The Road To Recovery
Martin, 27, from Cambridge, saw his life ruined by drink. Here, he explains how hitting rock bottom finally made him seek help – and why he’s daring to step back into a bar this week. . .
Wednesday, October 14, 2009 was the day I finally made the call to Alcoholics Anonymous and stopped drinking. It was also the day I accepted a job in a pub. I think it’s fair to say that was my first mistake on the road to recovery. . .
I made plenty more mistakes, but that was the first.
I couldn’t understand what had happened; I couldn’t be an alcoholic. Everything was going wrong, yet my drinking habits and desires had not changed from my earliest drinking days. I didn’t realise that was the problem.
The first time my parents actually allowed me to drink was at a family barbecue when I was 14. Though, like any self-respecting adolescent, I had been drunk without their knowledge several times before.
After finishing my allotted can of beer I stole an unattended crate of alcopops, feeling no more compunction about it than if I had taken food from the fridge.
I didn’t see anything wrong with drinking the bottles alone in my room over the next couple of weeks. I didn’t want to drink alone: I was forced to out of necessity. I wouldn’t have been allowed to if I asked permission. After all, I came from a good home with loving parents who drank very little. The desire to drink was inherent in me from the start. I wanted to be drunk as soon as I knew what drunk was.
By 18 I was drinking to get drunk at every opportunity. That was what we did, and it was fun. Free of all concern.
You don’t have to think about consequences at 18, especially not regarding your health. It isn’t supposed to be the first year’s heavy drinking that causes problems, it’s the next 20, and in that limited sense, we were invincible.
But I was wrong. Few years would pass before endless health problems – that even I couldn’t turn a blind eye to – began.
Problems with my heart precipitated several emergency trips to hospital. I’d lie in terror, feeling its beats petering out, thinking I was going to die. Often I’d stay at home and keep drinking to ease the symptoms and the fear.
My brain was racked by the daily agony of migraines caused by exhaustion, abuse and a vascular system already so damaged by alcohol I often spontaneously haemorrhaged, blood streaming from my nose without warning.
My body was falling apart. Drink had ruined me. I was 25.
Then there was the depression. Alcohol no longer made me happy yet I continued to drink, thinking it would. I drank until I was beyond drunk every day, almost exclusively alone now.
Half a year before I stopped drinking I called in on my parents after a day’s solitary binge on Parker’s Piece. My dad found me in the kitchen, very drunk, about 6pm. Concerned, and ignorant of my usual drinking habits, he told me I shouldn’t be drunk so early in the day.
I turned to face him with blank eyes. ‘Better than killing myself,’ I said, silencing him.
I only called AA once I understood I had no option but to stop drinking or to die. I sat down in my first meeting, hands shaking so badly I spilled tea all down myself. Only one thought passed through my mind: ‘If you manage not to drink it proves you are not an alcoholic. If you prove you are not an alcoholic you can keep drinking.’
Such was my double-think logic. Prevarication and denial are an alcoholic’s arsenal and my guns were fully loaded.
Somehow I survived that first night without drinking. Waking out of a tremulous half-sleep next morning, I got up and went to my first shift in the pub. Detox sweat soaked my clothes. My long, lank hair stuck to my face until the manager asked me to tie it up.
Pouring the first pint was a torture I’ll never forget. I hadn’t had a drink for more than 24 hours and there I stood, in a pub, beer in hand, fresh from the barrel, poured for someone else. I nearly cried: I was on the wrong side of the bar.
That night everything changed. I went to my second meeting and received proof I was an alcoholic. The floor was open for anyone to speak and one man felt like sharing.
He said he had been living near a public toilet block and, aside from the same clothes that he had been wearing for six months, he had only had two things left in his possession: a sieve and a plug. He was vomiting so regularly he’d go into the toilets, block a sink, vomit into the sieve, remove any solids and re-drink the stomach juice so as not to waste the alcohol.
Martin as Brendan with Peter Simmons as Jack in a scene from The WeirMy immediate reaction to that terrible story was shock: shock that I hadn’t thought of such a simple, obvious, brilliant idea myself.
Then the full realisation of what I had thought hit me. I knew I was an alcoholic.
It was a major breakthrough. The moment you can say ‘I am an alcoholic’ is the famous First Step. I saw that I had never been in control and felt a new determination grow within me and, increasingly, a new despair: I could never drink again.
The next two weeks passed in a blur of physical upheaval. I didn’t sleep. Sweat gushed out of every pore; a lifetime’s alcoholic gunk flooding from me.
I drank five litres of water a day and still felt dehydrated. I was gripped by constipation and ate huge meals and three Yorkie bars a day, just to keep my energy levels up. With the loss of 3,000 calories or more of alcohol every day I still lost 10lbs in my first two weeks without drink.
Then I made my next big mistake.
I stopped attending AA meetings. I’d been to 10 and they felt like they’d done the trick. I wasn’t a huge fan of their format and thought I could handle it alone.
Things quickly began to deteriorate. I became the cellar-man in the pub, personally handling the kegs and looking after the real ale. Then I began to encourage the girl I was seeing to drink so I could kiss her and taste the booze.
By February, four months sober, I’d reached my limit. I walked home after a hard shift at the pub and couldn’t see how life could ever be good again. Alcohol once made life better. It made being me bearable. Now it was gone forever. It felt like I had lost my soul.
I sat alone at home, saw a knife on the kitchen worktop and made up my mind: I would take my life. I paused at the last second, determined to make the right decision, there would be no going back.
An exiguous part of me knew I wouldn’t always want to die. So I waited, gripped by uncertainty until it became near unendurable. It wasn’t the feeling of wanting to die that hurt, but the pain of forcing myself to live that was hell.
I spent the next three days unable to go into the kitchen and near the knife and, consequently, couldn’t even walk through to the bathroom. I didn’t wash and had to urinate behind the hedge in front of my house.
Thoughts of my friends and family finally brought me back. I remembered that there was love there and put the knife away, along with all thoughts of suicide.
I realised that you can’t just stop drinking and expect to survive. I was living in abstinence; I wasn’t recovering from alcoholism.
One of the biggest obstacles to recovery was now my job in the pub. I quit and swore never to serve a drink again.
Now I am going to break my word.
This week I will be pulling pints and pouring whiskey in the ADC Theatre as I play Brendan in The Weir. Set in a rural pub in Ireland, it involves constant drinking throughout.
I wouldn’t have been able to play the part a year ago, though I suppose it does help that Conor McPherson’s play is as mesmerising and enjoyable as it is. The drinking – even of non-alcoholic stage drinks – would have been too much for me.
Drinking there feels both oblique and entirely personal to me. Rather than burrow into my alcoholic personality as it once would have, it now reinforces what I already know: I am an alcoholic. I am the same person now that I have always been and always will be. The only difference is I know how to be him now.
After years of deluding myself that I was a normal drinker, I have since learnt that I was right in a respect: I was the same as other drinkers, for no one drinks to stay the same.
There will always be alcoholics. Can’t be helped. All we can do is make it as easy as possible for alcoholics to recognise what they are, and let them know that it is alright not to drink. It is even possible. That is true for everybody.
Even now, despite everything, there are still days I want to drink, but there are no days that pass that I am not glad to be sober.
Worried about your own drinking? Visit www.drinkaware.com or www.alcoholics-anonymous.org.uk.
Alcoholics Anonymous also have a helpline: 0845 769 7555.
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