me feel better. Of course, because I’m an alcoholic, I couldn’t stay away from the drink and the inevitable happened. I went to a School Ball Fundraiser (I was on the local school PTA at the time) and I had a couple of wines. The floodgates were back open and now I couldn’t stop drinking. But, because I was taking anti-depressants, I couldn’t control the way the two interacted and my behaviour became irrational and even more out-of-control. There was eventually a family intervention (of sorts) and my secret drinking was exposed. By this time, I was drinking 24 hours a day, hiding booze all over the house, drinking during work hours, through the night. I had to top up just to function. It was terrifying (not only for me, but for my sons and my husband) and I never, ever want to find myself there again.
Mrs D: What was the final straw?
Toni: I’d been through a treatment centre, I’d tried to commit suicide and I just couldn’t stop drinking. You’ll find a fictionalised account of my journey to sobriety here. I started hallucinating. I sat and watched my mother turn into a pig and then I had one of those moment’s of clarity. Something in my brain ‘snapped’ and I realised that a healthy, functioning person doesn’t lie in bed drinking and watching their mum turn into a pig. I knew I had to stop. I wasn’t scared of dying, but I was scared of coming out of a black out in jail and not knowing what I’d done or who I’d hurt.
Mrs D: How was it for you in the early days? What was most difficult?
Toni: Just dealing with the day-to-day stuff that most people find easy was hard for me. I often say that it feels as if my insides are on my outside—if someone breathes on me too hard they are going to hurt me. If you look at me the wrong way, I feel pain. Life is simply a struggle for me. Everything hurts me, or scares me. I often feel as if I missed getting the instruction booklet for life. Everyone else seems to know what to do, but I’m at a loss.
Mrs D: That sounds tough. How did your friends and family react to you getting sober?
Toni: My family were thrilled that I’d stopped drinking—but it took them years to begin to trust me again. Even today (18 years later) my Mum will worry if I don’t call her, or I’m late for something. The trauma is so deep, her immediate first thought is that I’m drinking again. There’s nothing I can do about that. The only thing I have control over is whether or not I pick up the first drink and today, I choose not to pick up.
Mrs D: Have you ever experienced a relapse?
Toni: Yes, I relapsed many times. But I’m pleased that it (eventually) only took me five months to get sober. It seemed like an age at the time, but now I realise it’s a short timeframe to be having such a massive crisis.
Mrs D: How long did it take for things to start to calm down for you emotionally & physically?
Toni: My liver ached for two years. I was grateful one day when another woman shared that her liver had ached for almost two years—I stopped thinking that I must have been dying of cancer. Such a drama queen... The liver’s an amazing organ and the fact that mine is fit and healthy these days is testament to what putting down the drink can do for your life. My life was an emotional roller coaster for the first couple of years. My family and friends tell me now that I’m a steady dependable person who meets her obligations and commitments. Some days I don’t feel that way, but hey, I’m like the duck—you can’t see the paddling going on under the surface!
Mrs D: How hard was it getting used to socialising sober?
Toni: I carried antibuse around with me for a long time, so if I ever found myself in a situation where I might pick up, I’d take a pill and know that I was safe. My strategy for socialising was to make sure that I took my own car, or had money for transport. I’d arrive a little late and leave early. Most people, by the time they’ve had a few drinks, aren’t worth talking to in any event—they don’t even miss you when you’ve gone. We used to go out and have ‘sober fun’ at the treatment centre that I went to and they taught me how to dance sober. I will be forever grateful to the women in recovery who took me under their wing on a Friday night and taught me how to drink hot chocolate and behave like a lady. I stay away from people who are drinking. I left a lot of my old friends behind. Sitting around in a bar isn’t somewhere I need to be any more. I hang out with like-minded people in coffee bars and parks. I don’t like or need to be around alcohol much any more and I like it that way.
Mrs D: Was there anything surprising that you learned about yourself when you stopped drinking? How did your life change?
Toni: I rediscovered my love of words and books. I’ve forged a writing career for myself. When I first got sober I had so many hours in the day to fill, I didn’t know what to do with them. I rediscovered my love of gardening. My sons were reasonably young when I got sober, so I found that I could be present for them. I can never make up for the harm and the hurt I’ve caused them (except for making daily amends by being sober every day) but I rediscovered my connection with the two of them and I was able to be there when they needed me. After four years of being sober, my husband and I decided that we would go our separate ways. It was one of the hardest things I have gone through in my life. But I did it all sober. I found a maturity that I didn’t know I had and I went to University for a year to get my Legal Executive qualification.
Mrs D: Wonderful! Can you pinpoint any main benefits that have emerged for you from getting sober?
Toni: I have a quality of life now that I never dreamed of having and it’s not about the ‘baubles’ that society oftentimes tells you that you want or need. I have a spiritual life today that is the bedrock of my sobriety. I have pursued my love of writing and I spend my days playing with the people in my head. I shine the light back so other women can follow and find a way to a better life (through my website here). We also share our ups and downs in a gratitude group on Facebook (founded on the principles of clean eating and sober living—which seem to go hand in hand). I wake up every morning filled with a feeling of hope and the promise of another day. I wasted so much time when I was drinking and now I want to make up for it all. I love my life. I don’t covet anyone else’s life, I enjoy living and creating my own path. I take time to enjoy the moment and the day and I work hard to focus on the positive things in my life.
Mrs D: Would you do anything differently given the chance to go through the process again?
Toni: I would reach out for help sooner. I would listen to those who have walked before me and actually do what they suggested—before my life turned to utter crap! I would be honest with those closest to me about how I was really feeling instead of trying to make things work that were never going to work. I’d trust my gut more.
Mrs D: What advice or tips would you have for those who are just starting on this journey?
Toni: Be gentle with yourself. Find a group of like minded people who have been where you are and listen to what they did to get where they are now. Do what they did. Rinse and repeat. Don’t complicate something that’s really simple and straightforward. Don’t intellectualise. Don’t try and give up too many things at once. Slow and steady wins this race. Don’t pick up the first drink—it’s the first drink that causes the harm.
Mrs D: Anything else you'd like to share?
Toni: I’m not perfect—and neither are you—but we can do one thing every day in a better way and together we’ll build a better future for those who are coming behind us.