I’ve had a problematic relationship with alcohol for all of my adult life.
My dad was an alcoholic.
Both my grandfathers.
When I tell people I have trouble with alcohol, they don’t believe me.
That concept conjures up someone who gave everything away to drink on a park bench and beg for chump change.
Someone who goes through two bottles of spirits a day.
It doesn’t intersect with the image of someone like me, with a good income, a Ph.D. and a published novel.
It’s also hard for someone with a healthy — or even a kind of healthy — relationship with alcohol to imagine what it’s like not to be able to stop.
Most people can have one or two drinks and call it quits. Most can even have the odd binge now and again without too many ill effects.
The first drink inevitably leads to the next and the next and the next, day after day after day.
Never lose that feeling
I drink to chase the feeling.
The warm glow of the buzz that comes on somewhere between the third and fourth drink. I could live there forever, wrapped in womb-like bonhomie.
Relaxed, open, funny, generous — and free from anxiety.
I’m a happy drunk. I don’t get angry or violent. I don’t do dumb things when my inhibitions are lowered, like drive a car or take risks or fall over.
The trouble is that the space between drink number three and four widens like a chasm.
Transdimensional, like a haunted house that’s bigger on the inside than the outside.
The glow is hard to pin down. Maybe it starts to fade or maybe it shifts into something else so I drink more and more to get it back. I get nasty. I say things I regret. I drink alone.
I drink to forget. I drink until there’s nothing left in the house.
I wake up hungover and unavailable. The sodden, sullen march to the espresso machine to try to tamp down the jittery shakes and bleary black lack of sleep.
Again and again, over and over. I cannot stop myself.
My first serious attempt to quit
I knew I needed to stop. It took me several attempts and an incinerated marriage before I finally dragged myself to my first AA meeting.
Ironically, I moved into a sublet above a bottle shop. The green neon of my favorite brand of beer glowed just outside my window.
Always within reach.
AA was very helpful for me in the early stages, but it’s kind of orthodoxy.
It works for lots of people, but I stopped going. One of the reasons I stopped is that I heard such harrowing stories yet I was not able to see my experience entirely reflected in them.
In any case, I found a therapist, and that seemed to work for me.
I was sober for five years.
My cloudy mental state became clearer. I wrenched control back over my own life. I moved out of the sublet.
But the cravings were always there.
The thought that maybe I had beaten the disease, and could do controlled drinking like a normal person.
Gradually, my resolve dissolved until I started up again.
My second serious attempt to quit
For a while, it seemed like things were different. I didn’t have the same self-destructive impulses to head straight for oblivion I could manage things, most of the time.
I could almost pass myself off as normal. Two or three drinks here and there, I could do it. What was the fuss?
I liked drinking.
I kept this up for five years. Soon I was back to drinking every day. Not as much as before, but definitely in the same pattern. Drinking alone, drinking in front of the TV, and drinking to check out.
Until Christmas Eve 2019, when I drank up everything in the house and stumbled to bed and could not get up until 11 am on Christmas Day. I awoke, absent from the people who love me, stricken with a virus I half-suspect may have been COVID-19 although it wasn’t officially in Australia yet.
And I stopped drinking.
For the next two weeks, I just focused on getting better and what I could do to help my family.
It has now been 121 days and I am remarkably free from cravings. I get the odd pang, but I think I’m done this time.
This time it feels different. It feels solid.
Drinking and anxiety
I realize that my alcoholism and anxiety go hand in hand.
Alcohol is like a magic salve that wraps me up in a warm blanket and makes all my fears disappear.
All self-doubt melts away like butter on a hot pan.
Now I have to face my anxiety every day with no protection.
But I realized that even feeling anxious a lot of the time is not as bad as going back to that place I was in.
At least I’m conscious and aware now.
What I learned
I’ve been riding my mountain bike a lot to deal with it. Exercise is great and spending time outdoors.
I’m just determined this time to make sobriety stick, and I keep reminding myself how quickly things got awful when I started up again.
One of the things I heard in AA was that every person has an allotment of booze to drink in their life, it’s just that alcoholics get through theirs quickly.
I feel like I’ve got to the bottom of my allotment now, and maybe I needed the relapse to finally finish it and get to the other side.
Another important lesson I got from AA is not to have the first drink today. That’s it. That’s all I have to do today. Just avoid the first drink.
The first time I tried to quit, the cravings were much worse, and it was a minute-by-minute vigilance to keep from having that first drink.
But now it’s stretched out to where I hardly need the mantra at all.
This time, I’m never going back.
Andrew Macrae is a copy editor with BA first-class honors in English, an MA in English, and a Ph.D. in professional writing. Click here to learn more