In his own words: living with alcoholism
As told to Virginia Mansfield
Rick* began drinking when he was 12 years old; he didn't realize it was a problem until his early twenties. As a son of an alcoholic mother and being an alcoholic himself, he felt angry, isolated, and constantly full of fear. Now, after 23 years of sobriety, he speaks openly and honestly about his alcoholism and recovery. He is married and has three daughters, ages 18, 16, and 10.
What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?
It's difficult to say exactly what was the first sign that something was wrong, because, if I'm honest—and in retrospect—I can say that there were signs right from the very start of my drinking: drinking for the effect, to get attention, to fill an emotional void, blacking out. But, at the time, I really wasn't aware that there was a problem. Drinking was something cool to do and I did it without questioning any of the consequences.
Probably the first time I really remember knowing that there was a problem with my drinking was in my early twenties. I never drank in moderation. One drink and I was off to the races. Often the first drink appeared to be totally innocent—just a beer between friends, or a shot of Russian vodka to "take the edge off," or a civilized glass of wine at an art opening—and before I even knew what was happening, I was drunk and doing crazy things.
A friend told me that maybe I was the kind of person who couldn't drink anything at all; it was the first time I can remember being cornered by the truth, with no way out. Cornered or not, as soon as he left I began to drink again and with each drink the sensitivity and truth of his statement drew further and further away, like a siren receding down a crowded street. Before long, there was nothing left of it to remember.
In terms of physical symptoms, I experienced blackouts almost from the very beginning of my drinking, at around age 12. Later, in my early twenties, I experienced the shakes, vomiting, dehydration, slurred speech, paranoid and irrational fears, and a lack of impulse control. I was angry, isolated, and full of fear. I wanted social interaction, but couldn't manage it once I'd had a few drinks. I felt alone and hopeless, unable to connect with people unless I had a few drinks and then doomed to alienate them by the time I'd had a few more. Essentially, I was unable to control my drinking—how much, when, where, how often—and once I'd taken the first drink, the compulsion to keep drinking kicked in.
What was the diagnosis experience like?
I am one who never was "officially" diagnosed—I never went to a treatment center or medical facility directly for my alcoholism. For the last few years of my drinking, I referred to myself as an alcoholic, though I didn't really comprehend what that meant. For me, it was a convenient way of justifying my drinking, like, "Why do you think I got drunk at the picnic...I'm an alcoholic, that's why."
I used the term to deflect criticism, in the sense of denigrating myself before anyone else got the chance to do so. That was basically my pattern—to put myself down before you got the opportunity. But I really didn't have a clue what it meant to be an alcoholic—the true meaning of the word. I had a picture of an alcoholic in my mind that was very romantic: the drunken poet, the staggering but brilliant artist, the sensitive writer. It wasn't until I got sober that I began to recognize the reality of what being an alcoholic meant: that I couldn't drink—even just a few beers—without negative consequences either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. After being sober nearly a year, I recognized in my heart for the first time that I was really sick, that I had an illness that was beyond my comprehension and ability to control. So my diagnosis was really a self-diagnosis, and it came once I had actually been sober for a while and was beginning to see the reality of my situation.
What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?
In many respects, it was a relief to finally recognize the diagnosis. I had always thought that I was somehow "at fault" for my behavior, that it was a character failing that I couldn't control my drinking and that I did all the crazy things that came along with it. I felt like I was a bad person—a misfit, a reject. But when I finally came to recognize the alcoholism at work in my life—a power far greater than me—it was easier to accept myself with compassion and understanding instead of berating myself with contempt, disapproval, and judgment. It made it easier to recover.
In terms of my longer-term reaction, diagnosing myself as an alcoholic—and being in recovery—has given meaning and direction to my life. Through understanding that I have the disease of alcoholism and my commitment to recovery, I have a central purpose in my life—something I can really hold onto. It helps to define who I am, what has happened to me in my life, and what I need to do in the present. I am a recovering alcoholic, and I need to stay away from the first drink.
How do you manage the alcoholism?
I am one of the ones who was fortunate enough to walk into an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting—drunk at the time—and never pick up a drink again. AA provided an environment in which I could stay sober. It provided the tools to learn enough about myself and my alcoholism to stay away from the first drink. There was just the right mix of structure and anarchy in AA that allowed me to reach out for help in my own way and in my own time. Nobody pressured me or told me I had to do things in a certain way. They simply allowed me to be there with them, as they were getting sober, and I slowly began to learn about myself through the sharing of others.
There were many tools I heard about in the rooms of AA and began to use in my own life: the slogans were easy, cogent, and pertinent (easy does it, first things first, it's the first drink that gets you drunk, etc.), and the Twelve Steps had a practical application as I learned about powerlessness, unmanageability, and the need for a spiritual connection with a power greater than myself. For the first time in my life I had a sense of support and community—a group of people in my life who understood where I had been and where I was going.
From the very beginning, I managed my alcoholism by regular attendance at AA meetings and ongoing review of the Twelve Steps and other AA literature and materials. I also developed a very close friendship with another alcoholic, also in AA, which allowed us both to talk regularly about alcoholism and recovery and to share our individual experiences, our strengths, and our hopes. Later, after a few years of sobriety, I attended group and, ultimately, individual therapy for about five years. I have always found therapy with an understanding practitioner to be helpful and have availed myself of this service at different times throughout my sobriety.
Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to the alcoholism?
Yes, plenty. In the beginning, it was very important to stay away from people, places, and things associated with my drinking. That meant I had to stay out of the bars and places where I used to drink, had to distance myself from the people I used to drink with, and had to change a lot of my routines—often things as seemingly innocent as walking down a different block so that I wouldn't have to pass by the liquor store where I used to buy my liquor or the grocery store where I used to buy beer. Instead, I went to AA meetings, where I slowly began to meet new people—people who were trying to stay sober, too. There weren't too many people at the end of my drinking who really cared about me—there were acquaintances and people in bars who I drank with, but nobody who particularly missed me once I stopped hanging around and started spending my time in AA meetings. Most of the people I knew were ultimately glad when they heard I was going to AA.
Slowly, I had to learn a whole new way of doing things. Alcohol had been so much a part of my life that it touched on every aspect of my existence. Just about everything I had done in my life, I had done with a drink: sex, relationships, school, work, creativity, paying the bills, even simple conversations were somehow rooted in alcohol. I used alcohol to manage my life—unsuccessfully, of course—and I had no other frame of reference. I had to learn new ways of doing things, of seeing myself and others, and of interacting with the world.
Did you seek any type of emotional support?
Initially, the support came from my closest AA friend and others I met in the rooms of AA, people I would talk to on a one-to-one basis at meetings. I also stayed in touch with my oldest friend, the one who had told me perhaps I couldn't drink anything at all. Additionally, after just a few months of sobriety, I got involved with a girl I knew from high school and had become reacquainted with at the end of my drinking. She was not in AA—in fact she was still drinking, and ultimately came into AA herself after we ended our relationship. While it was not necessarily an "advisable" relationship for someone so new to sobriety, I don't know if I would have been able to maintain my sobriety without her. I needed someone to talk to, to care for, to connect with, and she was very important to me in the first year of my sobriety.
It took me longer to reach out to my family, even though my mother was also in recovery. She was someone I could talk to about recovery, to a degree, and could reach out to for emotional support. The rest of my family was less aware of my circumstances and less involved in my life.
Does the alcoholism have an impact on your family?
I come from a family that alcoholism had already had an impact on—my grandmother on my father's side was an alcoholic, as was my mother. Alcohol played a major role in the formative events of my life, and ultimately, it was no surprise that I turned to alcohol myself. My grandmother died when I was in my early teens, ostensibly of heart trouble, but clearly alcohol played a part in her death. She had been very domineering of my father, her only child, and helped set up patterns in his life that allowed him to enable my mother's alcoholism and the destruction that eventually wrought on the family. My mother's drinking escalated over time, following a progression that eventually left her hospitalized and institutionalized a number of times. Based primarily on my mother's drinking, its negative consequences, and my father's inability to recognize and acknowledge her active alcoholism, the family disintegrated after about twenty years of marriage. As the family fell apart my own drinking increased and I drifted further and further away from anything that was familiar in my life. I felt like a tumbleweed being blown across the desert floor, wandering aimlessly wherever the wind blew.
Many years later, once I had acknowledged my own alcoholism and had gained some measure of sobriety, I began to reconstruct some of the family relationships, or at least tried to. This has been an ongoing part of my sobriety, and after 23 years without a drink, and the formulation and creation of my own family—a wife and three daughters—I feel that I have made some headway in breaking the cycle of familial alcoholism. My brother and sisters have seen me grow and remain sober and I think it has provided for them an example of stability and perseverance. My mother died a little over a year ago, after almost 24 years of sobriety. She had gotten sober about six months before I did and eventually went on to become an alcoholism counselor. She was plagued, however, by poor health and lots of medical problems in her last ten years, and died in the hospital under difficult circumstances.
In my own life, I married a woman I met in AA, and the two of us have stayed sober and have remained active in AA. Our three children have never seen either of us drunk (a true blessing), and grew up in and around our community of recovering alcoholics. The two eldest ones (18 and 16 years old) have experimented with alcohol and drugs, but do not exhibit signs of unhealthy dependence. The youngest is 10 years old and has a pretty sophisticated world-view and a mature understanding of alcoholism.
What advice would you give to anyone living with alcoholism?
There are two aspects of alcoholism—living with it in yourself and living with it in someone else. Both aspects need examination. I grew up in an alcoholic household, but never thought that had any impact on myself or my siblings. Well, I was wrong. Subsequently, when I developed alcoholism myself, I thought I was only hurting myself, that I didn't have an impact on anybody else. Again, I was wrong.
Alcoholism causes pain—emotional, physical, and spiritual pain. It is pain that is largely avoidable. It is pain that is largely self-induced.
In the years I have been sober, I have come to understand that the world is full of pain—things happen, people die, tragedies unfold. It is also full of wonder and love. Today, the idea of bringing on more pain in my life—beyond the pain that will be there inevitably anyway—is totally abhorrent to me. I know that picking up a drink will not make anything in my life better. It will only make things worse.
So, if you are caught up in the pain of alcoholism, my only advice would be to surrender, to give up, to admit complete defeat and begin the process of rebuilding your life sober, without active alcoholism at the center. And, if you are living with or love an alcoholic, my advice would be to reach out for help—either in gaining information about the disease of alcoholism and its impact on the family, or getting psychological or emotional help. Honesty is a great antidote to alcoholism, and looking squarely at your situation can be a good beginning toward sobriety and a happy and purposeful life.
*Not his real name
Interviews were conducted in the past and may not reflect current standards and practices in medicine. Talk to your doctor to learn more about how this condition is diagnosed and managed today and what treatment approaches are right for you.
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