As Alcoholics Anonymous NZ marks 70 years this month, one recovering alcoholic tells the story of how he beat the booze.
My drinking was problematic from the start. I'd always hated the taste of alcohol, but on the first occasion that I managed to drink enough for it to have an effect on me, aged 17, I thought I had solved an on-going problem: a life enslaved by anxiety. With alcohol, I felt free and I didn't give a shit about what anyone thought. Unfortunately, I ended up not giving a shit about anything else either.
With neither the time nor opportunity to have achieved anything much, numbing everything - good and bad - felt like a safe escape. But drinking - to achieve this comfort - meant that I had to lie about things I wasn't doing, like going to school, and to lie about the dishonest things I was doing, like stealing and disappearing for days on end. This quickly brought relationships, friendships, and any life goals to an abrupt end, allowing my anxiety to return and my addiction to flourish.
How my drinking went from allowing me to feel comfortable at high school parties to lying to those closest to me, to assaulting people and then on to fraud and attempted armed robbery by the tender age of 24, is a chaotic but short story. Having scraped through high school, I was issued with an ultimatum to find work and pay board or move out of the family home. I managed to get myself a student allowance - for a course I'd never attend - to cover the rent in a flat. By removing myself from the gaze of my family, I gained a vizard of independence and the time and space in which to lose any control I might have still had over my drinking.
The next couple of years saw me going further into debt, drinking more often and for increasingly long periods of time. I found myself with no money for repayments, rent, or anything else. A friend of mine with as little grip on reality as me at the time had a plan to rob an inner-city bar that involved us trying to subdue a staff member. Looking back, I think this was more some kind of real-life HBO crime drama-fantasy for him, but I was desperate for the cash and lured by his promise that there would be at least $3000 of it.
Masked and armed with a crowbar, rope, and replica gun, we waited for the bar to close, but hiding next to the dumpsters out back, our plan was foiled before it started. One of the staff came out to throw away some rubbish and saw us. In that instant, my friend hit him to the ground with a single punch. I jumped on top of him, trying to tie him up while my friend assured him we weren't going to hurt him. Not me. I told him we would kill him in the hope he'd stop resisting. He didn't, managing to wrestle free of us. Terrified, I sprinted towards a party I knew of nearby, hoping that I'd blend in and the police dogs wouldn't be able to track me while my friend ran to his car and drove home. We ended up with nothing but a lifetime of guilt over how we'd traumatised that guy for the rest of his life by making such an insane and selfish decision.
"Hi, I'm Sam*, and I'm an addict."
That was me at my first meeting in 2015, sitting, trembling nauseously, far more than I ever had from my drinking. A few minutes after I spoke, a member with five years' sobriety under his belt announced to the group that there was another place for addicts, referring to Narcotics Anonymous. I'd naively thought that everyone was welcome in AA, but there are a few holier-than-thou members who seem to hold either themselves or AA in higher esteem than "addicts" and other 12-step programmes. It's attitudes like this that turn many newcomers off coming back.
I hadn't even chosen to be at that meeting. I was there as part of treatment in an outpatient rehabilitation programme for drug and alcohol addiction. The treatment involved being introduced to various 12-step programmes in the hope they'd serve as maintenance care after graduating. I came to realise that the five-year-sober holy-roller's comment was more a personal problem he had with the word "addict" being used in place of "alcoholic". Thinking that everyone in that room had suffered or still suffered from an addiction to alcohol, addict seemed like a more encompassing term to use - but apparently, for some, it's just a problem with alcohol.
But I've learned that alcoholism is just addiction. Addiction to any substance weaves itself throughout a person's entire being, altering both their personality and sense of self, when an awareness of the potential rewards (big and small) from taking certain substances and activities occurs. In my case, it was my ignorantly self-prescribed cure for anxiety. The 12-step approach to recovery from addiction that AA espouses has been the only method I've found in my 14-year battle with alcohol that's worked. It's enabled me to regain a sense of self-awareness that helps me manage the anxiety I'd been carting around years before I found strength in the bottle.
I know I could get away with drinking again now, but what getting away with drinking means is a return to dishonesty, escapism, and an inevitable journey to rock bottom. I'm unsure of how long it would take to reach or what kind of awful things I'd do on my way there, but the memory of even a small portion of those experiences is enough to keep me in recovery and free from any longing to drink again. Feeling like I'd be "getting away" with something is a sure sign that it's something I shouldn't be doing and that intuition serves as a clear boundary for me between what's right and wrong in my thoughts and behaviour.
Part of the AA programme that helped cement my recovery was being not just encouraged but allowed to surrender and acknowledge that I had no control over my addiction.
Other AA members have told me they found this aspect particularly difficult, because their pride and control were a huge protective force for them in their addiction. Luckily, I had no pride or confidence in anything other than finding ways to escape reality.
I couldn't imagine a more shameful existence than the one I'd created for myself, so letting go was easy.
Being taken seriously by everyone I'd hurt and let down through years of lies and abuse was extremely difficult. That and coming clean to everyone - including myself - proved to be the biggest obstacle to overcome. Once accomplished, and I began working through the programme and the steps, the sense of community and ongoing support found at meetings gave me exactly the affirmation and confidence needed to regain my life. And so, at 31 years old, I find myself a month shy of being two years clean and sober.
* Name changed for privacy reasons.
Where to get help:
• Alcohol Drug Helpline: 0800 787 797 and free text service (txt 8681)
• Alcoholics Anonymous: 0800 229 6757
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.