Hey! I was just trying to survive...
Reprinted from "Alcohol" issue of Visions Journal, 2006, 2(9), pp. 26-27
It doesn't seem like it has been over 15 years since I had my last drink. The memories, good and bad, of my alcohol-saturated life are still vivid, and I can still recount with a relatively high level of accuracy the grief I brought to those close to me. But I had no idea that I was, to use psychiatrically correct terminology, self-medicating with alcohol to treat an anxiety disorder and major depression.
Most recovering alcoholics respond to questions about why they drank with claims that they just wanted to "unwind" or "take the edge off." Not exactly hard science; nonetheless, these statements indicate a desire to improve one's mood—and drinking is one way to do that. This makes perfect sense to me. Alcohol was my tool for survival. And, just like I did, many alcoholics unwittingly use alcohol to escape anxiety and/or depression. There is one unfortunate reason for this: it works.
I clearly remember having my first full bottle of beer at the age of six. My parents had taken me along to a dinner party with friends of the family. As usual, I was intensely anxious—I was terrified of this kind of social event. Not long after arriving, I noticed that someone had opened a brew in the kitchen and had forgotten about it. During the next half hour, I spent most of my time in the kitchen. I had discovered my miracle drug: alcohol took away my shyness, paranoia, depression and anxiety, and I never forgot that feeling of freedom.
The average social drinker curtails their alcohol consumption after only a few drinks, possibly experiencing a feeling of loss of control. The alcoholic has a few drinks, and feels in control. It is a false sense of control, however, for the phenomenon of craving takes over and the spell is cast. What happens next is usually anyone's guess. Alcoholics have little control over how a drinking binge will turn out. Incarceration, hospitalization, killing themselves or others—all are possible outcomes. This is the reality of alcoholism.
Alcohol worked for me until it didn't work. I then had a serious dilemma: like others who reach their so-called bottom, I faced a situation where the fear of drinking equaled the fear of not drinking. I simply could not see any other way of coping with life except to continue using alcohol, yet I knew that carrying on would kill me. I was 26 years old and suffering extreme physical and mental torture. It was a regular occurrence for me to have severe dehydration, bloody stools and vomit, delirium tremens from withdrawal, anxiety and paranoia—all due to my addiction to a drug I had previously believed was my cure-all.
Leading up to June 1990, my drinking had progressed to a state where I could not remember a day in which I had not consumed alcohol during the past year. That's because there wasn't one. I had graduated to a chronic stage in my alcoholism, and if it weren't for an unexpected intervention-of-sorts at work, I don't think I would have lived much longer.
I was a supervisor at the time, and the shop mechanic and I had had a very frustrating day on the job. I invited him out for a drink after work, and he looked at me and said, "I don't drink, and I'm coming up on 20 years of sobriety!" It was hard to imagine a fellow Irishman who hadn't had a drink for 20 years. This baffled me. Over the next few days, I started asking him questions about what he did to stay sober, and he told me he attended meetings of a 12-step recovery program. After a few more weeks of failed attempts at staying sober on my own, I asked him if he would take me to "one of those meetings" he went to. He did. From that day on I've not found it necessary to take a drink.
It is said that 12-step recovery programs aren't for those who need it, but for those who want it. There is a big difference. During my time in recovery, I have seen many alcoholics struggle to stay sober—it's not easy at first. But there seems to be a common denominator for those who are successful, and that is, desperation. It seems that no amount of willpower, or of pleading and begging by family members and friends, or of therapeutic treatment is enough to convince an alcoholic to admit defeat. Only the sense of utter desperation brought on by continued consumption of alcohol, and the physical, emotional and spiritual bankruptcy that results, is successful in sobering up an alcoholic. It is as simple as that. When it hurts bad enough, we quit, and not a second before.
It wasn't until three years into the process of recovery from alcoholism that a friend recognized that I might have untreated mental health problems. A counsellor told me that after the first year of abstinence, emotions and moods settle down considerably, and fears begin to dissipate, and if they don't, some type of psychological or psychiatric treatment is likely necessary. In my case, both types of treatment played a significant role in full recovery.
Hard-liners in the addictions recovery and treatment community preach that any form of medication that corrects one's mood means the person is not "truly" clean and sober. They believe that when symptoms of depression and/or anxiety persist, it is a sign of spiritual immaturity or not enough prayer or positive thinking.
But I thank God for the sensible people put in my path in early recovery. They explained that correction of a mental illness by means of medication is as acceptable as correction of, say, diabetes or any other illness in need of a chemical response. It does not negate real sobriety. This is an important and life-saving piece of information that needs to be shared.
The rooms of recovery are filled with the same level of ignorance and stigma toward the topic of mental illness that exists in our culture. This ignorance and stigma has the potential to destroy a successful chance at recovery—a chance that, sadly, doesn't come twice to every alcoholic.
About the author
Murphy is Executive Director of the Canadian Mental Health Association's Kamloops Branch