Alcohol is a pleasure to many but a curse to some. STEVE DEEKS talks to a recovering alcoholic about her quest to stay sober.
MAY 13, 2016 is a day that will always be etched into Sarah’s memory. It was the day when she last touched an alcoholic drink.
Since that watershed moment, her life has transformed from the depths of despair to one she is now privileged to have. But this wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t built up the courage to go to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which is marking its awareness month this November as we head into the drink-fuelled festive season.
The blackouts, self-loathing, stealing, drug-taking and shame Sarah (not her real name) felt have now been replaced by purpose, pride and joy.
The deceitful behaviour began when Sarah was just 12 years-old when she would go to great lengths to cover-up her drinking. This would include putting tea-bags in water and then filling up whiskey bottles she had knocked-back to replicate the colour of the tipple and hide her drinking.
Crazy nights-out in Portsmouth where she would find herself waking up in bed next to strangers was beginning to take its toll through her teenage years and into her early 20s.
Despite this, Sarah’s drinking was not typical of what you would expect an alcoholic to be with her debauchery not necessarily taking place daily. But, crucially, her thinking was the same.
‘There is a lot of confusion about being an alcoholic,’ Sarah says. ‘You don’t need to drink everyday to be an alcoholic. It’s just something you can’t control, it’s the obsessive thinking about having a drink even if you are thinking about doing it at the weekend.’
The pattern of self-destruction started early. ‘I started drinking when I was aged 12 when I would go and drink cider in the park,’ she says. ‘With me, it was never lighthearted and fun though. I would always have to get obliterated. There was no control and I would go off the rails.
‘I was very manipulative and destructive. I would steal money from dad, who was bringing me up as a single parent after my mum died of cancer when I was six.
‘I got to the point where I lacked control. I would go and get cocaine and go to strip clubs and get lifts home from strangers after hitchhiking. I was put on a drip machine in a first aid tent after blacking out at a festival.
‘I was taking all sorts of drugs, whether it was cocaine, marijuana or ecstasy. At school I was sniffing poppies.
‘I would upset all my friends. If they invited me over a couple of drinks then I ended up going overboard and going out to bars and strip clubs. I would talk horribly about the people I love. I didn’t recognise who I was anymore.’
Despite her troubles with the demon drink, Sarah continued to do well at school and then college – with her going on to get a degree. Yet underneath, she was flailing and needed urgent help.
Desperate to find a solution to her malaise, Sarah built-up the courage to seek help by posting on website Reddit where people told her to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. Struggling to accept she may be an alcoholic, Sarah refused to go to any meetings.
Instead she chose to throw herself into exercise and weight loss. ‘I had not been to jail or rehab so did not think I was the same as people going to such meetings,’ she admits.
However, 50 days later Sarah made the brave move to attend an AA meeting as the feelings of despair, shame and guilt refused to dwindle. It was the best decision of her life.
‘There was a woman there talking about her washing machine head and how she couldn’t stop thinking about having a drink. I was listening to other people and thinking “that is my story and they now have their lives back”. I realised I had the same thinking and this is where I needed to be,’ she reveals.
But Sarah realised she would have to face-up to the bitter truth if she was to change her life. ‘I’m a control freak but with AA you have to hand yourself over to a higher power,’ she says.
The process began by writing down a kind of moral inventory of her deepest and darkest secrets including of people she had harmed. ‘You are encouraged to undertake fearless self-searching. You are forced to look at yourself honestly and see all your flaws,’ she says.
It is a cathartic journey where you get to ‘right the wrongs’ of past behaviour and move forward but it is all about actions and not words. ‘Being sober is making amends, but just saying you will give up the drink is not,’ Sarah explains.
But Sarah’s move to redemption has been an enlightening and rewarding experience. Since joining up with the AA she has gone back to university and got a masters degree, repaired her fragmented relationships, had her first boyfriend and got a job.
‘I now do things I never thought I would do like just having a picnic and enjoying the experience for what it is,’ she says. ‘I now find a deeper meaning and purpose in life.’
Sarah’s eternal gratitude to AA is highlighted by her achieving a full cycle in her rehabilitation with her now chairing meetings. ‘You can join AA meetings for free and then six months later you are in the best place in your life so I felt it was important to give back,’ she says.
While practising living in the present, Sarah also now prays everyday. ‘It doesn’t have to be religious, it’s just realising there is a higher power and surrendering yourself to it,’ she says.
Asked what advice she has for people who think they may have a problem with alcohol, Sarah says: ‘If you are suffering because you are drinking and you want to stop but can’t then go to AA. It changed my life and will do the same for others.’
THE damaging consequences of alcohol in the city can be seen from recent Public Health England figures.
Alcohol related mortality rates for males and females in 2017 shows there were 90 deaths in Portsmouth – with 61 of these being male and 29 female.
It is a similar picture for alcohol specific mortality between 2015-17 with 85 deaths recorded. Again, most of these were male with 58 and just 27 female.
Mortality in adults from chronic liver problems shows there were 78 deaths between 2015-17 – with 53 of these male.
The figures calculated there were 1,283 years of life lost from alcohol deaths in 2017 – with 928 of these among men.
In total, there were 333 alcohol deaths across Hampshire between 2015-17. West Sussex has seen 263 fatalities in the same period.
Meanwhile Southampton had a similar number of deaths as Portsmouth with the city recording 90 deaths.
Across the south-east region as a whole there have been 16,656 – working out at a rate of seven per every 100,000. The rates in Portsmouth are more than double this with the city averaging 17 deaths per every 100,000 people.