There were hundreds, if not thousands of mornings that I woke up feeling dreadful and vowing to swear off alcohol again, only to tip back into the booze drain with a bottle of wine come 5pm. This particular morning, I rolled the word around my dehydrated, foul-tasting mouth. “I am an alcoholic. I cannot stop drinking alone. I need help.”
If this sounds like the beginning of a sobriety sob story, you’d be right. However, my experience prior to this brutal self-honesty and ensuing humility was of complete self-reliance and an unshakeable belief in my power to run my life through the force of hard work, a strong will and a reasonable smattering of talent. Winning, aka being the best, has always meant everything to me. During my school years and university days, I excelled academically, and in sports and theatre.
I was fortunate to have the support and encouragement of high-achieving parents who instilled in me a sense of self-belief and destiny that I would always come out on top. A good work ethic aided my flight right up until law school, which is when the first signs of fraying around my edges appeared. I didn’t stand out as different from my friends as we were all work-hard play-hard types with youth and brains on our side. Until that point, an iron constitution got me through serious study, partying and lack of sleep but my hectic and demanding lifestyle was starting to catch up on me. But I discovered that a few stimulants during long study nights helped enormously and would ward off serious hangovers.
Bloated and bleary
The pressure cooker of my first legal job was when the drinking took off – it was part of the culture of my work that I lived and breathed. I still had youth on my side but heavy daily drinking was serving some serious hits to my health. Positive habits like running and getting enough sleep gradually disappeared as I climbed the legal ladder. I carried extra weight and looking back at pictures from that time, I was developing that blurry, bloated look that heavy drinkers wear. I was only in my mid-20s.
All the good things, like job promotions, holidays, nice cars, a wedding, buying property and a couple of beautiful kids still went as planned but by the time I hit my late 30s, I was wobbling, if not lurching. Alcohol had always been my friend – the answer to relaxing, having fun and adding a sheen of sophistication to my glossy life. But now, it was no longer a choice for me to drink it. Every day, the alarm would jar me out of a restless sleep that was never enough. If there was an excuse for a lunch out where I could drink, I’d take it.
Queasy and shaky at 5pm, there was no reason to stay sober when I could throw back a few drinks to feel good again. Nights at the office were usually spent sipping away on my favourite chardonnay. Evenings at home involved enough wine to black out. I knew I was struggling but I wouldn’t admit defeat. I could always stop and had my eye on 40 as the perfect age for me to stop drinking and get healthier.
The way others saw me varied. My employers didn’t quite clock how much of a boozer I was and if they did notice, it was outweighed by my achievements. My spouse had a long list of complaints, with being a terrible partner and parent at the top of the list. I was always working and/or always drunk, apparently. That was unfair, I thought. I was a shining success as a top performer at work which provided us with a good lifestyle.
Fortified by denial and arrogance, I thought all the things I was accused of were a reflection of my spouse’s issues, not mine. I kept that attitude right throughout the ensuing separation and divorce. And far from being devastated that my family had broken up, I was relieved that finally, I could relax and drink the way I wanted to.
The solitude turned out to be the noose which started to strangle me. My drinking became outrageous and crept into territory that I never thought I would step foot in. That no man’s land is where time blurs and you do things you never thought you were capable of.
Every night ended sometime early in my memory, the rest disappearing into a black void. I knew how much I had drunk, or what I had done during the lost time, only by seeing the empty bottles and checking my phone the next day. The mornings became a nightmare with dry retching, sweats and shaking hands while trying to get myself together for the day.
Eventually I admitted that my facade was starting to slip. But rather than stop drinking, I started having a drink in the mornings. Though I knew I had sunk to a new low, those nips here and there kept the shakes, sweats and nausea at bay. I’d always been a wine drinker but vodka, which I stupidly thought was odourless, became my friend as I could conceal a small bottle of it at all times.
My 40th birthday was a monster occasion. I was negotiating with the idea of getting sober around that time, so thought it only fair that I see my drinking out with a bang. After a week of non-stop boozing, I felt so ill that I really wanted to put down the bottle. I couldn’t carry on this way. Like all good legal professionals, I didn’t want to take on a big project without a strategy. I removed all the booze from my house, car and clothing. There were many forgotten bottles stashed around the place, which filled me with shame. I made appointments with a personal trainer and a dietitian to cover all the getting-healthy bases. What could go wrong?
Two days later, I was bewildered to find myself drunk, again. I woke up with my pillow covered in vomit, wondering what the hell had happened. I seemed to have no control over when I picked up a drink. Even the barest thought of a vodka would set me off into a frenzy of hunting down a drink. The only thing for it was persistence. I still believed I could kick it on my own. The cracks in my life were splitting into gaping crevasses when three things happened: two of my friends landed on my doorstep and told me they were gravely worried about my drinking; my former spouse announced I could no longer see my children due to my out-of-control behaviour; and my work intervened.
The latter was excruciatingly embarrassing and was what really broke through my denial. I was called into a meeting with my boss and the HR manager, who presented me with undeniable evidence demonstrating that I had a serious drinking problem in the workplace. There were no choices left – I had to stop drinking if I wanted to keep my job. Completing a rehab was the condition that I remained employed and luckily, the boss was willing to support me 100%. The company even offered to foot the bill, signalling its faith in me.
A spot in a private rehab was found quickly with only one week to wait. A visit to my GP revealed the pitiful state of my physical health. I was incredulous that a medical detox was required to stave off seizures that could kill me if I stopped alcohol cold turkey. That week was a haze induced by prescribed benzodiazepines and daily medical checks to make sure I was avoiding dangerous withdrawal symptoms. I couldn’t eat and felt dreadful. Most of all, I was scared. How had my good life come down to this? I was a pathetic, pitiful mess.
Ironically, it was that state of brokenness that saved me and got me on the road to recovery. During my month-long stay in a private rehab in Hawke’s Bay, I learnt about the disease of addiction and how cunning, baffling and powerful it could be. I understood I was lucky not to be felled by it. Though I had come close to losing everything, I could now see the way out and I was grabbing it with both hands. Sobriety, I learnt, is an inside job, which saw me dig deep into myself to get honest about my thoughts, feelings and behaviour. I was told that lasting recovery was possible only if I pursued it with the skills, rigour and dedication that I had given my drinking.
It was no easy ride but I was inspired by the many sober people I was now meeting. They looked healthy, fresh and vibrant. Some had nearly lost everything but had recovered through staying sober. I wanted what they had. A year later, my life looks pretty tidy. I’m still employed and I have started seeing my children again. I am fit, healthy and better at my job than ever. I have a newfound respect for myself and others and I’m happy to leave the nightmare of drinking behind. I don’t proselytise but if someone who was struggling with their drinking were to ask me how to stop drinking, I would tell them to get professional help. You cannot win if you’re in the grip of addiction. You will need a lot of support, it will be hard and it will take time and effort. A visit to a GP should always come first and then I recommend investing in a quality rehab where you can rest, heal and learn about the disease of addiction and the solution of sobriety.
In return, you have a chance of getting back what you might have lost. For me, a sense of maturity is starting to develop after my emotional development was stymied by years of being drowned in alcohol. Most of all, I have a new appreciation of the true meaning of success, which is met when I have had another sober day. ■
The writer spent four weeks at Ocean Hills Rehab and has now been sober for 12 months
The Alcohol and Other Drug Treatment Court is holding a lunchtime education session on Wednesday 19 July at Courtroom 7, Level 3, Auckland District Court. Please RSVP to AODTC@justice.govt.nz by7 July ■