I first started going to therapy in 2002 when I was 34. By then, I’d already had 22 years of trying to work out what was wrong with me. I never felt, well, normal.
I remember starting high school at the age of 12, and feeling like everyone had turned up the day before me and been told what to do. They all seemed so confident and knowing. I was lost. I judged my insides by their outsides, and came up well short. A low level of panic never seemed very far away and I was determined not to let my guard down in case it happened. Whatever it was.
I was a tense, anxious kid, who would become a tense anxious adult.
I was good at school academically, good at sport, had plenty of friends; but I always felt on the outer and removed from everyone. Like there was a layer of Glad Wrap between me and the rest of the world. Like I was watching some bizarre soap opera of my life play out in real time.
I got on with life: Went to uni, got a job as a journo, got married, had kids. Nobody around me would have told you there was something wrong with me; but I knew.
And so I started looking for answers. The problem was, I didn’t really know what the question was.
I was a tense, anxious kid, who would become a tense anxious adult.
I got self-help books: How to be happy; Feeling Good; You Can Heal Your Life.
I tried flotation tanks; investigated religion, got fit, became a workaholic, did some meditation. All of it had benefits, but nothing made me feel whole.
So eventually I went and saw a shrink. No simple local counsellor for me, but instead a grandiose doctor on Sydney's Macquarie Street with wood panelling and leather armchairs. Like George Costanza, I felt like I needed a team of Viennese specialists working around the clock on me.
I did lots of tests – I’d always been good at exams and I passed these with flying colours. I was diagnosed with OCD. Then I was diagnosed with General Anxiety Disorder. I was thought to have an Imposter Syndrome almost two decades before that started becoming trendy. Mild depression was another one to add to the list.
I was given techniques to employ and coping mechanisms to help. But still I didn’t cope.
Then one day a few years later – I was 38 – I was sat at my computer at work and I started crying. I slipped to the toilets and blubbed; full-on shoulder shakes and snot-nosed heaving. By this stage I was having regular panic attacks and sustained suicidal thoughts. I don’t think I really wanted to kill myself, but waking up every morning had become a severe disappointment.
While I sat there in tears, an idea popped into my head that I could go to an AA meeting.
Did I not mention the drinking? No, see, that was always the problem – I never talked to anyone about the drinking.
I was an award-winning journalist, who had been drunk every night for around seven years, and I never considered once that I might be an alcoholic.
Okay, so I should say then that I had been hungover practically every day for the last seven years. And there was another 15 years of heavy drinking that preceded that. But while I was looking for answers, it was the only thing that provided temporary relief. Or, at least, stopped me asking the questions.
Alcohol was my friend; my solution. How could that possibly be the problem when it did so much for me?
I had started drinking at 15 and I loved it. It took away the tension and the anxiety. It allowed me to connect with the world and other people. I thought it allowed me to be the real me. I honestly think if I hadn’t discovered alcohol at 15, I’d have gone mad by 19.
I became a big binge drinker and then a daily drinker, and eventually a daily binge drinker. I knew it was a problem, but I never thought it was THE problem.
And besides, like I say, it was the only thing that made me feel normal. I wanted to live my life at three and half schooners. That’s where I felt just right. But I never seemed able to stop by then.
I knew the drinking was a problem, but I never considered I might be an alcoholic. I had an idea of what an alcoholic was, and they drank from brown paper bags, on park benches, wearing long coats. I had a job and a family and two cars in the drive. I guess I never considered that people progressed to park benches; maybe I just thought they were born to that life.
I was an award-winning journalist, who had been drunk every night for around seven years, and I never considered once that I might be an alcoholic. I think they call that insanity.
So when the Macquarie Street physician had me filling in multiple-choice questionnaires and discussing my mother, if the topic ever turned to my drinking I said “the odd glass of wine with dinner”.
I had a fear of being honest around my drinking – probably even paranoia. I thought something might happen if I got honest about my consumption with a health professional. That they’d take my kids away and lock me up in a padded cell. I joke about it now, but these were the sort of thoughts on the periphery of my consciousness.
And so I got the bus home from Macquarie Street, read the books on cognitive behaviour therapy and got wasted.
How the idea popped into my head, in that toilet cubicle, that I could go to an AA meeting I have no idea. But I went back to my computer and looked up meetings of alcoholics anonymous on the AA website. One was starting in 15 minutes time, two streets over from work – and almost in a trance, I got up, left the office and walked there. I sat down, listened to people share their stories and cried when I realised that I finally knew what my problem was.
I sat down, listened to people share their stories and cried when I realised that I finally knew what my problem was.
Next month I’ll be 10 years sober. I no longer have an anxiety disorder, or an imposter syndrome, or depression. I’m a bit of a neat freak, a bit of a worrier, but they’re controllable conditions. I work a 12-step program to relieve me of my alcoholism and all the other subtle mental illnesses I’d accumulated seemed to diminish.
At nine years and 11 months sober I still go to four AA meetings a week, though. Because the problem I have is alcoholism, not alcohol. It’s a disease that affects my thinking and feelings and emotions. A disease that can sometimes present as anxiety or obsession or bipolar.
And if I don’t treat my alcoholism with a 12-step program and by talking to other alcoholics at meetings, then I’ll revert to alcohol as my solution. And that creates a whole other world of problems.
These days I feel lucky to be an alcoholic. Yes, lucky!
I don’t miss drinking anymore; it hardly ever crosses my mind. I have so many other things going on in my life. Drinking had actually made my world very narrow and one-dimensional; I was just too much of a mess at the time to notice.
Importantly, I know what’s actually wrong with me and how to treat it. After years of looking for an answer, I know what the problem really is.
And perhaps the biggest benefit of all, is that unlike many ‘normal’ men I know, I have somewhere to go on a regular basis, to be honest about what’s going on for me; to share how I’m feeling and listen to others going through the same things.
Funnily, when I used to meet my mates at the pub and they asked me how I was, I never said “I’m actually feeling a bit anxious today and think it might be my abandonment issues causing me problems in my relationship.” We mostly just talked about the football and got pissed.