In his own words: living with alcoholism
Rick* began drinking when he was 12 years old; he didn't realize it was a problem until his early twenties. As a son of an alcoholic mother and being an alcoholic himself, he felt angry, isolated, and constantly full of fear. Now, after 23 years of sobriety, he speaks openly and honestly about his alcoholism and recovery. He is married and has three daughters, ages 18, 16, and 10.What was your first sign that something was wrong? What symptoms did you experience?It's difficult to say exactly what was the first sign that something was wrong, because, if I'm honest—and in retrospect—I can say that there were signs right from the very start of my drinking: drinking for the effect, to get attention, to fill an emotional void, blacking out. But, at the time, I really wasn't aware that there was a problem. Drinking was something cool to do and I did it without questioning any of the consequences.Probably the first time I really remember knowing that there was a problem with my drinking was in my early twenties. I never drank in moderation. One drink and I was off to the races. Often the first drink appeared to be totally innocent—just a beer between friends, or a shot of Russian vodka to "take the edge off," or a civilized glass of wine at an art opening—and before I even knew what was happening, I was drunk and doing crazy things.A friend told me that maybe I was the kind of person who couldn't drink anything at all; it was the first time I can remember being cornered by the truth, with no way out. Cornered or not, as soon as he left I began to drink again and with each drink the sensitivity and truth of his statement drew further and further away, like a siren receding down a crowded street. Before long, there was nothing left of it to remember.In terms of physical symptoms, I experienced blackouts almost from the very beginning of my drinking, at around age 12. Later, in my early twenties, I experienced the shakes, vomiting, dehydration, slurred speech, paranoid and irrational fears, and a lack of impulse control. I was angry, isolated, and full of fear. I wanted social interaction, but couldn't manage it once I'd had a few drinks. I felt alone and hopeless, unable to connect with people unless I had a few drinks and then doomed to alienate them by the time I'd had a few more. Essentially, I was unable to control my drinking—how much, when, where, how often—and once I'd taken the first drink, the compulsion to keep drinking kicked in.What was the diagnosis experience like?I am one who never was "officially" diagnosed—I never went to a treatment center or medical facility directly for my alcoholism. For the last few years of my drinking, I referred to myself as an alcoholic, though I didn't really comprehend what that meant. For me, it was a convenient way of justifying my drinking, like, "Why do you think I got drunk at the picnic...I'm an alcoholic, that's why."I used the term to deflect criticism, in the sense of denigrating myself before anyone else got the chance to do so. That was basically my pattern—to put myself down before you got the opportunity. But I really didn't have a clue what it meant to be an alcoholic—the true meaning of the word. I had a picture of an alcoholic in my mind that was very romantic: the drunken poet, the staggering but brilliant artist, the sensitive writer. It wasn't until I got sober that I began to recognize the reality of what being an alcoholic meant: that I couldn't drink—even just a few beers—without negative consequences either physically, emotionally, or spiritually. After being sober nearly a year, I recognized in my heart for the first time that I was really sick, that I had an illness that was beyond my comprehension and ability to control. So my diagnosis was really a self-diagnosis, and it came once I had actually been sober for a while and was beginning to see the reality of my situation.What was your initial and then longer-term reaction to the diagnosis?In many respects, it was a relief to finally recognize the diagnosis. I had always thought that I was somehow "at fault" for my behavior, that it was a character failing that I couldn't control my drinking and that I did all the crazy things that came along with it. I felt like I was a bad person—a misfit, a reject. But when I finally came to recognize the alcoholism at work in my life—a power far greater than me—it was easier to accept myself with compassion and understanding instead of berating myself with contempt, disapproval, and judgment. It made it easier to recover.In terms of my longer-term reaction, diagnosing myself as an alcoholic—and being in recovery—has given meaning and direction to my life. Through understanding that I have the disease of alcoholism and my commitment to recovery, I have a central purpose in my life—something I can really hold onto. It helps to define who I am, what has happened to me in my life, and what I need to do in the present. I am a recovering alcoholic, and I need to stay away from the first drink.How do you manage the alcoholism?I am one of the ones who was fortunate enough to walk into an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting—drunk at the time—and never pick up a drink again. AA provided an environment in which I could stay sober. It provided the tools to learn enough about myself and my alcoholism to stay away from the first drink. There was just the right mix of structure and anarchy in AA that allowed me to reach out for help in my own way and in my own time. Nobody pressured me or told me I had to do things in a certain way. They simply allowed me to be there with them, as they were getting sober, and I slowly began to learn about myself through the sharing of others.There were many tools I heard about in the rooms of AA and began to use in my own life: the slogans were easy, cogent, and pertinent (easy does it, first things first, it's the first drink that gets you drunk, etc.), and the Twelve Steps had a practical application as I learned about powerlessness, unmanageability, and the need for a spiritual connection with a power greaterthan myself. For the first time in my life I had a sense of support and community—a group of people in my life who understood where I had been and where I was going.From the very beginning, I managed my alcoholism by regular attendance at AA meetings and ongoing review of the Twelve Steps and other AA literature and materials. I also developed a very close friendship with another alcoholic, also in AA, which allowed us both to talk regularly about alcoholism and recovery and to share our individual experiences, our strengths, and ourhopes. Later, after a few years of sobriety, I attended group and, ultimately, individual therapy for about five years. I have always found therapy with an understanding practitioner to be helpful and have availed myself of this service at different times throughout my sobriety.Did you have to make any lifestyle or dietary changes in response to the alcoholism?Yes, plenty. In the beginning, it was very important to stay away from people, places, and things associated with my drinking. That meant I had to stay out of the bars and places where I used to drink, had to distance myself from the people I used to drink with, and had to change a lot of my routines—often things as seemingly innocent as walking down a different block so that I wouldn't have to pass by the liquor store where I used to buy my liquor or the grocery store where I used to buy beer. Instead, I went to AA meetings, where I slowly began to meet new people—people who were trying to stay sober, too. There weren't too many people at the end of my drinking who really cared about me—there were acquaintances and people in bars who I drank with, but nobody who particularly missed me once I stopped hanging around and started spending my time in AA meetings. Most of the people I knew were ultimately glad when they heard I was going to AA.Slowly, I had to learn a whole new way of doing things. Alcohol had been so much a part of my life that it touched on every aspect of my existence. Just about everything I had done in my life, I had done with a drink: sex, relationships, school, work, creativity, paying the bills, even simple conversations were somehow rooted in alcohol. I used alcohol to manage my life—unsuccessfully, of course—and I had no other frame of reference. I had to learn new ways of doing things, of seeing myself and others, and of interacting with the world.