I Am Not an Alcoholic: The number of times I told myself I would stop at three glasses

Just a handful of people knew I was in rehab, partly because of my fear of failure. What if I fall off the wagon?

This is the second part of a column about dependency on alcohol. You can read the first instalment here

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On admission to rehab, all electronic devices are confiscated, to be returned for only two hours each evening. This news was anathema to me, because I write every day. No amount of arguing that I found writing therapeutic was going to change their mind. The nurse, gentle but firm, suggested I use a pen and a notebook. I riposted: “I could if it were the 20th century.”

Two months or so — yes, that’s all — into my sobriety, I am afraid of what those few people who know will think of me if I fall off the wagon

Later, handing in my phone and laptop, I said, “You do know that you are taking off my right arm?” With hindsight, I gave the staff a hard time when, after all, they were only doing their job.

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Just a handful of people knew I was in rehab, so disappearing for several weeks required a creative imagination. The reason for the secrecy was the ignorance around addiction. Apart from professionals — and I suspect many of those are attracted to their chosen area because of some personal experience — very few people truly understand addiction. But also, and more importantly for me, there was the fear of failure.

What if I fall off the wagon? A very real possibility.

Alcoholics Anonymous, a wonderful organisation that helps more than a million people globally, doesn’t work for me, sadly. Over the years I have tried many meetings, and although I can see it is indispensable for some — indeed, I know people who go to a meeting every day — didn’t find it helped me. This means I have no sponsor to call when my craving for a drink is overwhelming. To combat the craving I go to bed.

But my best defence is to think of tomorrow morning. When I was drinking I would wake every morning with a headache and nausea and a deep sense of shame. I would swear, while I waited for the paracetamol to work, that I would not drink again.

Usually, that promise was forgotten by 11am.

So thinking of waking up in the morning hating myself strengthens my resolve — the physical aspects were bad, but it was the mental anguish that tortured me more. If I could drink two glasses of wine every evening and leave it at that then I would. Instead I have to give up something that I love and that most people take for granted. Drinking a glass of wine is civilised. Drinking a bottle is not.

We are checked every hour at night. A nurse comes in, rattling the key and making a noise that would wake the dead — or me, anyway — and shines a torch on your face to make sure you’re there

Liking alcohol as opposed to needing it are two completely different things.

I like drinking red wine, I just don’t like that I need it. And the fear that I may drink again is very real. Two months or so — yes, that’s all — into my sobriety, I am more afraid of what those few people who know will think of me if I fall off the wagon. When I am sober everyone thinks I’m great and congratulates me and tells me what a wonderful person I am. But the minute I pick up a glass I’ve suddenly become a different person, someone no one wants to know. “What’s wrong with her? Can’t she just stop drinking?” No, evidently, she can’t.

If I do pick up a glass again I will have let down people. Yet I am exactly the same person — in fact more vulnerable and in need of more support. And because of that fear I kept knowledge of my rehab down to a minimum of people. This required much subterfuge. I was in Galway, I was in Kerry, I was in Schull, I went to a wedding in France. And because of the phone embargo I left my mobile on a train, which explained why I was out of contact.

I was in fact very pleased when I was discharged that no one was any the wiser.

Group therapy is hard. Speaking to a therapist is one thing, but opening up about our innermost fears in front of a roomful of people — strangers until a few days ago — is another story

When I was first admitted I was on the detox ward, where patients stay until the alcohol has left their systems. Then, if they are going to do the programme, they are moved to cells — sorry, rooms — which are a little bigger, as are the bathrooms. And there are no little window slots in the doors where staff can look in on you. But we are still checked every hour at night. A nurse comes in, rattling the key and making a noise that would wake the dead — or me, anyway — and shines a torch on your face to make sure you’re there. Most of us leave our doors open — to prevent the rattling of the key in the door — by using a slipper, but sometimes the shining light is enough to disturb Morpheus.

What with yoga and mindfulness, Pilates and aikido and no decisions to make other than what to eat for lunch and supper — and here I must mention that the food at the hospital where I stayed was excellent and offered great choices — rehab is very self-indulgent. Bedrooms and bathrooms were cleaned every day. When time allowed I could walk in the beautiful gardens and play tennis and golf. (The weather during my stay was sunny and warm — very pleasant.)

What’s not to love? With a vivid imagination and some self-deception, one could almost believe one were on holidays.

Not to mention individual sessions with a psychologist and a social worker. Who doesn’t like to talk about their moans and groans to an empathetic person who is completely nonjudgmental? When one of my fellow patients asked why I was seeing the psychologist, because she’d never seen her, I replied that my problems were more serious than hers. She looked at me quizzically. I repeated, “No, really, that’s because my problems are more serious than yours.” She thought about this for a moment before deciding maybe it was a good thing she didn’t have to see the psychologist.

Of all the activities, group therapy was a daily constant. It was considered essential to our rehabilitation. And as time progressed our group became quite close. Sharing one’s deepest secrets in group therapy really nailed it. And the fact that there was a confidentiality about our experiences made us as thick as thieves. But group therapy is hard. Speaking to a therapist is one thing, but opening up about our innermost fears in front of a roomful of people — strangers until a few days ago — is another story.

It was a revelation when I discovered that not one but two of my fellow patients knew my son very well but did not know each other. I know Ireland is a small country, but that coincidence is remarkable. They both told me to tell my son they were asking for him. This, of course, meant breaking confidentiality, but they were both happy with that. You can imagine the conversation I had with my son. Mum is in rehab hanging out with her son’s friends. He had a laugh. (I wish the very best to both these wonderful people.)

I only ever practised controlled drinking when circumstances dictated that it wasn’t the thing to overimbibe, and I would be like everyone else, protesting, ‘No, really, that’s my limit,’ only to dash home and hurriedly open a bottle. Not a great memory

I can’t remember the number of times I told myself I would drink only three glasses of wine. Thousands. Occasionally I would put on my I’m-just-a-social-drinker hat and buy a bottle of Saint-Émilion instead of the more usual six bottles of whatever red wine was the cheapest. I would tell myself to savour it, swirl it around the glass, smell its aroma before taking an elegant sip. So I may have smelled it — although even that’s debatable — before I gulped it down like a person parched from days in the desert with no water.

The hat didn’t fit. I failed again.

I even tried controlled drinking, but it wasn’t for me. If you need to control your drinking you need to stop drinking. I only ever practised controlled drinking when circumstances dictated that it wasn’t the thing to overimbibe, and I would be like everyone else, protesting, “No, really, that’s my limit,” only to dash home and hurriedly open a bottle. Not a great memory.

Another memory I’d rather erase are the times I’d run out of wine — something that rarely happened — and I’d go to the local shop. This was embarrassing, because it inevitably happened on a Monday or Tuesday evening, just before 10pm. Who buys wine at that time? The following morning, when I saw the empty bottle and the brown-paper bag, I would remember what I’d done and wonder if I’d slurred my words. The shame would be overwhelming. If I needed milk I would walk to another shop quite a distance farther away.

I have come out of rehab a much stronger person than when I went in.

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