In my last two blogs, I looked at waking up to my drinking and finally putting the booze down (see part 1 here and part 2 here). In this blog, I’ll share with you how I took my first shaky steps through early recovery.
Disclaimer: The following account represents my experience only – it is in no way representative of the views of any organisation or religion. It’s just how it was for me so, in that spirit, take it or leave it!
After returning from my last drinking binge in Melbourne, I went along to my first AA meeting committed to staying sober. I’d been a few times before going away to Melbourne to dip my toe in the water so to speak and a while before then after I’d had a particularly big row with Char over my drinking. Both those times, I just felt like I was passing through and didn’t really belong there – no way was I as bad a drinker as some of the people there from what they described. In truth, I was looking for the differences not the similarities. That was my previous experiences of AA meetings, but for that first meeting after I’d put the booze down, it felt horribly real that this was where I’d come to.
I felt like utter shite – not just because of the ravages of a physical hangover that seemed to go on for a few days, but because of an emotional and spiritual malaise. I felt utterly miserable that I was having to commit to spending the rest of my lifetime sober. I felt defeated. I felt like a failure and all I could see ahead of me was a bleak future devoid of any joy or pleasure.
How wrong could I be? But it would take me sometime to realise it – early recovery was and is not much fun at all – an introspective roller coaster of fear, self-loathing and seething emotions. Good luck to you if you try and do it on your own. I was asked to ‘share’ at that first meeting – i.e. you share your thoughts and feelings related to alcoholism with those other alcoholics around you. I vaguely remember talking forlornly and slightly bitterly about what had got me here – the fact that I often treated my wife so badly when I was pissed and how I drank to try and make myself feel like I fitted in. I must have sounded like a right miserable sod – because that’s what I was! And yet people there welcomed me with nothing but kindness and understanding urging to forget about the rest of my life, to take it “one day at a time” and to “keep coming back”. A couple of people even came over to me afterwards and said how they could personally really relate to what I said from their own experiences with the booze. And somehow I felt just a tiny little bit better than when I came into the meeting – or at least less worse. Critically, it was enough to keep me coming back.
At work, I talked to my boss about what I was doing and what I was going through – she couldn’t have been more supportive or understanding and I will always be grateful to her for that. She signed me off on sick leave and told me to take as long as I needed. So I took a week off and went to an AA meeting every day. Meanwhile the work on myself began in earnest with the help of Barbara my psychotherapeutic angel with a Texan accent (see my previous blog). I quickly realised that for years I’d been masking my deep seated emotions, resentments, anxieties, fears and neuroses by drowning them out with alcohol. I’d started drinking in earnest when I was 15 – and even then – especially then – it helped me feel like I fitted in or if that didn’t work gave me the courage to stick two fingers up to the world I perceived as being against me.
I felt conflicted about who I was – the youngest in a very intellectual family of high achievers – I had a deep-seated feeling of inferiority. My father was Jewish, my mother from a Christian background – neither religious, but with a keen sense of their culture and where they were from. I felt different from my Jewish friends, because we didn’t have a Jewish upbringing like they did – although we went to a Jewish school and were involved in a Jewish youth movement and would sometimes go to London to celebrate Jewish festivals with relatives down there. Dad, an eminent psychoanalyst, was a student of Freud and was a huge fan of the films of Woody Allen, Walter Matthau and the Marx Brothers and whenever someone Jewish appeared on TV or in the paper – Dad would be the first to say – “S/he’s Jewish, you know!” But, because I was not Jewish in many people’s eyes as my mother wasn’t Jewish, for years I was dogged by the question of my Jewish authenticity.
But I also felt markedly different from my non-Jewish friends and my peers at school – I’d get comments about having a “jelly cock” in the showers in reference to being circumcised and being told that I personally had killed Christ. I tried to point out I had a good alibi by not being there at the time, but it didn’t fly with my antagonists for some reason.
My way of dealing with this was to rebel against everything that I perceived as making me feel this way – parents, school, society and to try and win favour among my peers by being wild and defiant. When I started drinking at around the age of 15, it immediately took away my feelings of alienation, gave me courage to be wilder and even more defiant and gave me a new, exciting environment in which to interact with others – the pub, parties, music gigs and out on the streets. I also began to dabble with other drugs, which further drove a wedge between me and the mainstream from whence I had come, as well as further eroding the remaining self-care I had for myself. Nothing that unusual in a lot of this – just another teenage rebel without a clue hitting out at authority – but the underlying feelings and thought patterns that underpinned my rebellious behaviour, drinking and drugging persisted well past early adulthood.
These were issues that I began to explore with Barbara in earnest – I had done some previous work around this in psychotherapy sessions with Jennifer, who ran the practice and who had put me onto Barbara in the first place. But now for the first time, I was glimpsing into my ‘shadow self’ through the prism of my addiction. My sessions with Jennifer had brought me a long way from the anxious-ridden bundle I had become previously – but could only take me so far to the shores of my addiction. With Barbara, it felt like we were washing away layers and layers of muck and debris to reveal the chipped and worn mosaic that made up my inner self. The Jewish mystical book the Kabala talks about our true inner power being locked up in our addictions. I began to see the truth in this.
But my God, it was sometimes a painful experience going back over some of that shit, probing it in detail with a big psychic stick. I used another analogy to describe what I was going through at the time – it was like I had a mountain of issues and feelings that I had drowned out with a flood of alcohol leaving only the tip of the mountain exposed. So as the flood receded, the rest of the mountain emerged – raw and imposing. At times it seemed insurmountable. I left some of those sessions with Barbara in bits – but I had faith in her and in the process that it had to be done if I was going to find any semblance of a manageable life sober – let alone a happy one.
Meanwhile in AA someone approached me after one of my early meetings and offered me temporary sponsorship. A sponsor is someone who is like a mentor and a guide in AA. They are someone you can go to any time with any problems you are facing related to alcoholism (and that covers a lot of ground, let me tell you) and someone who takes you through the 12 steps. I immediately related to him – he was down to earth and rarely told me what I should or shouldn’t do – it was all quiet suggestion on his behalf. He also had a great stock of filthy and daft jokes and he would always greet me with one of these. We often have a good cackle together – to be able to laugh in recovery is critical for me, I think – because it gets all too earnest and painful sometimes – so I’ve got to be able to laugh at myself and with others to counter the gravity. Besides, I can now on reflection recognise how absurd my thinking was and sometimes is.
Indeed, he taught me that the real problem wasn’t the drinking, it was the thinking behind it. He showed me that many of us who drank were effectively in emotional arrested development and never really grew up because anytime anything got hard or uncomfortable we just dealt with it by pouring a drink over it. He also helped me see that really my best bet was to just focus on being an ordinary, responsible suburban husband and father – rather than continuing to harbour ambitions/delusions of greatness. While hard to swallow initially, this really rang true with me – I could go through wild swings from gargantuan sized ego fantasies to bitter self-loathing.
I remember reading Red Hot Chili Pepper Anthony Kiedis’s book Scar Tissue where he describes alcoholics as “egomaniacs with inferiority complexes” and it just leapt off the page and slapped me around the chops. That was me! On the one hand I couldn’t understand why my greatness hadn’t yet been discovered by the world – why wasn’t I vaunted as the great writer I knew I was? (Possibly it was something to do with the fact that, other than newspaper and magazine articles, I’d never actually written anything and submitted it to publishers). Why at work was I not acknowledged as being the brilliant communications and PR strategist I knew I was and catapulted to the top of the career pile? On the other hand, I looked around at some of my kids’ friends’ parents with their big houses, four-wheel drive wagons, boats and high-flying corporate careers and felt like an utter failure and a useless piece of shit for fucking up my life and selling my family so short. I despised myself and would frequently take out the mental baseball bat to my psyche – as my friend once said I would never in a million years dream of telling even my worst enemy some of the horrific things I used to tell myself. You can see how this kind of thinking could only lead to frustration, unhappiness and unending inner turmoil. And what had I used in the past to stop it and make it all go away? And the survey said…ping-ping-ping! Alcohol was 100 per cent the top answer every time.
Working with my sponsor through the 12 steps and with Barbara, I was gradually able to let go of this old dysfunctional thinking about all the stuff I didn’t have in my life and actually begin to see in the clear light of day all the glorious, life-affirming things I did have; a beautiful, loving wife, two wonderful sons, a wider loving family, so many good friends, great communities of which I am happy to be a member, a decent job with supportive and affable colleagues and being able to live here in this amazing environment of Perth and Western Australia.
I began to feel so much healthier in myself – as all those empty calories exited my diet, the flab began to fall off me (although my sweet tooth kicked in with a vengeance), my head got clearer and clearer and I remember one Sunday spring morning coming out of an AA meeting, hang-over free, feeling euphoric and feeling like the world was suddenly lit up in Technicolor.
I was in transition – my earth had been cleared, the foundations had been laid. I was at last waking up.