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Letter from an alcoholic

What it was like

Hello, my name is Joe, and I am the alcoholic on the Clapham omnibus. I was doomed before I started. My mother was born in a pub, my grandfather the publican and my alcoholic grandmother the barmaid. The genetic disorder missed my mother’s generation, but dropped in on me. When I was about 8 we went and visited some Italian friends who, as they do, gave the children a watered down glass of red wine over lunch. My brother promptly threw up (fairly normal), while I bounced around on newly discovered rocket fuel.

At 17 three mates and I would buy a crate of DB. They could manage their share of the brown bottles but I always got stuck about half way through and had to give the rest of it away. I set out with a determination to improve. By 20 I was able to keep up with the best of them and had learned to chunder with dignity. I supplemented my work in the hospitality industry (free booze and after hours availability) with the papers of an LLB. My meagre student income required a highly structured management programme for consumption of food and intoxicants and I had to learn to live with the infrequency of available substances. Alcohol was always the base ingredient.

On my OE I finally got the ideal job working in a brewery and function centre where I discovered the pleasures of claret for breakfast. It took me a while to figure out that the apparent cloud of West Coast sand flies in my London flat were just spots in front of my eyes, and that my shaking hands were not caused by nerves. The hair of the dog fixed that problem.

On my return I “borrowed” my father’s moderate 20 litre home brew kit. Production volumes were seriously inadequate and I soon had three 40 litre kegs on the go at any one time. It was easier to stay at home and drink so I set a bar up in my flat and started partying hard. I also decided to put my degree to use and went straight into the criminal bar. Criminal and bar it was. At last, an unlimited overdraft for purchase of a variety of beers, fine wines and spirits. Self employment so no one could see the state I was in when I turned up to work in the mornings. I specialised in clients who had alcohol and drug problems and made a point of visiting all the halfway houses so that I could get them in, rather than the alternative of a holiday at Her Majesty’s pleasure. My mantra was that “It is easier to go to jail than to go straight”.

My alcohol and drug abuse reached its peak over this four year period. I was just as dysfunctional as most of my clients except that I had not been collared by the long arm of the law. Despite the insanity, I knew that dishonesty and violence would deprive me of my livelihood, so I kept my nose clean. I only did one plea in mitigation with a skinfull and vowed never to do it again. I proudly went to the Litigation Skills program with my 2 new briefcases. One with the course materials and the other with a 40oz of gin and a 40oz of whiskey. I was desperately concerned not to run out over the week. Looking back, I was a pretty incompetent barrister and I acknowledge the tolerance and kindness of the judiciary who saved me from embarrassing myself.

The volume of intake and the duration increased significantly. Three day benders with aching kidneys necessitated six to eight hour water breaks in order to make the pain go away. I had to bite the side of the beer glass as it went down and irritated my developing stomach ulcer. In the middle of all this I even gave up drinking completely for a year. I won a heap of money from people who could not believe that it was possible for me to give it all away. I even noticed an improvement in the quality of my advocacy. However, once I had won my bet I plunged back in, even deeper than before. I was trolleyed every waking moment of the day, except when I was at work. My house was like a railway station populated with thieves, drunkards and drug addicts. I maintained the illusion by donning my suit and heading down to court each day. My father complained that my breath stank, so I tried all sorts of chewing gum, toothpaste and mouthwash to no avail. He could smell the fear on my breath.

I had to control and manage my drinking so that I was as out of it as possible, but, paradoxically, still in control. I could not stand to be sober for any social event. Half time at the movies wasn’t an ice cream, but a quick trip to an adjacent bar for a top up. I would get tanked up before going out, would slip in an extra nip of something strong in between rounds, and make sure I always had a bottle beside the bed. If I found I was overdoing it, I would cut back to juice or water or coffee. I recall dinner at a flash restaurant with a beautiful woman and having to politely step outside into the alleyway to vomit into the rubbish bin before cleaning up and returning. Every week or so I would misjudge my intake and rather than go to bed with a case of the spins, I would have to vomit to avoid the morning hangover.

My whole life became focussed on making sure I always had alcohol available at any time so that I could maintain a level of intoxication that divorced me from the reality of myself. I did not know who I was and I had no idea what to do. So being drunk most of the time was my best alternative. Gradually the good people started to leave my life and I became the king of a castle full of sycophants. My behaviour while drunk was appalling, ego driven and dishonest. I was incapable of respecting others and more importantly unable to care for myself. I look back now at photographs of me at this time and I look older than I do now – bloodshot yellowed eyes, puffy blotchy face and little pot belly where my alcohol/food ended up My long suffering family could do nothing but tolerate me and my unpredictable narcissistic behaviour.

My first trip to the Court of Appeal got me an unusually quick win from an early start and by 10 o’clock I was in the pub. I switched pubs around midday and then met friends at 5pm for a few convivial drinks. By 10 o’clock I lurched off to a party and about 4am I became the designated driver for the fish and chip run. By virtue of my alcoholic physiology and careful management, I always managed to drive sensibly while drunk, never losing my licence or having any accidents. Of course I knew what the consequences could be, having spent many mornings in the traffic list!

When we came to the attention of an unmarked police car, I realised I had a number of well known drug users as passengers and the prospect of being busted in those circumstances would not look good for my career. They managed to get out and melt into the darkness before the cops pulled me over for the inevitable breathalyser. He asked how much I had drunk and I couldn’t comprehend how to answer his question. I kept quiet about my occupation, and why I was celebrating the success of the previous morning. When I gently dropped my drivers licence on his dashboard and said “that’s the end of that then” he asked if I would surrender the keys and walk home! Joy of joys, but I got a bollocking for arriving home with a box full of cold fish and chips.

I know I had blackouts but I can’t remember them. I do know that on a regular basis I would have to ask the bank to copy me cheques that appeared to be missing from my cheque book. Somebody was taking them and making them out to cash at various bars. Invariably the copy would come back with my signature.

I couldn’t keep it up. I had a sense of impending doom and decided to escape the jurisdiction. It was the place that was the problem and I needed a change of scene. The difference between pleasure and pain was becoming harder to discern. Any excuse to drink – good news, bad news or no news – brought me shuddering to my knees. At the end of one serious binge my last memory was lying on a pile of gravel, concerned friends in attendance, vomiting over my suit.

What happened

So I packed up and ran away, from my town, from my country, and from my culture. I thought I would have another crack at not drinking for no other reason that it didn’t really seem to be working any more. I had got so legless on my last three week binge that life really stopped making any sense. It was a gentle carpet of soft inebriation, but it was really like I was on another planet. I knew I couldn’t get much done in that state, and my new job would require at least a modicum of focus.

I still had to have another couple of goes at it, a bottle of whiskey and half a bottle of wine, but sadly the booze had stopped working for me. My best friend had become my enemy. My last drink was two and a half glasses of wine on Saturday morning that had me in bed by midday, hung over and sleeping for the rest of the weekend and still feeling sick as a dog on the Monday morning. My body told me it was done with drinking, but my head still had no idea. Alcoholism is a disease that tells you that you are not sick.

I then endured two of the most painful years of my life as what is known as a “dry drunk”. No alcohol, no anaesthetic to dull the pain and having to live with all the jangling, confused emotions and thoughts that I had so effectively suppressed over the previous decade. I was an emotional cripple, 34, going on 13. I had no social skills and couldn’t talk to anybody about anything except work. Ah ha – workaholism – that was a good substitute. My new boss got plenty of productivity. I then found a nicely dysfunctional partner and we entered into an abusive relationship. Jagged emotions and a complete disintegration of sanity followed. I rediscovered my childhood anger and the capacity to have a temper tantrum. We tried everything to fix our relationship, but were really bleeding into each other’s wounds, unable to help each other.

In the meantime I shifted into a new role working for the government. My first job was to revise the Misuse of Drugs Act – yeah right. Then the great force that moves in mysterious ways, sent me a real beauty. I had to draft the Sale of Liquor Act. Once it was done, I had to sit with the select committee, listening to submissions from priests, teachers, doctors and social workers. The day the priests came I decided I didn’t want to hear from the god squad and that I would have a sickie. However, something happened and I found myself listening to what they had to say. They were clever, they didn’t preach. They simply showed us all a half hour ABC TV drama/documentary. It had the usual scary stuff with diseased livers, shrunken hearts and former nuclear physicists displaying their brain damaged capacity in a psychiatric hospital. None of that really impressed.

However it was the story of the architect threaded through the horror stuff that caught my eye. He was a man just like me. He started off with a few drinks after work and then thought he would slip a few in during the afternoons while he was finishing off his work. My habit was to get a 6 pack (or later a doz) following the afternoon sentencing to keep me going while I was phoning probation and the prosecutors to get organised for the next day. He started to get a bit forgetful – ditto. He forgot to pick up the washing, then his kids, and then he had a huge argument with his wife - ditto. It all seemed so familiar – here I was on the TV.

I was so impressed I chased the priests down and borrowed their video. I took it home and watched it two or three times and invited all my friends around for a screening. They couldn’t figure it out and didn’t think it was such a great programme. One of them suggested to me that I might have an alcohol problem but, because I wasn’t drinking, that did not resonate.

Meanwhile my dysfunctional relationship continued as we tried to find a counsellor with the magic touch. One day somebody suggested I go to an AA meeting to see whether it was any use to me. Given that it was free, and by then I was screamingly desperate to find some sanity, I thought I’d give it a go. I fudged an excuse for missing the meeting the first time round, but finally somebody from my past nailed me and took me along.

It was a meeting that would have done credit to any of my former clients. Most of the attendees didn’t seem to want to be there, and there was an air of tension and aggression (or so I thought). It only took about five minutes. The format of AA meetings is that you are invited to share – whether you do so is up to you. I managed to stand up, say my name, say that I was an alcoholic, and then burst into tears. They all clapped and I sat down. That was it, I had nailed the problem and the answer all in one go. “Hello my name is Joe and I am an alcoholic”.

What it is like now

I have been saved. I have been saved from killing myself. If my body hadn’t packed in it probably would have been behind the wheel of a car, or doing some foolish prank drunk as a skunk. It was quite a relief to know what the actual problem was. I really had no idea that all the fear and pain was exacerbated by my drinking rather than healed by it. The problem wasn’t really all you people out there, or my friends, or my family, or the world or fate. I finally stopped trying to run away from me and my consequences.

AA is based on a twelve step programme which funnily enough only mentions alcohol in the first part of the first step. The twelve steps are actually a prescription for good living but one must have the desire to stop using alcohol before anything makes any sense. The first step is “That we admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives have become unmanageable”. I had to pass through that threshold by finding my rock bottom. Every alcoholic has a different rock bottom, and hit it they must before this step makes any sense.

I started to get the message that a sober life wasn’t all that bad as I went back over and over again to sit in rooms full of drunks happily sipping tea. They seemed to have something, a kind of serenity and understanding of how life worked. I really wanted to know what their secret was, and the beauty was that they seemed all to willing to share it with me. All I had to do was keep coming back. It sounds a bit like a cult, but it’s the most amazing organisation I’ve ever come across. There are no rules, no membership lists, no subscriptions, we refuse money from outside organisations, nobody is in charge, no one makes you go, no one comments if you miss a few meetings, you can leave early, no one asks what your last name is, if you are asked to share you can refuse, no one decides whether you’re fit for membership or not, no one tells you what to do, no one preaches, there are no doctors analysing your medical condition, its free, and in New Zealand is readily available. Newcomers are welcomed in the doors like long lost souls. We just say “If you want to drink that’s your business but if you want to stop that’s our business”.

It’s about twenty years since I had the half bottle of wine that gave me such a thundering hangover. I still love going to AA. Three meetings a week of an hour each seem to be just about the right amount of medicine for me. I go because I’m still a forgetful creature. I have had to learn how to experience my emotions and then how to live with them. If I was 34 going on 13 when I stopped, I think I was 40 going on 21 and when I hit 50 I was somewhere in my late 40’s. I think I have just about grown up into myself now, and I feel really comfortable inside my own skin.

That doesn’t mean to say that life is a bowl of cherries. I have had to face some incredibly difficult situations, and my sanity is being constantly tested. I have experienced more joy and more grief in my sobriety than I ever did when I was drinking. Never once have I thought that a drink would ever make things better. I do know that if I want to commit suicide then a quick trip down to the bottle shop is probably the best way to go. In fact while I sit here writing this, I know I could have a drink in my hands in less than five minutes. Who needs it? I now live a life of abundance and joy. Those words may sound tired and a bit new ageish, but there is a stark contrast between what I have now and my past. I go back into the rooms of AA regularly, partly because I don’t want to die from this disease. But more importantly I go back because I discover in those rooms, a formidable spiritual presence that oozes goodwill, beauty and love. 

One day I got a call from a distressed employer who found my card in his drunk employee’s wallet. On arriving, I found my fellow drunk writhing on his bed. He got up, went to the sink, guzzled half a litre of water and went back to the bed. Within 10 minutes he was in the toilet vomiting it all back up. Then it was back to the bed for another 10 minutes. Then to the tap, the bed, the toilet, the bed, the tap, the bed, the toilet - for the next four hours. He just couldn’t stop. He died. Not then. He had been to AA before this episode and once his body got over the detox he came back again and I witnessed his love and his joy as he spoke about the renewed relationship with his family and his little girl. Sadly, for some reason he didn’t get the message properly and on a subsequent binge, died from a massive heart attack. It has killed two other close friends of mine in just as a brutal a manner. This disease takes no prisoners and I know there is a stark choice between my life of abundance and joy and what would be a quick, painful and lonely death.

I am a real adherent of the programme and I think I understand quite a bit about it, but I have yet to figure out why some of us get it and live, and others don’t and die. It takes a huge leap of faith and a tremendous amount of courage to put the bottle down and step through the doors of AA. Less than one in 10 come in and stay in, and we are all just five minutes away from the bottle store. For me, my sobriety is something that I need to work at on a daily basis. The rest of the twelve steps help me out with this and I get free advice whenever I ask for it. One of the useful tools of the AA programme is sponsorship. My sponsor is available for me 24/7. He never lectures, he simply listens and then shares his experience with me. Somehow that seems to work, and the trials, tribulations and dramas of my life manage to get back into perspective. I don’t live in his pocket and he tells me to bugger off if I get too needy. This is great and I use him whenever I can. Similarly, I now sponsor a number of people and paradoxically, my availability to them is a gift back to me.

I am doing more than surviving now. I am thriving in a community of good and generously spirited folk. We have all been to the edge, seen the black hole and come back. We are not desperately trying to hide from ourselves and we generously give away our sobriety by sharing it with others. We go back into those rooms for ourselves and for the newcomer. Those frightened, bruised, confused and lonely people who come in, just like I did, wondering who they are and what they need to do. If there weren’t people like us going back into the rooms, there would have been nobody there for me when I first arrived. My meetings help me stay sober and my life is boringly normal. I get a huge lift from the simple things – the smile of a child, clouds in the sky and the random acts of kindness that seem to populate my life.

Drinking is not a choice for me now, and when I look at a fridge of cold beers it is about as appetising as a display of oils and lubricants in a Mobil shop. In fact, if I drank petrol it would probably do me less harm than a good whiskey. I know I’d be sick and not want any more. If I tried a whiskey, the first one would not be enough. My addict, who I now have a workable relationship with, is still lurking in the background doing press ups. I need to be vigilant and stay connected with other sick bastards like me. This is not something I want to do alone.

I am often asked by family members and friends of problem drinkers what they can do. I all I can say is - help them find their rock bottom by setting clear boundaries. “You can’t have the kids when you’re drunk”, “I’m not lying to your boss again about why you are not at work”, “You don’t drink in this house”, “I’m not going with you”. If they are lucky they might just recognise the second part of the first step – that their life has become unmanageable. However, no one can help anybody to get to the point of admitting their powerlessness.

AA is not a religious organisation, but it does have a spiritual component. Was its sheer coincidence that I fell into the select committee that day, or did I get a bit of a nudge from a power greater than myself. I believe that my life is not just a series of fortunate events with me in the driving seat. My constant challenge is to surrender my ego driven desires to a force that works for the greater good. I believe in Jung’s collective subconscious and my strongest desire is to connect and stay connected with it. It’s funny because when I do, I get that warm fuzzy glow that I used to get from the first (or was it the second?) drink.

I got put up to write this article because there may be some of you out there who are on a journey like mine. It starts off as a fun ride but the insidious creeping cringe gets harder and harder to put a blanket over. I can now cheerfully report that the pain, suffering and loneliness of alcoholism is optional and that there is a way out. I am not sure if there is a higher incidence of alcoholism in our profession than in others, but my own alcoholic behaviour patterns seemed to be uniquely tailored for some of the attributes that attach to our profession i.e. obsessive compulsive behaviour, big shotism, perfectionism, vanity, disassociated from my feelings, the showman, loud, vocal, espousing of what I believe to be right, with a corresponding shyness and fear masked by bravado, mistrust, false camaraderie (“my learned friend”), insensitivity to others needs and feelings and workaholism.

There are a number of lawyers in the AA fraternity and we are more than willing to help anybody who wants to stop. If you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to stop drinking then you are ready to take certain steps. The first would be to reach out and have a talk to one of us via aapractitioner@gmail.com. We are free and we are available 24/7. Anonymity is important for all of us and it is guaranteed. We cannot keep what we have unless we give it away.

Best regards
Clapam Joe

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Last updated on the 9th May 2016