Over the years I have been a witness to friends who have struggled with alcohol abuse. One good friend died way too young. He couldn’t overcome the power of his addiction and ultimately paid the ultimate price. Another good friend found the strength to take on the beast and today is 30 years sober. I couldn’t be more proud of him and I asked him to share his story. He continues to attend regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and is a sponsor to many individuals who are going through the struggles he went through. To honor the A.A. tradition of maintaining “anonymity at the level of press, radio and films” I will not reveal his name but I think it’s really important to hear what I think is a remarkable victory by one man and to provide optimism to others who don’t think it’s possible to get that victory.
Was there ever any indicators growing up that could have foretold your battle with alcohol?
I was adopted at the age of three. Growing up, I felt like I didn’t fit in. My adopted parents were quite smothering and overprotective. I remember wanting to drink in my early teens. I heard about guys getting totally blasted and I wanted to do that just to escape all the negative feelings I had building up inside me but my parents were strict and I wasn’t able to go out much so the opportunity wasn’t there.
How old were you when you had your first drink?
My first drink was probably in my early teens. Nothing serious- I might have a few sips at family occasions. It was very minor.
Take us through how drinking became a part of your life?
As soon as I was away from my parents’ control, I started to rebel and drink whenever possible. When I moved to Lethbridge to take radio arts, I began drinking as often as possible. When I got my first job (1090 CHEC) and started to earn my own money, I continued to drink excessively whenever I could. I never ever drank socially- as in just having one or two drinks and leaving it alone. I quickly got into a pattern of drinking as much as I could for as long as I could.
Can you pinpoint a time when drinking actually took over all of your priorities?
When I was working at 1090 CHEC, I began to put drinking ahead of a job/career which I loved. I got into trouble at work but continued to drink. I probably should have been fired, but things were different back then.
How many times did you try to stop?
I never really tried to stop drinking. I would always say that I was going to slow it down. The longest I went without drinking was probably two weeks. I wasn’t trying to stop back then- just trying to keep it under control. When I didn’t drink for two weeks, I felt it was like forever and that I should have a parade in my honour! Most of the time though, I would drink heavily (blackouts most of the time) 3 to 5 nights a week. If I went to three or four days without drinking, I would really get the itch and put together some good drunks.
When you did stop and start again, what was the motivator that got you back off the wagon?
I didn’t need much of a motivator. If there was a band in a bar, a waitress I liked, good day, bad day- all were good excuses to go drink. Three days without drinking? Time to go on a good one! I was definitely a binge drinker!
I don’t know if it’s cliché but it seems that everyone with a drinking problem always hits rock bottom. Is that true and if so when was that for you?
I believe my bottom happened for me as I was facing disciplinary action at my job in Brooks. As I was waiting to talk to the boss about the issue, a very foreign thought came over me. (I believe it was from my “Higher Power”.) I thought, “I should just quit.” I’d never even considered that before that moment.
When the decision to quick drinking was made, did you reach out to anyone or did you try to do it on your own?
I went for counselling about once a week at the AADAC office in Brooks. I did that for a year and a half before I mustered up the courage to go to A.A.
How hard was that period of your life?
The first year, particularly the first few months were very challenging. I got a lot of help from the counselling at AADAC. Before my feet would hit the floor in the morning, I would think, “O.K. How am I going to stay sober today?” Any kind of social event that had alcohol was a huge challenge. I remember being particularly concerned about what to say to my drinking friends. I was terrified of peer pressure. I learned that for me, the best way to deal with peer pressure was to be direct and open about it. I’d say, “No thanks. I haven’t drank for 6 weeks now.” Usually, the response was positive and supportive. If not, I would remove myself from the situation.
You made a choice to change careers and become an addiction counsellor. I imagine you could see yourself in many of your clients. How important was having what you experienced in helping those people?
The ability to identify is really important. “Been there, done that,” is comforting to clients.
You’re now sober for 30 years. How does that make you feel?
It didn’t take long for me to start feeling good about being sober for a few weeks, months, years. 30 years is hard to believe. I’m very pleased with my long-term sobriety. The fact that I can help someone new is a beautiful gift. That’s the most important part of the A.A. program- “We get it by giving it away.”
How close have you come to relapsing?
I was very close to relapsing a couple of times in the first year of my recovery. Once was at the Brooks Rodeo. I had this huge urge to go into the beer gardens and “control” my drinking. Luckily, I thought it through. I realized that one or two drinks would only open the floodgates for a drinker like me. Another time was at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I was only sober a few months and I put myself in a very slippery situation by going to the beer gardens alone and sitting on a barstool. I ordered a pop and felt like the whole place was looking at me. (Nobody cared.) A couple of Americans were standing behind me and asked, “What kind of beer is good here?” I had this huge urge to say, “Well, let me show you!” In my drinking days, that would have been the start of a huge drunk. Luckily, I didn’t say anything, finished my pop and got out of there.
I also was close to relapsing after 25 years. I had drifted from my recovery program (A.A.) and had stopped going to meetings. I was isolated, lonely and bored. I was starting to sit on barstools, drinking pop and actually thinking I should perhaps start to drink again. It seemed like just a matter of time. Luckily, through fate, I found myself at an A.A. meeting- almost by chance. Somehow, everything seemed different and my recovery took on a whole new meaning.
Do you think there’s a chance you could still relapse?
There’s always a chance. I like the expression, “My addiction is out in the parking lot doing push-ups.” It’s just waiting for me to get complacent, weak and vulnerable. That’s why going to meetings on a regular basis and working a program of recovery is so important. We need to be in “good shape” to take on that addiction.
As you look back on your life what are some of the things you reflect on in terms of owning your disease, the choices you made and ultimately where you are today?
I know I wouldn’t be alive today had I not quit drinking. I like the saying in the A.A. Big Book, “Our greatest liability becomes our greatest asset.” The fact that I was a falling down, blackout drinker is not something I’m proud of. But I can use those experiences to help the newcomer in the program. It allows us to relate and connect on a real basis. So what was once a huge negative can become a huge positive. That’s the beauty of recovery!
What’s your message to people who are struggling with the bottle today?
My message is- there is life after drinking! I used to think it would be “blah” and boring. It’s actually quite the opposite. There is all sorts of help out there- counselling, detox, rehab, treatment and A.A. But as far as I see it, the bottom line is about one’s willingness. Programs work for those who really want it.
Drinking (and other addictions) start out as fun. But eventually, the negative consequences far outweigh any fun. But understandably, we’re terrified of change. You are not alone. That’s the beauty of support groups. You soon discover there are all sorts of people overcoming this progressive disease and living fun, productive, meaningful lives. Hey the A.A. Program is actually much more than quitting drinking. That’s certainly a big part of it but it also provides us with a design for living which makes life much more serene and fulfilling. There is a much better way!
My friend is willing to help you if you want it. Please e-mail me at email@example.com and I can connect you.