What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you see yourself at 40+?
“Oh, I want my life to be in tatters with my husband about to leave me and take our children because I have become an alcoholic”, … said no one EVER!!
When I was asked by the amazing team at SMART Recovery Australia to write about my journey to sobriety, I thought it would be simple. It turns out it is not, and procrastination (which I have been mastering and refining over the years, in alignment with my building addictions) helped me to find every excuse in the book to avoid it.
Well, 2020 is well and truly over and the anniversary of my first ‘real’ year of sobriety has passed, so I can no longer find a reason to avoid it.
This life is not what one dreams of for themselves when they leave school, all bright and shiny with hope and dreams for the future. Nobody would suggest that they would ‘like’ to be sitting in a meeting discussing their addictive behaviours, and none of us ever thought that addiction would be the path we were to walk down.
Soul-searching/self-searching are difficult at the best of times, but in writing and sharing my own story, I hope that you can find strength in building your own recovery path.
I feel it’s best to start at the beginning because I honestly believe that addiction comes from a place of trauma and in my young life I experienced many kinds of trauma.
I was born in the Southern Hemisphere in the mid-70’s. I was left with my grandmother while my mother sorted her affairs in the city I was born in. Immediately after leaving, my grandmother changed my first name to something that she deemed ‘more suitable’ and made me speak English instead of the French I had started to get my young tongue around. At an exceedingly early age I started to have some sort of identity crisis …
Mum finally returned and we settled into a new home. By now I had a sister and mum taught at the local primary school. We saw our grandparents regularly and for all intents and purposes we were a happy unit of three girls.
Whenever my father came home from his overseas work, all that changed. He was a violent, angry and dangerous man – particularly when he had been drinking. Finally, when I was five, Mum left him in the middle of the night and piled us into the car, dressed in our pyjamas and with bare feet. We escaped to my grandparents house and going forward, he tried to be the best father he could from a distance but, in reality, he was dire. He smeared my mother’s name, and all their friends turned against her and their children were not allowed to play with us anymore, unless we were visiting with him. We found this hard to understand, but by then he had a new girlfriend and was more interested in his new life. We were regularly left at a friend’s house for the weekend, and it is there that I experienced what I now know to be sexual abuse by their teenage daughter who was in an ‘experimental phase’. After some time, I refused to go any more. It was not until my late 20s that I told my mum why I didn’t want to go. It was a secret that I held onto for an exceptionally long time.
Mum finally met a delightful man and fell madly in love. We loved him too and he quickly moved into our little house. He was so protective of us girls, and we finally felt safe and loved properly by a father figure. Within about a year, he had managed to convince my Mum that they should move to a neighbouring country and buy a farm. The closest city would be a three hour drive away, but there was a little village to service the immediate needs of the farmers. I was eight when we uplifted our entire lives and left our beloved grandparents to move with him to a new life, but not before he caught me stealing his cigars and giving them a try in the family bathroom – of course I denied, denied, denied!
When we arrived, we discovered that the small village school was not quite finished, and we would not be able to be day scholars – we were going to have to go to boarding school in the city, a three hour drive away. There was no room for us in the hostel so, as a temporary measure, we were housed with one of the teachers who also fostered children. At face value she was delightful, but as soon as our parents backs were turned it was a whole other story. She was a dreadful, scary woman, and only helped with children to top up her bank balance and keep herself in cigarettes and brandy. She never touched myself or my sister, but we frequently watched her abuse her eldest foster daughter and lock her into the outside toilet. It was horrible and, although we were collected most weekends on a Friday to go home, there were some weekends that we had to stay behind – it was a terrifying time in my life.
Eventually we were moved out of the facility due to a fire. I had helped myself to sparklers from a weekend away at a friend’s and brought them back to the house. My parents had to clean up the mess that I had made and pay for the restoration of the house, and we moved into the hostel. We finally felt secure at school, and loved and cherished the weekends when we returned home.
We had not seen our father in over a year when mum and her partner announced they were going to get married and he would be adopting us. In my young mind it cemented my thoughts about not being wanted by my father. Mum’s new partner was a darling, had become more of a father to us and it felt like we were going to be a proper family unit. The weekends were full of fun; alcohol-fuelled parties for the adults and all the local kids would come and play with us – we absolutely loved every minute of it. We lived a blessed lifestyle with all the charms – farm animals, playdates, swimming pools and we never seemed to want for anything – surely it couldn’t be true?
Obviously, for whatever reason I needed to change that and started stealing at school. I took whatever I could get my hands on and it finally all ended when I stole my best friend’s jeans and adamantly refused to say that I had, even though I was wearing them when confronted. And they had her name in them …
I clearly needed to self-sabotage for some reason – things were going too well.
I was moved to another boarding school even further away from home and would only go home every three weekends. We were all only allowed certain weekends out and everyone had the same rules and regulations. My sister was moved to the same area but to another school as we were such different personalities and required different approaches to education. She went to a co-ed school, whereas I was at an all-girls Catholic school.
I wasn’t any kind of over-achiever, but I made enough sports teams to become ‘one of the cool gang’, and worthy of being invited to dorm parties. I loved it – finally I felt like I ‘fit’ somewhere as everyone was in the same boat. The girls would all help themselves to their parent’s booze and ciggies when we went home for exeat weekends and bring it back to school. On those weekends that we did not go home, we climbed up into the roof and downed cheap plonk and smoked red branded cigarettes.
My love affair with alcohol had well and truly begun!
Being a quiet mousy girl with long cricket legs and ugly glasses suddenly no longer seemed to matter. When we started attending the boy’s school for A-Levels and I got my contact lenses it seemed that I morphed from an ugly duckling into a swan. That coupled with ‘acceptance’ by the girls at my drinking efforts meant I finally felt like I belonged somewhere – I just had to keep ‘being one of the crowd’. I found it exhausting, but my parents had a fully stocked bar complete with a wine cellar so it was easy to keep bringing in my share of the contraband.
Things on the home front were no longer that great. A horrific drought had hit our country, and there was no water – farmers were losing their crops and livestock and struggling to get by. There were no more raucous parties, but the steady drinking of alcohol at our house continued. My dad was becoming an alcoholic and there was nothing we could do to stop him. One day in the school holidays, I picked up the phone and heard my beloved Dad on the phone to a woman – she was not my Mum. My entire world went into a tumbling downward spiral.
What followed was just years of tumultuous behaviour and experiences for myself and my entire family. As I began to drink too much, I stopped studying properly. This resulted in failing my A-Levels which in turn resulted in being unable to go to University to study Law as I had hoped to.
During a stint at secretarial college, I was unceremoniously chucked out of my parent’s rental house after I broke in through a window at 2am (yes, I was drunk!). I had left the car running in the driveway with blood streaks all down the window so my terrified flatmate called my parents. Dad immediately asked if I was home – he knew without even being there that it was me. Following that, I crashed my car into my mum’s car after I had been smoking pot and drink driving on a Friday afternoon. I lost my car, but not my license – drinking and driving was commonplace in my country in the late 90’s.
I was the ‘party girl’, the ‘fun one’ – there was nothing I could not accomplish. Realistically, I was a drunk, and was not even 20 yet!
In 1998 I realised that my disastrous antics were really beginning to catch up on me. I needed to get a move on and left the country to travel overseas.
I arrived in London at 21 years old with a serious chip on my shoulder, a filthy vodka hangover and the equivalent of $20 in my pocket. It got me a tube ride from Heathrow to the East End where a friend welcomed me to sleep on their couch and helped me out with some money and a few bottles of wine to get through the weekend. By the following Friday I was working as a temp in the city of London and starting to earn my keep. To this day I thank that person for saving me from myself, even though at the time it was yet another beautiful friend enabling my appalling behaviour. I could have been sleeping on a London street.
My twenties were a blur of the London rave scene, constantly working two jobs (of COURSE one was in a salubrious Antipodean bar) and ‘finding myself’. If I thought my drinking was out of control in the Southern Hemisphere, I had no idea of what was to come in Europe. I had been introduced to drugs and I felt like the lover I had been looking for ALL my life had arrived. I finally felt like I ‘fit’ again. I could not hold down a job, but no matter – that is what the contracting life was for. Whenever I felt like the hangover and drug-overs were starting to make themselves a nuisance, I would quit my job and move onto the next one.
I had crafted the gift of the gab to mask my social anxiety and I was a completely different person. Somehow, I could wrap people around my little finger to get what I wanted. Particularly men. That was all I needed to keep jobs for as long as I could, and rounds of drinks flowing. There was always a credit card behind the bar, supplied by some suit trying to get into my pants, and I had discovered cocaine! I could drink ALL night while imbibing in the white stuff. We spent weekends consuming ridiculous amounts of drugs and alcohol, thinking we were ‘high-functioning’ drinkers. There were no smart phones, and we relied on credited phone cards to call home. I never had any money and my family were constantly left not hearing from me for weeks at a time, hoping I was still alive.
I eloped and got married to a man that I barely knew at 25. At 26 I ended up in a prison cell overnight after throwing a punch at a police officer at 1.00am, who was trying to help me keep safe from myself. A doctor’s check-up after a hospital stint indicated initial stages of cirrhosis of my liver – I wasn’t even close to my 30’s. My friends called an intervention on my drinking, drugs and bad behaviour. They had had enough! They were tired of bailing me out of situations, lending me money and making excuses for me – they loved me, but wanted me to get better. I attended my first AA meeting, which terrified me.
I was not ready to admit I had a problem. I went a couple of times and stopped going, as I was always the youngest person there and did not feel like I ‘fit the mould’. I decided that I would stop the drugs and try to get clean, but I could not put down my wine. At the end of my 20s, I realised that while I was constantly drinking and taking drugs and floating between three different friend groups (I thought that could hide my addictions better that way, if I were sharing myself around). Friends had moved back to the Southern Hemisphere and were getting married and having babies. I decided after a trip to Australia and New Zealand to attend two weddings that I was going to leave London, pack up my life and do my working holiday visa in Australia before my 31st birthday hit. I had done my dash with London and my reputation was starting to catch up with me again.
I spent six months in Asia training as a Dive Master en-route, and I had found my Utopia. As my studies and daily relaxed life continued, I spent hours in my hammock on the beach and found my groove. I found that I did not need alcohol so much – the wine in Asia was revolting and I did not always want to drink beer. I managed to fool myself into believing that I was not an alcoholic anymore.
On arriving in Australia, I got back into the swing of my appalling decisions. I fell asleep at weddings, on bathroom floors and bar surfaces. I didn’t realise that my drinking ‘sleeps’ were becoming regular blackouts and that the poison that I continued to pour into my body was slowly shutting it down. Men came and went, none of them willing to stick around for exceptionally long. The initial fun of the drunk me very quickly became embarrassing and revolting to them. We would just have fun for a few weeks, but they would never take me home to meet their family. My self-esteem was at an all-time low and I kept self-medicating as a result. I was a complete and utter mess and stuck in a self-absorbed cycle of addiction.
One Saturday, on the way to attend my best friend’s wedding as his witness, I did not make it past the first exit before I was pulled over on the highway, reeking of Amaretto and some footballer I had picked up at the Casino the night before. I was handed a DUI – a result of being over the limit from a very heavy night before. I lost my license for six months.
A night out in the south of the city, ended in date rape at a local school ground. The Police were incredibly kind to me, after I was found in a complete state hiding behind a fridge at the garage across the road, screaming into my hands. The evidence was conclusive but when they called me to tell me the ‘good news’, I was also told by the female forensic cop on the phone that the case would be put to court and ‘evaluated against previous behaviour and social standing’. Layman’s Terms: she was telling me was that because I was a ‘party-girl’ I would be ripped to shreds in court by the attacker’s lawyer – my case would never stand its ground. I let it slide.
I realised I had hit rock bottom and reached out to AA again. There were some younger folk in the meetings and I felt that I had something in common with them. I was once again working a program and attempting to get well. Yet, I still did not believe I was an alcoholic and I thought that I could control my drinking. So I slowed it down somewhat and managed a few months of moderation, for the most part.
Not long after I met my beautiful partner, and we fell madly in love, we left the country to travel for three months with the intention of going back to Europe to work. It was back in Asia that our first stop ended up in further incidents. He woke up one morning unable to find me. Frantically looking down the streets, he found me lying in a shop doorway with a shopkeeper sweeping around me. I had my skirt up around my waist, and was completely passed out. My wallet and phone were gone and shame and guilt was once again at the forefront of my apologies. I didn’t stop there though. He spent the next few months discovering me in high-rises in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, off my head on alcohol and drugs – in countries that have no trouble putting you in to jail, or worse for an exceptionally long time. I find it hard now to believe that he loved me enough to stay as I was sabotaging everything once again and using alcohol as my weapon.
We arrived in London in 2008, three days before the Global Financial Crisis hit. We had no reason to believe that our money would not last for months – after all, we expected the contracting scene to still be strong. The GFC hit and my lovely partner was unable to find work for weeks and weeks and our money dwindled very quickly, but we could buy wine in the local supermarkets and shops for less than $5.00. We job-hunted and drank in mirroring quantities. My alcohol dependence was on the rise again. I managed to land a job temping which kept us going – he could not find work, and I could not go back to Australia as my visa was cancelled, but we did not want to be apart. We struggled on through, living hand to mouth but always finding enough money to drink. Winter came and went, and we discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. I will never forget him telling me later in life that he had been about to call it quits, as he just could not take my drinking anymore.
Nine months of not drinking and smoking, and pregnancy made me a different person. By now he had some work, I had a permanent job, and five months of maternity leave reprieve to get to know our son and get myself fit and healthy post-birth. Things were looking up and we decided to tie the knot a week before he was born.
In some cases childbirth can be so immensely traumatic that you will never recover from the memory. I will not go into the details, but both my son and I nearly did not make it and I suffered from what I now know to be post-natal depression. I could not seem to ‘connect’ with my child at all for the first six months, and simply went through the motions of motherhood. I could not wait to get back to work and leave my son with someone else to deal with.
Of course, I had started drinking again in enormous quantities, now enabled by corporate events that I was attending regularly. Two years later I was pregnant again and, in parallel, climbing the career ladder internally in my company. Our second son was delivered without any issues and, after another five months of maternity leave, I went back to work – I could not wait to get back into the game! We decided to move out of the city to the coast and hire someone to help my husband look after the children while he worked from home. By now I was spending at least 10 days out of every month travelling. Flying meant access to constant free booze, and airline lounges followed by long flights and hotels in other countries. Work meetings in other countries meant quick FaceTime calls to my family before we went out for long boozy dinners, the work-hard play-hard culture was prevalent.
I was neglecting my husband and children terribly by putting my career first but in my mind I was doing it all for them. I was ‘building my career for the money it brought to us as a family’. The reality was that I loved the freedom to drink (and be alone to do it) even more. We were all a mess, just some kind of weird whirlwind chugging around each-other; my husband trying to hold onto our family unit and keep our children from seeing what a self-centred, alcoholic mess I was once again becoming. I could afford better clothes, shoes, hairdressers, and getting my nails done – I attempted to hide it all behind this façade of fakeness. I embarrassed him at work parties, where free booze was the norm and he began to dread coming to them and refused to take me out to dinner or do anything fun with our friends.
In turn, I resented him for this, but really I should have realised that I resented myself – that I hated that I couldn’t ‘drink normally’ and tried time and time again to read books on sobriety, join groups and try to become part of the movement that was occurring throughout the UK in the early 2010’s. I wanted so much to believe that ‘Sober was the new black’, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to stop. I tried time and time again, posting on forums, telling my story, changing the way I drank, changing what I drank, trying quantity control, and trying to get help. Taking Acamprosate, Naltrexone and Antabuse – but I did not want to do the REAL work. I wanted to get sober but I wanted to be able to occasionally have a drink. I wanted so desperately to moderate. I was able to get sober for eight months, for three months, for four months, for two weeks but I always went back to full-time drinking – the cyclical nightmare continued, and I just refused to get off the wheel. I wanted a magic pill to make it all go away.
For some people moderation is doable, but for people who have come as far as I have down the hellish rabbit hole of alcohol abuse and in turn addiction, it is just not an option at all. You may lose all that alcohol as you sober up and feel better but as soon as you start again, the tolerance levels rise again and you are able to drink more and more until the cycle begins again: 1 is too many, and a 1000 is never enough.
It was 2015 and my dad was 61. Regardless of his various infidelity over the years, I still absolutely adored him. We were great mates and had a wonderful relationship. I got a call from him from some forlorn African country where he was doing some consulting. He was flown back to Europe in an emergency and I took him straight to hospital. Within two days he was diagnosed with advanced Stage 4 lung cancer which had metastases and within eight weeks he was gone. We tried everything to keep him alive, as families do, and throughout his demise he kept apologising to my Mum. My Mum kept telling him not be silly, he could not help it. He kept on asking for forgiveness.
Two weeks after he passed, we finally opened his mobile phones and laptop to deal with any text messages and emails. My dad had a whole separate life away from us, and it turns out that he had done so since I had first caught him out when I was 17. He preferred men and, very occasionally, other women. Already being an ally to the beautiful LGBTQI community significantly helped me to process this information, but it also left me devastated that he was not able to trust me enough to confide in me and let me be a part of his world, or at least know him in that aspect. It was enough to throw me off the rails once again and find a new reason to keep drinking – now in quantities I had never done before. I had to look after my mum, who was in all kinds of mental hell discovering her entire life had been something different to what she believed. It was some of the toughest two years of my life.
We decided to leave Europe and return to Australia to a different lifestyle. I moved jobs internally and we started our new life here. My work increased, and the role required me to be more and more involved in night-time calls and projects. By now my mum had come to live with us here and having her under my roof constantly was exhausting and tiring as she did not know anyone or have her own life. I felt like I was constantly completely babysitting her and that we had a third child to deal with. My kids were struggling to settle in, and my husband was an angry, resentful mess.
We bought a house and the children started new schools. I thought I was hiding it well but I would miss entire weekends where I was trying to recover; sports matches and dates with friends and relatives – on the surface everything looked glassy, but below I was paddling frantically to keep my head above water and yet I kept on pouring gasoline down my throat. I could easily put away 2–3 bottles in a sitting and I was hiding empty bottles all over the house, or half filling them with water and raspberry juice to try to hide the evidence, until I could get them out the house and to the bin down the road. My favourite times were when I had to travel. I could drink as much as I wanted, on the flights, in the lounges and in my hotel, and nobody would know.
Who was I kidding, right!? It was exhausting.
I absolutely hated myself, I was fat and ugly and did not know how anyone could love me if I could not love myself, let alone my husband and kids. I stopped going to the gym and walking my dog as it all just ate into my drinking time in the evenings. I tried everything I could to moderate – not drinking on a weekday, only drinking every second day, stopping wine and moving to spirits (bad move) – nothing was working, and I could not control it at all anymore.
In complete desperation, I tried Hypnotherapy. I went to my sessions so hungover that I could not do anything except fall asleep during the downtime. We opened traumatic incidents from my childhood and, because I was so hungover, they were never properly closed. The gates to my mind were wide open, and I felt constantly consumed by something else in my body, that was absorbing my spirit and true human energy.
After recurring incidents, I finally accepted that I needed to talk to someone again and went to see my doctor. I told her that my life was completely falling apart, and she listened with an open, non-judgmental ear. She suggested checking my internal body functions and did various tests. The Zinc in my body was so depleted from constant drinking and my bones were starting to become brittle. She immediately started me on a course to help and asked me if I had tried any external groups or other kind of help. I said I had tried AA many times over, but that I found it quite difficult and was looking for a different approach. My anxiety was at an all-time high as I had realised that things at work were not for me and that I was not for it. Over the years I had been climbing the career ladder I had lost sight of myself and what I believed in and was working in a role that brought in great money but was making me completely miserable. I completely hated it – it was cyclical, and I could not seem to get off the roundabout. The longer I stayed, the more I self-medicated. The more I self-medicated, the less confident I felt in my own ability to find work elsewhere.
She suggested looking up a SMART meeting locally, where they had a different approach to other philosophies and used Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) as a tool to assist recovery. I had never heard of it but I was willing to try anything at this point. I went to my first meeting and fell completely in love. I had finally found the ethos I was looking for – I was not being told I was diseased and had no control – I was finally told that I COULD find a control margin, and it was up to me how I did it. It took at least seven meetings for me to start believing in myself, and throughout that I continued to either abstain or drink. There was never a middle option of moderation for me, I was just unable to do it. I have discovered that it’s just part of my all or nothing personality.
In early 2020 my eldest son was going to senior school. We had just (literally) survived five weeks of Christmas Holidays with family visiting from overseas, and there was an event organised to meet all the parents at his school. I proceeded to get so drunk and tore a strip off my husband in front of a whole lot of people we did not know, and fell asleep on the grass in front of my kids when I got home. And so, on 26 January 2020 my husband asked me to go away and live elsewhere until I could get sober. He’d had enough, the boys had had enough, and my mum could not watch me destroying myself anymore. They all wanted me gone and refused to enable me anymore, including my children who were now old enough to give me their own thoughts and opinions. I was so ashamed, and sick with guilt and remorse. I drove around trying to avoid any police, in case I was still over the limit. I was trying to find somewhere to stay for a week and I couldn’t find anywhere available or it was too expensive, and I was too ashamed to ask for help from friends. I finally called my parents-in-law who agreed to put me up for the week. Finally, it all had to be spoken about in the open, I could no longer deny what I was doing to myself and to my family.
I have not touched a drop of alcohol since that day. It has been over a year and I cannot begin to explain the changes in my life. I have managed to get through COVID, a nervous break-down and significant rise in my mental health issues and then leaving my job. None of it matters because I have held onto the sobriety that I gained using the SMART process in early 2020, like a red flag flying high.
I now run my own SMART meeting as a facilitator, and work with people in my situation to move towards more control over their maladaptive behaviours. I am about to change my career with study, and am for the most part a 100% mother, wife, daughter and sister these days. I do the things I say I am going to, I go to the things I commit to and, if I cannot, I call up and tell them I can’t, instead of wigging out with a text message.
I believe in my own abilities and laugh at my own social awkwardness, and I love 5am again, it is the most amazingly beautiful part of a fresh new day.
I never take my sobriety for granted and work hard every single day to ensure that I do not relapse. Some days are easier than others.
Sobriety is not easy but being a drunk was WAAAAY harder. I absolutely love sober life. Reach out to SMART if you want to learn more, all it takes is one 1.5-hour meeting for you to learn our ethos and values, and for you to decide if you want to come back again!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of SMART Recovery Australia.