Reality, meeting his future wife and the Sacrament of Penance helped turn ‘Derek’ aside from a life of alcoholism.
With the prevalence of hard drugs such as heroin and ice, and with what appears to be a declining number of people consuming alcohol, it is tempting to minimise the harm alcohol can cause, particularly when so many people consume alcohol in a responsible manner.
However, the reality is that more people are negatively affected by excessive alcohol consumption than illicit drug use. I was one of these people; but, by the grace of God, I have now been sober for a quarter of a century.
If you had told me as a 15 year old that 10 years later I would have a drinking problem, I would have laughed at you.
“… despite the fact that the alcoholics I saw sitting on the local park benches generally consumed the cheap sherry and port … in hindsight, as a young adult I was already exhibiting signs of the problem to come.”
In my world, alcohol addiction was for losers. I was raised in a household in which my parents role modelled sensible drinking, their preferred beverage being cask wine – which I cheekily nicknamed ‘chateau cardboard’ and ‘the cardboard handbag’.
Whilst my parents had a disdain for alcoholism, they had a greater contempt for those – such as some Non-Conformist Methodist and Presbyterian relatives – who preached abstinence from alcohol whom they dismissively labelled ‘wowsers’ or ‘killjoys’.
They were bemused when a speaker from the local chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement, the mother of a classmate, came and spoke to us in Grade 6 about the ‘demon drink.’
The bemusement turned to horror when I suggested to them that their case had merits.
Whilst I was allowed to have the odd glass of wine with my family as an adolescent, it was not until I turned 18 that I regularly drank alcohol.
At first, my drinking did not distinguish me from my peers, although my preference for beer and spirits concerned my middle-class parents: the former because they associated drinking it with working class; the latter because they believed spirits were the preserve of alcoholics.
This was despite the fact that the alcoholics I saw sitting on the local park benches generally consumed the cheap sherry and port that was not dissimilar to some of the beverages in my parents’ booze cupboard. However, in hindsight, as a young adult I was already exhibiting signs of the problem to come.
On a couple of mornings each week, as a university student I and others went to a pub in a one-hour morning break between lectures, and were at least tipsy by the time that we left the pub for late morning lectures. Similarly, on more than a couple of occasions I arrived at evening lectures inebriated, with heads turning and people staring at me as I staggered into the lecture.
By the end of my first degree, I was drinking heavily. My means of travel to and from parties was often by bicycle because I believed I could more easily evade random breath tests and booze buses. Early one year, cycling home from a particularly heavy drinking session, I very narrowly avoided being hit by a car (by a split second) when I cycled through a round-about. I can only say that my guardian angel was working overtime for me that night.
“It was only a few weeks later, after I embarrassed myself whilst tipsy by making a couple of inappropriate comments … that I came to the realisation that the only way to manage my problems with alcohol was to quit drinking.”
Whilst I was rattled by this experience, I was still in denial that I had a serious problem that needed to be fixed urgently. It was only a few weeks later, after I embarrassed myself whilst tipsy by making a couple of inappropriate comments at a social gathering to mark the commencement of the academic year that I came to the realisation that the only way to manage my problems with alcohol was to quit drinking.
A friend of mine, who had quit drinking some time before me, suggested I replace alcohol with soft-drink. Liberal quantities of booze were replaced with even more liberal quantities of lolly water. In retrospect, I probably did not do my body a service by drinking so much soft-drink, given its high sugar content; however, I was no longer having to deal with the consequences of being a drunken spectacle. My family respected, and were secretly relieved, at my decision.
However, the same could not be said of some of my friends, some of whom sadly, were fellow practising Catholics.
Despite the fact that they were aware of my problems with alcohol, they thought that I had become some sort of ‘kill-joy’ and would mockingly ask me questions such as which brand and vintages of lemonade I preferred.
My response to such questions was to treat them as if they were serious enquiries, telling them honestly, and with a serious tone of voice, which brands I preferred.
However, over time, and with the regular suggestion that I had made a hasty decision, I contemplated resuming drinking, convincing myself that my former problems were due to a lack of youthful self-restraint.
And so I celebrated my 26th birthday by having my first drink in four years. I was affirmed by my peer group who made me feel as if I were normal again. In retrospect, the decision was made to try and belong, to be accepted by a group and live up other people’s expectations rather than do what was best for my welfare.
At first, there was nothing unusual about my drinking habits.
“Away from family and friends, there was little restraint on my drinking. It got to the stage that when I was not working I would be at least tipsy, if not outright drunk, for much of the day after midday.”
At this point in my life my eating habits were out of proportion, before a doctor counselled me to take steps to lose weight as a matter of urgency. My weight went down, but as I was shedding the kilos, the old drinking habits re-emerged, accelerating during a trip overseas.
Away from family and friends, there was little restraint on my drinking. It got to the stage that when I was not working I would be at least tipsy, if not outright drunk, for much of the day after midday. Returning home to family did not improve the situation. I realised that being even moderately drunk at social events was causing people to avoid my company.
The turning point came a quarter of a century ago. I had been dating my future wife for some time and was seriously thinking about marrying her.
At the same time, a family member who was a medical student asked me some questions about my drinking habits. After I answered, she informed me that if she were a fully registered doctor, she would diagnose me as being an alcoholic.
It’s been said that the first step in managing any addiction is for the addict to recognise that there is a problem.
No longer being able to deny that I had a drinking problem, and not wanting to enter into marriage with one as I had seen too many marriages blighted by alcohol abuse, I prayed to God for guidance. A full examination of conscience, followed by the Sacrament of Penance (confession) and the resolution to abstain from alcohol for life soon followed. A friend also recommended I take the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association pledge which is to abstain from alcohol for life which I did.
This involves saying the Pioneer prayer twice a day which is known as the ‘heroic offering.’
The Pioneers’ mission is that through prayer and abstaining from alcohol those who are addicted to alcohol may be released from their addiction. Perhaps their most famous member was the Venerable Matthew Talbot, a reformed alcoholic, who served as an inspiration and role model for me.
“A full examination of conscience, followed by the Sacrament of Penance (confession) and the resolution to abstain from alcohol for life soon followed.”
The life I lead now is a fulfilling one. I live confident in the knowledge that alcohol is not my master, and that I will not put myself in any embarrassing or compromising situations, nor hurt or upset family and friends through my drinking.
Having craved alcohol, I can honestly say that I was able to walk away from the booze, and whilst there are times that I miss the taste of certain beverages, I have no strong craving for alcohol.
Whilst I initially drank lots of soft drink after taking the pledge, after about a year, I cut that back to one or two glasses a week maximum. All of this I can attribute only to God, who by his grace freed me from the slavery of alcohol.
The author’s name has been changed to protect privacy