COMMENT: By UK writer Sara Lawrence
The shouting sounds muffled, distant. I think I'm in bed, dreaming, until someone starts shaking my shoulder. My eyes open to reveal a strange man leaning through the window of my car. I'm at a weird angle and it takes a minute to realise I'm in a ditch on a country lane near my parents' house in the New Forest.
It takes another moment to realise there's vodka all over me and the seat, spilling out of the water bottle I filled before I left. I can see our three family dogs in the rear-view mirror, looking as confused as I feel. It's 10am and I'm supposed to be taking them to the kennel before heading to the airport to join my parents on holiday in France. I clamber out but am shaking so much I have to sit down. The man, a farmer, tries to move the car using his tractor, but it won't budge.
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I cannot stay here stinking of booze with the car stuck and loose dogs everywhere so call my brother before someone alerts the police. The exquisite rage on his face when he arrives and realises I'm drunk again is not something I'll ever forget. He screams at me the whole way to the kennel, then takes me to the airport because I obviously cannot take myself. Relations with my family are at an all-time low thanks to the increasing regularity of incidents like this.
It's August 2013. Three months before, I had been asked to leave the lovely London flat I shared with a university friend because there were only so many times she could come home from work to find me passed out on the kitchen floor after drinking all day. So at the age of 34, I had moved back in with my parents, determined to sort myself out.
But it's not working. The crash is my second in as many months. I totalled my sister's car when I stole it to buy more alcohol. The keys to my car had been hidden because of my extreme drunkenness.
In fact, over the past 12 months my behaviour has been atrocious. I've had physical fights with whomever tried to stop me drinking, thrown vile insults around like confetti, and I am always covered in bruises with no idea why. I ruin every occasion by turning up drunk or not turning up at all. I'm drinking as much as I can get my hands on — a litre of vodka or four bottles of wine per day is normal — and the amount is increasing.
There are bottles stashed all over my parents' house and garden. Yet still I'm in denial. Even at this point of crisis and humiliation I truly believe my drinking is a matter of choice — that if I just try harder, I can stop.
And so, throughout the autumn of 2013, I throw myself into it. I try hypnosis, psychotherapy, meditation and anti-depressants. I do a boot camp, two yoga retreats and countless nature walks. And it works for a while — a few days here and there, occasionally a white-knuckle week — but it doesn't last and I plunge back into drinking.
Under pressure from my family, who clearly see what I cannot, I go to two meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, but again I let my loved ones down. I refuse to admit I'm one of the alcoholics I sit with and leave, convinced, again, that I can still pull this back, get some control over it.
Surely, I can go back to the days when my drinking was fun and didn't stand out. Can't I?
Insane as it sounds, I genuinely believed alcohol was a symptom of my problem rather than the problem itself, never mind that I couldn't identify the elusive root issue. With my Roedean and Leeds University education, exciting career as a journalist and travel writer flying round the world for glossy magazines, and strong relationships (up until now anyway), I simply didn't fit my own profile of an alcoholic.
Except that I do fit the profile.
A 2015 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development revealed that Britain has proportionally more professional women drinking to dangerous levels than in other developed countries. Another study showed that while general deaths from alcohol were falling, among women in their 30s and 40s, they're rising.
I'm part of that first statistic. By Christmas 2013, my drinking had become not only an act of social self-sabotage, but also a serious threat to my health. I tried and tried to rein it in — only drinking at parties, only with meals, not at home and never in the morning. I read self-help books and thought I was cured, or did until I woke from the next bout of week-long, all-day oblivion-drinking.
And it was obvious to everyone witnessing the trauma of this reckless, destructive, out-of- control abuse that my lows were getting lower, faster. It was also obvious that I couldn't help myself.
I woke up in police cells — once in London, where I worked, and once in Lymington in Hampshire, where I grew up — with no idea why. The rock bottoms involving authorities were bad enough but it was the ones involving my loved ones, crying and begging me to stop, that haunted me the most. The trajectory was set, the graph was trending downwards and the end result would surely be death.
Thanks to a 'quick one' in the departure lounge bar on the day of the crash, on my way to France, I unleashed even more chaos when I failed to get on the plane because I was drunk in the airport. To the disgust of my four siblings, my parents came home early from their much-needed break to find me incoherent in my childhood bedroom, having been dropped home by yet another police car.
That's how I found myself an inmate at Clouds House rehab in rural Wiltshire, sleeping in a dormitory with five people I didn't like, sitting through long group therapy sessions that felt like the dystopian competition in The Hunger Games — writing endless assignments about the terrible things I'd done under the influence, and experiencing constant character assassination.
In one session I was quizzed by a crack-addicted sex worker with two black teeth about the negative patterns in my romantic relationships. In another I was told by a violent criminal, who had spent more time in prison than out, that I was "hostile and aggressive".
Clients weren't allowed phones, toiletries containing alcohol (I'm not kidding when I say I would have drunk them), mirrors or razors. We had wake-up, bed and meal times, a rule book and every minute accounted for. There was a lot of smoking. It wasn't unlike boarding school but, where I'd loved school, I hated every minute of this. I fought the system and my peers, threw tantrums and argued constantly.
My favourite fellow client, a television producer who arrived straight from her drink-driving court case, was kicked out for refusing to clean the kitchen. A company director was sent home for procuring cocaine.
I wanted to leave but thought suffering the experience would get everyone off my back.
I might as well have taken the £10,000 it cost my parents and burnt it. I checked out three days before Christmas 2013 and drank a bottle of wine that night, convinced that I was cured after four weeks.
On Christmas Eve I bought two litres of vodka and don't remember anything until my brother and sister decanted me to a hotel on Boxing Day with strict "this is it" instructions to sober up. But there was a supermarket down the road, so I don't remember the next few days either.
Check-in was a blur, but if the manager didn't realise I was drunk, then she sure as hell knew about it by the time she asked me to leave because I was "scaring children and old people". Apparently, families heading out to Peppa Pig World don't like it when blind-drunk girls fall down the stairs in front of them at 9am.
In the new year I crawled back to my under-siege parents, swearing I would go to AA and take it seriously. But I was still lying, to myself as much as them, which is precisely what alcoholics do.
During the summer of 2014 I was hospitalised three times in two weeks. I drank so much at my friend's house she found me unconscious in the bathroom and called an ambulance.
I spent 36 hours attached to a drip at Southampton General hospital. A week later I was taken out of Waterloo station on a stretcher to St Thomas' hospital after drinking all day instead of getting a train home. Three days later the exact same thing happened again. I finally conceded I did not know best and asked for the help I spent so long refusing.
Checking into rehab willingly was the best decision I ever made and I spent 14 weeks at Focus12 in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. This sojourn cost £750 a week, so was cheaper than Clouds, but still came in at £10,500. My parents stepped in again. (I have since paid them back.)
I listened, learned and wanted to change. Crucially, I made the switch from believing I was drinking because I was unhappy to believing I was unhappy because I was drinking. I came to understand I would never control my drinking or triumph in the war against my alcoholism. I had to stop fighting — surrender to win. I left in January 2015 knowing unequivocally that if I wanted a nice life it must involve a commitment to AA.
Newly sober, riddled with shame and guilt, I couldn't imagine talking openly about my situation as I do today, let alone writing an article like this. I recently celebrated five years of sobriety and, given that I could barely go five minutes without a drink at my worst, this feels like a miracle.
Today, I'm proud rather than ashamed. Proud of how far I've come, but proudest of those who didn't give up on me when no sane person could have blamed them. Some did, of course, but I see now they did me a favour — knowing who has really got your back is an extraordinary gift.
The simple idea that I had caring friends and family kept me from sinking when my new sober life felt like wading through fast-setting concrete. My dark and twisty journey from rock-bottom drunk to gratefully sober has also taught me it's not what happens that defines us, but how we respond.
Karen Tyrell, executive director at drug and alcohol charity Addaction, says most of us know someone with an alcohol problem: "It's an issue that touches almost every family in the UK. It's really common and definitely something we all need to talk about."
I celebrated my 40th birthday in February with a huge party at the Groucho Club. This was the scene of much of my drinking, as it progressed from party to problematic, apocalyptic to alcoholic — and when I was fresh out of rehab, I couldn't imagine having fun again or being comfortable not drinking among drinkers. But I can and I did.
My surroundings are the same but my mentality is different. I always used to think the grass was greener on the other side. Now I know the problem was me.
The initial absence of insatiable craving, astonishing enough when it hit halfway through that final rehab visit, has morphed into a deep-rooted intention not to take the first drink.
Alcoholism is a killer disease that tells you don't have a problem; that, more dangerously, what you've got is some sort of willpower failure; that if you can get some control, everything will be OK.
At least ten people I've met along this road are dead. Overdoses, suicides, a house fire (she passed out holding a lit cigarette), car crashes. The ways are endless but the cause is the same.
Regardless of how long I stay sober, I believe it's always waiting for me to forget I've got it. I go to regular AA meetings because I need to remind myself how hellish it is to be out there untreated.
It was partly this which led me to write about my drinking. The result is a memoir, It's Five O'Clock Somewhere. It was painful to write in parts, but remembering the trauma is always good for me and I hope might be useful for others.
It is also a love letter to my supporters and a mark of my gratitude, which I try to make my main focus these days. As a wise man at Clouds kept saying, grateful alcoholics don't relapse. I was incapable of hearing him then — but it's loud and clear now.