• "When I was sober, life felt intolerable." (Getty Images )
Rather than asking yourself the question “Am I an alcoholic?”, a better question is “Am I living the life I want, and if not, could alcohol be the reason?”
By
Noah Robb

1 Jul 2019 - 11:07 AM  UPDATED 1 Jul 2019 - 11:07 AM

”Do you think I’m an alcoholic?”

I get asked this a lot. Partly because I have a lot of friends in their 30s and 40s who can’t wait for wine o’clock every day, but mainly because my friends know I’m a recovering alcoholic with ten years sobriety. I go to AA meetings four or five times a week. I’ve got a sponsor. I work a 12-step program. I’m the full monty when it comes to not drinking.

Over the years I’ve taken plenty of curious friends to AA meetings to see if they identify with what’s being discussed, and actually very few have decided they’re alcoholics. They may have tempered their drinking and done the odd Dry July, but they generally come away understanding more about what it is to be an alcoholic – and knowing that they’re not alone.

And there’s the rub – can you stop drinking for a length of time, by yourself, and be happy about it? 

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous an alcoholic is largely defined by two fairly simple concepts. This includes a physical craving that kicks in when you have your first drink (one is too many, ten is never enough); and a mental obsession with having that first drink (constant overriding thoughts of when you’ll drink again). In my opinion, those two things are still present in typical big drinkers though – plenty of my ‘normal’ mates can get a thirst on after their first drink, and plenty are hanging out for a beer come Friday night. These two traits may be more extreme in alcoholics, but they can be there for others – even if just periodically.

The measures most of my friends usually go by, which prompts them to ask my advice, are the regularity with which they’re drinking (often, every night) and the trouble it gets them in (chronic hangovers, obnoxious behaviour and arguments, forgetting who they’ve insulted). But again, in my experience, these drinking problems can be experienced by everyone who drinks too much. Problems like these go away if you stop drinking.

And there’s the rub – can you stop drinking for a length of time, by yourself, and be happy about it? Is life better when you stop drinking? If you can do that, then you’re probably just a big drinker who needs a break from the hard stuff.

For an alcoholic the problems start when they put down the drink.

For an alcoholic the problems start when they put down the drink.

Yes, of course the drink-related issues stop when you go cold turkey (no vomiting at the school fundraiser or trying to pash your best mate’s wife). But when a normal person stops drinking for any length of time they get a sense of well being. When an alcoholic stops drinking, life becomes intolerable. ‘Restless, irritable, discontent’ is how AA literature describes it. “Like a raw exposed nerve,” is how I’ve better heard it described once by a woman in her 60s wearing a twinset and pearls.

For big drinkers, drinking is fun. For alcoholics, drinking is a necessity – it’s their solution, not their problem. Their problem is themselves – being uncomfortable in their own skin, their fears and anxieties, and the sheer overwhelming nature of life that feels it can only be medicated by drinking. Personally I wanted to live my life at the feeling I had after three and a half schooners, or a bottle of red, because that’s when I felt just right. But I always drank beyond that point because I seemed to forget every time that stopping was an option.

When I was sober, life felt intolerable.  I had a low level of panic that never shifted. Everything I did in my life (work, kids, social stuff) felt like stuff I had to grit my teeth and get through so I could have a drink afterwards. And having a drink afterwards was my real life.

When I was sober, life felt intolerable.

The things I identify with when I go to an AA meeting are less the quantities and types of alcohol drunk by people, but more the emotions and reasons for drinking. The feelings before and after having a drink. The guilt, remorse and shame of yet another hangover that wasn’t meant to happen. And the continued return to alcohol (daily in my case), despite all evidence of the destruction it was causing. I returned to it because I felt I had no choice.  I’d tried so many different ways to give up, but none of them worked. It wasn’t so much that I loved drinking, but more that I couldn’t stand the feeling of not drinking.

It’s a long story, but somehow I found myself at an AA meeting one day, and I identified with what everyone was saying. The group dynamic helped me to stop drinking.

I started working a 12-Step program which gave me the mental and emotional tools to create a life that I could not only tolerate, but actually enjoy. Following the program every week allows me to continue that way of life without returning to alcohol. Life on life’s terms, without a drink in my system as a necessary soothing agent.

For big drinkers, drinking is fun. For alcoholics, drinking is a necessity 

There’s a lot to take in at your first AA meeting – the faded calico banners on the wall with Steps and Traditions, and much mention of God in gothic script can be overwhelming. Many newcomers hone in on the third tradition as they scan the text: “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking”. It usually gives them a feeling of validation for their visit.

First time visitors might also have a vague understanding of Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives were unmanageable’. It’s the only Step in which alcohol is mentioned. And that’s really the first clue that alcoholism is about a lot more than just alcohol.

I haven’t had a drink now for over ten years but I go to four or five meetings a week. If it was just about alcohol, then I’d put down the drink and sit at home watching TV instead. 

Rather than asking yourself the question “Am I an alcoholic?”, a better question is “Am I living the life I want, and if not, could alcohol be the reason?”. If that’s the case, then try giving up for a while and see if life changes. If it gets better, then you had a drinking problem and stopping drinking is the only answer you need. If you stop drinking and go insane, then maybe ask me to take you to a meeting.

I got sober out of spite
I did it to “show” them. To “make” them “sorry.”
How to make positive change when you struggle with willpower
For me, it changed the day — the morning, the hour — that I realised, finally, that I no longer loved alcohol. That it wasn’t making me happy and ruining my life, it was just ruining my life.

Why I feel lucky to be an alcoholic
I was diagnosed with OCD and anxiety, imposter syndrome and depression. But it took one major diagnosis for all of these to (mostly) fall away.