“I get angry just listening to you,” Margaret – or Maggie as she preferred to be called – told me and rolled her eyes.
This was just over a year ago, in October/November 2016 and I was still full of resolve and a genuine wish to get my drinking under control by whatever means necessary, whether it be completely abstaining or unlocking something in my brain that might adjust my destructive behaviour. I had made it to my appointment at the rehab centre, which in itself was a huge victory. I think my partner, having seen me make grand gestures and heartfelt promises in the past only to revert back to old habits, was worried my enthusiasm would wear off and I’d cancel in favour of getting smashed that afternoon instead. But no, my desire to go into battle hell for leather was still very much there and so I headed over after work. I’d expected this step to be a difficult one to take, but it wasn’t, strangely – the hardest part had been to admit to myself that I had a problem. I hadn’t said the a-word out loud of course, because THAT I just didn’t want to face, but I could at least admit there was A Problem. I also had a few days of sobriety under my belt so I felt brave and strong.
I was early of course, I always am. Again, it’s quite ironic how a control freak like me who likes everything neat and in order and would rather eat my own head than be late, can also be someone so reckless and out of control as I am when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc. I parked up and once out of the car lit up a cigarette and took in the surroundings. It immediately reminded me of the hotel in Dirty Dancing, with the grand main building and massive, perfectly manicured lawns in front of it with garden furniture at which people were having a coffee or reading a book. A group of people engaging in Tai Chi wouldn’t have looked out of place, nor would a posh crowd playing croquet or horse drawn carriages and people in 18th century attire mingling about. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it was the picture of serenity.
Maggie was a tall, slender lady with blond hair styled in a way that made me think of Princess Diana and she was in what I guessed must be her mid- to late fifties. Her clothes were tasteful and she was perfectly groomed. Her smile was kind and genuine. I suppose it had to be given her job was to make losers like me feel comfortable enough to be honest. I don’t know if this is something people like Maggie worry about with new patients, but if she ever did she needn’t have – I was ready to pour out every last ugly truth (almost, anyway) about my drinking.
Maggie had asked me how I would feel if anyone tried to restrict my drinking.
“God help them,” I answered truthfully.
Or God help me, rather – that only serves to make me want to drink more and I described to her how sometimes I’d get really irritated when my partner would try to slow me down. Maggie, a former alcoholic (or an alcoholic in recovery – I don’t know if ‘alcoholic’ is a title you can ever shed once you’ve adopted it), told me how she could completely relate and how she felt irritated – angry – at my words. Not because I was stupid to feel that way but because she’d been there herself and knew how the addict’s mind works.
More to the point: Maggie could feel what I felt and that’s different to trying to explain even to this amazing, patient and open minded partner of mine – how could he, no matter how hard he tries (and he does try very hard because amazingly, he wants to be with me every step on the way and support me 100% although you could argue I don’t deserve it) to understand a problem so alien to him. He can stop drinking after one or two or six drinks. He can also get smashed, should he choose to. And therein lies the answer: choice. That’s what I don’t have when it comes to drinking. For me it’s sometimes enough to even fucking THINK of that first drink to be doomed. And I only ever get smashed – I’d love to stop at one or two or even six but I can’t. When I wake the beast, by having that first drink, even the first sip or sometimes even the mere thought it’s too late. I’m powerless.
You know, I get it – and sometimes I get on a high horse and adopt the same attitude – just stop! What’s the big deal? There’s also the notion that us drunks use the powerlessness as an excuse to justify our drinking, like we can’t help it, like it’s not our fault, like we’re victims. To be honest, I’m a bit torn on that one but I can only speak for myself and for me it works like this: I’m usually (but not always!) fine so long as I don’t have that first drink (or sip, or sometimes, thought), in fact most of the time if I’ve decided I’m not going to drink I could be around a table in a pub with lots of people who are all drinking without struggling, content with a coffee or a diet coke.
On occasion when I drink, especially lately, I’ve at times tried to analyse my own thinking and behaviour, be in the moment and even as it’s happening and I’m getting more and more hammered, try to work out what’s going on. What am I feeling? What am I thinking? What does the raging desire to guzzle feel like exactly? Sometimes I’ve even made little notes. All I know is that it only ever ends up one way: once I’ve started it ends up in one place and in one place only – blackout.
Some might think I’m weak, that I am self indulgent and a coward. Perhaps. But I somehow doubt it’s as simple as that. For me, it’s not a question of strength, courage or will power. Just watch me go if I set my mind to something. I am the most strong willed woman you’ll meet in your life and if I want something you can be sure I get it and make it happen. Many people have gone through worse shit than I have, but I’ve gone through a couple of really fucking awful episodes in my life and I got through those because I’m one of the strongest people I know. Although I also believe the saying is true – you don’t know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have, so perhaps I’m just average. I’ll settle for that, average is fine by me. Thing is though, and I want to be clear here – if strength (or the lack thereof) was the issue, there wouldn’t be so many addicts in this world because I believe the majority of us don’t want to be where we find ourselves. This is simply something so much bigger than we are. Strength I don’t believe comes into it.
Perhaps it was a choice at one point. It must have been. After all, no one has ever forced me to drink at gun point. It’s me choosing to buy those two (or three) bottles of wine and soda water, it’s me who chooses to pour the first drink and it’s me who chooses to put that glass of spritzer to my lips. Yes, you could argue that’s a choice – I’d probably agree somewhat. I just know that with time that choice disappeared, and certainly after that first drink. I don’t know if I was ever able to stop after the first drink and I have always been a binge drinker.
“And how much do you drink?” Maggie asked, “How many units? Do you know?“
Because I’m the queen of Google and have checked on countless occasions on various websites with tests to ascertain if you drink too much (not that I ever wondered if I drank too much – I knew I did – but to get a sense of just how much risk I’ve put myself at), I had a vague sense of the number.
“I polish off over two bottles of wine, think that’s something like 14 units,” I told her honestly, waiting for her to stare at me in shock and disbelief but she didn’t so I quickly added “that’s not in a week, I mean in one sitting,” just in case she might have assumed otherwise.
“OK,” she said, making notes as we went.
No scolding or telling me off. Maggie didn’t make me feel shitty about it, not that she needed to – I make a pretty good job of that myself and have experienced many dirty, shameful lows and moments of self loathing because of my drinking. Dark moments when I’ve the morning after a session looked at my haggard and puffy face in the bathroom mirror, my skin dull and grey from too many drinks and too many cigarettes. I suppose it makes perfect sense in a way, that Maggie didn’t say anything to make me feel worse – any time anyone questions or criticises my drinking it only triggers the one reaction in me: to drink more and to drink my head to bits without delay. Just like any time anyone says anything about how harmful smoking is – nothing could make me light up quicker than those scary words (SMOKING KILLS! SMOKERS DIE YOUNGER! SMOKING SERIOUSLY HARMS YOU AND OTHERS AROUND YOU!) on the cigarette packets.
If there is one thing I have learnt about both my vices (ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to formally introduce you to Marlboro Menthol cigarettes and Brancott Estate Sauvignon Blanc) it’s that if anyone tries to separate me from them it only makes me cling on to them more tightly. As a smoker and drinker I am already MORE than aware of the harm these two lovelies bring. I could be wrong, but I reckon a lot of us addicts do. Hell, most five-yearolds can tell you what my own son so articulately expressed when he was around three or four:
“If you smoke, first you get sick and then you get dead.“
To most heavy drinkers and smokers this isn’t news. It’s something we’re already painfully aware of, something that’s there at the back of our minds as we pour that drink or light that cigarette. Come on, think about it. Hearing how bad our vices are just adds to existing anxiety and fear. It makes us uneasy and nervous. And what does a drinker or a smoker do when we feel nervous? Exactly. Yes, I know it’s said with the best intentions and you only want the best for me, but this does the opposite. Of course, I can only speak for the only alcoholic I know – me – but this does not work on me. Again, I could be wrong, but I seriously doubt that anyone buying a packet of cigarettes will suddenly see the scary words or pictures, shriek SAY WHAAAAAT and throw the packet away. I also doubt any problem drinker will look at a DrinkAware poster (God, I hate those!) or information leaflets about the recommended number of units not to exceed and go OH FUCK, then do a quick calculation on the units in our tipple of choice and then dutifully adhere to recommended limits.
“Any other excessive behaviour?“, Maggie asked, “Drugs, shopping, gambling, sex?“
Excess is my middle name. I don’t do anything in moderation, so this was an interesting angle. If I’m into my running, I head out every day. I eat silly amounts – I’m 5’6 and of medium (OK, ahem, on the cuddly side of medium should we say) build, my partner is 6’2 and well built (muscular rather than cuddly but his cuddles are to die for) and my dinner portions are much bigger than his. I suppose I like a good shag, but don’t think I’m a sex addict. And I’m shit with money, but I’m not completely irresponsible – I’ve always paid the bills but I guess I haven’t saved much except for my son. If I have it I spend it. It hasn’t got me in trouble though. Gambling has never taken my fancy either and drugs have never appealed to me, thank God. Imagine! Brancott Estate and the like has proven bad enough an opponent, I don’t dare even think what would have happened if I’d discovered much worse but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be here now.
As excessive as I am in so many ways, I don’t want to make that my excuse – I feel it’d be a cop-out blaming my drinking on having an “addictive personality” – but it does seem to be my default setting. I don’t think being excessive necessarily has to be negative though, and I think that’s one thing that forms a big part of the regret I feel at all this time I’ve wasted drinking. What if I’d put all this passion and energy into doing great things? If I’d directed it at writing instead of knocking back wine like there’s no tomorrow? Unfortunately it found a negative outlet and that’s the real tragedy here.
As I spoke, the words tumbling out of me in a torrent so keen was I to make sure I laid it all out there without leaving any shitty detail out (except of course the a-word – I only had a “problem”, remember), Maggie scribbled away at her notepad. Because I knew I needed help, help to save my life and the hearts of those around me, I spoke so quickly I almost forgot to breathe.
Some questions I suspect were designed to ascertain if I was in danger. Well, more danger than simply drinking myself to an early grave, that is.
“Have you ever broken the law?” she asked.
“I stole a chocolate bar when I was ten and that didn’t end well,” I said and giggled, a poor attempt at humour in a situation I should take more seriously than that and immediately regretted it, “Sorry. No, never. Well, apart from the chocolate bar, but uhm, er, I realise that’s not what you were asking.“
Maggie just smiled.
“Do you drink and drive?“
“Oh gosh, no!” I exclaimed, like it was an outrageous suggestion to put to someone with a drinking problem with her own car.
Perhaps I drank too much, but up to that point (and to this day still) I have been quite responsible. Dutiful little Swede, me. I like rules and follow them and I don’t even like crossing the street unless there’s a little green man telling me I can do so.
“Have your drinking meant you have put yourself or others in danger?“
“Certainly myself,” I replied and also thought hard and tried to work out if I have ever put another human being at risk, “I mean, I have scared myself so many times and there’s always that fear that I’ll randomly start cooking, then forget all about it and leave the gas on, or something will catch fire, or I’ll fall and injure myself. That kind of stuff.“
“Oh yes, I’ve been there,” Maggie reassured me, “I’d do random things when I was drinking and would leave the front door open or the oven on.“
“So dangerous,” I said and cringed at the thought.
“Yes,” Maggie said softly, “it’s very, very dangerous.“
Maggie made some more notes, then put her notepad to the side and sat back in her chair, clasping her hands on the lap.
“Well, Sophie, I think we’re in a good place and I think one on one therapy could work very well for you,” Maggie said and gave me that warm and sincere smile again as she pushed her glasses up on top of her head, “you’re very open minded and it sounds to me like you really want to tackle these issues.“
That made me happy. For all my faults and shortcomings, I do pride myself on being honest and I really had gone into this with the intention of laying it all out there. During my career as a binge drinker I have developed an astonishing talent for hiding and down playing my drinking. And smoking too, for that matter. I’ve hid cigarette packets and wine bottles in every place imaginable and a few in addition to that. I guess my assessment meeting with Maggie, just like that Tuesday morning chat with my partner, was the first time I told another human being just how bad things had got. And it was a huge relief.
For each ugly, shameful truth I put in front of her, Maggie chimed in with stories of her own from her ‘many, many years’ of drinking.
“Everything you say, Sophie, I can relate to, I’ve been there,” she said and chuckled sadly, presumably conjuring up pathetic images of episodes from her own drinking when I told her about waking up with bruises or about the lengths I’d go to to get hold of alcohol or plan my life around my drinking, “I could say to you exactly what you’ve said to me.“
“That makes me feel better,” I told her earnestly, because it truly did, “to hear someone can be exactly the same.“
“Have you tried the AA?” Maggie asked, “It could work very well alongside therapy.“
“I did but I just don’t know if it worked for me, I felt like we were just a group of people sharing experiences of drinking rather than digging into the cause of it.“
“Try a ladies only meeting. That really worked for me, because you’re more likely to be able to relate. I promise you there’ll be another lady there that will make you think YES! That’s just like me! That’s the one thing I want you to know, Sophie, you’re not alone in this.“
I think that’s precisely what I needed: to meet someone just like me, to hear someone just like me talk about having the same demons.
Between the Tuesday morning heart to heart with my partner and my appointment with Maggie, I’d done more research about alcohol, this time about how to tackle the problem as opposed to just trying to work out if I might be about to die or try to see if the whites of my eyes had a yellow tint under the bathroom mirror. On my travels on Google I came across this treatment called the Sinclaire Method. Fantastic! Take a pill, an opiate blocker something or other without any side effects, which would simply do some magic to the receptors in my devilish brain that would mean I could drink like a normal person. Problem solved, no?
Maggie sighed and threw her head back, gave another little chuckle.
“Oh yes, I’ve looked into all of those, tried them all, got the t-shirt,” she told me, again without making me feel stupid, “our approach here is that you need to abstain, it’s the only method we know of that works.“
I didn’t press the issue, because I already knew deep down that abstaining from alcohol would be the only true way of dealing with my problem. Like many others, I’m sure, I just wanted there to be some magic solution, a half way house, a brilliantly easy way to allow me to keep drinking on occasion (at least!) but with the drinking-to-oblivion part cut out of the equation. Part of me wanted there to be a quick fix and an easy one. Part of me – actually, make that ALL of me – had wanted Maggie to say “oh, goody! Sophie, you’re not so bad, you just need to moderate your drinking, you don’t have to stop and here’s how.” I kind of knew that was never going to be the case but in a perfect world that’s what I wanted.
Because that’s the difficulty for me – I really enjoy alcohol. I love drinking (as if I needed to tell you that), I love the buzz I get and I also really enjoy all the things that come with it – being around friends, celebrating something, a really great wine with a really great meal, and so on and so forth. It’s just that although all those things are absolutely part of it, there’s the other part too that is much bigger – the blackouts, the bruises, the inability to function, the following day that’s almost always completely wrecked, the embarrassment and the self loathing. And most of all, how my alcohol abuse has got to a point where it stops me achieving what I could be achieving, and prevents me from being the best person I can be. I didn’t labour the point because before Maggie had given her take on such magic fixes I already knew the answer.
“From what you have told me, you certainly display the behaviour and thinking associated with alcohol abuse and addiction,” Maggie told me. “You’ve made the right decision by coming here and you should be proud of yourself for doing that,” she added.
Proud of myself? Hardly. My partner said the same thing. He told me to be proud of myself. He told me he was proud of me. I can’t quite work out why, but it irritates me. Like, REALLY irritates me. What is there to be proud of here? That I’ve ended up on course to destroy my life and hurt everyone who loves me? That my drinking has meant I’ve spent the past decade in a stupor? That I’m a dirty, pathetic drunk? I’m scum. Where’s the pride? What I’m doing now is making a feeble attempt at changing my bad ways, but I can never put right this massive wrong or make up for it. There’s nothing about this I feel pride at. Admitting I have a problem isn’t something I consider brave or worthy of admiration. It’s something I should have done a long, long time ago and indeed, I shouldn’t have allowed myself to develop the problem in the first place. It’s time to take responsibility and be accountable, hold my hands up and admit I’ve gone off course. Sure, I’m grateful I have come to this point and sure, it would have been easier to just keep on denying I have a problem and gone on my merry binge drinking way, but this isn’t me being brave or in any other way admirable – this is me accepting that I need help and I’m finally asking for it because I’m scared shitless.
At the end of my assessment appointment, Maggie asked me to sign off the form with her notes. It was such a simple and naked looking form, with tick boxes and a few sections for notes here and there, and it seemed quite amazing that on those three or four sheets of paper with their little ticks and scribbles, was the story of a whole decade of destruction, desperation and utter helplessness. A huge chunk of my life wasted. Literally wasted. I signed it off and dated it. 31st October 2016. Halloween. And still it wasn’t as scary as I’d thought it’d be. I felt ready to go to war.
Maggie was right about me displaying all the characteristics of an addict. One in particular was creating a familiar urge with quite frightening intensity as I got into my car: I was gagging for a drink.
That was over a year ago. As I write now, I have been sober for a week.