My parents come from South Africa. They had moved to the UK in the late 50s but I was born in South Africa. I had to stay there, being brought up by an Aunty and Uncle, for the first three years of my life because of Apartheid: if I left the country I would have been stateless. So when I joined my own family it was already established, ready made. And everything was different. I had been used to living in a big house with extended family all around. Here the rooms were much smaller, the family was smaller.
I felt that something was missing, like a hole in the soul that needed filling. I tried to fill it with acceptance and praise. I used to make people laugh and do things to win approval.
I started drinking at around the age of 14. At first it was at weekends. Alcohol gave me the confidence to be someone else. I was shy and ‘feared up’ – it all comes back to fear. I enjoyed being this other person and it seemed to fill the hole. Gradually the weekends extended to Mondays and Fridays and then every day. I wasn’t just drinking for pleasure: it gave me stress release and in the end it was self-medication.
But drinking has consequences. The things I wanted – the job and relationships – they all went one by one because of my actions. At college there was a bar. I started doing catering and then interior design but I didn’t complete because of the lack of focus. Drink was more important than working, because it was filling that hole. Then I got a full time job and that was the start of a better period, when I didn’t drink during the day. But there was a bar in the building and I radiated to people who drank like me, that made me feel ‘normal’. I got another job with more responsibility and then the stress began to tell. I had two personas: at work I wore a mask, I was authoritative and business like. But in the evening the mask came off and I was depressed, down the pub and drinking a lot. I rationalised the drinking, telling myself I did it because I was depressed, but actually I was depressed because I was drinking. Alcohol is a depressant. It became a cycle where one fed the other.
Eventually it was just me in the pub. Friends became aware of my drinking and left. I was self-seeking. I’d say to others, “I’m there for you” but actually I was leaning on them and expecting something back in return. I doubted myself and felt very self-conscious. I started getting anxiety attacks. I would awake feeling jittery and have a drink to calm down. In a period of eight months I went down hill quick. I would sneak off at lunch time to have a drink. The anxiety justifies the drink. Back to that fear. I would panic and then panic because I was panicking. I sweated heavily and had palpitations. I felt like I was about to have a heart attack. There was a sense of impending doom. The world got very small, very dark. The feeling of wearing a mask was very strong: I was lonely in a crowd.
And then the consequences caught up with me. The two worlds merged. I was caught behaving badly, my boss found out, I lost my job. In addition to that I had other pressures. When my son was two years old his mum left me. Relations got very complicated and I became fearful of even meeting my son. So when I lost my job, everything crashed. I hit rock bottom. It was the first time I had ever been out of work. I wasn’t eating, my health was suffering. I was living with my mum. I had a seizure at my aunt’s funeral and was bedridden for two weeks.
My niece is the one who got me to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. She looked them up on the internet. My sister took me. I was scared but I told myself I had nothing and had no reason not to go. Attending the AA meeting showed me that I was not alone. Up till then I had persuaded myself that I didn’t have a drink problem, I wasn’t like those alcoholics, I was just an unfortunate guy. But listening to all the others made me see the similarities between me and them. And finally I had a place where I belonged. In the past I couldn’t get close to people because of my drinking. At AA you have nothing to hide. No need to wear a mask. I learned that the problem is not just the drinking but the thinking. I started the 12-step programme. It taught me about myself and how to stay sober. I learned I didn’t need to be the clown and crowd-pleaser. I can now accept the things about me that I used to drink to avoid. My defects are the building blocks of my recovery.
One of the steps is to trust in a higher power. You don’t have to call it god, it’s about trusting the world outside you enough to hand over responsibility rather than thinking that all you have is your own self-will. It’s about recognising that you are not alone.
I learned that it is my choice whether I pick up a drink or not. If I do have a drink I won’t be able to stop and the result may be even worse than what I have already experienced – I’ve learned that from others at AA.
The final step is to give back and help others in the same situation. I have been in recovery now for 16 months and I volunteer with WDP as a service user representative. I meet clients who have just been released from prison to help them find their feet and get treatment. I work here in the drop-in area, talking to service users, and I organise Saturday activities with them like football and art. I have also set up an AA group which meets here once a week, open to anyone in the area. I am in a very different space now, and I enjoy being around people who are dependent. I can relate to people who fixate on something because they need to change the way they feel.