On celebrating 24 years without booze…

It would be odd if it went without notice that today was St George’s day or Shakespeare’s birthday (and his death day if you want to be picky) but for me it’s the day I celebrate how long it is since I stopped drinking and today it’s 24 years. For someone who didn’t think that they could ever manage 24 hours without a drink it’s pretty good.

Each year I look back on the day that I stopped drinking and marvel at the fact that even though people say that there are no magic words that can make you stop drinking the words that stopped me in my tracks felt like a magic spell.

In April 1991 my former husband was in hospital as a result of his alcoholism and he was not expected to live. Even if he beat the odds he was expected to be so badly brain damaged that his life would be worthless as it was believed he had a wet brain as well as pancreatitis and only 25% of his liver was still working which meant that his liver was a hardened lump with a little softness in the centre.

I went to see him most days and his drug induced coma reminded me so much of how I was not that far from ending up like him but, to quote a song, I was tired of living but scared to die. It’s a heartbreaking place to inhabit and one that none addicts, whatever the drug, cannot possibly understand.

While he was in hospital and I was working out the notice on the pub I was running while he lurched around drunkenly from the moment he woke until the moment he collapsed into unconsciousness I was making several visits a week to our local GP. I thought I was going so that he could keep up with Dave’s progress but the words he said to me during the visit I made on the 23rd of April that year really shocked me.

I had know for about six years that I was an alcoholic. I’d always drank a lot and could drink at least two drinks in the time it took most people to get two thirds down the way of one but I’d always been able to stop when I wanted to and I was always aware that I drank excessively even if I denied it when I was challenged.

Around 1985 I discovered that I could no longer stop when I wanted to and, even though my preferred drink was whisky of any kind (though I chose to drink expensive brands so that I didn’t look like an alcoholic), I often drank vodka because I mistakenly believed that it didn’t smell on my breath.

The morning of the 23rd April 1191 was a stressful one (but then they always were) and by 11.00 am I’d already had three large glasses of scotch to get me going. I was due to see my GP at 11.30 that morning and had a glass of shandy to cover up the smell of the scotch. I didn’t fool him and he burst out in the middle of the consultation that he didn’t really give a fuck about Dave but if I didn’t do anything about my drinking then I had about two years to live.

In the space of about a second I saw my downward path and I knew that he wasn’t saying I’d party well for two years and die with a smile on my face but that I’d gradually degenerate until it was too painful to stay alive. Given my history of depression (a diagnosis of bipolar disorder was still three years into the future) then it was highly likely that I’d kill myself before I got to that stage. I went home and I never drank again. It was difficult in the early weeks as I was still running the pub but I got through that and moved house. I had a stack of blood tests to check what, if any, damage I’d done to my major organs and got the all clear.

I had a rough couple of years being sober and only grudginly gave in and went to AA because I needed peer support. I hated AA because of the God aspect (I don’t think a belief in God is necessary in finding recovery) and because I was always being told that if I didn’t stick around AA I would never become truly sober and, to my mind, that encourages people to swap one dependency for another.

I went through a sticky period during a 13 year relationship with a man I met through AA. It started off well but it soon became obvious that he was very much a mummy’s boy and the only thing he really had going for him was that he had a Harley Davidson Sportster which he later swapped for a FatBoy. I miss those bikes though I’ve never missed him. It was a destructive relationship and he clung to me so tightly and obsessively that it took me nine years to get out of the relationship. He really wanted a stand in for when his mother finally died and I wanted a fun person who was keen on living life to the full and whose idea of a night out wasn’t a diet coke and a doughnut while sat in the car park of the local McDonalds. For the last couple of years of that relationship I knew that I had to get out of it no matter how difficult it was because I was wanting to drink more and more.

I did get out of it and because I had so much time on my hands I began to do things that he would never do or told me that I wasn’t capable of doing. I bought a camera and I’m quite good at it, I started to go to London regularly to take photos and to wander around the streets and I made contact with an old friend who has become one of the attorneys named in my Lasting Power of Attorney. I can’t work any more but I don’t feel useless about it in the way he made me feel useless just for being alive. I think he was projecting his feelings on to me.

Today life is very different from the day I stopped drinking. I couldn’t imagine what sobriety would be like and I never imagined that I’d have the life I have now. I’ve been diagnosed with an extreme case of bipolar disorder and my consultant used to tell his students that they would never encounter a patient with the same picture as I presented. I have to be different. Coming to terms with stopping work forever at the age of 42 was difficult and it took me a long time but I’ve grown because of that acceptance.

I’ve done lots of media work speaking and writing about having a mental health problem and I’ve always enjoyed that immensely. I continue to take photos, some of which have been published in books, and I also write a blog that is the main feature of my website. I’ve got lots more animals than I ever had back in the days when I was constantly at the beck and call of alcohol and I love them all dearly.

Had I not stopped drinking I would have been dead at least 22 years now but I live, I really live and, despite huge health problems, I live well.

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