A couple of times a year, I mail out a free paper case study (yes, really, in the mail, with nice stamps and everything). This one was originally sent out September 2016.
Doesn’t matter if you drank 3 glasses a night or 3 bottles. Doesn’t matter if you go to AA, or you’ve been to rehab, or if you use only “The Belle Program.” We have a lot in common, and can learn from each other. This is Tim’s story.
Tim (Day 946): I’m on Day 946 today but I’m ashamed to say that only you know that. My work involves a huge amount of numerical information, so it’s quite embarrassing, I should know my day count. In the early days it really made a difference. Now it’s all blending together a little, in a good way I would say.
me: You’re in a unique position in that you’re one of my penpals who emails me AND goes to AA, and you’ve found both to be helpful in combination. How long had you tried to be sober on your own, before you actually got some momentum?
T: I’m now 36 years old, I first kicked booze for a reasonable period of time at the age of 22. I was doing my degree and realized that if I didn’t sober up for a bit, then I wasn’t going to graduate. I stopped drinking for six solid months without a support network. Eventually I started drinking again, and then 13 short years later I appeared at AA. At various times I quit for a week or two; it was never hard to stop, it was incredibly hard to STAY stopped.
My denial was that I wasn’t an alcoholic (in my mind) if I held down a good job, and I did; if every weekend I could get up with my children in the mornings, and I did; if we had enough money, and we did; and so long as I didn’t ever get behind the wheel of a car after having drunk, and I didn’t. So I wasn’t an alcoholic. I originally had a longer list of things I wouldn’t do, but I started removing items as part of the denial.
me: I think we lower our standards, right? What did you originally say you would never do, that you then ended up doing?
T: One of them was never getting too drunk at work events, and at the end of my drinking story, that was one of the things that eventually led me to stop, properly: a drunken work party. I was working in the British media at the time. It’s a bit of a joke, but it’s almost impossible to be too drunk to work at the British media, but I did have a really good go at it. At my work-leaving party, I spent thousands and thousands of pounds of the company’s money at the party. I remember very little of it, but I did have to go back and retrieve the company credit card days later from a club. Before, I had always been quite controlled about who I would let see me drunk. But things got chipped away and the standards got far lower.
me: In what other ways were you in denial?
T: One of the things I did at the end, once I knew in my heart of hearts that I was going to have to stop, but didn’t want to stop YET, was I made sure that I had a HUGE stockpile of booze that I had to drink through completely before I quit.
me: It’s interesting the tricks that we play on ourselves, like “I’ll quit as soon as this large stock is gone.”
T: Yes, and since I’m an addict in a number of areas in my life (I’m a bit of hoarder, too), the stock of alcohol was NEVER finished. I kept it topped up. It was pretty alcoholic-ish behaviour: “When that gets to nil, which is never, I’ll stop.”
me: What are your other compulsive tendencies?
T: My other aspects do less damage to my life compared to the alcohol — shopping, eating — things that, in moderation, are good, but when they get out of moderation, they can be quite damaging. Like many of us, I’m shrewd and clever. I do these other things in way that is never quite enough to really damage me. It’s the notion of ‘getting away with it’ which was always big for me with drinking as well. It’s just that over time, you STOP getting away with it.
me: There is this idea of sneaking, that is quite attractive.
T: Absolutely. I’ve been sneaking things all my life, and I still am. I went to a formal English school. I was good at misbehaving and not getting caught. I’m married to someone who was far naughtier at school, but she didn’t care about getting caught. She finds the sneakiness utterly baffling. For her, the getting caught was getting attention. For me, it was always about a private, secret victory. It’s sort of sad for me to talk about it now. It doesn’t make me feel good admitting those things.
me: Some people that I talk to when I do one-on-one coaching calls will say that the sneaky part is: “I’m a good girl, so I sneak this.” Or “I just want to have something that nobody else knows about.”
T: Agreed. Now, I think I have two pillars to my sobriety. One is AA, and the other one is the penpal relationship that I have with you. What I gain from both is the experience of others. I went to a meeting and heard a man say that if he had another drink, he’d have to hand over his wife and children in exchange for the drink. When I first quit, my marriage was in a very bad place, so his words really resonated with me and his message carries to this day. It’s about how much I would lose.
me: Your wife did want to separate at some point.
T: Not at some point, at many points. The phrase that got me to attend my first meeting, was when I had a raging hangover and the night before I’d been babysitting the children whilst L. went out. (She’ll kill me for saying that, because I think when you’re the father, it’s called ‘parenting’ rather than babysitting.) But she’d gone out and I’d looked after the children. My normal trick — because I’m a secretive person — was to get very drunk on my own. I’d been trying to drink less, and I’d been behaving quite well up until that point, and then I basically drank a huge amount.
She came back and she was livid. The next morning I woke up with a horrible hangover, and her phrase: “Tomorrow you’re going to San Francisco, and when you get back, we’re getting a divorce” — those words ushered me into realizing just how far and fast things had gone wrong. I went off on that business trip; flying sober is not fun, let alone in your early days. Especially when you’re travelling on business, the whole thing is geared to push alcohol on you at every turn.
me: You were on Day 2 sober and flying first-class. I remember.
T: My stories of my Day 2 or Day 6 are incredibly privileged, really. The horrors of “oh my gosh I had to sit in this very nice aircraft whilst stewardesses pushed booze at me.” But I don’t delude myself. Where I live in London, there’s a lot of street drinking and that’s where I would have ended up if I’d have kept going.
I found an amazing AA meeting in San Francisco at 6 a.m. and went to that every day for two weeks. Then I got back to London, and things were pretty tough, and I think it was a month after I got back, that L. decided she wanted to get divorced despite all the changes I’d made.
<< email from Tim, December 12, 2013: Last night my wife told me she’s very unhappy and wants a divorce. I’m all over the place (to steal from Country and Western lyrics, I’m not sure if I want to shoot myself or go bowling) not least as I had today off work with her and the children and had a great time. I know she’s sad and upset, and she’s entitled to be, but we have so much going for us, despite everything I’ve done and despite how much she feels she can’t trust me. >>
That was incredibly tough. It was two weeks before Christmas and we decided that the best thing, with two small children, was to have our Christmas together as a family, and then figure out what to do with our separation in the new year. That was a very bleak time.
me: For a person who goes to AA meetings, what is the benefit of having me as a sober penpal? Why would you have added that in addition?
T: I don’t think it’s possible to have too many stands or elements for my recovery. What attracted me to being a penpal of yours, was that at that time my life was a mess, and I wasn’t sure that AA was for me. I’d just stopped drinking for only a few days at that point when I first contacted you, and I wasn’t quite sure about what I was going through. Then when I got back to London, I still hadn’t found a meeting that I liked, so I was feeling a bit disaffected with it all. And frightened. I do think, ultimately, for me, in my heart of hearts, I’m a secretive and cheaty person at times; the more daylight I shine on me, whether that’s through meetings or through exchanging emails with you — the more I starve wolfie by making friends and not being alone — it betters my chances.
me: Right, but I’m a Canadian girl living in France, I’m not on the list of sober supports that you might have naturally gravitated to.
T: When it comes down to it, does it really matter whether you’re Canadian or based in France? I have a number of sober friends now and I don’t know any whose circumstances are exactly like mine. It doesn’t matter in terms of geography or where you’re from. Having accountability forces me out of a very insular, strange and closed world.
The biggest challenge I have on a day to day basis, is living with me. To be paired with someone exactly like me wouldn’t be terribly helpful. I try to be better, and yet I wake up every morning and there I am.
One interesting experience in parenthood is having little people, who have a relatively limited experience of the world, looking up to me. And my son in particular still idolizes me (he’s 6). I used to find that so hard when my self-esteem was nil. The older he gets, the more I see ME wandering around in a mini form: all of his anger, even his compulsive desires to have possessions. Today, I feel a huge empathy for him. I know that I’m in the best place to help him cope with some of the downsides of some of the obsessions.
me: Imagine if you were drinking — like, what kind of a parent would you be to him?
T: I think if 947 days ago wasn’t my first day of sobriety, then there’s a fair chance I wouldn’t be here now — not from a physical health fallout, but I think my self-destruction would have taken a very dark turn. To answer your question, I don’t think I’d be ANY kind of parent, I don’t think I’d be any kind of person by now. That is enough reason to celebrate. No matter how crappy the day may be sometimes.
me: I want to ask you a question that people ask me about being longer-term sober, which is “boy, is it hard to have to think about it all the time?” I’d like to hear what your answer to this is, because my answer has been “if I stopped all of my sober supports, and I didn’t email anybody and I didn’t go to meetings and I didn’t talk to anybody, and I didn’t do anything, I figure I’d be drinking within four months.”
T: I don’t think I agree with you about the timeline, which may be right for you. But I don’t think I’ve got four months in me.
me: You think yours is less.
T: When work takes over and crunches out my meetings, sometimes I’ll go a week without any sober support, and I can feel myself getting crazier and less tolerant. I know if I ran that out, I don’t think it’s four months for me, or if it is, they’d be filled with very unpleasant behaviour.
me: Can you outline what sorts of things you do to ensure that you stay sober? What’s in your sober toolkit?
T: One thing I do is call someone else who’s doing the same sober thing at least once a day, whether that’s my sponsor or someone else who’s new to this sober world, just to make sure that I push myself out of my comfort zone (I don’t like talking on the phone). And I email you.
Also in my sober toolkit is self-care: The better I take care of myself, the better I want to take care of myself. I’m not a paragon of virtue.
Some days I use my tools better than others. But I know that when I do more of this self-care thing, then there are fewer assholes in the world.
T: The biggest commonality for all of us, having a penpal or going to AA, is that it’s about getting to bed sober at night, getting through a day without drinking. That’s true whether it’s Day 1 or Day 947. The nice thing is that it gets easier.
<< email from Tim April 16, 2015: It’s great to be free of all that shit. I’m still just plain relieved not to be doing any of it any more. >>
[Update: He’s on day 1,673 today!]