Thursday 27 November 2014

The alternative to drink is freedom from a substance that was the point of my life

Published 30/07/2014 | 02:30

Picture posed. Thinkstock Images
Picture posed. Thinkstock Images

This morning I began the first day of my 25th year as a non-drinker. That makes it 8,766 alcohol-free days without a sip of alcohol, one day at a time.

This is a way of saying it, but in Ireland perhaps a misleading one. It gives the impression of something desperately achieved against nature, a white-knuckle subsistence pulled off in spite of an overwhelming and relentless urge, by willpower alone.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. The 'one day at a time' strategem is a trick you learn in the beginning, a way of reducing the problem to the smallest manageable period. Sometimes, in the past, it was an hour or a minute at a time. For me today, such devices are not exactly irrelevant, but they convey the wrong message. In every single aspect of my life, the only things I have to deal with today are those that confront me between now and bedtime. Alcohol is no longer one of them, but I've found that life runs smoother if I think that way about everything. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

There's a saying I've heard in recovery circles: 'The best it's gonna be is like the worst it was before'. I have seen this borne out too often to contemplate drinking even if I wanted to. But today, I wouldn't give you two cents for all the drink in the country. The very thought of it fills me with tedium and disgust. I have Proustian recall of the weariness of a hangover, and have enjoyed enough close-ups of toilet bowls to see me out.

I never realized how much I hated pubs until I stopped drinking. When making an appointment, people of other nationalities offer to meet for coffee, my fellow countrymen frequently propose a pint and take it bad if I suggest Starbucks. 'Will you not have even one? Jazus!', they say, as if you have just insulted their mother. People I used to drink with tell me I wasn't nearly as bad a drunk as my abstemiousness suggests to them. Most of them were probably even drunker than I was and can't remember what they were doing or drinking themselves..

When people insist, I tell them they wouldn't like me if I was drinking - a line I half-stole from Bill Bixby as Dr Bruce Banner, when he wasn't being the Incredible Hulk. It's not an entirely inappropriate comparison: not exactly bulging veins and ripping shirts but something much worse. In vino veritas is a lie: a drunk is someone who has lost his self.

People say, 'But what about when you retire, or if you became ill - wouldn't you like the option of a nice hot toddy for medicinal purposes? 'Or what about if I was given a year to live? The resourcefulness of the addict know no bounds when it comes to clinging to his drug of choice. When people persist in knowing why I stopped, I say I wanted to give it up while it was still my own idea, a line I stole from Billy Connolly. This generally achieves a change of subject.

I invariably comprehend that such reactions are not about me, but about the other person. People who pick up on the fact that others don't drink are always secretly thoughtful about their own drinking. They fish for reassurance in the guise of casual curiosity. Sobriety is an uncomfortable condition in a country that ranks the consumption of alcohol as its pre-eminent ritual.

You lose 'friends' when you stop drinking. I've often noticed that former drinking buddies are among the most poisonous enemies whenever an opportunity arises to exact vengeance for 'abandoning' them.

In healthier societies, 'not drinking' is not seen as a negative. There are countries in which it's possible to order a cappuccino after six without getting a slap of a bar towel. In such places, I am not a 'non-drinker', simply someone who prefers a coffee.

I no longer have the slightest desire for alcohol. To cope with not drinking in the beginning, I had to re-learn completely how to live and, having cracked that after a fashion, I came to see that drinking had become an avoidance of reality.

The alternative to drinking is not 'not drinking' - the alternative to drinking is life. My problem was not simply that alcohol 'didn't agree with me', but that it was the enemy of my spirit. To drink the way I did was to defy my given nature. This is why the idea God is at the core of the more successful programmes of addiction-recovery: because the only cure for such obsessions is to rediscover your original structure. It has nothing to do with puritanical notions of avoiding excessive enjoyment, or repenting, or atoning for your 'sins'. The point is that we are built in a certain way, charged with desires, which if misunderstood will lead us to disaster. Willpower is useless in such battles - you need to start thinking about things fundamentally.

I don't like the word 'alcoholic' - not because of any a stigma attaching to it, but because it seeks to trap me in the condition I've been escaping. Alcohol no longer defines me in any sense whatever. I don't think of myself as a 'non-drinker' or a recovering this or that. It's just that, when someone offers me an alcoholic drink, I say no thanks. Nothing more nor less.

I've been freed from any desire for a substance that once threatened to make itself the entire point of my life. Today, entering my 25th year without alcohol, there isn't an alcoholic drink in the world that tastes half as good as sober feels.

Irish Independent

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