I am not an alcoholic

I shocked myself when, one morning at a meeting, I spoke about my terrible temper

Writing the above felt more real than the more usual “I am an alcoholic” statement.

I am not in denial. I have a dependency on alcohol and I abuse it.

But the word alcoholism culturally is a pejorative one and does not elucidate between the person who drinks quietly at home every evening and doesn’t harm anyone else, to the person who reaches for the bottle the minute s/he wakes up, and all the myriad of drinkers in between. I have been drinking heavily for years and years, and I believe I started to drink because I was lonely and the bottle was a replacement for the company I craved.

I’ve also been aware for a very long time that I was drinking too much.

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On holidays I never felt the sense of shame about my drinking because I was like everyone else. An aperitif before dinner, a bottle, sometimes two, with dinner was acceptable, even a glass or two of wine at lunch was respectable. My problem was that I always wanted that level of drinking to be the norm. I wanted to be on holidays every day. For me, the desire to drink only came as evening approached. So, cooking the dinner, I would have my first glass of wine, followed by the bottle.

I am being honest about my alcohol consumption. It was a bottle of wine every night. But on occasions where I might be going out to dinner, I would invariably have one or two glasses of wine before I left the house. Even before going out to play bridge, I would drink three glasses of wine. On book club nights, if I thought I wasn’t going to get enough wine (some people were slower at topping up) I would drink two maybe three glasses before I left the house. The only person who knew “my secret” was my husband.

To go in for a whole month was a huge commitment and questions began to raise themselves in my head. How could I disappear for a month? What would I tell people?

Apart from once over 20 years ago, when I stopped drinking for eight days, I had never tried until very recently. The first time was for three weeks and, to my surprise, I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms. It was hard and, to combat the cravings, I went to bed early, at eight o’clock. The second time was for three months and, again, I appeared to have no withdrawal symptoms. The strange thing was, on both occasions I did it on my own with no support from anybody. Then one night an overwhelming urge to have a glass of wine came over me and without stopping to think, I opened a bottle of wine, thinking, in my naivety, I hadn’t had a drink in three months, I could handle this.

I could not. My last and most recent attempt to stop was November 28th, 2021.

During that dry period, I told one friend that I was an alcoholic (it was before I came to the realisation that, for me, that was not a correct assessment). She was shocked and had difficulty believing me. It was my turn to be shocked when I told my book club friends. They appeared to be dumbfounded and looked at me askance. I was very uncomfortable. Clearly, they did not believe me.

There was an embarrassing silence.

Did they think I was attention-seeking. It would appear so. It was around that time that the realisation that the general public do not truly understand addiction dawned on me. Because most people can control their drinking, they assume someone who drinks too much is undisciplined and weak. “Just have two.”

If only it were that simple.

Alas, that brief spell of sobriety came to an end one day while chatting to my French neighbour. She was speaking about how much her brother and sister drink every night and it wasn’t in a critical way just as a matter of fact. A bell went off in my head. “I’m half French – I can drink red wine. Why not?”

And so, I did.

After another three months of drinking heavily, I went to my GP and was completely open and honest with her about my drinking. She recommended that I go and see a psychiatrist who specialises in addiction. I did so with great trepidation and when he suggested that I come in and do a 28-day programme, I was shocked. I thought he might ask me to follow a programme but on an outpatient basis. To go in for a whole month was a huge commitment and questions began to raise themselves in my head. How could I disappear for a month? What would I tell people? What about the house? (I was in the middle of a house extension). It seemed to me at the time an impossible request. I asked him, “Do I have to?” He replied “Yes”.

I was on autopilot the day I went in. I could not focus on anything. Admission took a long time before I was brought to the addiction ward where I had to undergo a breathalyser test, have an antigen test and a drug test, have my blood pressure taken, do an ECG, give a urine sample, answer numerous questions about my drinking habits before I was brought to my cell, sorry room, where a nurse went through every article in my suitcase, confiscating several items including a bottle of water. I was given 40mg of Librium and told I had to have this dosage four times a day.

At last, I was told I could go the diningroom for lunch. Two of my fellow patients took me there. Tables were for four people and we were joined by another patient. They were all very verbose and were chatting and laughing as if we were all in a holiday camp. I had trouble trying to concentrate on what they were saying.

The first morning I woke up was a beautiful day – I had slept very well – why wouldn’t I with 120mg of Librium in my system? – but I was only allowed to leave the ward to eat my meals; all new patients are monitored for 24 hours. The following morning, I met my multidisciplinary team. The professor was there, along with a nurse, a psychologist, an addiction counsellor, a psychiatrist in training, another psychiatrist and a social worker. To say I was outnumbered is an understatement. I mentioned I thought 40mg of Librium four times a day was excessive and the professor said he would reduce it by half. Neither the nurse nor I were happy about this. I did not want to take any Librium. The nurse said that my blood pressure was high and the higher dosage of Librium was necessary. I argued that the last two times it was checked it was normal. I decided I would not take the Librium.

This is accomplished by sliding the tablet to the side of my mouth and swallowing a tiny amount of water, spitting out the offending pill the first opportunity I had. Sometimes, I just pretended to put the tablet in my mouth and squash the little paper cup they hand you, and throw it into the waste bin. I felt a little uneasy doing this as I respected the professor and did not want to deceive him. However, I believed that I did not need the Librium.

Marcus Aurelius was right when he wrote more than 13 centuries ago: ‘How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?’ I know the answer to that question.

I began to settle down into a routine. I was not to start my programme until I was fully detoxed. They did not know that I was not taking the Librium.

My fellow patients were very nice and friendly and I began to open up to them. They were good company and I enjoyed our chats. We played Scrabble some evenings and, to my surprise, I lost. Sometimes we watched a DVD. One evening, we chose 28 Days and were able to identify with the character Sandra Bullock played. (Gwen Cummings, a newspaper columnist is forced to enter a drug and alcohol rehab centre after ruining her sister’s wedding and crashing a car).

I was glad to start the programme as there was more structure to the day. Group therapy was a daily occurrence and on selected days, Pilates, yoga, aikido and mindfulness were on the agenda. There were also lectures on relapse prevention plans, stress and anxiety management and sleep hygiene.

At first, I was quiet, not sharing anything, but, as the days unfolded and I got closer to the group, I began to open up. But I shocked myself when, one morning at a meeting, I spoke about my terrible temper. To my horror, I even mentioned the time I kicked in the door of the washing machine. Having to explain how that happened to the service engineer required a fictionalised story that was beyond me but I tried anyway. And he politely acted as if he believed me. Anyone who looks at the strength and thickness of a washing machine door will know that nothing less than a heavy kick with all one’s might would never as much as crack the glass.

The only reason I can be so open about my appalling temper is that I finally learned, after years and years of efforts, to control it. On two terrible occasions, I threw my mobile phone on the floor in anger. When I say threw, I mean I flung it with all the strength I could muster and ended up having to buy a new phone.

Whenever I lost my temper, it always cost me dearly and, occasionally, financially too.

Marcus Aurelius was right when he wrote more than 13 centuries ago: “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it?” I know the answer to that question.

Yes, I still feel anger occasionally, but I know that no matter what happens, I can remain in control.

It is liberating.