IT is almost 2am on a warm summer’s evening and I am sitting on a cracked stone grave in our local churchyard, crying my heart out… again!
I am pissed… and in reality I am unaware of the time or the place.
In the real world, I am a successful journalist, but at home my family and domestic life has been a ripped rag for 30 years. My crutch of alcohol has crippled me as a human being… a host of failed relationships, two estranged kids, personal bankruptcy, lost career opportunities, repossession of my home and a succession of regrets.
Casting a huge shadow over every move I have ever made, every tear, every relationship, every job, is the sexual abuse I suffered as a young teenager. (Read the earlier blog post When You Gonna Wake Up and Strengthen the Things That Remain for the background to this).
So I drink to forget and numb the pain.
Anyway, before I lose time or place I take you back to the churchyard.
I sit there on the cold gravestone feeling empty and completely alone.
Suddenly I am blinded by a pair of car headlights.
A voice shouts from the darkness… “Hey Nic, you there?”
It is the voice of my wife.
I stand unsurely and walk towards the voice and the headlights. My wife walks towards me, leaving the car engine running. She grabs hold of my arm and leads me unsteadily back to the car and drives us quickly to the safety and privacy of our home.
This is the latest incident she has had to cope with and I begin to wonder how many more before she breaks and realises I am not the man she thought I was when we married.
Most of the time I function… I cook, I do DIY tasks, I work and earn money and I keep up a visage of clean and tidy. But that is just functioning. I left living behind. So I drink.
I sleep like a bedevilled drunk till mid-morning.
But something happens. For the first time in my adult life I am hit by a different blinding light… a light of conscience and maybe realisation. Without any reason I feel an overpowering need to do something to halt my drinking and the further ruination of my life.
To this day I don’t know why that morning on that day was so different, but something happened psychologically to make me do something. Maybe I had at last realised I could not address the child abuse, but I could address my drinking.
Experts and clinicians say that some alcoholics are born with the addiction, while others acquire the taste for booze and the crippling need to have just one more drink. So we drink when something happens and we drink when it doesn’t.
Whatever way it happens, it is an illness.
I guess my path to alcoholism was a mixture of many things and most were conceived in my early teens. It was a rocky and progressive road.
I remember as a 17 year-old, flush with the cash of a summer holiday job, going to a friend’s summer party. While most kids turned up with the obligatory can of cider or beer, I arrived with a half bottle of vodka and another of whisky. I vaguely recall chatting up a pretty girl and sharing the vodka with her before hitting the whisky myself. Similar vague memories of asking her to dance, before waking sometime around midnight on someone’s front lawn, with pools of my own vomit around me … and yes I was just 17!
Two years later at a university, far from home, I was threatened with being sent down at least twice and evicted from my halls of residence for being constantly drunk – usually on a mixture of beer and whisky. Luckily by the third year and with the help of friends I cut down the drinking. But a star student destined for a 1st class honours degree was lucky to come away with a 2/2 degree.
By 21, I was hooked on booze, but the addiction was still fresh and I usually managed to handle the amount I drank and to confine it to the evenings when home from work.
But as many life crises developed so my need for a crutch increased. At 27, I lost my first job as a result of my own indiscretions and hit the bottle as I searched for another career.
Within three years my first marriage failed as my wife could no longer cope with my excesses. My need to cope with a battle against cancer and my failed marriage encouraged me to drink more.
I was never an abusive drunk, but a drunk all the same.
It was a pattern which followed me throughout my 30s and 40s as I drank a bottle of wine and a half bottle of whisky each weekday night fortified by more wine and at least a litre of spirits every weekend… and watched as partners ditched me in despair.
So I return again to the morning after the night on the grave.
I was now 48 years old and something new inside me stirred – it was my life and I had a choice.
The house was empty as I made a cup of tea and opened the telephone book to look up the number for Alcoholics Anonymous. I had written articles about the organisation in the past and I hoped they could help me.
I gingerly dialled the number and, after a couple of rings, a woman with a broad, but gentle, Glaswegian accent answered. With tears again streaming down my face – not drunken tears but ones of regret and realisation – I began to tell her my story. She listened for more than 25 minutes, chipping in with the odd word of encouragement before offering the chance of hope I had always wanted… a chance to live a proper life without the need for alcohol.
Her analogy about alcoholism stays with me…“It is like buying a train ticket from London to Newcastle,” she said. “You can get off the train at Peterborough, Leeds, York or even Durham. Or you can stay on the train until Newcastle or even go right on to Edinburgh.
“All alcoholics are somewhere on that journey and the longer you stay on that train, the more difficult it is to get off and the more it is going to cost.”
I thanked her and took note of my nearest AA branch.
I sort of celebrated by telephoning my mother and my wife to tell them the truth that I was an alcoholic but I was seeking help. I can’t explain the feeling of elation those words gave me. But I was at last facing one of my most painful demons.
Sometime later on a Tuesday evening, I walked slowly to our local church hall, knocked twice on the door and was welcomed by a smiling older man. He led me inside and I was introduced to others.
There I met some of the most wonderful people in my life:
Cheryl, a 46 year-old NHS manager who, after years of hiding bottles of vodka in the dirty laundry basket – where her husband would not look – and drinking up to two of them each night, had not had a drink for seven years.
Alex, a 70-something retired merchant seaman, who had been in and out of detox for most of his life but had not touched a drop in 19 years and preached abstinence.
And Vanessa, a 29 year-old social worker who had finally kicked the booze after drinking steadily since she was 14.
Then there was a sad younger girl called Karen who was facing a court case and a likely jail sentence and the loss of her two young children. Desperate to halt her drinking, her father had circulated her photo to every off-licence and supermarket with an instruction not to serve her. So in desperation she bought a toy gun and tried to hold up a local branch of Threshers… all for a bottle of vodka. She had turned to AA as she reached the end of the line and was eventually led from a meeting after smuggling booze in a coke can. She had failed the first test… to stay sober you have to be honest.
My heart bled for her.
This was Alcoholics Anonymous and together we shared sobriety and spent each evening giving support to each other with our ruined but rediscovered lives. It kept me dry for more than eight months and gave me a chance to grab hold of life.
That was nine years ago and although I have wavered from the path of sobriety in that time, I have only been drunk once and I never want to go there again.
Now the need for the crutch has diminished and I can at last enjoy a drink without it ruining everything.
- Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism.
The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. National AA Helpline: 0845 769 7555
- Peoples’ names have been changed to preserve their identities.