Recovery Month all month, but just one day at a time
I am, I suppose, in recovery. I raise a slight doubt about it, only because it has been so long since I went into recovery - late in the last century - that there are times when I think that I have probably come out the other side of it by now.
And most of the time, in truth, I hardly think about it at all. Which may not be entirely wise, though it may also best the best of all outcomes - or given the mysterious nature of these processes, it may be some strange combination of both.
I was reminded of it last week with the launch of Recovery Month by the Rutland Centre at an event in the Mansion House attended by the Minister for Health and various interested parties, who are essentially putting it out there that there is such a thing as recovery from addiction, and that it can improve your life beyond recognition.
As a graduate of the Rutland, I am entirely supportive of anything of this nature, not least because I have had what is known in the trade as "a good recovery". I gave up the drink, and at this stage I think it might be quite a struggle for me to go back on it. But there are moments of uncertainty. And that's all they are, moments, but then a moment can change everything.
You can decide to stop drinking in a moment, likewise you can decide to start again in a moment - such as the one that I sometimes experience when I am passing a pub in Dublin in which I used to dwell.
I say "dwell", because most people who drink too much will probably regard the pub as the place in which they live, that their own home is just a kind of facility that they use for what might be called administrative purposes. So when I am passing the International Bar, or Mulligan's, I can for a moment be seized by this overpowering sense of loss, almost a kind of mourning - not just for my old life in there, but for the youth that I spent in that way.
And then I walk on, and that moment passes. It is gone. Because one of the things that you learn in recovery, is that there may be profound complexities to be contemplated, but that much of it is about keeping it simple.
You just walk on by. You don't go in, for the one drink that could start another lifetime of drinking. You walk on, and you'll probably find that in 10 seconds you will have forgotten whatever it was that assailed you, in that moment of what French degenerates would call nostalgie de la boue, or what we might call nostalgie de la booze.
After a while of not doing things that you used to do, of simply not raising a glass to your lips and consuming the alcohol therein, of realising that you are not actually obliged to do any of that, you may find in the fullness of time that not drinking becomes a habit that is nearly as hard to break as drinking itself.
You also learn in recovery that it is not abnormal for a person who used to drink to the point of alcoholism, to be visited occasionally by these misty water-coloured memories of the way we were. Indeed it was getting quite misty for me recently, as I listened to a man who runs a celebrated public house in rural Ireland, outlining his vision of perfect happiness, of making his pub a place that a man would never want to leave, never need to leave, because he would be able to drink and gamble and eat if necessary, maybe even spend the night there, completely protected from interference by this terrible thing they call reality.
There is indeed a part of me that will always be drawn towards that mist, that sense of being sealed off in some murky cavern in which, in some perverse way, you feel free from the boredom of regular existence. But then you discover a different kind of boredom in there, you find that this other world is getting smaller all the time, that it is becoming harder to sustain these illusions.
And the illusions are breathtaking in scale, at times they obscure the very core of your personality. I used to think I was quite a sociable fellow, turns out I'm not sociable at all, I just liked drinking. Without that I'd be happy never to enter a pub for the rest of my life.
I used to think that drinking and writing were intimately linked - and they were, but in a way I had not imagined. Since I stopped drinking I have written 10 books, and countless articles, drawing on this energy that I found within myself once I had quit what in effect had become my job. Because this is one of the saddest things you discover about the drink: that this recreation which was so liberating, eventually turns into a job of work, a monotonous obligation that dominates your days.
So yes, I hear that man talking about his perfect pub, free of reality, and I'm thinking, if I ever go back on the drink, that's where I'll do it. But it is no more than a mirage to me, something so distant I don't think I could ever be bothered making such a journey.
Which may just be complacency on my part, or it may be a normal part of this "recovery" business. There does come a time, I have found, when drink means nothing to you, when you can hardly even remember what it was like, when the idea of drinking again starts to seem as strange and as daunting as the idea of not drinking at all once seemed to you.
And here is another of the great illusions, this sense that if you stop drinking, you will find yourself in some alien territory on the dark side of the moon, where nothing happens and nobody goes. There are indeed these feelings of mutual incomprehension and dread, between those who drink and those who have retired from it. But in truth they are so close, they can literally reach out and touch one another.
A person on their way to an AA meeting can bump into one of their old drinking buddies who is going to the pub, the room in which the meeting is being held may be no more than 50 yards away from the pub. And yet to the drinker, such premises seem to belong in a faraway land of which he knows nothing.
There is even a lack of awareness of something as obvious as the fact that if you go into an AA room, or partake of any other mode of recovery, you will find more or less the same sort of people you used to go drinking with, in some cases actually the same people.
The drinker, who is thinking of stopping, also tends to have these terrifying visions of being at a wedding or some such festivity, and trying to get through it sober. Again the solution may be far more simple than it would at first appear - there is this option of not going to some of these great parties, which I know sounds utterly incredible, but which I have come to realise is actually possible.
The way it works is…you don't go. And you'll find that after a while, a lot of drunk people at a party will tend to be less than entirely consumed with thoughts of you, and your presence or your absence.
Nor do you need to be thinking so far ahead anyway, because you're not giving up the drink forever, you're only giving it up for today. A long time before "mindfulness", recovering alcoholics were working on this thing of being fully present. It is indeed one of the most beautiful concepts in recovery, this idea that it's one day at a time - because anything else is just too much, too complicated.
And yet there is at least one part of this process which is not simple, which can remain elusive even to those who are tantalisingly close to getting out of the drinking game. It can be described in simple terms, such as "the penny dropping", this moment when a person realises that it's time to stop.
It can be difficult to get there, because it is a kind of catch-22 situation: you can only have a true understanding of your relationship with drink when you are looking back at it from the other side - but how do you get to the other side if you don't understand it?
You need help, and thankfully there is plenty of that available. And by the way, it works.