Rebuilding a sober life
Q&A with Louise - sober 4.5 years
What was your drinking like?
My story isn’t unique – I drank like a drunk from my first drink and am I a walking, talking cliché of an alcoholic. I blacked out, I threw up, I was inappropriate and I made dumb choices when I was drinking. I loved it. I hated it. I thought I could stop if I wanted to. Most of the time, I didn’t want to stop. Alcohol dealt with everything sad, bad, mad and glad in my life. It was my lover and best friend but it was like being in an abusive relationship. It wasn’t on my side although it convinced me it was.
The words terror, bewilderment, frustration and despair are used in my programme of recovery to describe the horrors of alcoholism, and I related to them completely.
My last days of drinking followed this pattern: wake up at 4am, parched, feeling sick, revolting and full of remorse. I couldn’t sleep and couldn’t bear to face another day of a hangover. My promises of never touching another drop – that this would be the day when I would finally have the strength to stop drinking – rang hollow. I just couldn’t seem to get past the powerful and ferocious voice in my head that would kick in from about lunch time and rage all afternoon. ‘You feel like crap, a drink will help… you can always stop tomorrow, or next week … lighten up, you’re not hurting anyone…’. A smaller, weaker voice would be there too, reminding me that my life was completely controlled by alcohol, that nothing good ever happened while I was drinking, that I was killing myself and I was fooling no one, letting alone not hurting anyone. All I had to do was to look at the hurt face of my daughter, to feel her confusion and disgust, to know that wasn’t true.
My ‘small’ voice became stronger the more desperate I became, thanks in part to 12 years of being in and out of recovery. A belly full of booze and a head full of recovery programme slogans is an exquisite kind of torture that was either going to drive me to suicide or get me back into recovery for good. A valued friend and then my partner expressed their concern over my drinking and for once, I was willing to listen. It knew was my time to stay stopped, but I needed a lot of help to make it.
My doctor was happy to prescribe me medicine (Antabuse) to help me stop taking the first drink – one sip of alcohol can cause severe illness when you’re taking it and for a couple of weeks afterwards – which is the only way I could stay away from the first drink.
I sweated through a few sleepless nights and withdrawal symptoms like ‘electric fleas’, which felt like my skin had been turned inside out. I returned to recovery meetings and started seeing a drug and alcohol counsellor twice a week. Recovery and staying stopped was my daily ‘job’ for about six months. If I wasn’t at a meeting, I was reading, watching and listening to recovery material. I needed to fill my head and life up with good, positive stuff to stay on the right track.
What led to you finally deciding to put the cork in the bottle?
Four bottles of wine in one sitting, talking a whole pile of rubbish to my partner, which disgusted him (I thought I was being fabulous and clever!) and an eerie experience of looking at myself from outside my body rattled me. The next day I felt the usual guilt and shame, but this time, I knew I was going to die if I didn’t stop. I wanted my life back, whatever that looked like, without alcohol. I was more desperate than I’d ever been, which in hindsight was a good thing.
Did you find it hard in early recovery?
I felt awful for the first six months. Physically, I felt nauseous (my liver was fine, the doctors told me, so I don’t know what that was about), and I was exhausted and weak. I was emotionally fragile and battling big time with depression. I had a lot of medical help and wonderful recovery folk helping me to sort out my health and my life, and to separate my alcoholism from other conditions. Decades of heavy drinking had made my body, mind and soul weak and it a took a lot of love, sleep, patience, discipline and rigorous honesty to get through each day, and recover my life one step at a time.
There were many dark moments and I often felt it was unfair that I still felt so awful when I had finally put down the bottle. Wasn’t this supposed to be the fun and happy part? Where was that bloody pink cloud everyone kept talking about? But I can honestly say now that I never came close to picking up another drink, even when I was in the depths of self-pity. Now that my health has improved, I am deliriously happy to be sober.
Have you managed to stay sober?
I was a chronic relapser for 12 years. The longest I had previously stayed sober for was 18 months, and for half of that time, I was pregnant. (Luckily, I was unable to tolerate drinking when I was pregnant.) There were other periods of six months and even 11 months free from alcohol, but ultimately I wanted to drink more than I wanted sobriety. I had to completely surrender to abandon the illusion that I could get away with being a drinking alcoholic.
Tell us about socialising sober
I hardly socialised for the first six months or so. I only went to events that I really had to attend. I remember one disastrous occasion when someone tried to give me a glass of wine after only a few weeks of sobriety – I had a panic attack, burst into tears and bolted. Very dramatic! Another time I sat on the back stairs at a party and just bawled my eyes out, hating every minute that I had to be there. About a year or so down the track I felt more comfortable being around drinkers, as long as I could exit the scene as soon as I felt nervous, or when people started to get tipsy or trashed. I then progressed to being okay with people having a few wines in my home.
Funnily enough, I have recently pulled back again from socialising around people drinking alcohol: I am sick of the effort of pretending I am okay around it. I hate alcohol and what it’s taken from me and my family. I come from a long line of people who have died one way or another from alcoholism and I just don’t want to be around it anymore. I used to bend over backwards to accommodate other people who wanted to drink and to reassure them that I was ‘cool’ with it. I mean, who needs a reformed pisshead telling other people how to live their lives? I’m still not interested in ramming my beliefs down anyone’s throat but now, I just choose to stay away from it. I really hate alcohol and love being sober too much to waste one more minute of my life on that substance. It’s just bullshit and I don’t want anything to do with it.
How did your life change?
It got very, very quiet. I had to look after myself and I had no idea how to, at the beginning. Alcohol was my answer to everything before – the way I soothed, calmed and rewarded myself. I had to figure out other ways to do those things without booze, and without hurting myself anymore. I also gave up smoking a few months after stopping drinking, because it was something I discovered I only wanted to do when I had a wine in my hand. The desire to smoke cigarettes naturally fell away when I got sober.
Socially, I lost a group of ‘friends’. I have literally never seen my drinking buddies since I got sober (funny that) and another group of mates, who were used to me being a hot mess of trying to give up booze and failing all the time. They didn’t know what to do with me when I started to get well. I guess I was their token ‘problem’ friend and didn’t fit the bill anymore when I became stronger. My new friends were sober and ‘got’ me. The process of fitting in to new social circles has been difficult, painful and awkward, but a few years down the track, I wouldn’t change a thing and finally feel at peace with who the few authentic people in my life.
I learnt that I’m shy. I’m private. I value deep and authentic connections with others. I’m no longer the life of the party (I think I was just the loud, trashed one before).
What are the biggest wins in sobriety?
Living life. Health. Peace in my head. Finally starting to reach my potential. Daring to dream again.
Would you do anything differently?
I wouldn’t have put so much pressure on myself to do everything perfectly and quickly. My expectations were that I would feel magically better and life would be a bed of roses. It wasn’t. But the benefits of having to fight for every bit of my recovery now mean that I cherish it beyond words and protect it ferociously.
Advice or tips for people wanted to get clean and sober?
Surround yourself with love and support and stay away from negative people and those who don’t understand the changes you are making. Protect yourself from the outside world for at least a few months. Treat recovery like a job – do something every single day to stay sober, whether it be a meeting, reading or watching recovery material, talking to other happy people who are living sober, and most of all, stay quiet and learn to love yourself.
Treat yourself like a porcelain doll in the early days, like a fragile little flower that needs nurturing before blossoming. Stay out of your head and get into action – no one’s going to do this for you. And above all, don’t try and ‘fix’ everything at once: I’ve seen so many people try to give up smoking and lose weight and get a new relationship and fix everything they don’t like about themselves at the same time as stopping drinking. It’s a recipe for disaster and many fall off the wagon from the pressure of trying to be perfect. One step at a time, one day a time, is the way to go. Recovery takes time and letting life unfold on life’s terms is where authentic, lasting serenity comes from, in my experience.
I’ve learnt that alcoholism is a cunning, baffling and powerful disease and needs to be respected. After years of slipping and sliding in and out of recovery, complacency is something I actively work to prevent. Through my programme of recovery, I have also learnt the hard way that my recovery is contingent on my spiritual and mental fitness, so I make sure I work on it every day. The result is peace, health and sobriety and is priceless: it’s life itself.