I was at the European Parliament in Brussels earlier this week, taking part in a seminar hosted by Labour MEP Glenis Wilmott on the need for both the EU and member states to face up to the need for better strategies to deal with alcohol abuse, a huge problem across Europe.
As well as me talking about my own drink problem and the film I recently made for the BBC about middle-class alcoholism, there were speeches from MEPs, academics, alcohol campaigners and a representative of the World Health Organisation.
But the speech I am putting up here today came from Diane Goslar, who told the story of her own descent into alcohol dependence. It is longer than my usual blog, but worth reading.
‘It’s so difficult dealing with alcohol dependence and living in a society where alcohol is so prevalent and assumes so much importance. You are surrounded by references to alcohol at every turn. It seems that if you want to be a fun, interesting person then you have to drink.
Someone who was trying to overcome a drugs problem said to me that it must be even harder trying to come off alcohol as it would be like having a dealer on every corner. Just think about that. A dealer on every corner. Then perhaps you’ll realise how difficult it is.
Don’t misunderstand me – I don’t want to seem boring – I would love to be able to drink alcohol, but because of what has happened to me, due to my abuse of this substance, I can’t. Ever. If you can’t drink alcohol, particularly on social occasions, you feel like an outsider. Like being on the inside of a goldfish bowl.
Let’s go back about 10 years. My drinking was getting way out of control. I couldn’t remember what I had been doing the day before. Strangely my hands were beginning to shake and I couldn’t sleep very easily because I was sweating profusely. Eventually I plucked up courage to tell my GP and she sent me to an Alcohol Treatment Centre. There they asked me what I wanted to achieve and I replied “controlled drinking”.
The notion of stopping drinking totally was abhorrent to me. I remember thinking that I wanted to be given a “magic pill” to fix things and then all would be fine. The treatment I received was not medication but counselling where you were made to look at yourself, keep a diary of how much, and when you drank, and talk problems through with your key worker.
After a time, and of my own choice, I left the Treatment Centre convinced I would now be able to control my drinking. Unfortunately I failed miserably. Yes, I did manage to control my drinking for about 3 months, and then I was back to my old alcohol abusing ways – only this time it became even more excessive. Eventually I reached the end of the road.
I was in such a state that it took me five long alcohol-soaked years before I could summon the strength to return to my GP to ask her to refer me back to the Treatment Centre. This time I knew that I had to ask the staff to help me to become abstinent. So, after the required preparation I detoxed. This was done by medication and regular checking every day by the medical team. The detox was extremely distressing and very difficult to go through. Certainly an incentive to keep sober if nothing else as I wouldn’t want to go through that again! Even now it is difficult to remain abstinent. But I have no choice because of the chronic nature and length of time of my alcohol abuse.
THE PHYSICAL IMPACT.
Remember when you’re alcoholic that the need for alcohol simply over rides everything and nothing else is remotely important. Personal inter-action and social mores really don’t matter. Let me tell you about a few things that happened to me when I was drinking heavily. Everyone knows about liver damage, but what about the other things that are not so well known?
There is the shaking. At some point in the progression of the disease, you get the shakes and it is both intense and debilitating. I can remember when the shaking got so bad that I could no longer hold my wine glass without spilling its contents everywhere, and my husband used to hold my glass for me so that I could drink out of it. At social occasions people would stare at me but I didn’t care. I needed to drink alcohol whatever that took.
And what about the damage you do to yourself through loss of motor control and lack of spatial awareness? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen down stairs, bruised my body somewhere, bumped into objects or generally damaged myself. There’s no real awareness of danger. Often you lie about the cause of an injury to your GP when asking her to mend the damage. I wonder how often my GP was fooled……..
I’ve also sometimes ended up sleeping on the doorstep outside in the street as I couldn’t function enough to turn my key in the lock to get inside. It’s amazing I wasn’t mugged or worse.
Then there are the black-outs, the loss of consciousness when your body simply cannot function any more. Unfortunately this happened to me rather frequently, and ranged in severity from passing out gently at the dinner table or restaurant to being carried off a ‘plane in a comatose condition and waking up later in hospital. Now I recoil at these things that happened and I’m embarrassed when I think about them. I’m telling you about these incidents because I want you to understand what can happen when you’re in the grip of an addiction that takes over your life and renders you powerless.
THE MENTAL IMPACT.
But there is even more devastating damage that may occur – the damage that you can do to your nervous system and to your brain. I know, because both of these things have happened to me.
It’s a fact that, whether addicted or not, as you drink more alcohol your mind works less efficiently and the power of reasoning and understanding diminishes – you are just not as fully aware of what is going on around you. That effect is multiplied when you’re addicted, and the only important thing is having more alcohol. The idea that you may not have access to alcohol is very frightening, so you probably don’t want to put down your glass or bottle, as you only feel secure when holding it.
But it is this loss of mental agility that is so serious and worrying, as you are probably not even aware that it is happening. When I look back now, I find it extremely distressing that I couldn’t use my mind. Indeed I didn’t want to use it. One of the most gratifying aspects of being sober is that I can now enjoy using my mind again.
However, I discovered that I have suffered some brain damage due to my alcohol abuse. After a brain scan my Neurologist confirmed this and said it was probably due to alcohol. My mind is very precious to me, and the knowledge that I have brain damage due to my alcohol abuse is personally devastating.
As time goes on and as your drinking increases, you start to gravitate towards those friends who drink a lot. A friend is someone with whom you have a bond, and that bond becomes alcohol. That can result in neglecting those friends who don’t have the same way of drinking.
I’m very fortunate in that I’ve managed to keep most of my friends even though I didn’t see some of them for a very long time. That was partly because alcohol wasn’t the main thing in their lives so increasingly we had nothing in common and then later, after I’d de-toxed, I couldn’t cope with the inter-action. They could drink alcohol and I couldn’t. At all. That was too difficult to handle. In fact amongst my friends I’m the only one who doesn’t……no….can’t….. drink alcohol. That’s a hard one. You see, when you detox you have to make a decision if your friends drink (and let’s face it most people do): — do you stay with them knowing how hard it’s going to be or do you say goodbye to them and put yourself in an ivory tower with people who have the same problem as yourself hoping that these new, safer, friendships will become established and in time flourish?
I decided to stick with my “old” friendships. My very close friends know that I’m addicted to alcohol and other friends don’t. How do I achieve this? I achieve this by drinking non-alcoholic wine which looks the same. The taste isn’t too bad. Anyway I have no choice. What it comes down to is that I definitely want to look part of the group and not stick out like a sore thumb. I admire those who can sit happily sipping Perrier water whilst the rest enjoy their wine or beer, but I can’t do that. I want to be seen as an integral “fun” person in the group, not a dampener on others and I have a horror of appearing pious.
These fears seem to be partly addressed by my looking the same, looking as if I’m drinking wine along with the rest of the group. Actually, drinking non-alcoholic wine takes a lot of organisation. If you’re at a restaurant it isn’t available so I have to take my own having made a prior arrangement. Some of my friends keep stocks of it for when I visit them otherwise I take a bottle along. It isn’t perfect by any means, and I would give anything to be able to drink the real thing, as I love alcohol, but it’s a good second best.
Oh, by the way, I won’t touch a wine bottle or glass so if my guests are being served alcohol, and my husband isn’t there, then they must pour it themselves. That’s another way of coping by not putting myself in danger.
You can see that being abstinent because of alcohol dependence is really tough. But I have to be you see because my drinking went way beyond the point of no return. I have said to politicians many times ,both in my personal capacity and with the work I do with the Royal College of Psychiatrists, how very important treatment is for alcohol misuse and that any interventions should be introduced as early as possible. Also the more tools that are made available in the treatment of this disease the better.
It’s no fun having to be abstinent, so if people can be helped before they get to the stage which I got to, then that can only be a good thing. I really don’t want others to go through what I have suffered and still do so to some extent.
Originally from Yorkshire, Diane is a qualified Sociologist with further qualifications in post-graduate French and Librarianship. Her early career was in an academic library followed by both teaching and translating French. Later, after several years working in research and PR for 3 leading London architectural practices, Diane set up her own public relations practice.
Diane’s career was abruptly ended by her becoming totally alcohol dependent. Over time, however, and with a good deal of NHS treatment and support she detoxed and then entered recovery. Since then she has been deeply involved in a number of groups and committees in the Royal College of Psychiatrists. She also assists on a regular basis in lecturing to 4th year students studying addictions at St George’s Medical School in south London.
Diane is a member of the College’s Westminster Parliamentary Liaison Committee, which aims to raise the profile of the Royal College of Psychiatrists amongst parliamentarians and other stakeholders plus at the same time briefing parliamentarians on the College’s work and specifically its key messages on NHS reforms. She is also a member of the College’s Addictions Faculty Patients and Carers Liaison Group and of the Service Users’ Recovery Forum. Diane has recorded a podcast “Back from the Brink”, about her past and on-going battle with alcohol which is available on the College’s website. She has also recently written three articles, “Recovering Reality” “A Patient Presents” and “Diary of a Detox” for the College’s London Division Newsletter.
Diane is a service user who attends an alcohol treatment centre now as an after-care patient.