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I Am Not an Alcoholic: ‘I made a two-week return visit to rehab’

Part 18: ‘Even though I hadn’t relapsed, I felt as if needing help was shameful’

The World Health Organisation (WHO) classifies alcoholism as a disease, as do doctors, nurses, psychologists and all who work in the medical profession.

So why is it that people suffering from a dependence on alcohol are ashamed?

If I were diagnosed with cancer, I might keep it to myself, but not because of shame.

Many studies have shown alcohol to be more dangerous than cocaine and heroin, yet most parents don’t have a problem with their children drinking alcohol when they turn 18. Some parents even offer their children wine with their meals to try to teach them to drink responsibly. It is interesting that parents would be more upset if their children were taking cocaine or heroin than if they were drinking alcohol. Why is this?

The answer: because alcohol is a legal substance.

The question: should it be?

A lot of my drinking was done alone, behind closed doors and in secret. Everybody wants me to drink but on their terms. If I have a dependency on alcohol and can’t stop when they stop, then I need to keep it to myself. Nobody wants to know.

With other illnesses there is support from family, friends and neighbours all wanting to help in whatever way they can. The number of home-made soups, casseroles and apple tarts that find their way to the kitchen of the sick person would alleviate all symptoms if kindness was the prescription. They’re not to be seen when alcoholism is the illness. Most people can drink and stop when they know they have had enough. They assume those who continue to drink until they can no longer talk coherently or stand up, are undisciplined and ought to pull themselves together. Very little sympathy there. Alcoholism may be classified as an illness by WHO, but it is only seen as an illness when the sick person is in recovery.

I have a difficulty calling it a disease, like I’m looking for an excuse for my lack of discipline.

Imagine the following scenario:

“Are you not drinking?”

“No, I have a disease. I’m alcohol dependent,” I say clasping my glass of water.

I watch as slowly the crowd around me dwindles until I am left standing on my own. Not too much support there. And can you blame them? They look down at their glass and see the accusatory look: “Haven’t you had enough?” No, no one wants to question their own drinking.

Interestingly, if alcohol were invented today, it would not be legal to sell it. WHO would prohibit it because it is a harmful drug. Drinking! Our favourite pastime is bad for us! Think about that. No thank you, we’d prefer not.

I made a return visit to rehab. No, I did not relapse. Home life had become a little challenging as can happen and my psychiatrist, perhaps thinking my sobriety might be threatened (18 months sober on the day I went in) felt I might benefit from a short stay. It ended up being two weeks. (If I found the first time hard, going in the second time felt harder. But memory can play tricks with the mind. Unlike a camera that records events exactly as they happen, our memories can distort the truth and an event can be misinterpreted.)

Like the first time, the first two days were difficult. I felt flat and wasn’t able to interact with anyone. However, gradually, I settled down and as I got to know my fellow patients, I didn’t feel so alone. My own view on why I found going back in so hard was shame. I was embarrassed. Even though I hadn’t relapsed I felt as if needing help was shameful. I should have been stronger.

I wasn’t going to write about this time in my life but one or two patients assumed I was drinking again and in case word got out, I wanted to clarify this is not the case.

I wasn’t doing the programme so my days were long and, without electronic devices, I had a lot of time to reflect. Like before, I complained audibly about the confiscating of my laptop but no one was listening. “It’s our policy,” I was told, as if that clarified anything. “Policy sucks” I said to the unfortunate nurse.

Again, we watched films in the evening and one evening we watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. An odd choice, or perhaps very apt. As always in rehab, patients come from across the board and are all ages. Getting to know the other patients you learn that addiction to alcohol or drugs is only a part of who they are. There is a whole other side to that person that is often kept hidden and only visible when you take the time to listen to their stories.

I know a lot of people now know who is writing these articles, but there is still a lot who don’t know and I am happy about that. I write as if nobody is going to read what I write. It gives me a freedom to say what I want without restraint.

While in rehab, my last article was published and my fellow patients read it. Some had been reading them all along not knowing who wrote them. Now, I was slightly embarrassed as they would know a lot about me. They all want to feature in the next article – they are chasing fame. Like the first time, I grew fond of my fellow patients – people I had been wary of – as I got to know them.

A perfectly civilised thing

Social occasions are still hard because every occasion involves alcohol. I went to see a ballet and a group of us met for something to eat before the performance. While nobody pushed me to drink, I had to say, “no, I’m not drinking”, many times over the course of the evening. It made me feel odd because none of these people could be accused of abusing alcohol, they were having a glass of wine, a perfectly civilised thing to do during the interval and by my not having a glass of wine, it seemed questionable. Why wasn’t I?

I’m still curious (and envious) when I see people drinking a glass of wine, maybe a second glass and then stopping. How do they do that?

It is inexplicable to me. Once the drug was in my system, I needed more and more. Understanding that this is the case, is keeping me away from the “one glass”. I need to remember this when I hear of people relapsing after 18 or more years. It is never safe to have one glass. That belief is inherent in me.

The moment unwanted thoughts come into my head, I try to distract myself but sometimes they linger – despite an absence of any invitation to my mind – and they must be banished.

Whenever about the fact that I can’t have a drink unsettles me (see above) I try to quickly change my mindset. I think it’s not so bad, it could be worse and look on the bright side, I can drive anywhere and not have to stand around in the rain waiting for the taxi that never turns up. And occasionally I can treat myself to something nice. I imagine I must be saving €400 a month and that’s a conservative estimate. Yes, there are positive elements to abstaining from alcohol.

We’ve planned another school reunion, our last being so successful. As before, I am sharing a room and a horrible thought came into my head. What if I relapsed before then? I would have to cancel the shared room to enable my drinking to look like everyone else. Oh, the embarrassment would be too great. I would just have to make an excuse and not go.

A neighbour invited a few of us to afternoon tea. Afternoon tea? What was wrong with a dinner party? I was suspicious. I remember a night (long ago) when he and I drank our host’s cellar dry. I thought he had heard about me and was trying to protect me. How wrong I was. When we arrived at his house, he handed me a glass of Prosecco. Hmmm, that put paid to my conspiracy theory. It taught me a lesson, the same lesson I have been learning for years but every so often, I need a recap. When I think people are talking about me – they are not.

It was a lovely afternoon, so much so that it lingered into the early evening. There was a minor hiccup when a beautiful chocolate cake was produced. I was about to accept a slice, when the magic ingredient was revealed. Rum. I drew my hand back and made an excuse. Another obstacle overcome.

When a desire for alcohol looms I recognise Dolores’s voice and I need to respond rapidly before it grows roots. I have a few different ways:

Music that makes me want to dance, is one.

Remembering how long I have invested in my sobriety (19 months as I write this).

Reading about someone’s sobriety. If they can do it then so can I.

Call a friend and tell them.

And my mantra: think of tomorrow morning. It still has a power to dissuade me from taking that first glass. That first glass would turn into many bottles before I found the courage to stop again – if I did.

A stranger reached out to me recently. I was driving somewhere and was using Google Maps. However, at a certain point, when told to take the third exit off the roundabout I found myself well and truly lost. I drove for a while getting lost even further until I stopped and asked a man for directions. He took the Eircode and put it into his phone and said to follow him. I asked if he was going there. He said: “No, but it’s only 15 minutes away.”

He got into his car and I followed him. He brought me to the door. His gesture of kindness hadn’t just brought me to my destination, it had lightened my heart and renewed my faith in humanity. It had a ripple effect.

Thank you, Marcin. Now, it is my turn to pay it forward.

I didn’t think the opportunity to pay it forward would happen so soon. When it did, I found myself in a good mood for the rest of the day. It was like a dose of serotonin. I was the one doing the kindness, yet I reaped the benefits. It is easy to be kind to someone we like but what about those we dislike? Would our act of kindness be purer if we extended it to those who challenge us? Would the serotonin level be higher if we had to work harder? I think I am going to test that theory.

When someone acts unkindly, instead of getting defensive which is the “go to” response for most of us, think: I wonder what’s going on in their head? Is there something bothering them? Something of which we have no awareness. Because people don’t act unkindly when all is right in their world.

Having kind thoughts will raise your serotonin. Having unkind thoughts will lower it. Remember that.

When I reread the above, I sound like I have the answers to everything. I don’t. But I have learned (it took a long time) that responding rather than reacting to situations is the only sane option. Do I always do it? No, I don’t. But when I do, I reap the benefits.

I was listening to the radio (the Oliver Callan show) one morning when I heard a woman discussing her decision to stop drinking. She did not have a problem (unlike me), she just decided she might feel better without alcohol. She mentioned the non-alcoholic drinks available on the market and said some of them were delicious. Then Callan said: “Nobody notices do they?”

Oh, because if people noticed someone wasn’t drinking, it would be weird? With that short sentence, you just endorsed every word I’ve written over the past 18 months. Thank you.

It’s going to be some time before non-drinkers get a free pass.


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