Six Weeks Until Christmas
Chapter 11: Living and Learning
When I reached one month of sobriety I felt a sense of achievement akin to graduating from university. Since fifteen, I had never been sober for more than two weeks, so this was an accomplishment.
Picking up groceries from a local store, I passed the alcohol aisle and thought of my milestone.
I could celebrate with a wine. This was an achievement. Wait a minute. Do I want to toast my sobriety with my addiction? I can forego French Quarter drinking and survive The Strip’s temptations only to feel a stronger desire for a drink in Randall’s – is this how it works now?
Welcome to the mind of an alcoholic.
I laughed, shook my head at the thought and walked on. For spells in those first few weeks of sobriety, I felt comfortable, but never complacent about the threat of my triggers. My addiction creeps up on me. It always will and by accepting that, I began living on life’s terms. Recovery and rehabilitation were leading to discovery.
The foundations of detox and IOP introduced the twelve steps of recovery, planted seeds of a desire to learn, and encouraged me to talk to others. Accompanying me through this was my trusty notebook from the detox clinic. It served as a multi-purpose chore checklist, thought capture tool, reading list and paper counselor.
During the weekend between Louisiana and Vegas, it functioned as a checklist for Saturday and Sunday tasks, the mundane must-dos. I remembered these lists well from my drunken days, usually punctuated with procrastination in my desire to get loaded. By Monday morning, my tired and reddened face looked at the sheet of unchecked entries.
Fuck it. Next weekend.
This weekend was different. I approached my mundane must-do of food shopping, paper filing, tidying and other joys with rare enthusiasm. By mid-afternoon on both days the less attractive items were taken care of, freeing up time to read about addiction, IOP notes and then relax by watching Castle. It was 5:00 pm on Saturday and I wasn’t awakening from my morning/afternoon drinking session and getting ready for the evening encore. As Sunday night arrived each item was checked off, my mind was clear and my brain was fed.
This was revolutionary. I was living. Okay, so I wasn’t sky diving or climbing the Himalayas, but I was emerging from the cocoon I was encased in for so long. I was discovering recovery and recovering my life.
The first step reference to life becoming unmanageable hit me again. I had discovered time. Time that was usually spent after the three sh’s – shower, shit and shave – drinking, topping up, being sick and repeating the same until I passed out before waking to do it all over again. It felt as though I’d achieved more in a weekend than the previous year of weekends put together. With the exception of one which involved moving apartment, and even then I was loaded.
I committed more thinking to the twelve steps, the new template for my growth. This stuff was resonating, and I mean resonating. I say stuff as if it’s disinfectant bought from the supermarket. That it wasn’t, but it felt like being rinsed inside and getting the crap out of my system. It went beyond ‘you’re an alcoholic, quit drinking because you can’t help yourself.’ I possessed maturity which allowed me to process this information and look hard at myself. A maturity I could not muster in detox which explains the empty lessons-learned box on leaving that facility.
One day before an IOP session, I took a seat on a bench during a stroll in a local park. It was fresh but windy and the grass enjoyed a drink from earlier rainfall. Winter was setting in as the trees shriveled despite the wind attempting to shake life into them. Placing both my hands in the pockets of my New Orleans Saints jacket to stay warm, I noticed the team logo and my thoughts wandered back to Louisiana and my trip there. Taking my hands out of my pockets, I reached for my notebook.
When I returned from Las Vegas I noted that in the two weeks since New Orleans I shifted from abstinence to recovering. The trips represented milestones in my journey. I had emerged sober from them both. In the notebook I wrote in one column ‘New Orleans’ and in the next ‘Las Vegas’. Under each one I entered a series of single words to describe feelings and thoughts during both trips.
New Orleans: Scared, nervous, unsure, relieved, anxious, happy, tense, vulnerable, lost, free, craving, grateful, wishful, hopeful, alone.
Las Vegas: Excited, aware, control, nervous, poise, anxious, energetic, guarded, thankful, confident, bewildered.
I then wrote the words of the first step out in full directly underneath.
“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Here I was conducting an internal processing in the middle of a public park on a cold Texas day. I felt that I covered ground that I’d been over on the flight back from Nevada, but my mind was discovering itself again. On reading the two descriptions it became apparent that New Orleans was survival. Proper white knuckling. Reading the step and applying it to my comfort level in both cities showed me a development. Carrying the mantra of that first step forward day by day created the key difference.
When I got to Nevada, I was working that step like I was studying for an exam. It was walking around with me in the same way my addiction does. Only the first step was talking louder and way more convincingly. And then the images struck me. Through focusing and visualizing that step I recalled looking over the Mississippi and feeling a draw to the Crown and Anchor bar in Algiers. I contrasted that to the feeling of leaving the Crown and Anchor – this one in Vegas – and walking into the bright sunshine of the desert without cowering from the light.
By admitting to my powerless state, I regained a sense of control.
My mind suddenly felt like Recovery +1. I still have my notebook. I’m sure it sounds crazy, but more time offered more reflection and introspection, not the sitting around feeling sorry for myself and vomiting every five minutes kind. I was learning anew. I placed my notebook back into my backpack and headed to IOP.
You see progress in those few weeks and you’re aware of the changes. The confusion you felt was natural and still is. Good job, Si. Go have a drink.
I discovered I had a stalker.
As I continued my recovery, I rediscovered prayer. Prayer and religion are personal, so I will keep it succinct. Brought up a Roman Catholic but no longer practicing, I raised an eyebrow in detox and IOP when the ‘G’ word came up. I voiced some dissent regarding my experiences as a Catholic which did not sit well with others but they are my opinions and others are welcome to theirs. I hope this does not sound flippant. My personal discovery of prayer was not generated out of a last resort. It was in praise.
During days and nights of plying liters of liquor down my throat, I asked God to help me. Then I stopped because I was repeating the empty ‘ask God when the chips are down’ prayers of the past. I always perceived God as a spirit in the sky I prayed to. Even then my prayers were not prayers. They were recitals. It could have been the two times table I was reeling off.
I started praying again in detox but not in recital mode. I took it slowly and thought about each word and its meaning before committing to full prayer during my first few days in IOP. When I listened to others, I not only paid attention to their stories but felt them bearing their soul to me through God as I understood him.
On reading the serenity prayer I realized that my God was not in the sky judging, but around me at all times and within me. The real unraveling of my truth was a spiritual transformation. As a result, I felt a calm and poise which I had never felt. I was still learning about my God and prayer when I returned to work, and my decision to turn my will over to my higher power as I perceive Him is helping me place others before me and to reflect more thoughtfully on my actions each day. The spiritual ignition which I felt in the early weeks of recovery continues through daily practice, education and sharing.
I started sharing more and more personal thoughts with Nance, my new friend and confidant in New Orleans. We developed a bond and talked through anything and everything. I felt we had known each other longer than our brief time at the Saints game. In the aftermath of failing the breathalyzer, I felt alone with only a few non-work friends. Nance became a major presence in my life and my confidence grew in talking on a regular basis with friends back home. Aside from my phone confession regarding rehab, I kept my distance from them because alcoholism has such a stigma. I feared them thinking oh shit, it’s the alchy on the phone.
Now I learned to step out of those shadows. In doing so I discovered that there was no shame in confronting your demons and admitting vulnerability to others. There was no need for the underdog mentality which enveloped me prior to talking to the counselor at my first IOP session. Sharing was working. For too long I had pretended to be someone else. It turned into a sad skill to be gifted at.
A close friend back in Scotland, Smithy, was one of the first I contacted when I left detox. I initially shared the basic facts with him. Out of concern, he emailed on an almost daily basis. I assured him I was taking it slowly and making good progress. One evening, I decided to open up outside of the standard responses and replied with a brief attachment containing a summary of the thoughts you have just read above. His response read:
Where do I start? I have been through your email and enclosed document a few times and have been properly moved by them, mate. That takes a fuck-load of courage to be so honest and self-deprecating, I think the fact you have been able to do this is testament to true character, mate. Anyone can creep into the hands of addiction but it takes a real man (or woman, let’s not be sexist) to embrace the road to recovery as swiftly as you have, particularly when the decision was made for you by your work.
I had no idea you had fallen so badly, mate. Yes, I saw the shakes at Disney and noticed you drank mouthwash which may have been innocent, but it did make me wonder if you had a problem, but hey, you were on holidays in Florida, Why wouldn't you sink a few?
It must be really difficult to tell people, mate, but I genuinely don't think there is the stigma there once was about addiction. Let’s face it, it’s a rite of passage by the wannabes, but people are well aware that addiction happens to all kinds of people from every single walk of life. Alistair Campbell and countless others have shown how easily it can grab hold. I honestly think you were one of the unlucky ones who could keep going the day after a session, when others were being sick at the thought of it. Even as a young man I could see you had a faulty 'off switch'. LOL.
I think the things you talk about in terms of God and the human spirit are really interesting. Having been through the odd crisis or two as many of us have, I think the human spirit is an incredible thing. When things are tough, and I mean really tough, when it would be far, far easier to give up, there is a small percentage of your spirit, maybe one tenth, maybe one thousandth that just will not break no matter what it is battered with. Is this God? Is this the human spirit in a tangible sense? I don't know, mate. The older I get I am slowly moving from a committed atheist to a reluctant agnostic, and maybe I will pluck up the courage to 'believe' just in time for the pearly gates? Fuck me. That would be conveniently coincidental wouldn't it...
The temptation to repeat inane platitudes is almost overwhelming when a friend is in a rough patch, but I will stop myself and leave you by saying I am always here for you, my friend, as I know you are for me...
Keep on, my friend, keep on.”
I discovered that there was far more to be achieved from sharing my truth. Rather than the truth my alcoholic mind told me to share.
As I wrote in the opening chapter of this book, I am not an expert on the factors behind addiction. But with my head clear and my brain functioning, I was curious about my addiction, so Karen suggested a title, In The Realm Of Hungry Ghosts by Gober Mate. It was a startling starting point and covered the entire spectrum of this mental disease.
In my blissful ignorance I thought I picked up a bottle because I liked it, and before I knew it I was hooked. That’s true but a very crude version.
I read about dopamine receptors - we depend on our brain's ability to release dopamine in order to experience pleasure and to motivate our responses to the natural rewards of everyday life, such as the sight or smell of food. Drugs produce very large and rapid dopamine surges, and the brain responds by reducing normal dopamine activity. Eventually, the disrupted dopamine system renders the addict incapable of feeling pleasure from the drugs they seek to feed their addiction. As previously written, there was a time when alcohol was a pleasurable activity, but there is a turning point when it ceases to be although my system depended on it. Was I addicted to chemicals produced in my own brain? This was new to me after four weeks.
To say I was blind to this before would be an understatement. However, my appetite to learn more is greater than ever as a result. I read not only about this research but the entire subject of addiction from treatment to politics to insurance to stigma.
All of these factors, embracing prayer, reflecting on experiences and applying them to personal development, learning about my addiction and educating myself on spiritual principles signaled a significant mental shift. I laid foundations and these elements built on them. I was only five weeks into my recovery. Nonetheless, if you had told me when I got home from detox four weeks earlier that my life would progress with visible signs of growth, I would have given you directions from whence I came. I wasn’t getting carried away. I was putting one foot in front of the next, every day.
My progression paled into insignificance at one evening IOP session during my first week back at work. One of our counselors distributed handouts to the class. They looked like personal profiles on dating sites. I looked at the copy of the person to my right. It was different. So was the person’s copy on my left.
They were obituaries. We were asked to read out the page we were given. My obituary belonged to a beautiful looking and seemingly intelligent twenty-year-old woman. It turned out, the deceased had at one point sat in the same seat I occupied a year earlier before she fell to her addiction. Our counselor reminded us that without a program of recovery and a commitment to it, many people fail.
On my break, I went outside for a breath of fresh air and selfishly thought of myself. When I was twenty years old, I was still a student and working part time in the frozen food section of a supermarket in Scotland. I thought of students who were like family during my previous assignment in California. They were barely nineteen. Addiction doesn’t respect age. I returned to my seat and, fighting tears, prayed she was resting in peace.
About the author Simon Tait
A communications professional with over 15 years of experience in public relations and freelance journalism, Simon graduated with a bachelor’s degree in publishing from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland. For the last ten years, he has worked in the energy industry within the public affairs and communications sphere in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Asia. In his spare time, he contributes to sports and men’s lifestyle publications and has written accounts on recovery for the National Council for Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.