Some people ask me - "how did you manage to cope and be a success in your career?" or "how did you manage to carry on with your work while your drinking was out of control and a cause of suffering in your life?"
These are good questions, of course, and I’m not sure that I can give an altogether convincing answer. Perhaps it was the case, thankfully, that my own personal rock bottom was not as deep as that experienced by some. But the question also betrays a fundamental misunderstanding.
Just because we see, sadly, alcoholics lying in shop doorways and on park benches, homeless, these circumstances are not what define "alcohol use disorder". After all, we know that doctors, lawyers, teachers, actors and professional sports people - yes, sportspeople - are alcoholics. We used to call these “functioning alcoholics”. Alcoholism does not discriminate by gender, social class or profession.
What define “alcohol use disorder” are things like - loss of control, bingeing, blackouts, craving, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms. You don't have to be drinking 24 hours per day to tick these boxes. Functioning alcoholics of course suffer from a major impairment, and the downward slide will continue if left unchecked, but it is possible to lead what looks at least outwardly like a normal life.
I was only ever seen drunk at work when it was an accepted part of City culture - it still is in some areas – or at social functions. Later, almost all of my heavy drinking was done alone and outside of normal working hours. Often it was planned beforehand. But I didn't always take a drink intending to get drunk. It just happened. It became regular and got worse.
The danger of this misunderstanding or lack of perception is that it can deny somebody from receiving help. It's like saying – “you are fine - you’re coping, you have a job, you hold a responsible position, you don’t really have a serious drinking problem”. But this is wrong.
I've talked before in these blogs about the identity of an alcoholic. If you are judgmental about denying the label, then how on earth is the sufferer to achieve Step One? Why or how would a sufferer confess to a problem if they sensed they were to be doubted or asked to justify why they feel the need to ask for help? He or she would be more likely to stay in denial.
There is an old saying, “If it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it's probably a duck”. If somebody keeps repeating loss of control binge drinking, it causes self-harm, and is destructive to others around them then they are alcoholic. It doesn't help to say – “you go to work every day, you’re getting along well – you’re fine”.
In a related vein, I often use the self-descriptive term “alcoholic in recovery”. I say that because the opinion expressed by some is – “if you haven't touched a drink for 20 years then you can't possibly be an alcoholic now”. In other words, you are "recovered" not "in recovery". Fair enough, possibly, but I choose not to describe myself in that way for good reason, based on my own personal experience and what I have seen in others.
I choose to use the term as a reminder. It's not a badge of honour. Neither is it a ball and chain. Instead, it's a reminder that I'm still on a life journey and I'm very aware of what I did and its consequences, and the danger of slipping back.
Am I "recovered"? I've really no idea. I don't have any intention of putting it to the test. That's because I tested it many times in the past and failed. I was dry for five years and then resumed the pattern all over again, despite brief hospitalisation and intensive psychotherapy. Also, I've heard many stories of those who were sober for longer than me, started drinking again, and died. I don't want to try it out. No thanks!
Tony Adams, the former Arsenal and England football captain tells the story of how his co-founder of the Sporting Chance clinic, Peter Kay, relapsed after sharing almost 20 years of being sober and subsequently died at the age of 52. Adams says, “The death certificate would say that he had died of a heart attack, but I know that he, as many alcoholics and addicts do, without it being the formal cause, died of the disease of addiction”. Sober, Simon and Shuster, 2017, p.193
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The late actor Robin Williams was interviewed about his addictions. He related a story about how he was sober for twenty years but then relapsed on location in Alaska in 2003. He said,
"I was in a small town where it's not the edge of the world, but you can see it from there, and then I thought: drinking. I just thought, hey, maybe drinking will help. Because I felt alone and afraid. It was that thing of working so much, and going f--k, maybe that will help. And it was the worst thing in the world." What did he feel like when he had his first drink? "You feel warm and kind of wonderful. And then the next thing you know, it's a problem, and you're isolated."
- Guardian, Monday Sep 20, 2010
Over and over again, we hear the same stories. Some do manage a return to controlled “social” drinking. Good luck to them!
The fundamental point here is that we are all of us facing tests throughout our lives. We are tested in education and in our work lives. We are tested in our ability to build relationships and families. Some tests are moral or spiritual in nature. We make promises to people and then we let them down. We make commitments to clean, purposeful living and then we don’t abide by them. We are all less than perfect and make mistakes.
We need to acknowledge the slip-ups, learn from the experience, and move forward with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment.
Focus on your recovery, enjoy the present moment, don’t torment yourself with the past, and don’t overly stress about what the future may or may not hold – don’t keep wondering “what if?”