Imagine giving up alcohol after 40 years of drinking. But that is exactly what Aussie woman Robyn Flemming did - at 58, she had her final drink. Here, in a compelling and honest memoir, she tells Lifestyle News what led her to that decision.
Halfway through my 40 years of drinking, I knew I had a problem with alcohol, even if no one else seemed to have noticed.
I might have appeared to drink the same way my friends did, and I didn’t show obvious signs of alcohol abuse, yet I couldn’t drink the way I thought a ‘normal’ person drank.
Normal people didn’t spend most of their waking hours thinking about drinking. They didn’t fear that others might discover just how important alcohol was to them.
They didn’t have heart palpitations and panic attacks when they tried to fall asleep under medicated. They didn’t wake up promising themselves not to drink that day and then routinely break that vow.
I had all these symptoms of alcohol dependence and knew I was in trouble, but how much trouble was tolerable? What was I prepared to give up in order to keep alcohol in my life? How much dignity was I prepared to lose? How much self-respect? How low was I prepared to go? How much fear and shame and remorse were preferable to not drinking?
In my 20s and 30s, I hadn’t been overly concerned about the way I drank. Didn’t everyone pass out at parties? Have blackouts? Have one-night stands with strangers met in a bar? Surely I wasn’t the only one at work on a Tuesday having to push myself through the sludge of a hangover?
Then, around the time I turned 40, I reached a tipping point and became a grey area drinker.
I was living in Asia and under stress in my business. I lost interest in any after-work social activity with friends that didn’t include alcohol.
My preferred companion of an evening was a bottle and a half of white wine, preferably drunk alone, without witnesses.
My days were increasingly spent pushing myself through the hours, teeth gritted, before I could reasonably take the first cold mouthful of chardonnay that would begin to dissolve the anxiety I’d been holding at bay.
It was a vicious circle: I became more dependent on alcohol as I used it more to cope with the anxiety it caused.
Over the next 17 years, I tried various strategies for managing how much I drank. I moved back to Australia. Then I moved cities. Then I moved house. I took up running and competed in marathons and half marathons.
I hiked through the jungle in New Guinea, around the European Alps, at altitude in the Nepal Himalaya. The restraint I could exercise while training to meet a short-term performance goal would dissolve in the first glass of celebratory wine on achieving it. I would then need another goal, and then another.
I didn’t seem able just to sit with me and be comfortable in my own skin.
I’d had glimpses over the years of how I might feel if I were unafraid and unashamed to let go of my secret life and become whole.
But I seemed unable to change myself from the inside. Instead, at 57, I left Australia again and became nomadic.
My vulnerability as a single solo world traveller would force me to make the change I knew I had to make.
It would simply be too risky to continue to drink. I had long passed the point of being able to manage my drinking and I was exhausted by all my failed attempts. It was another 18 months, though, before I finally let go and surrendered.
I could never again be a social drinker. And I wasn’t always able now to keep my grey area drinking under the radar so that others wouldn’t suspect I was dependent on the wine I could drink alone at the end of the day.
I drank to self-medicate – to numb emotional pain I’d carried since childhood. I drank to try to fill a psychic void, the ‘hole in the soul’ that is part of the condition of being human.
Religion, and addictions to drugs, shopping, sex, gambling and alcohol, can all be ways to try to fill that part of us that yearns for more.
I sought isolation, yet I felt lonely and apart. I knew I was a good person in my heart – but somewhere along the way, I had become lost. I was ashamed of who I had become and fearful of what lay ahead.
The crutch that I had used to hold me up was pulling me down. I couldn’t keep putting off admitting that my life had become unmanageable.
Finally, on the brink of my 60s, I knew it was the end. I wasn’t in the gutter, though I’d often fallen in one. I hadn’t lost a driver’s licence for drink driving, or a husband and children through alcoholic neglect. I didn’t need a stint in detox or rehab.
But every drink now came at too high a cost. I couldn’t live an authentic life, comfortable in my own skin, if alcohol were a part of it. There could be no more moving the day of reckoning to the first day of next year, or of next month, or of next week. Tomorrow was of no use. I had only today.
Ahead lay a future that didn’t include alcohol. What might it look and feel like? I had no idea, but I would make my way towards it one sober day at a time.
I was past debating with myself the pros and cons of continuing to drink. I would just take the first step. Not think too far ahead. Not worry about how to deal with whatever might happen. Everything would be okay. One thing at a time.
I would make a new path to a different future.
Robyn Flemming has been sober since August 2011. She is the author of Skinful: A Memoir of Addiction, available on Amazon.