Getting sober is the easy part. Then comes the hard work. After the rehab, pills, counselling and near death experience you have to face your sentence with guts and dignity. Have a read of my story.
(Staying sober- it can drive you to drink)
and the answers will more than likely include the replies, hitting rock bottom,detox, down and o"Google" the word Alcoholism and you will get 25,400,000 search results. Stop anybody in the street and ask them what they associate with the word Alcoholism ut, addiction, messed up life, homelessness, crime blah blah blah. Pay a little more attention and do your research and you can find out that when you drive at night one out of seven drivers on the road are legally drunk. The Medical Research Council states that alcohol abuse costs the South African economy around R9 billion a year and half of all murders are the result of drunkenness. The stats are never-ending and cover all aspects of South African society from child abuse to pedestrian deaths, home violence and the tragic cases of childbirth defects. Almost all events that you consider bad news probably have to a certain degree alcohol involved somewhere or other.
However on the inevitable other side of the coin, studies have found that the use of alcohol has significant advantages in the general treatment of stress, heart disease and related illnesses. Add to this the economic benefits of a massive industry contributing to the nations wealth and job creation and we almost have a stalemate.
Into this balancing act comes the plight of the individual . Somebody once said, and the name escapes me now, that there are stats, more stats and then there is dam lies. But there is no doubt in my mind that this is a problem that has to be looked at very carefully. The general consensus is that approximately 1 in 17 people over the age of 15 years are predisposed to the potentially fatal illness of Alcoholism. Another frightening stat holds the premise that only 1 in 37 diagnosed Alcoholics ever make a full recovery over the long-term. Food for thought indeed.
A few years ago I went through the ordeal and horrors of acute alcoholism. I was one of the fortunate ones. I survived though the grace of God, the love and compassion of my loved ones and friends and the skill and care of the medical profession. I went on to write a feature article for Mens Health which turned out to be my heartfelt account of my spiral into a dark world of despair, desperation and depression.The article itself contained nothing new for students of this silent killer disease. Started drinking. drunk more, made excuses, raged at the world in general, got drunker, screwed up everything dear to me, approached death, ruined my body and my mind and finally thankfully collapsed and went to hospital and dried out . The reaction to my "Unhappy Hour" article was overwhelming. I was soon to realize that this was an epidemic spinning out of control. I was definitely not alone.
I went on to regain my self-esteem and rebuild my life. A close call that many people do not make it out of and then have the luxury sitting and looking back as I have.So now there I sat con gratulating myself on beating the odds. Now what?
Well to be brutally honest "now what" involved a new phase of my life that would require me to bite the bullet all over again, except this time this was not going to be solved with a 10 day detox and sleep therapy, in some overpriced private hospital. My Doctors words started to resonate in my brain. " It's simple Alan, do not drink again and you'll be fine. Drink, you'll die"
That was it in plain English. The only problem was that I was having a problem coming to terms with that concept. Let me get this straight. I was 45 years old and let's say I lived until 80. 80 minus 45 gives you 35 years. A long, long time in anybodies world. That's a hell of a lot of braais, weddings, celebrations, bad days, shit bosses, traffic jams, disappointments, closing deals and watching the Boks beat the All Blacks and Chuck Norris 50- nil. Maybe the medical guys had made a mistake. Maybe I was not an alcoholic. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Time was to prove them right. I had not beaten the odds. Eighteen months later on one particular bleak July day in a not so sunny Margate I sunk a bottle of my favourite hard tack and ended up in the emergency room waiting for a stomach pump. For some obscure reason only known to the big guy upstairs I made it out of the hole again. As my relationship, business and health were back on the line once again, I finally made the decision. My version of mothers milk and Alan Butterworth had to part company and this time for good.
I had now became a member of a club that nobody in their right mind wants to join. Serving a life sentence with no parole. The medical advice now became quite specific. Not a drop of alcohol to pass my lips. The 6% or so of us who have this defective gene are advised to not take the chance of alcohol entering our system in any form whatsoever. This unnamed and undetectable gene sends us types dilly and as a result we cannot have a few dops after work or at the weekend just in case we go berserk and drink ourselves into an early grave.
Once I had heard my sentence I now had to work out how to serve it. I've read that real prisoners talk about "hard and soft time". It was at this time that I had an "Oprah" moment. I got it. Regret is too mild a description. I had f****d up big time and now was going to have to pay for it. Big time. Hospitalization had ridden me of my withdrawal symptoms but now I had to deal with the mind games.
The public at large are no doubt familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous and the sterling work that they do to help those unfortunates stricken with this potentially fatal disease. Day by day is their anthem. Most of us initially fight against this prognosis dished up to us and truly believe that we will beat the odds. We start to think that maybe they had got it wrong. Maybe I can have a break and start again. Here came those dam maybes again. So, for many, starts the so-called falling off the wagon and then having to pick yourself up again. But the awful reality is that " they" were more than likely right and you have to make a plan. Somewhere,sometime I came across a quote from one of those old guys in the good old days. I think it was the American poet Robert Frost. As he sat in the countryside he came up with something that, for me summons up this whole fight with alcoholism -
"Two roads diverged in the woods. I took the one less traveled, and it made all the difference."
The difference here is to stay sober even if it kills you.
After leaving the hospital my body gradually began to heal. It desperately needed to. For all those out there who want to hear a few good reasons to not reach the chronic stage of alcoholism and what I like to call the " last legs" phase, here are a few. They are not pretty but they are a reality. They will happen eventually. If you are strong, lucky or just have an angel looking after you you might one day survive to talk about it. If not, have a nice trip.
This phase lasts a few days, weeks or months, depending on your constitution. It is a slide into hell rendering you powerless to prevent an existence on the edge of a gaping black hole. I kid you not. The blood vessels in my eyes started to implode. My legs were uncontrollable and went on a mission of their own. I had no visible veins left. To this day I can only guess what the green gunge spewing out of me was. Medically my liver and kidneys had almost called it a day . There seemed to be no difference between my sleep and my waking hours. I drifted between paranoia, hallucinations and voices in my ear. The phrase "dead man walking" definitely springs to mind.
Within a month or so from leaving the hospital my body started to get it's act together. Every day I got stronger and began to look human again. I rediscovered the glory of food. During the last 20 days prior to my treatment I had eaten nothing at all. It was impossible to keep anything down. I went back to work and generally lived a normal life. Initially I was pre-occupied with just getting my life back in working order but in time that dreaded word for alcoholics, craving, reared it's ugly head. They creep into your life at the most innocuous times and can be the ruination of many good intentions. Coupled with this new threat was a new idea slowly forming that basically questioned the fairness of this whole " new normal" for me. Why me? Was there something wrong with me? Unfortunately these questions have the same meaning as asking how long is a piece of string?
If you sat down with 10 Doctors and Psychologists you might get 10 different answers to why some of us are alcoholics and others can get vrot drunk from time to time and continue living a normal life. The bad news is that medical science is divided on the answers. There could be a defective gene, it might be hereditary, neurotransmitters in the brain have got their wires crossed or it could be due to an addictive personality. What is a known fact is that there is no simple test to determine your risk of developing full blown alcoholism. The medical guys have a nice expression which basically says that you have crossed the line. You will not even know that you are approaching that line and you cross it oblivious to the fact that you are about to turn your life upside down. Realistically it is a subjective call that finally condemns you to carrying the label, "alcoholic" around with you for the rest of your life. That call is mostly based on your alcohol intake and your general functionality in your day to day activities. Not a full-proof system and one that has no appeal to the alkie contesting their life sentence. But in the hands of an experienced practitioner you can be sure that they have, for all intensive purposes called it right.
It is probably this uncertainty that leads many of us to question our label and in most cases to chance your arm with a few dops. Bad idea guys. You will create history if you do manage to beat the odds. A blind acceptance of your fate is probably a good start to a long lasting "cure". Falling off the wagon is another phrase that we are all familiar with. It happens. In fact the majority of labeled alkies will fall off at some point. The trick is to pick yourself up. I have had the privilege and pleasure over the last few years to consul others and the "fallen hero" syndrome is never far away from your thoughts.Today I can help you but tomorrow is another day.
There is a wide range of support groups out there who are only too willing to come to your aid. The well known AlcoholicsAnonymous exist solely to help those battling with this killer disease. And a huge bonus is the fact that they are free. Staffed by men and woman who have beaten this monster, this is a good start to cleaning your act up. Like many support groups dedicated to this illness their counselors have been there, done that and got the T-shirt. Listen to them and they will pull you out of the black hole that you find yourself in.
After almost coming to terms with your label we come to the crux of this whole sad scenario. How in the hell am I going to not drink ever again? Four words. IT IS NOT EASY. We live in a world surrounded by alcohol. Just look around you. Unlike illegal drugs there is a bottle store on every corner. Hell nowadays when you pop in to buy your bread and milk net on die hoek you are confronted by rows and rows of bottles of my favourite poison. Newspapers, T.V. radio and magazines bombard you the whole time. Smoking has become a no-no but alcohol has crept into our nations psyche. I mean our national sports teams are financed by the giants of the liquor industry. Oh look there's Graeme Smith, he's definitely the king of the "castle". In their effort to sell the product they go to great lengths to glamorize life with a dop by your side. Our basic socialization teaches us from a very early age that no event is complete without the requisite alcohol intake. When did you last go to a wedding, promotion party, simple family braai or just plain get-together after work and you all drunk mineral water. You could probably count them on one hand . And these are the happy events. What about the fight with the wife, the retrenchment, the death of a loved one, losing that big deal or just feeling pissed off with life. Alcohol used and not abused is a feature of our fast and modern times. To sit and consider that it is no longer part of your life requires a 360 degree turnaround in your way of thinking. It is no help to try and demonize alcohol. Sure it is probably responsible in one way or other for much of the carnage on our roads, our ridiculous crime levels and the ever increasing women and child abuse in the new South Africa. But there is another side of the coin. Who can deny that a couple of cold ones after a bad day at the office rests the brain. That warm comfortable feeling at the family braai so that even Uncle Flip's nonsense starts to make logical. That awkward corporate do when suddenly Mr. Jones from Regional office does not seem such a prick after all. In all these instances it does not matter that the whole lot of you cannot sentence two strings together. You are relaxed, feeling good and life is not so bad after all.
Besides the physical presence of alcohol around you all the time "club members" have to have eyes in the back of their heads. There are many side-shows that can trip you up. Days after coming out of hospital my better half Mary out of the goodness of her heart decided to buy me an extremely expensive vitamin boosted drink. The object was to get my wasted body back on track. A couple of days later I started to feel as though I needed a drink badly. On investigation with my pharmacist I was informed that it contained elements of ethanol. Enough to make my recently sodden brain recognize that this was an old friend calling again. A close call. As a recovering and sober alcoholic there are many instances when you are tested. Alcohol is a sneaky bastard and pops up in the most unusual places, usually unannounced. Christmas Day and as the restaurant clientele get stuck into their much awaited Xmas pudding , you have to take a rain-cheque. Sorry too much brandy in that one. Mouthwash, sports vitamin drinks, low alcohol beer, even some deodorants can get those brain cells craving all over again. It is very much a case of treading softly and making sure that you avoid even the smallest amount of alcohol. Modern psychology has more or less worked out that the brain is like a camera and records many of your memories. It is like a computer with 100,000GB of memory. The memory of your drunken stupors are recorded and are easily activated. So watch it.
Every sober alcoholic has to find his own individual way to deal with his life sentence. I took the middle road of evasive action. I buy wine for my better half. I will feel comfortable in small groups of friends and family who are drinking at a social event. I draw the line at large gatherings. Later in the evening I feel alienated and isolated. As the brews flow I do start to feel uneasy. It is just my way. It is for the individual to work out what works best. For me in a world swimming in alcohol I made the decision to have it around in small doses. A s they say in the classics- whatever floats your boat. Nobody starts out with the intention of becoming an alkie and that magical line creeps up on us unannounced. Beware though once you are labeled your life takes a definite downturn. It is really best to try and head off that day. You all know if a problem is developing. Deep down you now need alcohol rather than want it. The body and mind now require just to give you a shot at getting through the day. What started out as a fun way to relieve tension and stress or just to have a good time is now a preoccupation. Without it you become one sick camper. Body sweats, nausea, shaking, mental confusion and generally one screwed-up constitution are the byproducts of even a few hours abstinence. Take it from someone who has been there, do not go there. Stop it before you wake up one day and suddenly your daily dop is your master. Stop it before your every waking moment revolves around the next drink. It happens so fast and the next minute you become a member of that "club" that nobody wants to join. Have fun with your drink but do not let it become your everything. Take advice from family, friends and work colleagues. They will be noticing your slide way before you will admit to a problem.
Then again the whole question of how to get treatment is fraught with difficulties. A good starting base would be your family G.P. Try and choose somebody who regularly deals with this type of problem. It really does help to actually like the individual. Another base to touch is a Psychologist. I went through numerous Psychologists until I finally found one that I felt comfortable with. Alcoholics by the very secretive nature of their illness are very convincing liars and spend most of their time in self-denial. Modern research has concluded that alcoholism and acute depression co-exist in most cases. The burning question to sort out is" are you drinking because you are depressed or are you depressed because you are drinking". A tricky one but the type of issue a compassionate and experienced G.P. and Psychologist can get to grips with. I will never forget coming out of a session with a Psychiatrist, climbing into the car and proclaiming to Mary that the guy was a nutcase who needed help more than I did. Sad but true. In my confusion I had started to lose the plot.
The range of treatments depend on how long you have been on the slide and your mental and physical state. From simple counseling, anti-depressants to sleep therapy and if the depression is severe and life threatening, the last resort treatment of Shock Therapy. But ultimately the day will arrive when you are on your own and it is time to bite the bullet. Total, absolute and never-ending abstinence is the only route to go. Statistically the odds of you beating the odds are for all intensive purposes, one big fat zero.
Some days are worse than others. The usual and normal day to day activities of everyday life present you with many occasions when a couple of cold ones seems like the answer. Your slide into acute alcoholism followed by your treatment phase will eventually become a distant memory. The days,weeks, months and years of trying to stay sober will be your new reality. Once again I would like to quote another old guy who probably knew what he was talking about. During the dark days of World War Two when his island was been threatened by the ever-growing menace of Nazism, Winston Churchill, who by all accounts liked the odd dram, declared,
" If you are going through hell, keep going"
Better advice was never given. Turn your greatest weakness into your greatest strength. As I wrote in my article a couple of years ago, you are definitely not alone.