Authentically Abstinent

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April 20th, 2018 marks 13 years clean and sober from all drugs and alcohol. I have not indulged in anything: a sip of alcohol; one puff of tobacco; dropped a pill; smoked meth snorted cocaine or puffed smack. Abstinence is not the best fit for most people. It is pretty much unattainable and sets people up to feel as though they are constantly failing. To tell you the truth, it was never part of my original plan. I never wanted to give up alcohol; just drugs.  After spending 10 months living in residential rehab, I decided that I would try my hand at recreational drinking. After all, I never had a problem with drinking before, just drugs.

The reality is, that for every person that tries an abstinence based program, there are five that can do moderated drinking. I was not one of those five. I experimented with drinking alcohol for two years; trying desperately to get a handle on it. I found solace in the fact that I didn’t drink like I drugged. It didn’t take over my life. And I certainly  didn’t steal, beg, borrow and sell myself to pay for alcohol.  I didn’t wake up and pour vodka into a coffee cup and tequila into my water bottle. I didn’t get cirrhosis of the liver and have the DBTs every morning. You wouldn’t find me on a park bench, wearing stone wash wranglers and drinking out of a paper bag. And everyone around me I would be able to see the constant reminders that drinking was so normal.

I tried to emulate the drinking of different people. I drank beer in pubs over games of pool and champagne in heels at the races. I drank red wine whilst watching concerts and scotch and coke at bars. Sometimes I drank a myriad of different alcoholic drinks over the course of several days; waking up in unknown houses with nameless men. Sometimes I drank two glasses of wine over the course of 3 hours, mingling with the people who discussed the latest handbag or investment property they had brought. But without fail, every time I drank, it took something from me.

Spiritually, it took something from me every time I drank. I couldn’t intellectualise what it was. I reasoned with myself that I wasn’t drinking alcoholically. After all, wasn’t an alcoholic someone that couldn’t stop drinking once they started? There could be days or weeks in between each drink. But every time I drank, I became more and more discontent. Sometimes, bad things would happen when I would drink. Things that could happen to anyone I guess when someone drank a whole bottle of spirts without people you trust around you. Sometimes, the negative experiences would not be from external forces; but internal. I would experience very intense feelings of: shame, guilt, rage, grief and anxiety. The next day, I would feel like I was coming down from a nighty on amphetamines: dirty speed and gakky base. Sometimes, I would wake up in my own bed, after drinking only two drinks. But every time, without fail, I would feel unsettled and empty. The emptiness would best be described as a spiritual emptiness.

I focused on drinking manageably; concentrating on harm minimization. I ensured that I ate food, alternating water and alcohol, had a safety plan and moderated the amount that I drank. And I have got to say, that it helped. It reduced the amount of bad things that happened and reduced the intensity of feelings that I experienced. But it didn’t fix it. I still felt like I wasn’t being authentic. On reflection, I realized how much time I spent talking and thinking about controlling my drinking. Other people that I knew didn’t seem to expend that much energy trying to justify their drinking. It was pretty much like when I was in a crap relationship with a douchebag. I would talk a lot about how wonderful he was and how strong our relationship was. I guess some part of me was trying to make it real by saying it out allowed.

In desperation, I decided to stop. Stop trying to control, manage and gain power over my drinking. Instead, I decided to let go and surrendered to the fact that I couldn’t drink. I went to AA, I got a sponsor, I did the steps. I stayed away from licensed premises and grew a penchant from mineral water. I listened to the speakers at AA like I never had before. I read the literature and looked for the similarities, not the differences. I had been to the rooms before and never really gotten the sign that hung above the sink: “You can leave this room and never drink again.” I would turn this slogan over and over in my head, delighting in the freedom that this idea brought. Imagine never having to drink again!?! For some, the idea of never drinking again would be their nightmare. For me, the idea brought endless possibilities and an intense feeling of relief.

What is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects about my sobriety journey, is other people’s reactions to it. When I gave up drugs; people were so encouraging. Giving up alcohol hasn’t had the same response. Being a non-drinker makes other people uncomfortable. I can always depend on being used as a priest at confessional. Without fail, at one point in the night there is that one person that makes their way over to my side of the table. The chair next to me becomes the confessional booth and they start to lament about the amount of alcohol that they have been drinking. They tell me about their journey with alcohol, how they wish they could stop, how it is running their life and how they wish they were strong like me. The speech is delivered like they have been practicing it in their head for the last year. At the end of the speech they look expectantly at me for a response; for me to absolve them of their sins.

Early in my recovery, I naively fell in to their trap. I would give them options for assistance and different pathways for recovery. I would deliver a well-intentioned phone call or Facebook message on Monday, attempting to set up a time to go to an AA meeting. As the years rolled on I realized that in 90% of cases it would follow a pre-ordained path.  By the end of the night in question, they would be in tears, drunkenly telling their partner that they would be booking into rehab and going to a meeting together. The next day, they would inevitably wake up from their drunken stupor wondering what they had committed to. Monday would come, and they would be backtracking as fast as a they could; desperately trying to avoid me: ashamed at having revealed so much of themselves to me. Embarrassed at being so vulnerable and exposing their secret vulnerabilities to me.

These days, I just listen and smile and try to redirect the conversation away from recovery. I murmur encouraging phrases and sounds. I ensure that they don’t make any verbal commitments to myself or others about “never drinking again” or “I am going into rehab” and gently dissuade them from labelling themselves as alcoholics. I make apologies and leave the conversation and redirect to safer topics. I ensure that I have mocktails and pretty drinks that resemble alcoholic drinks. I am honest about being a non-drinker, if I am asked. But I certainly don’t volunteer any information without being prompted. When somebody is a drinker, I don’t initiate a public inquiry into their drinking, I accept it. I guess I think that I should be able to expect the same for myself.

If you asked me if I was going to drink again, I would not be able to give you a straight answer. I don’t know what the future will bring. For me, it is about so much more than whether I am an alcoholic or not. I am not a great fan of labels. It is about what works for me. All I must do is compare my life when I was drinking (and using) to when I am not. The evidence is clear. I am so much happier without it. The only motivation for me to drink would be to fit in, to be normal; to make others feel more comfortable in my presence. At the age of 38 I am over taking responsibility for other people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours. All I can do, is be me and take responsibility for myself. If I drink again, it will be because I want to; not because I need to; or anyone else needs me to.

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