Were we all alcoholics!?

I think anyone who is marginally concerned about their drinking habits has taken a self-assessment quiz. I’d taken numerous ones over the years and then used the excuse that if “I was an alcoholic so were all my friends!” I continued to use that excuse well after they’d left university and they had started to drink less frequently and less heavily. And since I never drank alone I couldn’t possibly have a drinking problem! After all, alcoholics were people who stashed vodka bottles in hiding spots around the house and I never made a secret of my drinking. Of course I’d had blackouts and missed days of work, but I was quick to explain those away with stomach flu and exhaustion due to seventeen hour work days. I was not prepared to blame my drinking habits and my complete lack of control over the situation.

So when I was asked the same type of questions on my admission to the rehab clinic, I was quick to point out that I was admitting myself for depression and not a drinking problem. The counselor smiled wryly and assured me that the questions were standard, but I’m sure he’d heard it all before. I was mortified when I was not assigned to the “Depression and Anxiety Group”, but the “Substance Abuse Group”. It was a long and arduous first day at the centre. I was withdrawn and moody while I waited for my initial session with the resident psychiatrist. I listened to the other people around me talking openly of their drinking problems and how acceptance was the first step towards recovery. All I could think was if they had put me into the wrong group how were they ever going to help me get over my depression and anxiety. I am a bit vague as to the actual events of the first week. I know that I saw the doctor, that I was prescribed a boatload of pills to combat the effects of withdrawal, sleeplessness, depression and anxiety. He explained the brain chemistry of addiction to me and assured me that I anyone that was drinking the amount that I was, along with the negative associated behaviour I was partaking in, was definitely in the right group!

I still wasn’t convinced, but like most other things in my life I gave myself over to the experience with complete abandon. I was an active participant in group therapy and the more I listened over that first week, the more I came to realise that even though some of my friends may drink as much as me on the odd night out, they certainly weren’t making it an almost daily practice. And they sure as hell weren’t losing their businesses over a couple of nights on the tear! For the first time I started looking at my situation in isolation, not comparing it to those of the people around me. And as the week wore on I started to learn that binge drinking definitely falls firmly within the realms of alcoholic behaviour. Just because I could go days without a drink, normally because I was too hungover to face it, didn’t mean that I wasn’t addicted to alcohol. My memory loss was of extreme worry to my doctor, my liver damage was quite severe and my tendency to compare my situation to others not at all helpful. I recall using the term “medical alcoholic” to describe anyone who drank more than the allotted units per week. But that seemed to be everyone I was mixing with at the time.

My friends, my family, my colleagues…were we all alcoholics!? And then the educational elements of the rehabilitation process started to become clear. My brain simply reacts differently to alcohol. I have no “off switch” as I like to call it…the inability (no matter how much I tried to convince myself) to stop after one or two drinks. There’s something in my genetic makeup that simply means I am predisposed towards alcoholism. Add to that the environment that I chose to socialise and work in, and you have all the ingredients necessary for a drinking problem to prosper. I’m not one for laying blame, it’s just unlucky that I grew up in a family that liked to drink and where booze was always freely available. Working in pubs and restaurants is hardly the ideal location for someone who has a leaning towards addiction. And years at university and then living in a collegiate town wasn’t really a healthy choice. It’s almost like the perfect storm (of addiction in my case)! But it’s over and done with and there was no use unpacking the reasons that made me an alcoholic, rather it was time to look towards the future…the sober future…a sober, depression-free future!

So I spent two weeks in the clinic coming to terms with my substance abuse, learning to listen to my inner child, developing ways of being gentle to myself and being introduced to AA. I left the clinic with a new outlook about my disease, determined to take the tools I was introduced to and apply them in my daily life. I was going to make changes! Big changes! And for the time being I had been sober for 14 days and was heading home. That was around July 2003…

‘Til next time

Sober Something

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