[George's story first appeared in AA's Share magazine, November 2004.]
What makes an alcoholic? Well I spend a lot of my time with alkies and they come from all bands of society: bank managers, teachers, business people, sea captains, financiers, politicians, actors, builders, doctors, bus drivers, and the good old unemployed. I have even met and talked with a recovering alcoholic nun (closed order). Not one of them has adequately defined it for me, and very few have tried. It is irrelevant.
I remember, as a young man, watching a grown-up in a restaurant as their drunken head slumped into their rather fine spaghetti bolognese. I was disgusted and felt justifiably proud that I was never going to be so weak as to allow that ever to happen to me. In public, would you believe! Gross. So, of course, when the same thing did happen to me and I remembered that moment of judgmental innocent youth, it hit me in the face. You might imagine how I felt. Time to put the booze away. Except I couldn't. I had just been introduced to the dark and desperate world of alcoholism.
I don't regret drinking and have nothing against it. I had many great times and funny moments with good friends. I have many fond memories of nights with drink. I do not remember when I stepped over the line. There was certainly no phone call or red light. I simply seem to have woken up one day with alcohol on my mind. It wasn't that I was hiding it in secret stores around the house, although that is a common symptom. What need did I have to do that when, at the end of the working day, I could go to thousands of outlets and drink myself to amber oblivion with dozens of hail fellow well met friends, all doing the same? It was accessible, allowed, accepted and even encouraged. "Did I remember what I did last night?" became the standing joke which amused many folk, or so it seemed. The truth was, of course, that I couldn't.
I drank when I was sad, glad, or bored. Soon there was no need for a reason to drink. I had lost all reason and I began to realise that I had no option but to drink every day. Being awake was reason enough. Finally came blackout, the ultimate escape, the anaesthesia. Every night for three years I drank myself to blackout, and then I began to notice subtle changes, the harbingers of what was to come. I have not suffered yet, as lots of alcoholics do, with shakes and sweats and yellow skin. I did not lose the ability to walk or become doubly incontinent, or pass blood. I did not progress to a wet brain where I would have become a vegetable for the rest of my days, sitting in a soiled nappy. I was never detoxed or hospitalised or imprisoned. I didn't lose my job, home or car, although I did lose someone I loved. All this is mine for the asking of course, should I choose to pick up another drink. It has happened to enough alcoholics for me to know that it is mine for the asking. It is a well trodden path. The signs were there though: the change in tolerance, for example, so I became drunk on very little alcohol, a sure sign that the body was fighting back in a last attempt to reject the poison that was killing it. The so sweet organ music that came through the wall to soothe and soften my hangovers (cunning alcohol); the recurring soaked mattress; driving in blackout; the inability to stop once I had gulped that first desperately needed drink. Oblivion was staring me in the face.
I sometimes wonder, if I were recovering from heroin abuse or had blown my head off with acid in the Sixties, would there be a difference in the way people would view this addict? I am a recovering alcoholic. I choose to remain anonymous so that I can concentrate on that recovery, but would my employer, I wonder, and work colleagues and peripheral friends and society in general react differently to me if they knew I was an alcoholic? Would I suddenly acquire a dirty mac and have no self-will and sleep on a park bench? Quite possibly I imagine, for that is still the icon of the alcoholic. When alcohol took me I was a very successful young man. There, but for the grace of God, believe you me.
I do not know how I recovered, except that I remember surrendering to the fact that alcohol had the better of me and I desperately wanted to stop. I was frightened and did not know where to turn. I was too frightened to live and too frightened to die. I was as alone as any human can be. I did not go in search of God, that's for sure, but one day the desire to drink was taken from me and I have not desired or needed a drink from that day to this. God found me. I only use the word God because it is the only word that makes sense.
I am not religious, quite the opposite, but when I walked through the door of AA that first time, I could not stop drinking, my friends could not stop me, nor could my loved ones, or doctors, or nurses, or counsellors. I could not stop drinking for any reason on earth and no human hand could help me. Yet the desire and need to drink was taken from me at a stroke, one wet Sunday night in Stockport. It was the nearest to an act of God I am likely to witness in my life and thus I call it such. It is not important. It is personal to me, but I thank the universe and try to remember to profess my gratitude on a daily basis. Today I do not even think of alcohol, even when surrounded by it.
This instant relief from addiction, of course, does not happen to all people who become members of the Fellowship of AA, and I have witnessed many a braver soul than I can profess to be, struggling and fighting this illness and yet still not recovering. Do not imagine that an alcoholic suffers from lack of self-will! It takes willpower to be as sick as I was and go to any lengths each day to get more of the same poison to pour into myself. It takes guts to have faith that you can recover when every nerve in your body is screaming for alcohol. I have seen heroes, I have tasted courage and I have witnessed alcoholics recover from their addiction simply by attending AA meetings.
I read of people who have found a path to recovery without attending AA and, indeed, a number of us AAs do recover from the addiction and never return. Some of them do not have to take up a drink, others die. I respect any path that leads to recovery. For me, I discovered that I need to attend meetings on a regular basis to recover from the illness, as well as the addiction. I did not go to AA for six years after I was able to put the drink down, but at the end of that time my thinking was as bad as if I was still drinking. In fact it was worse. I was a dry drunk. I was depressed, suicidal and the fear had returned big time. Why? Well nobody poured booze down my neck. I was a very willing participant, so what was driving me? I drank to change my feelings and those feelings stemmed from my thoughts. Alcohol wasn't the problem. I was. I had to change my attitudes and my thinking if I was to remain sober and if I was to live a happy and useful life. You see, the monkey was off my back, but the circus was still in town.
AA does not guarantee that my sobriety will bring with it material prosperity, social status, love or family. Just because I might do good works is no guarantee that good things will happen to me. What AA aims to do is to prepare me for life: its ups and downs, and treat each of these charlatans with equal disdain. AA enables me to make choices in my life and to live my life simply and contentedly without alcohol. I no longer have anything to prove.
I continue to attend AA meetings for a wide variety of reasons. I am intrigued with recovery and the concept that I can choose contentment by choosing what I think. I have heard amazing true stories in the rooms and am constantly amazed by example. I have made dozens of friends from all walks of life, many of them natural comedians, the jokers in the six-pack, so I go for a laugh. AA has always been better than TV. I go to get a kick up the backside and be reminded of the reasons why I should be grateful. I hope that by going and sharing my hope and experience I help other people in their recovery. Sometimes I go because I am bored and sometimes for a bit of sanity and peace in a disturbing world. I am still frightened of picking up that first drink.
I have moved house a lot in my life and changed where I have lived on many occasions. The Fellowship moves with me. This applies anywhere on the planet now. I can move anywhere I wish and continue my journey. I am lucky. Most alcoholics before 1935 simply died, if they were lucky.
It is my fellow alkies who keep me sober. They are the experts and they will never judge me or let me down. They will simply always be there for me and, I hope, I for them. I owe them my life and self-respect and for that I shall be eternally grateful. I am no longer alone and I thank my God for that.
—George W, Guernsey AA, November 2004