He hated himself for it; then cried out for help.
“My wife and children couldn’t stand the sight of me, my life was a shambles.”
These are the words of recovered alcoholic Brian Pearson (not his real name which has been changed for privacy reasons) who, at the height of his addiction, was consuming between 35 and 42 drinks a day - and putting his family through hell.
Today his drinking problems are well behind him, thanks to treatment he undertook at The Retreat New Zealand, a residential rehabilitation programme catering for people with a dependence on alcohol.
A registered charity, it has opened a new facility in Warkworth set in 12 acres of Kauri trees and native bush where it runs a residential 30-day programme closely aligned to the 12-step recovery programme.
CEO Janet Thompson says it is a place of healing and is very special: “We help remove the stigma of alcoholism. It cannot be wished away. It is a disease, not a moral failure and we help individuals sustain ongoing recovery through a commitment to treatment, education and public advocacy.”
Although Pearson has no doubt the work he did at The Retreat has transformed his life - “it’s a safe, loving, caring environment and it has given me back my life” - it did not come easy.
He believes he was born an alcoholic. “I’ve always loved drinking. It was a mental obsession; I was an all-day, every-day drinker and would be at the liquor store every morning at 7am.
“I couldn’t stop and would put away 35 to 42 standard drinks a day. In the end I was drinking cider because it was cheap and cheerful.”
His addiction soon began to play havoc with his life: “I was drinking at work, I would pass out and my (business) partner would have to pick up the slack. My family reacted badly because I wasn’t present for them and could be verbally abusive; I wasn’t trusted and they watched me like a hawk.
“My son started lashing out at school and I could see in his and my daughter’s faces (both are now teenagers) that they were questioning what I was doing still being there (in the family home). It was a difficult and tense environment and talk of me moving out was a common thing; I hated myself.”
Things came to a head in 2016 when suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, he was rushed to hospital after varicose veins in his stomach burst causing severe gastric haemorrhaging. He survived but he realised he needed to do something about his addiction.
“I went to community-based 12-step meetings that year and although I stayed dry for three and a half months I just couldn’t get over the hump,” he says. “It was then a friend convinced me I needed to do more.”
So, in 2018 he went through the first of two stays at The Retreat: “I went in on November 23 and came out on Christmas Eve. I went home and managed nearly five months sober, which at the time was my longest stint away from drink in 20 years.”
But he relapsed and in April 2019 he booked himself back into The Retreat for another round of treatment. This time it worked and next month Pearson will be celebrating four years without a drink.
“I feel good,” he says. “I’m fortunate to still have my wife and kids in my life. We share a house and my son and I do things together. He’s into cars, I’m into cars; I’ve bought a small launch and we go fishing together.”
He says he is grateful for the impact The Retreat has had in his life. At his lowest point “my wife was depressed and my kids withdrew from me. My parents were devastated and I constantly thought ‘who else hates me’?
“But at The Retreat all that pressure came off. I was able to let all that go and found help to find what is important to me.”
A long time business owner, Pearson is back at The Retreat giving hope to others, once a week taking a session by sharing his story.
Thompson says the new Warkworth facility only takes in people with problems with alcohol, not those with drug issues.
“People think alcoholics are homeless living under a bridge,” she says. “The reality is alcoholism does not discriminate - alcoholics are your family, neighbours, workmates and friends leading strong, successful and healthy lives.
“The stigma of alcoholism causes people to deny they have a problem and often they are too embarrassed to ask for help. (But) you have to deal with it because by not doing so it does not go away or get better. It is a progressive disease and it’s okay to ask for help.”
She says a Stats NZ Health Survey in 2018 revealed that up to a quarter of the 79 per cent of Kiwi adults who said they consume alcohol were doing so in a way that could harm themselves or others. Men were twice as likely as women to be hazardous drinkers.
Thompson says The Retreat’s vision is that recovery will be available for all New Zealanders who look for it. “We treat the whole person as well as the illness and treat every person with dignity and respect. Because alcoholism affects all family members and family friends, we help them learn strategies for when their loved one returns home.”
An online survey conducted by The Retreat showed that 61 per cent of respondents who went through the programme between 2013 and 2020 remained clean and sober for 12 months or more.
“When it does not work for them the first time we set them up with strategies and tools so they know what to do. They can come back to us for a two-week refresher (as Pearson did) or just reconnect with their local community-based 12-step meetings.”
For more information go to: www.theretreatnz.org.nz