Indepth – ‘One for the road’

The story that will change the way you look at al­co­hol.

True Love - - News - By VER­NON COLE­MAN

The gen­eral con­sump­tion of booze has risen sharply over the past few decades. And as al­co­hol drink­ing goes up, so has re­lated dis­eases. The na­ture of the prob­lem has changed, too. Whereas it used to be mainly men who drank to ex­cess, there’s now plenty of ev­i­dence to show that in­creas­ing num­bers of women are us­ing al­co­hol to help them es­cape from fears, anx­i­eties and wor­ries.

Heavy drink­ing used to be an oc­cu­pa­tional haz­ard among bar­tenders, jour­nal­ists and doc­tors. To­day, housewives and other ca­reer women have joined the list of drinkers in the dan­ger area; they’re drink­ing from bore­dom, lone­li­ness and fi­nan­cial prob­lems. There are many phys­i­cal prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with booze, but the main dan­ger, of course, is that a reg­u­lar, heavy drinker will be­come an al­co­holic.

Al­though ex­perts around the world ar­gue about just how much some­one can con­sume with­out be­ing classed as an al­co­holic, the con­sen­sus seems to be that if you drink two litres of beer or one bot­tle of whisky a day, then you’re in trou­ble. Sta­tis­tics show that one in three drinkers is al­ready in that cat­e­gory, or is heading for it at a fairly rapid rate.

The risks at­tached to al­co­holism are var­i­ous. If you’re an al­co­holic, you’re about four times more likely to die in any given year than a non-drinker of the same age, sex and eco­nomic sta­tus. You’re also more likely to be in­volved in se­ri­ous ac­ci­dents, to suf­fer liver trou­ble and to de­velop can­cers of var­i­ous kinds. Al­co­holics tend to be in­volved in a vi­o­lent crime more times than a so­cial drinker or non­drinker. You even run the risk of suf­fer­ing from per­ma­nent brain dam­age.


Thembi, 36, a pri­vately ed­u­cated ca­reer­woman, is an al­co­holic. She tells her story: “I tried hyp­no­sis, psy­chother­apy, coun­sel­lors, mind­ful­ness, med­i­ta­tion and an­tide­pres­sants.

I went on a boot camp, a yoga re­treat and count­less na­ture walks. I would stop drink­ing for a bit, but in­evitably went back to it harder than be­fore. I did not want to go to re­hab.

Al­though I could think of noth­ing worse than pay­ing a for­tune for an en­forced stay in a lockdown fa­cil­ity full of drunks and junkies, I was fresh out of choices – not to men­tion chances – at that very low point in Novem­ber 2013.

Five months ear­lier, I’d been asked to leave the lovely flat I had been shar­ing with an old friend be­cause of the con­se­quences of my wors­en­ing al­co­holism. There were only so many times she could come home from work and find me passed out on the kitchen floor af­ter drink­ing all day like a dan­ger­ous maniac. So I moved back in with my par­ents at the age of 34, de­ter­mined to sort my­self out.”

That’s when I tried all the dif­fer­ent fixes, from hyp­no­sis to an­tide­pres­sants. But de­spite my ef­forts to ex­er­cise bet­ter and get fit and well, when­ever I stopped drink­ing I would re­bound harder af­ter a short while. I went to two meet­ings of Al­co­holics Anony­mous (AA), but re­mained con­vinced that al­co­hol was a symp­tom of my prob­lem rather than the prob­lem it­self – even though I couldn’t iden­tify this myth­i­cal un­der­ly­ing is­sue. With my pri­vate school and univer­sity education, ex­cit­ing cre­ative ca­reer and strong re­la­tion­ships, I didn’t fit my own pro­file of an al­co­holic – ex­cept that I do fit the pro­file.”

Re­cent stud­ies in­di­cate that pro­por­tion­ally more highly ed­u­cated, pro­fes­sional women are drink­ing to dan­ger­ous lev­els than in pre­vi­ous years. Fur­ther­more, a study two years ago showed that while in gen­eral deaths from al­co­hol have been fall­ing, among women in their thir­ties and for­ties, deaths have been ris­ing.

Obliv­i­ous to this, I re­mained in de­nial. I tried drink­ing only at par­ties or on oc­ca­sions, only with meals, not at home and never in the morn­ing. I banned spir­its in favour of wine and then wine in favour of beer. I tried to limit my num­ber of drinks. I read self-help books and thought I was bet­ter – at least, un­til I came round from the next week-long bout of all­day obliv­ion-drink­ing in bed. That was the point I’d sunk to by then. Noth­ing worked. I was ter­ri­fied of what was hap­pen­ing to me, but pow­er­less to stop it.

I’d al­ways en­joyed drink­ing in the past, and al­though I pre­ferred to drink quite a lot, I could eas­ily put it down and con­trol my in­take. I didn’t drink for con­fi­dence or to fit in, but be­cause I liked it. Booze was con­vivial, ex­cit­ing and made good ex­pe­ri­ences great, bad ex­pe­ri­ences bear­able and ev­ery­thing in­ter­est­ing. As far as I was con­cerned, we had a fan­tas­tic re­la­tion­ship.

If you’d told me in my teens, twen­ties or even early thir­ties that I would end up an inmate at not one but two re­hab fa­cil­i­ties within the space of 10 hor­rific months – and would even­tu­ally be­come an en­thu­si­as­tic, grate­ful mem­ber of Al­co­holics Anony­mous – I would have laughed in your face. And prob­a­bly had an­other drink. But per­haps if I had known that, I wouldn’t have ended up in hos­pi­tal or a po­lice cell or wo­ken up in the morn­ing and reached straight for the vodka, hav­ing alien­ated every­one who loved me. I wouldn’t have said and done ter­ri­ble things, and rarely remembered them. I threw below-the-belt in­sults around like con­fetti; I lost, broke, smashed or crashed my own posses­sions as well as other peo­ple’s, and I missed so many ar­range­ments that I can’t be­gin to count them.

I crashed my car when tak­ing our three fam­ily dogs to the ken­nels — the shady mem­ory of dogs all over the road, a man in a trac­tor try­ing to pull me out the ditch and the ab­so­lute rage on my brother’s face when he came to scoop us all up and re­alised I’d been drink­ing again, is not one I’ll ever for­get. I crashed my sis­ter’s car when I stole it to go to the shop. I got into phys­i­cal fights with any­one who tried to take away my al­co­hol.

I missed planes, screamed hor­ri­ble things at those I love most, and was al­ways cov­ered in bruises with no idea why. I ru­ined ev­ery fam­ily oc­ca­sion by turn­ing up drunk or not turn­ing up at all, dead to the world. There were bot­tles stashed all over my long-suf­fer­ing par­ents’ house and gar­den.

It was ob­vi­ous to all who wit­nessed the trauma of this reck­less, de­struc­tive and out-of-con­trol abuse that my lows were get­ting lower, faster. It was also ob­vi­ous to every­one that I couldn’t help my­self. I would wake up in po­lice cells – both in the city and back in the small town I grew up in – with no idea what I was do­ing there. The rock bot­toms in­volv­ing au­thor­i­ties were bad enough, but it’s the ones in­volv­ing the peo­ple I love most, cry­ing and beg­ging me to stop.

That haunted and hurt me the most. Ei­ther way, the tra­jec­tory was set – at some point, the end re­sult would surely be death. This is how I found my­self sleep­ing in a dor­mi­tory in a coun­try man­sion with five peo­ple I didn’t like, sit­ting through long group ther­apy ses­sions not dis­sim­i­lar to The Hunger

Games, writ­ing end­less as­sign­ments about the ter­ri­ble things I’d done un­der the in­flu­ence, and ex­pe­ri­enc­ing con­stant char­ac­ter as­sas­si­na­tion.

In one group ses­sion, I was quizzed by a crack-ad­dicted sex worker with only a cou­ple of teeth in her head about the neg­a­tive pat­terns in my ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships, and in an­other I was told by a vi­o­lent crim­i­nal who’d spent more time in prison than out of it that I was ‘hos­tile and ag­gres­sive’.

Clients weren’t al­lowed phones, toi­letries con­tain­ing al­co­hol (I would have drunk them), mir­rors or ra­zors. We had wake-up, bed and meal times, a rule book and ev­ery minute ac­counted for. There was a lot of smok­ing. It wasn’t un­like board­ing school, but whereas I’d loved school, I re­sented ev­ery minute of this. I fought the sys­tem and my peers, threw many tantrums, ar­gued con­stantly and re­fused to lis­ten to any­thing. My favourite fel­low client, a tele­vi­sion pro­ducer who’d ar­rived straight from her drunk-driv­ing court case, was kicked out for re­fus­ing to clean the kitchen. An­other one, a com­pany di­rec­tor, was sent home af­ter he re­ceived a pack­age with co­caine hid­den inside a gift.

I wanted to leave, but thought suf­fer­ing through re­hab would get every­one off my back. I may as well have taken the thou­sands of rands it cost to check in there and burned them. Un­sur­pris­ingly, given my re­sis­tance and bad be­hav­iour, my first stint at re­hab didn’t work. I came out three days be­fore Christ­mas 2013 and re­lapsed that night with a bot­tle of red wine – con­vinced I was cured af­ter four weeks inside. I bought a bot­tle of vodka on Christ­mas Eve – and then don’t re­mem­ber any­thing un­til my brother and sis­ter de­canted me to a lo­cal ho­tel on Box­ing Day with strict “this is it” in­struc­tions to sober up.

But there was a pub next door and a shop down the road, so I don’t re­mem­ber the next few days ei­ther. Check-in at the ho­tel was a blur, but if the man­ager didn’t no­tice I was drunk when I ar­rived, she knew all about it by the time she asked me to leave – be­cause I was “scar­ing chil­dren and old peo­ple”. I crawled back to my par­ents, now at their wits’ end, swear­ing I would go to AA and take it se­ri­ously. I was in and out of my lo­cal meet­ings — more out than in — but I couldn’t get it, and re­lapsed con­stantly.

I now un­der­stand that al­co­hol ad­dic­tion is a unique dis­ease that tells you you haven’t got it. And, heart­break­ingly and dan­ger­ously, it in­stead tells you that you’ve got some sort of fail­ure of willpower, that if you can just get a bit of con­trol back, ev­ery­thing will go back to nor­mal. The il­lu­sion that al­co­holism is not an ill­ness but a life­style choice can prove fa­tal.

I was hos­pi­talised three times in two weeks be­fore I checked into re­hab again in Septem­ber last year, phys­i­cally, men­tally and emo­tion­ally bro­ken, and fi­nally des­per­ate for

help. I drank so much at my friend’s house that she found me un­con­scious in the bath­room and called an am­bu­lance. I spent 36 hours on a drip in hos­pi­tal.

A week later, I was stretchered out of the sta­tion af­ter drink­ing there all day, in­stead of get­ting my train home. And a few days af­ter that, I woke up in the same hos­pi­tal for the sec­ond time in a week, hav­ing been taken there from a club by a para­medic.

Go­ing to re­hab No 2 was the best de­ci­sion I ever made, and I stayed for 14 weeks. I lis­tened and learnt – and be­came hon­est, open-minded and will­ing. Cru­cially, I switched from be­liev­ing that I was drink­ing be­cause I was un­happy, to be­liev­ing that I was un­happy be­cause I was drink­ing. This was a rev­e­la­tion. I left on 1 Jan­uary know­ing un­equiv­o­cally that if I wanted a nice life, then it must in­volve a com­mit­ment to AA.

To­day, life is prefer­able in ev­ery way. I am build­ing bridges, I like my­self again and I feel luck­ier than I can ex­press for the peo­ple who stuck by me de­spite ex­treme provo­ca­tion. I’ve been on a girls’ week­end, a hol­i­day, to a wed­ding and to a few par­ties, and had a won­der­ful time. I fi­nally com­pre­hend that if I don’t drink and I go to meet­ings reg­u­larly, then I can do what I like – but if I start again, it’s game over. Two of my group from re­hab No 1 are dead, and if one girl from re­hab No 2 keeps on drink­ing as she is do­ing, she’ll prob­a­bly be next — that’s the re­al­ity of this ill­ness, no mat­ter what it may tell you.”

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