Today marks the start of my 40th year sober, that is no alcohol or drugs for 39 years. So, I felt that this was a fitting time to talk about a topic rarely mentioned when getting sober, that is opportunity.
Forty years ago, I would sit in pubs in Glasgow and talk about the things that I wanted to do. Living in Scotland, surrounded by dramatic mountains, I would talk about how I wanted to climb them. Not today, obviously, after all I was having a drink today. But tomorrow for sure. And I wanted to scuba dive, to explore tropical reefs and the wrecks of dead ships. I also wanted to learn to sail a yacht and take it round the Greek islands.
Sadly, none of these dreams came to anything, as I was engaged in the important task of drinking. This is what is known as an ‘opportunity cost’, which simply means that I can’t do two things at the same time. That is, I could go off into the mountains, or whatever I wanted to do, or I could sit in a pub and drink, but I could not do both.
I remember very well the first AA meeting I went to. I was very reluctant to be there and had only just gone to shut my wife up as things were pretty bad between us at that time. Like most AA meetings, the chairperson went round the room giving everyone the opportunity to share. The guy sitting next to me said, what I considered one of the craziest statements that I had ever heard. He said “I’m glad that I’m an alcoholic”. I sat there dumbfounded, convinced that I was definitely in the wrong place. Glad you’re an alcoholic? At the time it made no sense to me whatsoever. Today, and for many years now, I understand what he meant; however, I would express it somewhat different.
Getting sober is scary, very scary. It requires giving up a substance that has helped you to function. In my case it was liquid personality. I felt that I was worthless and uninteresting without it. So I asked the questions that many people ask. What will I do if I stop drinking? And the incredibly annoying and infuriating answer was, and still is, whatever you want to do. At that time, I could not see a future that was not bleak and joyless. I was willing to accept that future because I did not like the present. I hated what I had become, selfish, arrogant, pathetic. Anything was better than that, even a bleak future.
I was extremely fortunate; I met a couple of people who befriended me and helped me to dream again. They showed me that, provided I did not drink, there were few things that I couldn’t do. To begin with I started doing a few forest walks to lose some weight and get a bit fitter. Then it was off into the mountains. I found an incredible freedom and solitude among the majestic mountains of Scotland. A few years later I learned to scuba dive and have had the privilege to dive in many parts of the world One of the most memorable being a cage dive with great white sharks in South Africa, that was (in the true sense of the word) awesome! Later I learned to sail and sailed round the Greek islands and Croatia. I don’t say these things to boast (well maybe a little bit) but rather to say that, not drinking allowed me the opportunity to do something different, to do the things that I dreamed of doing but drinking prevented me.
The other big change of my life was in education. I had left school with few qualifications as I had no interest in being there. I had always felt that I was intelligent but felt ashamed that I had no qualifications to prove it. I decided to go back to education part-time. A couple of years later I graduated with an honours degree in psychology. I was fortunate to win a fellowship and went on to complete a PhD. This prompted my supervisors wife to quip that I had gone from a drunk to a doctor in a decade, which really summed things up so well.
Again, I’m not sharing these things to say ‘look at me, ain’t I brilliant’. The reason I’m sharing these things is to point up the fact that there is life after drinking -and it can be a great life. Ok there are no guarantees that everything will be roses. It certainly has not been like that for me. I’ve been married I’ve been divorced after a painful break-up, and I’ve been married again. I have lost people close to me through illness and, tragically, I’ve lost close friends through alcoholism.
Life is like that. It has some wonderful highs and it has some heart-breaking lows and lots of other lesser peaks and troughs in between. When I was drinking, I tried to reduce everything to a bland numbness so that I could cope. Now I try to embrace what comes along. Sometimes that is not easy, sometimes it is wonderful and unexpected.
At my first AA meeting the guy said that he was glad that he was an alcoholic. Today I understand what he meant. Few of us will change anything about ourselves or our lives if there is no crisis. We will tolerate a lot that is uncomfortable often saying that we will change tomorrow, like me and the mountains. Alcoholism crashes into our lives demanding that we do something about it. True, we can deny that it is there, as I did for years. Alternately we can embrace the change. We can look at the change, not as the end of something but as a new beginning. It is an opportunity to reinvent ourselves and pursue some of our dreams.
On this day 39 years since my last drink, I can say in complete honesty – it was the best thing that I have ever done in my life!