monkey off my back

One guy's experiences as he quits drinking


Thinking of someone

I’ve been getting excited because one of my very best friends is due to fly home and visit in two weeks.  I only see her every few years so I was going to have ‘the talk’ with her after she arrived.

BUT… I got an unexpected call from her today. She was really upset because her Mum (who I’ve known a long time) was admitted to hospital with a broken nose after a fall. She’s had a few falls recently but this was the most serious.

After the fall her partner realised that she was really drunk – more drunk than he expected her to be after 1-2 glasses. While she was in hospital, he found a collection of empty whisky bottles in her closet. My friend was in a state of disbelief and asked me if she should fly back home immediately.

I told my friend that she should check with her Mum but it’s probably OK to wait two weeks (my friend is also not rolling in $$$). I said that if her Mum was secretly drinking at those levels, that’s she’s probably been doing it for quite a long time. I said that her mother is probably mortified about having her secret suddenly exposed to her partner, her family, her friends, hospital staff and her GP.  Her Mum may actually like some time to talk with her partner and adjust.

And then we had ‘the talk’ and I told her that I’ve just come out of a similar situation – except I didn’t have a crisis incident which brought it to a head.

I’m so glad that I (finally) managed to tell my partner and a friend about my drinking last year. It was excruciatingly uncomfortable and awkward – but probably less excruciating than having everything unravel in a day without any control.

I told a friend. I told my partner. I told my GP. I started seeing a psychologist. Then I’ve told another three friends.

It’s given me the opportunity to do things at MY pace. I could adjust between each step and take a breather. I was able to tell people who were the most important to me AND who I could trust.  I’ve had really good reactions so far – which as given me more confidence and probably more resilience and support if other people react badly in the future.

I’m really feeling for my friend’s Mum. When my friend is here I think we’re all going to go on a day trip together. If it feels OK I’ll mention that I’ve just gone through a similar thing.


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A mundane path to addiction

A lot of narratives about alcohol dependence talk about depression, trauma and emotional escape. I’ve read compelling experiences from people who’ve used alcohol or drugs to escape from traumatic life events. Then I compare my boring story and it just pales into insignificance.

What I’m about to write isn’t to undermine the validity of those traumatic experiences – I’m saying that they are only some of the stories and experiences behind addiction.

For me, alcohol was usually an enhancer. It was always part of fun and enjoyable events – dinners, parties, Sunday afternoons sitting on the back deck or watching a movie on the couch with a glass of wine. Alcohol was something I used to relax, to be more socially outgoing, or to bond with people.

It was a really effective anti-anxiety medication (at least at the beginning). #TGIF – it’s wine o’clock! I used alcohol to switch off my overactive brain – it literally symbolised that it was the end of the day and that I could relax.

I sometimes wish that I could say that I’d had some big event which had caused my alcohol issues – but it was more like a repeated experience wore a deep groove in my psyche. A behaviour became a pattern, then the pattern caused tolerance, I drank more to get the same buzz, the pattern slowly became dependence. I made repeated choices which led me down a path to dependence.

Instead of depression or trauma, the most I can say is that alcohol was a way of escaping anxiety or sometimes boredom. However, that story doesn’t make a compelling book or movie…

The Nailbiter: How one nervous man’s struggle to switch off at the end of a hard work week lead to a life of alcohol dependence…

Starring Brad Pitt as… the Nail biter. (well Brad might be wishful thinking).

I guess I’m also making light of my anxiety and minimising it too much. If I pin point when my drinking started to cross over to problematic drinking – it was in my early 30s after a period of severe work stress. I’m smart and seem competent – and people always seem to want to give me more and more responsibility. I got too much responsibility too fast and didn’t have the boundaries to say no (it’s also quite flattering). The period left me with panic attacks which took months to settle…

That’s when I started to have the occasional extra beer or swig of spirits when my partner was out of the room in the evenings… Just a little sneaky top up to give me a buzz and help unwind my tightly coiled brain.

At the end of the day – it doesn’t matter whether you’re using alcohol to emotionally avoid depression, trauma, anxiety, boredom or you’re just having too much fun. Frequent heavy use runs the risk of dependence – and once you’re there things become less fun.

For me that lead to shame, low self-worth, loneliness, hopelessness and persistent low mood… and high-level anxiety. The bloody thing I was trying to avoid in the first place!

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Running out of excuses

I’m trying to increase my physical activity – for general health, emotional wellbeing and yeah, a bit of vanity (ummm so I can fit in my pants). I’m hoping that it will help me to shake off my post-acute withdrawal symptoms (anxiety, crankiness, flat mood, low libido etc). Things are improving but I’ll be happy if I can make them go faster.

For the last few years I’ve gone through massive exercise periods. I’ve run marathons, half-marathons and done months of gruelling training before events. Things I know about running and exercise:

  1. Once I’ve taken a few weeks or months off, I really don’t feel like starting again.
  2. I lose condition really quickly when I stop exercising (but I know it also comes back quickly).
  3. If I wait until I feel like exercising, I’ll be waiting a looooong time. So I just have to make a start.
  4. The more I exercise, the more I want to do it.

So with those things in mind, I recently set myself weekly exercise targets. First I aimed for three exercise sessions in a week (keep it realistic). Then last week I aimed for four.

This week I will probably also do four sessions… Although if I feel like five, I might just do that.

I can already feel a slight glimmer of exercise enjoyment. It’s just a little spark, but I’ll keep nurturing it until it becomes a habit and something I look forward to.

I’m also going to focus on a mix of types of exercise. In addition to running, I’ll try and do some gym /strength work and maybe bike riding.

I think I overdid running for the last few years. It was almost like punishment, a form of weight management (use up booze calories) and an attempt to be super fit in other areas of my life to counteract the damage I was doing with booze.

In a way, being sober has removed some (negative) motivation to run. Near my house there is a hill which I used to be able to run up. During my runs I’ve tried to push myself to run up the hill – and each time I say “ahhh fuck it – I’ll try it tomorrow”.

My exercise challenge is to find a way to push myself without being chased by the fear of booze.


It’s all in a name

I don’t like the A word. I’m obviously not talking about swear words – I don’t like the label “Alcoholic”.

Why don’t I like it? I know some of the reason is internalised shame and not wanting to be associated with the label. That will just take time for me to get over.

Another reason is the public stigma and preconceptions that can come with the label. It’s often said with a hushed tone… Oh you know Mary? She’s an… alcoholic. (gasp!)

I also don’t want to be reduced to a label or a single word. It’s not like people stop smoking and we give them a permanent label forever until they die.

You know Mary? She’s a Nicotiniac. (gasp!)

No – you just say that “Mary used to smoke” or “Mary quit smoking a few years ago”.

So what would I use instead? I don’t really know. I really prefer things to be used as descriptions rather than a permanent and fixed state of being. I mean, I may occasionally do idiotic things – but I’m not ‘an idiot’ 😉

I’ve used the following approaches:

With a trusted friend that I haven’t seen for a while I’d probably just tell a story: “I went through a really shitty patch and I was drinking too much. It was getting a hold on me and my moods were really going up and down – so I decided to stop drinking”. And yeah – based on their response I might share more.

In a public conversation with someone I don’t want to share with: “I don’t drink” (with no more information offered – and a slightly firm tone). Or I just tell a white lie and say that I’m driving.

As a medical term: “I developed an alcohol dependence issue” (I don’t even really like Alcohol Dependence ’Disorder’)

As a social situation (usually said with a fun tone): “Nope – I’m a teetotaller now”. It sounds like an archaic word and has the feel of hipster nonsense about it.

I also like using the word ‘had’ or ‘used to’. Smoking/tobacco language locates the issue in the past – it’s not a current issue. You ‘used to smoke’. You don’t have an issue now because you quit.

I had a problem with alcohol and now I don’t because I don’t drink. I find that more empowering than saying I have and will always have an issue.

It’s only an issue if you think that I should be able to drink alcohol (which I can’t). I’ll probably just say I don’t drink anymore. If some stupid stranger pushes me, I’ll just make them uncomfortable and tell them I stopped after my third round of cancer treatment. That usually shuts them up.


False confidence and rock bottom

I know that everyone’s ‘rock bottom’ and experience is different and that’s OK. From the outside, I don’t think my rock bottom looked very dramatic. It would probably make a really boring movie trailer.

I didn’t lose my job or get formal warnings, I didn’t crash a car, bash someone, wake up on a footpath… I kept going to work, functioning, looking after my family, doing laundry, paying off my mortgage – but it was still my rock bottom.

The issue I have with quitting alcohol has been false confidence. I’ve made several attempts (some quite lengthy) to stop drinking. The first attempt was the best and I was sober for an entire year (it was a great year by the way 😉). False confidence was a problem in two ways:

  1. “I think I can manage this now”. After being sober for several months I would start to think that I was in control and that I could manage alcohol. Then I’d start drinking again – occasionally, successfully and in moderate amounts… and you can guess how that ends. Within a month I was back to square one – with daily, compulsive and sneaky drinking.
  2. “I can quit whenever I want”. The other ‘problem’ was that my first couple of attempts at quitting went really well. In a weird way, knowing that I could quit also meant that I could quit tomorrow, or next week, or after my birthday… That false confidence became a barrier because it took away the urgency. Each quit attempt became shorter and the drinking periods in between became longer each time.

My rock bottom was when I became scared again. I’d tried my previous techniques. I’d finally told my partner and close friends. I was seeing a psych and I tried taking alcohol-cessation medication… And I still couldn’t quit. I felt like I’d tried every approach and then I got really scared.

I’m not talking worried, anxious and guilty (like the last few years), I mean scared. “What if I can’t stop?” “what will my life be like in 3 years?” “Will my partner leave me?” “Will I have to quit work?” “Will I get heart disease and die by 50?”

I think that when I reached my ‘rock bottom’ it shattered the false confidence. I’m not an AA fan – but I guess that’s what AA people talk about with ‘surrendering’ and ‘realising that you are powerless over alcohol’.

It’s perverse that giving up was the thing which ultimately gave me power.I don’t want to sound like Nancy Reagan but I ‘just said no’… No ifs, no buts, no maybe in the future, no small amounts… just no. I just decided that alcohol just can’t be a part of my life.

So far that’s been working for me. I’m not saying it’s the only way for people to manage addiction – but it’s the way which seems to work for me. For me, abstinence is less effort than trying to control and manage the beast.

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The world’s my oyster

What’s a boy to do next?  Tomorrow will be 31 weeks since quitting booze.

It’s become easy to not drink and I get almost no cravings or temptations. I sometimes get FOMO when we’re travelling or in social situations – but that’s about wanting to take part and try new things. It’s not a craving for the sensation of being drunk.

I’m doing really well on the sober front… which leaves me thinking ‘what next?’.

It’s a good place to be. It feels like I’ve worked hard, I’ve had some time to rest – and now I’m starting to get bored and restless.

Time to get back into running? Take up abseiling? Embrace yoga? Start a pottery class?

There’s lots of possibilities when you’re not trapped in a toxic routine.

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Any excuse for a treat

Yesterday was 200 days and I’m doing quite nicely.

I like milestones and I note them as they pass. I don’t usually do anything significant but I often give myself a little treat.

Round numbers are everywhere if you go looking for them – I can usually find an excuse for a milestone most fortnights:

  • Six months (182 days)
  • 200 days
  • 30 weeks (210 days)

It’s completely arbitrary – but it’s just a way of acknowledging the importance of the change… and I get to eat chocolate or something tasty!

Hope you’re doing well!