monkey off my back

One guy's experiences as he quits drinking


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How times change

I was just driving past a large liquor shop and decided to pop in because they stock Seedlip non-alcoholic gin.

As I walked in it struck me how much things have changed in (nearly) 10 months. I walked in confidently without even questioning whether it was OK for me to be there by myself.

As I walked through the aisles I saw many familiar drinks but didn’t have any twinge or temptations. I ended up stocking up on some zero alcohol drinks: beer, white wines, the Seedlip Grove Gin and some specialty tonic waters.

It was a nice experience!  So tonight I might have a tonic water and Seedlip Gin to try them out. ‘Grove’ is the latest gin flavour and it’s a mix of bitter orange, lemon, manarine and ginger.  Cheers!

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Cabinet of booze & no compulsion

I’m home alone tonight. There’s a cabinet of booze but I can think of nothing less appealing and I feel really confident. I feel really good and I’m enjoying the moment.

A couple of months ago I was going away for a night for work. For a few minutes I got really worried about what would happen if I got a compulsion to drink. It took me a few minutes to think:

  1. Do I want to drink? (No)
  2. Do I feel any compulsion to drink? (No)
  3. Have I had any compulsion to drink since I quit? (No)

Then relax…

Compulsion used to be sooo strong and the memories still scare me. I can’t count how many days I woke up thinking that I was going to quit. And everyday as I drove home I would get to an intersection thinking “turn right and go home” but instead I would turn left to a bottle shop. It was scary, embarrassing and self-shaming to have no feeling of control over my own behaviour. It’s good to have a healthy respect for compulsions but I no longer feel controlled by them.

So right now I’m sitting at home without any craving or compulsion – and it’s pretty damn sweet!


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Have I got energy to spare?

The little bits of research that I’ve read suggest that addiction often runs in families. I’ve also read that a lot of this could be due to genetics as well as upbringing and life experiences. It sort of makes sense – if anxiety or depression has a biological component, then addiction could just be a likely outcome from that. In the same way that a history of abuse or marginalisation affects someone’s chances of developing addiction.

I read some articles about how we could be born with brain receptors which are more or less sensitive to alcohol and other drugs – which can affect our susceptibility to addiction. I can’t remember which way it works, but it’s something like: someone who is really sensitive to alcohol often doesn’t like the strong effects they get, so they never drink a lot.  As opposed to someone who has to drink quite a lot to get the effect – so they drink more which leads to addiction.

Anyway – why am I rambling about this?  It’s about my younger brother. My Mum just visited my brother and his drinking is concerning both of us. My brother and I are VERY different people – but we share genetics, upbringing and I think we share the same vulnerability to alcohol. Having said that, it’s playing out in slightly different ways because of our social circumstances and personalities.

I’m more academic and so are my friends – I was always the good, sensible and high achieving son. Heavy drinking was common in my social group, particularly when we were all younger, but it’s generally not really acceptable to be really messily drunk. I think those social norms helped to drive my drinking underground and contributed to my sneaky drinking as I got older (have a socially acceptable amount in public and then top up my buzz in private).

My brother is not as academic and he’s grown up with literacy and behavioural problems. He’s very blue-collar and works underground in a mine. Heavy drinking is normal in his social group – so there’s nothing secretive about his drinking. He usually doesn’t drink for a few days during the week (he’s breathalysed at work) but when he does, he drinks so much it really amazes me. Then he is sick for 2 days afterwards and continues drinking each night. It’s not exactly a new situation, my Mum and I have spoken about his drinking for years.

So anyway, he just started a new job 3 weeks ago – it’s his ‘ideal job’. He started drinking last Thursday evening and continued all night – and then was too sick to go to work on Friday. This happened while my elderly (and fairly ‘proper’) mother was visiting. To me that indicates that he is having trouble controlling his drinking – he’s jeopardising his brand new job with my mother present just before he’s about to get his first mortgage.

We’re both fond of each other, although I wouldn’t say we’re super close. The age difference meant that I was moving out of home when he was just starting high school – and then I lived 2000km away and was pretty self-absorbed in my early 20s. I’m gay, he’s straight. I drive a hatchback car – he drives trucks. I live in a city and he lives in a rural mining town. But all things considered, we get on really well.

I’m worried about him. I think he’s even more vulnerable to alcohol than I am:

  • He’s in a very heavy drinking culture
  • He doesn’t have a lot of emotional support or a supportive partner
  • He is very blokey and has a very fixed view of masculinity (don’t be vulnerable, don’t ask for help etc)
  • He’s not very academically smart and won’t think things through clearly, research or analyse his situation
  • He’s very impulsive in all areas of his life and often makes very unwise decisions

Recently I told some of my friends about my drinking because I wanted their support. Now, I feel like I should talk to my brother about my drinking – as possible support for him. I want him to know that he can talk to me if there’s something going on.

My question for myself is “do I have enough spare energy at this early stage of my sobriety to help someone else?”. Ethically, I think I have to talk to him although I might wait a few weeks. If he was someone else, I’d probably avoid the situation and prioritise myself – but he’s my little brother which makes the equation a bit different.


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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.


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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.