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alcohol use disorder

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The story of how my drinking caused my life to spiral into chaos and my journey back through sobriety.

“My name is Paul, and I am an alcoholic.”

I don’t remember much about my first Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. I put it down to being so mentally and physically broken that all I have is a vague recollection: a group of people sitting in a large circle, lit by candlelight. What I distinctly remember, though, is hearing those present speak their truth and knowing, immediately, that I was in the right place.

I was a successful lawyer, well-respected by clients and peers alike. Work was my life. It was also, in retrospect, the environment in which I was able to best practise my alcoholism. I just enjoyed a drink, I can’t be an alcoholic, I thought. Alcoholics were homeless and unemployed, drank first thing in the morning out of brown paper bags. I was none of those things, so I kept drinking. And drinking. It took me about fifteen years to get to that first meeting, at the age of 41.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my drinking changed from social to problematic. Drinking socially became drinking on weekends became drinking a few days during the week became a daily habit. I drank to celebrate, and I drank to commiserate. My drinking had started out fine – fun, even – but, after polishing off an entire wine rack of Tasmanian reds in a week, I wondered if I had a drinking problem.

The last few years were the worst. I counted the hours, then the minutes, until I could drink. I craved it, needed it. I continued to work but took more and more sick days. I left work earlier and earlier, going home via the bottle shop where I got into bed and started drinking. I rarely ate. I was drinking two litres of cask wine a day out of a blue plastic wine ‘glass’ because I had broken all the glass ones. I was dogged by a constant and painful obsession: did I have enough alcohol to get me and keep me drunk?

I was drinking two litres of cask wine a day out of a blue plastic wine ‘glass’ because I had broken all the glass ones.

I regularly cracked ribs falling off chairs, was covered in mysterious bruises. I started having blackouts, unable to remember things I’d done or said. I later learned they were caused by drinking too much too quickly, impairing judgment, coordination, and memory. Because of the blackouts, my first morning ritual was to check my phone to see what nasty things I’d texted to friends, trying to piece together the events of the night before. I’d apologised so much that “I’m sorry” no longer meant anything. My second morning ritual was vomiting and diarrhoea. And I kept drinking.

My rage grew exponentially. Plates and cups were broken, cutlery thrown, computer keyboards smashed. My dogs actively avoided drunk me, terrified of my yelling. I cut people off, including my partner and family, retreating into isolation to drink the way I wanted to. Seeing the way I drank, my closest friend – one of the few I still had – told me she knew someone who had stopped drinking by going to AA and suggested I do the same. I told her to “Fuck off”. I still didn’t consider myself an alcoholic despite my unmanageable life. Or maybe, somewhere in the sensible part of my brain, I did.

I had tried to stop or, at least, reduce my drinking in the years before I entered Alcoholics Anonymous. I saw doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists and lied to all of them about how much I was drinking. I was prescribed drugs to reduce alcohol cravings and washed them down with booze. I read self-help books, books on spirituality. I gave Buddhism a crack. I switched red wine for white and clear spirits for coloured. Going days, sometimes weeks, without drinking, I relied on a willpower that was so fragile it was easily broken watching someone on television sip a martini. None of these methods curbed my drinking. It took hitting what is referred to in AA as ‘rock bottom’ for me to make a change.

My rock bottom involved me, in a blackout, assaulting a taxi driver. I ended up with a broken wrist, the clear loser in that encounter; the taxi driver was unharmed. Cut to me laying on an emergency department trolley, my right forearm plastered, in a great deal of physical and emotional pain. It was what I needed. I reflected on where my life was headed, without the fog of alcohol. Terrified I would be charged with assault, which might mean the end of my law career, my best friend’s words – “you need to go to AA” – circled around in my head. It was the only viable option I had left; I’d tried everything else. It was either jail, a slow death, or Alcoholics Anonymous. I left hospital resolved to give AA a try for a month.

It was either jail, a slow death, or Alcoholics Anonymous.

My understanding of AA was minimal, informed by media portrayals of alcoholics. I searched online for a local meeting and dragged my partner along for support, not knowing what to expect. Although I sat in the corner, not speaking, I felt instantly understood. Importantly, I realised that I was not alone in this, I was not the only person in the world with this problem. The next day I went to another meeting, then another, and another. I did 90 meetings in 90 days as suggested. I learned that alcoholism is a disease that can be treated by attending meetings, getting a sponsor, and working through the twelve steps that underpin the AA program.

And I didn’t drink. One day at a time, I clocked up a week of sobriety, then a month, then six months. I kept going back. I started feeling more human. My obsession with alcohol left me after three months. For the first time in a very long time, I didn’t argue; I listened. What I heard was versions of my story voiced by people from all backgrounds. The myth of the stereotypical alcoholic I had, for years, used to justify my drinking was exploded. Alcoholism can affect anyone, regardless of age, cultural background, or socioeconomic status.

Socialising with people outside of AA was tricky to navigate at first. Australia is renowned for being a nation of drinkers. The National Drug Household Survey reported that 77% of Australians over the age of 14 drank in 2018, with 29% using alcohol to a harmful extent. So, it is unsurprising that I was often asked, “Why aren’t you drinking?” My response – “I’m doing it for my health” – satisfied most people.

Persistent questioners were met with, “You wouldn’t like me when I’m drunk” or “I’ve had enough booze to last me a lifetime.” I directed those who wondered out loud whether they might be an alcoholic to Alcoholics Anonymous’ quiz, they had to arrive at that decision themselves.

AA is a spiritual program but let me correct a common misconception. It is not a religious cult. Yes, God is an integral part of Alcoholics Anonymous, but it is a god of my understanding. Growing up areligious, the idea of a DIY god, whether that be a burly, white-bearded man who lives in the sky or the beauty of nature, fit perfectly with my concept of spirituality. I readily put my faith in a power greater than myself, someone or something that could guide me; a spiritual buddy that took the focus off me and my ego.

For me, Alcoholic Anonymous worked. I’m not sure how, and I don’t care. Over time, I came to understand what drove my behaviour, why I reacted poorly in certain situations. Alcohol had been my anaesthetic, an escape from myself and a way of avoiding the feelings that are an inevitable part of life.

AA gave me a blueprint for living and the tools to address feelings in a non-self-destructive way. Now, I am honest with myself and others. I’ve made amends to people I had hurt and repaired relationships with family and friends. I am reliable, able to show up for people instead of making plans and then ditching them at the last minute.

Soon, I will celebrate eight years of sobriety. I still go to meetings a few times a week, where the stories of newcomers, as broken as I was when I first entered AA, remind me of where I was and where I am now. I regularly speak to my sponsor and other sober alcoholics. Four years ago, I paid off a $40,000 credit card debt I’d racked up during my drinking. Three years ago, I married my partner of 20 years who, by some miracle, had stuck by me despite often bearing the brunt of my alcohol-fuelled rage. Being sober does not mean living a boring life. I have done things in sobriety I never dreamed of doing while I was drinking. Today I can laugh – really laugh – again.

Being sober does not mean living a boring life. I have done things in sobriety I never dreamed of doing while I was drinking.

Alcoholics Anonymous can stop you drinking and give you tools for living but it is not a cure-all. I have had to seek help outside of AA for mental illness. But what AA has given me, and continues to give me, is a great deal of serenity and a wonderful support system. I am now the best version of myself.

Don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t always been rainbows and unicorns, but neither is life. I have lost friends and family during my sobriety; I have been laid off from jobs and suffered financial hardship. The difference is that now I am present, can contribute, participate, help and support others and myself without turning to alcohol.

Renowned countercultural writer Kurt Vonnegut, not an alcoholic himself, once said that Alcoholics Anonymous was America’s greatest gift to the world, and I must agree.

 

Do you ever leave just a sliver of wine in the bottle you’ve just drunk to yourself before you and your lopsided grin shuffle off to bed? Just so you don’t have to admit to yourself that you’d drunk the whole thing, again? Or is that just me?

As it happens Morning Me just rolls her eyes at Wino Mum’s clumsy veil of deception, knowing full well that she drinks too much and too often and if Wino Mum is honest with herself, she knows it too.

The thing is, until recently I didn’t think it was much of a problem. My life is far from unravelling and most people I know wouldn’t bat an eyelid at knocking off a bottle to themselves and let’s face it, medicating the stresses of work/family life and any other gremlins lurking in the depths of your soul is essentially, a National Pastime.

There’s just been one thing not buying it though, a worried little voice that wakes in my head at two am and cries “This isn’t fun”.

As the National Healthy Drinking Guidelines begin to penetrate and I begin to contemplate the health risks of my habit, I discover that a bottle of wine is between eight and nine standard drinks instead of what I believed to be four and decide it’s time to rein in it.

Depending on which study you happen upon, Australian drinking trends have been cast in varied shades leaving us wondering do we have a problem or don’t we? Imagine an easy Sunday afternoon, dappled sunlight filtering through the trees of a beer garden as children play and mothers’ laughter tinkle against glasses of crisp Sauvignon Blanc and the situation seems bright, if we are to consider a recent study released in August 2017 by DrinkWise revealing Australians are drinking more responsibly than they did 10 years ago.

According to DrinkWise, an independent charity funded by the alcohol industry, our cultural attitude toward drinking practices is maturing and evolving. While their research tells us the number of Australians drinking to excess is decreasing and Moderate Drinkers, Abstainers and mercifully, Adolescents delaying their first drink are rising, it also details why we drink.

DrinkWise report Younger Families with children under 13 years are drinking smaller amounts than in 2007, using alcohol to relax, unwind and cope with the pressures of parenthood. (Taking an elementary guess I shall confidently deduce that Sherlock was not called upon to tease out this motive.)

Older Families, with children above 13 years are said to be rediscovering their identity and freedom as the responsibility of parenthood tapers. For those drinking at risky levels, they are returning to pre-parenthood drinking habits, whatever that means, if they’re referring to me then I’m stage diving off a Santorini Bar and letting my alarm clock bleep away for two hours before waking up in a haze of ouzo with my sneakers still on. Shikes, that’s not such good news.

“Up until recently I was drinking approximately four times a week,” she says, “mid-week, I’d drink a few glasses of wine at night and on weekends, if there was a social function, I’d drink one or two bottles of wine.”

This carefully optimistic data, however, is supported in premise, by other research such as the 2016 National Drug Strategy Household Survey by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare which shows a reduction in alcohol consumption except, notably, for a rise in women between the ages of 50 – 59 but we’ve all got an Aunty Joy, so no surprises there.

The survey does acknowledge, however, that the consumption of alcohol is widespread in Australia and entwined in many social and cultural activities which poses the question, is the decline meaningful enough to claim we’re half French or are we just a goon pillow away from half cut?

Leah, a 33 year old working mother of two recently decided to moderate her drinking habits after her husband asked her to cut down. “Up until recently I was drinking approximately four times a week,” she says, “mid-week, I’d drink a few glasses of wine at night and on weekends, if there was a social function, I’d drink one or two bottles of wine. A special occasion would call for cocktails, champagne and perhaps even shots if I was trying to be really fun.”

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After three years of sobriety while pregnant and breastfeeding Leah began to have an occasional glass of wine but began to drink more heavily after moving to a street populated with mostly stay at home mums.

“After each Groundhog Day we’d meet out the front of our houses while the kids played, waiting for our husbands to come home from work,” she says. “It was very Stepford Wives. We’d done our chores, tended to the children and finally showered so we could meet up on the lawn and wind down over a glass of wine. It all felt quite civilised until it got to the point that dinner was being made later with the drinking starting earlier.”

 

Friday after work drinks is an ingrained ritual embedded within our cultural landscape, yet in the strained world of parenthood where working hours blur like an indiscriminate crayon smear on a cream suede couch, a long week can easily be traded for a long day and before you can shout “Get your bottom out of your brother’s face!” There’s seems a legitimate reason for Wine O’clock, even though it’s only Monday.

Sally, 44 and mother to four, whose three glasses of wine each night can easily escalate as she toys with the “once the bottle is open scenario” admits that “Wine time” can easily get out of hand, “I definitely use alcohol to wind down after a day with the kids. I have a few habits that I need to address this year,” she confesses.

It is easier to drink, an immediate hit to your reward centre, when your life feels everything but your own, but is it really helping? Is it sustainable?

A study released in June 2017 by The Centre for Alcohol and Policy Research, found that although there had been a reduction in parent drinking from 2001, parents in 2013 were less likely to be abstainers than non-parents. And, let’s face it, it’s easier to knock back a glass of red and watch Married at First Sight (my personal research findings reveal reality TV is completely shit sober) than it is to make a yoga class, leaving your husband to “put the kids to bed” and “do the dishes”.

It is easier to drink, an immediate hit to your reward centre, when your life feels everything but your own, but is it really helping? Is it sustainable? And, what are the long term ramifications to physical and mental wellbeing? We all have a pretty good idea of the answers but they can be scary to contemplate.

Hannah, a 43 year old mother of one says, “I drink two glasses of red wine every night after my daughter is in bed. I definitely associate wine with winding down and having some “me” time. That said, I do have concerns about the health implications of habitual drinking. If I’m honest, it’s something I would like to change but find difficult to do.”

As the sun begins to seep on the Sunday session, deepening the shade over the beer garden and the kids start to whine while couples bicker over who was meant to drive, we may take a more sober view of an in-depth seven year study investigating alcohol dependence in Australian women aged between 35 to 59.

Conducted by Dr Janice Withnall, from the University of Western Sydney, the study, Researching with Women in Recovery, identified 16 per cent of the group were alcohol dependent and the healthcare required to meet their needs, was inadequate. The study highlighted a lack of acknowledgement of Alcohol Use Disorders within the demographic who often suffered from misdiagnosis or, “preferable diagnosis”, having symptoms treated instead for PMT, anxiety, depression, PTSD or menopause related.

“I thought drinking gave me a sense of wellbeing, eased the stress but it actually increases my guilt and anxiety. Motherhood and married life made me feel like I’d lost myself and drinking seemed to bring me closer to my old self but I’d gotten to the point where I just felt lost.”

Leah, who now makes a point not to drink through the week says, “I thought drinking gave me a sense of wellbeing, eased the stress but it actually increases my guilt and anxiety. Motherhood and married life made me feel like I’d lost myself and drinking seemed to bring me closer to my old self but I’d gotten to the point where I just felt lost.”

If you, or someone you know have concerns about alcohol misuse, numbers to call are Alcohol and Drug Information Services (ADIS) within your state or territory (numbers differ), Alcoholics Anonymous Helpline (AA) 1300 222 222, Lifeline Australia 13 11 14 or contact your local GP.

Names have been changed in this story for the sake of privacy.