Indepth – ‘One for the road’
The story that will change the way you look at alcohol.
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.
MEET AN ALCOHOLIC
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.”