I Am Not An Alcoholic: A fellow rehab patient filled a cup with hand sanitiser and drank it. She was taken to hospital

Part three: I joked with her about cleansing her soul and asked if she had tried confession

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

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Being in rehab is a bit like being cocooned. We were safe from the outside world and all its negativity. No alcohol. No temptation.

Well, for most of us.

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One day I watched as one of my fellow patients filled a paper cup with hand sanitiser. I didn’t think too much about this. Maybe she was a cleanliness freak and wanted to sterilise her bedroom. Later, it emerged that she had drunk it. She was taken to the nearest hospital and returned to us two days later. I joked with her about cleansing her soul and asked if she had tried confession.

Another time, in yoga, a dog started barking. We all looked up from our downward-dog pose in puzzlement. Was there a dog in the room? The barking was coming from our teacher’s bag. Evidently, she had forgotten to switch off her phone, and this was her ringtone. “I don’t think you should keep your dog in a bag,” someone quipped.

For the most part, my memories of rehab are very good. Eating good food, making friends with people I’d normally not meet and sharing so much of ourselves. Someone said one evening that they hadn’t laughed so much in years. And that was exactly how I felt too. We were always looking for humour in the darkest places. Yes, there was a lot of joking and teasing in rehab, and it was done in an affectionate and warm manner. No hostility. No jealousy.

We could praise each other and genuinely want the very best for that person. Jealousy is not called a monster for nothing. And for me it is a total waste of energy. It is only in comparing ourselves to others that this word exists. Comparisons are odious and lead straight to the monster. The sense of camaraderie in rehab was very real, and we looked out for each other.

If someone didn’t turn up for a meal we would discuss it, and one of us would go to the missing person’s room to check that they were okay. It wasn’t nosiness: it was a genuine concern for their wellbeing.

Another patient celebrated his birthday while in rehab. And a very kind girl (she was allowed out because she wasn’t doing the programme) went shopping and bought the birthday boy a medley of gifts. She never asked anyone for a contribution. Naturally, we all gave a donation. He was so touched that he went to his room and had a cry. He told me later. A sweet guy.

One patient, about to be discharged, spoke so eloquently about their addiction, their plans for recovery, their strategy for abstinence, only to leave the hospital and drive to the pub

When someone was discharged we would organise a card and have everyone sign it. Then, at breakfast on the morning of their departure, a designated person would give a farewell speech, which always had the recipient emotional and close to tears. In rehab someone always has your back, unlike in the real world, where each person has so many problems that they’re too busy trying to support themselves to think of the friend who is struggling with life. As well as your fellow patients and the multidisciplinary team, there was the wonderful, overworked nursing staff who were always there to cosset you.

Yes, rehab is very self-indulgent. It’s nothing like the real world.

Of course, there were some sad times too. Like the time when a patient, about to be discharged, spoke so eloquently about their addiction, their plans for recovery, their strategy for abstinence, only to leave the hospital and drive to the pub. This news had a depressing effect on the group. We were all a little subdued and shocked.

Someone had let go of the rope and we all fell down.

The fear that gripped us made us vulnerable.

Was this going to happen to me?

Group therapy following this discovery took place in a room full of anger. Anger at the person for letting us down, because that was how it felt, until time had elapsed and the fear had subsided, to be replaced with a deep sense of empathy for the individual, strengthening our resolve not to let this happen to us.

I don’t smoke, but in the gardens there was a designed area for smokers to congregate. I would sit in the nonsmokers’ much larger area and listen to the laughter coming from the smokers’ corner. They were having such fun that I eventually took up smoking. No, I jest, but I did sit with them, as did others who also didn’t smoke. I think it was this feeling of wanting to belong.

After the initial shock of finding myself there had abated, I began to enjoy rehab. I’ve asked myself why this was. It’s not supposed to be enjoyable. It’s supposed to be hard work. Was it because I felt part of a family? Something I never really experienced, as I come from a dysfunctional family. Not that my parents would ever have recognised themselves in the above sentence. They did their best, as all parents do. It just wasn’t good enough. I fell through too many cracks. I always craved the approval of my mother. But no matter what I did, my efforts proved elusive. My father (like a lot of fathers of his generation) was more distant and not involved in parenting on a day-to-day basis except when called on to dole out the discipline.

To them they were doing a good job of raising their children and, while this is debatable, they did the best they could, which is all anyone can do. On the evenings we watched a film, I would wash my face, brush my teeth and get into my pyjamas and dressing gown to be ready to jump into bed the minute the film was over. If someone had told me that I would do this before I came into rehab, I would have thought they were crazy. Nobody sees me in my dressing gown. As for seeing me without make-up, forget it. But I felt so comfortable with the group it was possible and, what’s more, it felt right. As if we were a big, happy family.

Only nine people knew I was in rehab, and seven of those were family. One friend came in practically every day and always with a gift. I was the envy of our ward when I arrived back with a beautiful bouquet of the palest blush pink roses. Another time it was chocolate brownies from Fortnum & Mason, which I shared with the group. They were so delicious. “Is your friend going to London again?” was a question I was asked on more than one occasion.

Yes, in many ways, strange as it is to say, rehab was like a kind of holiday for me.

I was uneasy the day I was discharged. Would I be able to resist temptation? That’s when I told myself it’s up to me: I didn’t spend five weeks in rehab just to drink again

On the day I was discharged I was uneasy. I resumed a daily routine and returned to chores such as shopping, cooking and doing the laundry.

Who would listen to me?

What would I do when the craving for a drink was real and immediate?

Would I be able to resist the temptation or would I open the bottle?

These were very frightening questions and I didn’t have any answers. That was when I said to myself: “I’m on my own now, it’s up to me. I didn’t spend five weeks in rehab just to drink again.” Not to mention the cost. It didn’t cost me anything (my health insurance covered it), but that’s not the point. Regardless of who paid the bill, I felt it incumbent on me to respect that a lot of money had been spent in order for me to get better. So I added that guilt to all the other reasons. Would it be enough? Only time will tell.

I’m one of the ‘lucky’ ones, I suppose. I don’t wake up craving for a drink. For a lot of people, the struggle to abstain from alcohol starts then. I can function perfectly well throughout the day without the urge to drink. But when six o’clock (or earlier) comes around it is another story – even six weeks since I was discharged. I often ask myself, “When will it get better? Will it get better?”

Unlike others who abstain from alcohol and love these new nonalcoholic drinks, I don’t like my nonalcoholic drink to be dressed up like a fancy cocktail. If I’m not drinking I’m not going to pretend that I am

Writing about my sobriety certainly helps. If I took a drink tonight, what would I write about tomorrow? That I had succumbed. That I was weak? Undisciplined?

As I was writing that last sentence my phone pinged. It was a message inviting me to a birthday celebration next Saturday night. Most invitations are received with pleasure and anticipation of an enjoyable activity. This invitation was a double-edged sword. What do I do? Although it didn’t come with a health warning, it should have. Yes, I wanted to go. Yes, I wanted to socialise and chat with friends. But would it be safe?

Being a sociable creature, I wrote my reply: “What a lovely invitation. What could I bring?” A little nervous, I tell myself it will be okay. I shall put on a pretty dress and enjoy myself drinking water. And like Queen Victoria, who, when asked by one of her daughters about the marital bed, apocryphally responded: “Just close your eyes and think of England.”

While that advice is too late for me, I shall employ my own strategy by thinking of the following morning when I wake up. “Think of tomorrow morning” is my mantra. On the subject of water, here I must clarify that, unlike others who abstain from alcohol and love these new nonalcoholic drinks recently introduced into the market, I don’t like my nonalcoholic drink to be dressed up like a fancy cocktail. If I’m not drinking I’m not going to pretend that I am. So these new nonalcoholic wines and beers are not for me. In fact, I think that if I start drinking a nonalcoholic wine, it’s only weeks or days away until I want the real thing.

No, for me, sticking to water is my safest option.

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