An AA Story

Hi, I'm Seven Dials, I'm an alcoholic and this is a part of my story: how it was, what happened, what it's like now.

Let me explain why I call myself an alcoholic, why I work the program, go to meetings and do service in AA. Simply because for me, one drink was too many, and a hundred were too few: once I took the first drink, that was it: I took all the others, carefully so the civilians wouldn't notice just how much more I was packing away than they were, and then when I got home, I'd have a couple of whisky chasers just to get off to sleep. The next morning I could smell the booze on myself, so God knows what the other commuters could smell. New Year's Day 1990: I was sitting on the harbour wall in a small town called Watchet just after sunrise. I was carefully not thinking anything, until I thought “there's no point, you're too good a swimmer, you'll hit the water and swim automatically.” I was supposed to be starting a great new job a couple of weeks later and had supposedly been surrounded by friends earlier that night. Actually earlier that evening I'd been crying in self-pity: I think it was the port, sweet drinks didn't really agree with me. Or maybe it was the bottle of whisky, or the champagne, or the three pints of lager while playing skittles, or maybe it was the bottle or so of wine. No, maybe it was the port.

Alcohol made me feel like I was living the life. In reality, I wasn't living any kind of life. I got out of bed, went to work, did the shopping, the housework, the ironing, for no other reason that I woke up alive again. I did what I had to do so I wasn't a bum, not what I had to do to be a person. Booze made me feel for a couple of hours that what I was doing made some kind of sense and had some kind of promise. It never made me feel better or more confident, it just gave me the illusion that I had a life.

In my early thirties I was drinking to get to sleep, because I had the kind of raging insomnia that sent me to bed exhausted at ten o'clock at night and had me walking round the local park at two in the morning. Whisky put an end to that. I didn't try to work out why I had the insomnia. I quit drinking for a while in the summer of 1990: I was mad and angry about everything, only calming down after I finally sank a couple of Jack Daniels one evening. I learned later this is called a “dry drunk”. My drinking got worse after that and I have no idea why someone didn't pull me aside and say something, but they didn't. I had a problem with alcohol, but alcohol wasn't my problem. It was a symptom.

The problem is the way I adapted to fifteen years of spending the day in dysfunctional schools and the evenings in a dysfunctional family. There was no abuse, but there was no affection; we weren't undermined, but we weren't encouraged; there was no misery, but there was no fun; we weren't poor, but money wasn't for making life easier, it was for saving for after you died. I grew up feeling that life was an endurance test. I never was part of a group, and the stories we heard at school and the practical jokes that people played were about not trusting each other, while asking for advice or admitting ignorance brought on ridicule. I don't trust the Normals, because they taught me not to. And so I retreated into books, music and movies, emerging every now and again to get drunk and chase girls. My career was a train wreck. My social life consisted of other people's cancellations. In recovery, I've learned that this is absolutely standard stuff for people who grew up in alcoholic families. All my dysfunctional quirks are straight from the text: I became isolated and fearful of people and authority; I can't do fun or intimate relationships, I over-react to changes I can't do anything about, judge myself mercilessly, can't finish what I start, have no idea what normal behaviour is and damn straight I'm different from the civilians.

I can't tell you who I am because there isn't a me to tell you about. I never formed an identity. It's what happens when you seek approval from other people. When you're ten years old. I used to be puzzled by the way other people only needed to glance at me to get really specific ideas about who I was. I was even more puzzled when they got angry with me for not being that person. Whoever he was. I found out that psychologists know about this: never be the prettiest straight boy in the room, because everybody wants you to be just like them. I'm not so pretty now, but people still think they know who I am without asking a single question. As a child I was lonely and sad, and once adolescence kicked in I had the full range of human emotions: anger, depression, bitterness, frustration and despair. In my twenties and thirties I could be charming and a pain in the ass, polite and thoughtless, a “nice young man” and a complete loser. Often in the same fifteen minutes.

When I went to my first meeting in October 1993, three days after my last drink – a single glass of wine that left me with the feeling that someone was scraping the inside of my skull with a fork - I had been out of work for fifteen months. This was not the way I'd always heard it should be. I had no more drive or ideas left and could no longer pretend I was going to amount to anything. And I knew I had a problem with my drinking, or perhaps, with what drink did to me.

I didn't really understand a lot of what I heard at those early meetings, but I kept coming back. I liked the idea that I had a physical problem with alcohol. I took particular heart from Bill W's remark that we alcoholics can make a good living for ourselves when sober. I did try to find a sponsor, but the idea of a former drunk being a source of advice was never going to work for me: my real father had been a secret drunk and a useless source of advice. I made some bad choices with sponsors and gave up: today I take the advice, not the advisor. So I had to read the manual, listen for clues and ask when I needed specific help. After four months, I got tired of not feeling part of something again, so I volunteered to make the tea at the Roehampton Priory meeting. And that's when I started to get on the program. I've done service for most of my AA life and it's been an essential part of my recovery.

I still don't feel like I belong anywhere and I still feel like a bag of tricks rather than a coherent person: my outsides make more sense than my insides. Since I got sober, I've learned to get out of the way of whoever is in charge of my outsides because they seem to be doing a better job without my help. I dress becomingly, behave well and five days a week do two things I don't want to do: get up and go to work. I am no longer apologetic about asking if there's alcohol in the sauces or deserts. I don't have a problem telling people at work that I don't drink and I'm even quite happy to say if they ask me why that “I got tired of the hangovers” - which suggests the timely abandonment of a path to debauchery.

Recovery can threaten us with its revelations. Apparently I got into recovery to discover that I don't have the courage or energy to do what I really want to do and will go to my grave wondering what-if; that as a dormant co-dependent, I'm going to choose the wrong people for the wrong reasons, so the way I know you're wrong for me is that I think you'd be right for me; and that I really am brain-busy, vain, secular, shallow, pragmatic and better company for a night than for a whole day. I still do stuff for the kicks, the wow factor, because it's new and different, not because it furthers my spiritual development. I got into recovery to realise that I had spent twenty years failing to have someone else's idea of a life. Because I didn't have the resources – the money, courage and confidence - to live the life I would enjoy, so I thought I'd live another one instead. I'm glad that turned out a failure, because when faking it fails, the result seems to be a ghastly mess.

AA has taught me to live in the day. Granted that is easier to do when nothing much happens in the day. The recent past doesn't leave much of a trace, and there's nothing in the future that's likely to either. I have plans, appointments, but everyone could cancel and I'd be like, okay, and I'd just go home. Because nothing was really going to happen: I wasn't going to get laid, or rich, or locked up, or meet someone who would make me think, wow! Right now, I'm not living that kind of life.

Come back in a year and I may be saying something utterly different. Like the man says, if you're not busy being born, you're busy dying. The first and only reason I can be busy being born is that every day I don't drink. My primary purpose is to stay sober. Everything good depends on that. And everything bad is what I go to meetings to deal with. Thank you for reading.