In my last blog (click here to read it), I described how on a visit to see family in the UK, I hit my personal rock-bottom with my drinking. In this blog, I outline how I got sober.
Back in Aus, I contacted Jennifer, a psychotherapist, who had helped me deal with a lot of anxiety stuff I’d gone through related to my working life in the past. I told her I was doing OK (somewhat self-deludedly) but was having a “few issues around drinking” and asked her if she knew anyone who might help me “with some strategies to help me manage it a bit better.” She said, as it happened, they’d just taken on an addiction specialist from the States, called Barbara – but she warned me that while Barbara was very good at what she did, she might tell me some things about my drinking that I might not want to hear.
I met with Barbara and relayed my long history with alcohol and, when younger, other intoxicants and some of the issues that had come up in the past as a result. She patiently and attentively took notes and when I told her that I didn’t think I needed to stop drinking, that I just needed some strategies to deal with the problems I was having – she said in her Texan drawl, “Ben, I will walk saaad by saaad with you on your journey, but I have to tell you, if it looks like a tomaayto, smells and tastes like a tomaayto – then it’s pretty likely you got yourself a tomaayto.” What did that make me then? Fecking ketchup? I could see where she was going with it, though, and, I must confess, as Jennifer had predicted, I didn’t like it. But I didn’t know then that Barbara was going to help me find the key to free myself from my sick self.
She gave me some ‘controlled drinking’ strategies to pursue over the next few weeks – but warned me that if I was the “tomaayto” she suspected, I might find them ineffectual. Meanwhile, she built the case with me and for me – I did a ‘homework’ exercise where I had to list all the situations and all the triggers that made me want to drink. I was very diligent in this and I was quite proud to present the list to Barbara at our next session showing what a thorough job I’d done. She nodded and mmm-ed as I read out my list and when I got to the end of it, she said, “Can you see the pattern here, Ben?” I looked back at the list and then back at her, “Er no, not really, Barbara.” She said, “You’ve pretty much described every situation you face in your life…happy, sad, bored, angry, socialising, being alone, celebrating, feeling uncomfortable…you react to it by drinking.”
It took a while for it to sink in, but fuck me, she was right – that was some revelation, I can tell you. Meanwhile the controlled drinking experiment began where on those occasions I would drink, I’d restrict myself to just two standard alcoholic drinks as recommended by some official government health guidelines – I did OK a couple of times – but always seemed to go over by one drink somehow and even that took a lot of effort. I spent a miserable Boxing Day around at friends, who gleefully got stuck into all manner of wines, beers and exciting looking cocktails over the course of the day. I gritted my teeth and managed to restrict myself to just two beers and a cider – but bloody hell that was one of the most miserable Boxing Days I’d ever spent.
Then a big test came when we went down south for our annual jaunt – now, no way on earth, was I not going to drink on my holiday down there. But for the first part of our trip, there was just me and my youngest son at the house – we were to be joined by my wife and eldest son and friends later on in the week. The idea was I could have some quality father-son time with him – so that was a good incentive not to drink. Again, I managed to restrict myself to now within a couple of drinks over my target – but that took a major will of effort. Then Char, my eldest son and our friends arrived at the beach house in which we were staying.
I gave myself permission there and then to have a night off my restricted drinking regime. I got absolutely leathered on a cocktail….of wine, beer and whisky – one after the other and another and another. I remember lying on the beach shit-faced, staring up at the spectacular night sky with my friends, wondering why the stars were moving around so much. The next day I was taking the kids fishing on the little river inlet that flowed into the sea near our spot. I felt horrendous – I had one of those metaphysical hang-overs, where you question your own existence – wondering if in fact it would be better to not exist at all than feel like this. It struck me then that here I was in one of my favourite places in the world – see my Down The South 1 blog – with people I loved the most, doing one of the activities I usually loved the most and yet…and yet right now I would have preferred to be dead. It was another painful wake-up call to where my drinking was taking me.
Back in Perth, I brought Char along with me to a session with Barbara to talk about how my drinking made her feel as my wife. Even I couldn’t be in so much denial as to realise that my drinking had been impacting on our relationship for some time. Over the years we’d known each other, Char had drunk less and less alcohol for various reasons, whereas my drinking steadily increased both in speed and volume. This inevitably lead to conflict between us – there was the amount of our money I spent on booze for starters, but much, much worse was my loud and ‘boisterous’ behaviour when pissed and my refusal to stop drinking on any given occasion if asked – or saying I would and then carrying on regardless. But not for one minute did I realise just how much even simply picking up a drink impacted on Char by this point. “Dread,” was the word she used to describe how she felt when I picked up my second drink – because it was at the second, she said, that she would have no idea the kind of Ben she would get after that and how the evening would turn out.
Although, more often than not, she said, it would be a Ben who’d talk over her, be overbearing and could be quite obnoxious. She described more common characteristics of the “pissed Ben.” I didn’t like the sound of him at all – in fact, he sounded like a complete arsehole. But that was me when I was drinking and that was how I could behave to Char – the person who loves me like no other, the beautiful soul who has looked after me, nursed me through some pretty low times, has been a fantastic mother to our children and whom without, I would have surely gone a hell of a lot lower than I did. The case was beginning to mount overwhelmingly….
One morning, I read a chapter from a book describing how the shape of the brain is affected by alcohol and other drugs. It described how neural pathways could be rapidly established through the instant gratification of a dopamine hit off drugs or a drink. These pathways become very entrenched and, can remain dormant for years and not die away – but they can be rapidly reactivated with the reintroduction of the drug or drink and the instant dopamine hit created. This explains why so many addicts pick up right where they left off if they pick up a drug or drink again even after years of abstinence. Basically, the book was describing the neural physiology of addiction. What’s more it described how – due to the intensive development of the brain during adolescence – you are more likely to be susceptible to addiction later in your adult life if you indulged in mind-altering substances including alcohol during your teen years.
As I read more of a chapter the slow realisation was creeping up on me – this chapter was describing me. Finally, the curtain of self-denial had been lifted completely; I was, I am and I always will be an alcoholic.
What’s more the book said the behaviour and neural pathways of those around practicing addicts change too to accommodate the chaos of the addictive behaviour of the father/mother/partner/sibling. For kids in particular, they develop defence mechanisms against the low self-esteem and pain the sometimes hostile and apparently unloving behaviour their parent exhibits. Often as part of their coping mechanism, they too indulge in mind-altering substances in adolescence to self-medicate against the pain – increasing their changes of being susceptible to addiction later in life. This perhaps is a contributory factor as to why alcoholism and other forms of drug addiction is often passed down through generations.
So not only did it begin to dawn on me I was the alcoholic “tomayyto” that Barbara had identified, but also the realisation that my drinking could have some very damaging long-term impacts on my children and of course, Char. It was at this time that I realised, I had to stop drinking for once and for all. Of course, though – me being me – it wasn’t that simple – I had booked to go to Melbourne with two of my best mates to coincide with my 44th birthday. There was no way on God’s earth, I wasn’t going to have one last bender in Melbourne…with the lads….on my birthday!
Our flight was delayed by 45 minutes so we were pissed by the time we got on the plane – later in Melbourne in the whee small hours of the morning, I was the soul individual on the dancefloor of the Y-club opposite our hotel, drunkenly stomping around – yeah, that pisshead you look at and shake your head at the spectacle – that was me. We were up the next morning drinking bloody Marys in the café opposite and I was away again. But I knew this was to be my last hurrah – I got a raven tattoo done on my left shoulder (no regrets) to mark the fact that I was changing direction, reorientating my moral compass from the end of this weekend. That night I nearly got into a fight with my friend’s cousin, who was actually drunker than I and turned ugly. The last night coincided with my birthday – we went to a favourite tapas restaurant and drank a good bottle of Rioja or two, met up with my friend’s son and his girlfriend in an outdoor bar, where I necked multiple whiskies with ale chasers to a point of happy pissed-ness regaling the assembled company with anecdotes and daft whimsy. Back in St Kilda – we went in search of a nightcap – the first place turned us away for being too untidy. Us ??? Come on!!!
One of my mates sensibly pulled the pin at that point and headed off back to the hotel, but no way was I going to finish like this. So my mate, Nigel, accompanied me to the next whisk(e)y bar – hell don’t ask why. We sat atop of these stools at a high table – Nigel bought me another pint and a whisky chaser. I’d taken the top off the pint and had a nip of the whisky when one of those moments of clarity I’d heard and read about hit me. I turned to Nigel and said, “Nige, if I don’t turn around and walk out of this bar now – I ain’t gonna stop drinking anytime soon.” God bless, Nige – he got it straight away, put his arm around my shoulder and simply said, “Come on then, son – let’s go.” And that was the last time I had a drink – more than two years ago now – and my God how my life has changed in that time…
We meandered up the street past the flow of Sunday night revellers squeezing the juice out of the weekend and stopped off at a cake shop that was still open – we brought a bag full, went back to the hotel and sat on Nige’s bed scoffing the goodies, laughing and joking and talking into the whee small hours. Even though I was still pissed, I felt an enormous sense of relief that it was over, but this was just the beginning, I had a long way to go before I reached this fantastic place of sobriety in my life today – a life today which is fulfilling and rewarding beyond my wildest dreams.
In the concluding part of this story in my next blog, I’ll tell you how I got not just physically sober, but emotionally sober and how my life is today as a happy, recovering alcoholic.