The story of how I came to be alcohol-free.
On a morning in March 2019 I woke in a hotel in Sydney after a huge night. Something was tugging at my brain, something important. I grabbed my phone and read the text, my heart pounding as I skimmed the first four words. Straight away I knew my Dad was soon going to die.
I organised a flight, set up help for my family and headed straight for the Qantas club in search of oblivion. In the three months that my Dad existed before he died, I lived on a diet of adrenalin, jetlag and wine.
I made three trips home that I barely remember, other than the horror of watching him deteriorate and suffer the lack of dignity he had so often expressed his fear of. I would visit him at the care home every day, then I’d go back to his house and drink myself to sleep.
On the day my Dad died I had a moment of clarity. For years I had watched him drink, and whilst his cause of death was not officially linked, I knew his overall health would have been dramatically impacted by it.
My own enthusiastic drinking had also bothered me for quite some time and I would look with admiration at anyone who had done the year off the beer, or similar lengthy period of abstinence.
So, on that morning, holding Dad’s hand, I decided that I would stop. Not for a month, or two, as I had many times before, but for good.
Admitting I needed help was hard, but one day, in a routine GP check-up I blurted out that I was worried about my drinking. As the words left my mouth, I felt shame, relief, but mostly terror. Was I that bad? Did I really have a problem? I did. This was not just because of the volume I was drinking (I know many who drink as much, if not more than I did at my worst) but because it was a problem for me.
I didn’t want to live life at 70% anymore, and I hated the constant internal negotiations. Imagine what I could be doing with my time instead of arguing with myself about when I could next have a drink?
My GP directed me to a Psychiatrist who ran a two-week detox/rehab program. I didn’t think this was an option for people like me. I wasn’t destitute or on the street, I had a successful career, I was happily married and I really liked my life but he explained that the success rates were very high for what I now like to call ‘up-streamers’ ( people who could end up in dire straits but aren’t quite there yet). I remember clearly when he said,’ You get into it, get it done and you’ll be fine’. What had seemed unnecessary and extreme now seemed approachable, and oddly, quite exiting.
My preconceived ideas about rehab were still there. I felt I would be out of place and I still wasn’t convinced it was for me, still, six weeks later I packed my bags and took the leap. I would love to say it was easy, that I was brave and fearless. But the truth is, at first, I wanted to run away, as fast as I could. Because I actually realised that I was terrified of not drinking. It had been in my life for so long, it was medicine, my social crutch and the idea of life without it was unfathomable. So, on day one I had a final decision to make. Stay or leave. I wasn’t a prisoner there, I could leave at any time, but my promise kept me there, as well as the promise of freedom.
Two Weeks in Re-Hab
On admission to the program, regardless of your situation, you are treated as a serious addict in need of full detox measures. Bag searches & breath tests were humiliating, and the warnings of what was likely to happen to me physically in withdrawal made me feel like I was definitely in the wrong place. Luckily, I didn’t experience any, no shakes or tremors, and in the first few days I felt like a fraud. But as time went on and I attended the sessions, I realised that re-hab could actually benefit anyone. It was nothing like the movies. There was no ‘introduce yourself’ moments or sharing of deep dark secrets.
It was a bit like being at Uni, with lectures presenting theory and scientific research and methodologies. Every day we approached a new topic, practised mindfulness and were asked to consider more abstract things like our value systems, dreams and goals. It was a life skills program, where you got to know yourself better, approach life in a different, more present way, and develop more compassion for others (and yourself).
I became inspired by the people I met, Doctors, Musicians, Actors, Lawyers, Parents, people I would completely relate to in the outside world. I didn’t get to know their stories, I didn’t need to, but they were some of the kindest, creative, and most sensitive people I have ever met. There was a felt acceptance, lack of judgment, and normalisation of the problems we had which was as powerful, if not more so, as the lectures In my time there I saw many people transform. They started to stand taller, laugh more, and make eye contact. I think a big part of this is that there was no shame. We were all the same. And as time went on, I started to feel like I really could do this, for good.
10 Days Alcohol-Free
After 10 days of no alcohol and learning about the many downsides of drinking I realised that real clarity had been out of my reach for a long time. I learned that my brain had been abused, and I had deprived myself of my ability to evaluate many things clearly and confidently. This newfound clarity was the thing I’d been searching for and every day I became more present and committed to holding on to it.
On my last day two things happened that cemented my resolve to put all I’d learned into practice. After my final session I went to the hairdresser, only to be offered champagne on arrival. I wanted to say yes, purely out of habit, but I didn’t. It was Friday afternoon, so the young girl was curious. I tried out my new phrase “I was drinking too much, so I stopped”. Her response was unexpected, she told me she desperately wanted to stop drinking, that she was bored and tired of the drinking culture she was in and she asked me for tips!.
Instead of feeling outcast I felt empowered, strong, even admired.
The second event was when an old flatmate called who was by chance staying at the hotel across the street from the hairdresser. I hadn’t seen her for 8 years and we were big drinking buddies. After my appointment I popped into the hotel bar to say hi. She and her sister were on their way to being quite drunk. As non-judgementally as possible I watched them. I saw the vacant eyes, the false confidence and the uncertainty in their body language. I saw me. I saw how others saw me. I sipped my soda, and I knew this conversation wouldn’t exist for them tomorrow. In the past I had convinced myself everyone was as drunk as I was, that I was in control, funny, confident, intelligent even, but no, I realised in that moment that I was just simple, boring drunk.
In this moment I remember telling myself ‘this is freedom’. And it looked like this; the first 10 minutes was torture, 15 minutes a little discomfort, 20 minutes a mild pang of loss…. And then enter real life, alive, present, in charge with my eyes wide open.
It’s Sunday 27th October I’ve been ‘out’ for 3 days. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Mornington Peninsula. It’s 5.15pm. In the last 72 hours I’ve sat in the business class lounge, my business seat, a black-tie function, a formal dinner, and, most recently a 4.5-hour winery tour with long lunch. Instead of fighting against the urge to drink I find myself interested to explore how I managed to keep saying no? There were definitely tug of war moments, but at no point did I feel close to caving in. Perhaps it’s because I have just stepped out of my rehab bubble and everything I’ve learned is still at the forefront of my wine battered brain? As the arrival drinks are offered, I scan for water, coke, anything that will occupy my right hand to temper my anxiety. And 20 minutes in I realise, it was just fear of boredom. Mostly I was scared of finding out I am boring. I was wondering how I would fill the tank of silence without my social oil when I decided, for once, that instead of focusing on my own performance I would I look at how other people behave…because perhaps I’ve never really noticed before. With not a small amount of horror I see that most people don’t drink a glass of wine in 5 minutes. They can sit on a glass for at least one course and some, for the whole event. I’m fascinated and appalled. In the past one glass would have survived 5 minutes tops in front of me. I am faced even more poignantly with how much I used to drink, and with the fact thatin every moment of my life where alcohol was present, I wasn’t. It was this realisation (and my 20-minute rule) that helped get me through to New Year and beyond. I had many ‘sober firsts’ from my annual award night, family Christmas, New Year’s Eve and a trip to New Zealand. Far from not enjoying myself I loved it all because I was really there, I could decide who I wanted to talk to, I could remember everything, and I could leave whenever I wanted. I’ve also found alcohol-free drinks that I love, from Champagne to Shiraz. I still feel like I’m having something, but it doesn’t mess with my head.
Over six months on and I have no urge to drink. I wake every morning feeling well-rested, clear, and motivated. My relationship with my family has improved and, most affirming of all, my kids love that I don’t drink. I’ve even had children of some of my friends say they wish their parents didn’t drink, “It’s so boring”, one said. Looking back now I know that I didn’t have a problem with drinking because my parents died, but I can’t say for sure that I would have addressed it if they hadn’t. The adversity simply threw a spotlight on a self-destructive habit, and for that I feel very lucky. I can honestly say now that I am grateful that I was pushed to my edge because without any doubt my life has never been better.
Alcohol is everywhere, our society condones it and we use regularly be it to relieve discomfort or amplify excitement. It’s hard to imagine a life without it. But like any habit, with the right tools and support, it can be broken.
End note: I started www.soberupside.com.au in December 2019 to provide a resource for people who want to cut back or quit alcohol. Since then I have become even more aware of the need to change how we address alcohol and it’s impact on society. In 2021 I am proud to launch Tapped In, an upbeat, inspirational community to help us raise the ceiling for our children to walk on.